Yesterday was the last day of classes.  Exams next week, then commencement.

We have five composers graduating this year.  Three are going on to further studies at other institutions – Cleveland Institute of Music, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Kansas – and the other two are going the free-lance composer route.

A lot is being made of the choices composers have coming out of school these days, with some coming down vehemently against the pursuit of graduate studies.  It’s a healthy change from days of yore, when the options were graduate school or the end of composition as a pursuit.

I’m a big fan of avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach.  All composers have to find their own paths, and the perfect path for one can be a dead end for another.

Here are some problems with continuing studies in composition:

  • Debt – without good financial aid, a composer can accumulate a lot of debt paying tuition and expenses.
  • Academic pressures – some graduate environments feature heavy academic requirements that can take a double toll: they can take time away from composing, and they can skew your perspective on what really matters to you as a composer.
  • Sheltered environments – some programs feed on themselves and avoid exposing their students to any outside influences.  Their students can end up with unviable notions of how the rest of the world operates.
  • Job market – if your primary reason for going to grad school is to get a teaching job, it’s important to realize that there are far fewer jobs than there are graduates.  Of course, that’s true for a lot of professions these days.  Keep in mind that there is a funnel shape in operation: every grad department has a few openings each year, with far more applicants than there are available slots.  Very different, narrower scenario in the job market: an institution has one job opening, many applicants, then the position is filled for, like, 35 years.

Since I’m hearing such a clamor against graduate school, though, I want to offer a few reasons why it can be a good option.

  • Social construct – some people are more aggressive socially than others.  For those who tend to be more passive, school can offer an environment where you are constantly bumping into like-minded people, where you can have conversations about things that are of mutual interest – art, politics, whatever.  You are with people who have followed a path to the same destination, and often for similar reasons.  Online relationships offer some similar opportunities – but they are not the same as “hanging out” together.
  • Structured composition – the academic year can impose an annual rhythm that encourages completing projects in a timely manner.  That’s not a good thing for everyone all the time, but it is a good thing for some people some of the time, especially at early stages in their compositional growth.
  • Higher learning – I know, I know, we are deep in a period of our societal development in which it has become necessary to harp on the evils of higher education, when it has become important to celebrate the accomplishments of the do-it-yourselfers.  I understand this, and I don’t have an argument with it.  However, there are still myriad corners of higher education where wonderful people are delving into fascinating subjects in a way that isn’t possible in any other environment.  That kind of detailed study is still worth celebrating.
  • Teaching jobs – sure, there are fewer than in the past, but if it’s something you really want to do, getting a graduate degree is the way to get from here to there.
  • Mentors – some teachers take a deep and abiding interest in their students’ art and professional well-being, which can be an invaluable boost for a young composer.
  • Easier now than later – I’ve known many, many people who have left the academic world for a number of years, then felt like there was something worth returning for, but found that they were too far removed from earlier studies and their earlier selves to get their bearings and continue.  There are exceptions – people who have successfully returned to school after a number of years away – but it’s harder than it might appear.
  • Experimentation – some grad programs offer a safe environment in which to experiment with your art form, which – done correctly – can be a very healthy process.

To repeat, I’m glad there are more options than in the past.  As teachers, we have to be sensitive to the individual directions of our students, and help them achieve their goals.  That’s why I point with pride to the five students we have graduating this year – 3 continuing their educations, 2 stepping directly into the profession – all of them making the right choices for their particular circumstances.  Bottom line: listen to advice, but listen mostly to yourself, and do the thing you need to do.

It’s been 27 years since I graduated for the last time.  I’ve seen a lot of composers since then take a lot of different paths.  Some have been bitterly disappointed by the results; some have thrived.  It doesn’t seem to be a simple matter of taking the right path – whichever way you go, results are mostly determined by talent, attitude, relentless work, capital, making good connections and a fair amount of luck.

By the way, where did the dichotomy I often hear about between “academic world” and “real world” come from?  Is “real” the same as “commercial”?  That would be a bit disturbing, on so many levels.


Leave a Reply