On Friday, we had Composition Juries here. Twice a year, all of our students submit their work of the past six months to the composition faculty. We study their music for a week, then meet with each student individually to give feedback, suggestions, encouragement and criticism.

Once again, I was reminded of how much a composer has to learn in order to communicate his/her ideas effectively. List of basic knowledge requirements, in no particular order:

  • the entire history of music of all cultures.
  • the capabilities and limitations of all instruments, acoustic and electronic.
  • the many and contradictory cultural taboos regarding what the human voice can or cannot do, or should or should not do.
  • mastery of the elusive art of music notation (including the joys and frustrations of notation software).
  • the psychology of rehearsal and live performance.
  • the latest innovations in recording technology.
  • the science of acoustics.
  • current trends in philosophy, art and music theory.
  • traditional and nontraditional principles of harmony, rhythm and counterpoint.

Of course, once you’ve got all that in your arsenal, there are a few more tricks that you’d do well to familiarize yourself with, for example:

  • writing succinct, enlightening, persuasive program and liner notes.
  • pre- and post-concert public speaking.
  • marketing.
  • fundraising.
  • social aptitude, i.e., trying not to offend anyone who might decide to destroy your career.
  • did I mention fundraising?

What have I left out? Well, everything else. Add to that the distracting concerns that students always have: what are my teachers’ tastes, what are my friends writing, how good am I really, etc. With all of these issues to face, it’s amazing how well young composers do, how quickly they progress, how much they manage to say in their music.

Obviously, nobody knows everything on this list, but composers always run the risk of ridicule when their knowledge in any of these categories is deemed insufficient. I suppose the most important characteristic, then, is a healthy balance of self-awareness and blind ambition.

I’m curious to hear from other teachers, students, former students. What do you think the most important requirements for a composition student should be? Is there a way to prioritize? I’m sure there is a wide variety of opinion in this matter. Or is there?

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