J. Mark Scearce’s article on the Ethics of Education for NewMusicBox has sparked some healthy disagreement, both over there and on Sequenza21′s forum. It seems to me that he started off with an important message, but got sidetracked into some flimsy pronouncements. The one I’d like to address is his statement that since only 10% of the composers accepted into degree programs end up having a career, then degree programs should only accept 10% of the students they currently accept.

Doesn’t hold water. After all, which 10% do you accept? Composers around the age of 20 are more potential than accomplishment. Getting from potential to accomplishment takes a lot of work, determination and good luck. There’s no way to tell, at that age, who is going to get there. One can only say that some seem to have more potential than others.

But again, I think he began with an important mission: to point out the discrepancy between what some music programs say they do and what they actually do. I know this is an issue I grapple with constantly as a teacher: how do I balance my desire to nurture budding artists with my awareness and sensitivity to the challenges and realities of the profession?

As a student, I recall Milton Babbitt saying to a group of us, “if I knew what I know now about the profession when I was your age, I would have done something else.” Very discouraging words from someone who most composers think has had as much professional success as one could hope for.

I don’t have a formula for how to address this issue with students. I try to be sensitive to each student’s artistic direction first and foremost, while offering them honest feedback on their professional options. I also try to offer them experiences and awarenesses that will serve them well in their adult lives, even if they end up never composing another note.

For me, there is no more rewarding pursuit than designing sound worlds. But the rewards are psychic: intellectual and emotional. Anything beyond that is gravy.

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