I wonder if music critics and music lovers realize how much of a role mentorship plays in this profession.It’s certainly not the only factor, but having a well-connected teacher gives a young composer a tremendous boost. If you look at the most successful, prominent composers working today, although there are plenty of exceptions, almost all of them had a teacher who pulled strings for them, behind the scenes or in front of everyone’s eyes, to get them started.

Don’t get me wrong: most of those composers who had strings pulled for them are perfectly deserving. Some aren’t, but no profession has 100% of its top positions filled by competent people – politics is another nice example of a profession where success doesn’t always go to the most capable.

Again, the mentorship process in music doesn’t do a particularly bad job of rewarding accomplishment. I just think it’s important for everyone to understand that it is a central driving force behind the music that gets heard and doesn’t get heard.

A female composer friend once told me – this was a while back – that one of the obstacles women faced is that they didn’t have the same tradition of mentorship in the workplace as men did. She found that older women composers were very competitive with her when she was getting started, and actually blocked her path to opportunities.

If that’s true, I hope it has begun to change.

I have no complaints about my situation – my professional life is very satisfying – but it was tough getting started. Here’s my mentor story:

When I was notified of my acceptance to grad school at Juilliard, I was offered a choice of five teachers: Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions. I chose not to choose, figuring I wasn’t worth much if I couldn’t learn a great deal from any one of them.  I ended up being assigned to Persichetti, which suited me well, using a typically perverse reasoning: I figured my music was less like his music than any of the other composers, so I would have the most to learn from him.

Less than two years after I graduated, Persichetti succumbed to cancer. I was twenty-seven and suddenly left with nobody to look after me, professionally speaking.

This isn’t a sob story – there are tons of composers in their twenties who are on their own, or practically on their own. I worked my butt off and, of course, I was very lucky. If I hadn’t worked hard and been lucky, I wouldn’t be typing on this screen right now. And, again, I’m very happy with the scope of my professional life.

But I’ve known composers who didn’t have to work as hard or be as lucky, because of powerful mentors.

And I never would have guessed, when I chose my teacher-to-be-mentor, that 27 years later Babbitt and Carter would have been the two options still standing.

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