"There are no two points so distant from one another that they cannot be connected by a single straight line -- and an infinite number of curves."

Composer Lawrence Dillon has produced an extensive body of work, from brief solo pieces to a full-length opera. Three disks of his music are due out in 2010 on the Bridge, Albany and Naxos labels. In the past year, he has had commissions from the Emerson String Quartet, the Cassatt String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Ravinia Festival, the Daedalus String Quartet, the Kenan Institute for the Arts, the University of Utah and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra.

Although he lost 50% of his hearing in a childhood illness, Dillon began composing as soon as he started piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1985, he became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at The Juilliard School, and was shortly thereafter appointed to the Juilliard faculty. Dillon is now Composer in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he has served as Music Director of the Contemporary Ensemble, Assistant Dean of Performance, and Interim Dean of the School of Music. He was the Featured American Composer in the February 2006 issue of Chamber Music magazine.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

I wonder if music critics and music lovers realize how much of a role mentorship plays in this profession.

Itís 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 everyoneís eyes, to get them started.

Donít get me wrong: most of those composers who had strings pulled for them are perfectly deserving. Some arenít, but no profession has 100% of its top positions filled by competent people Ė politics is another nice example of a profession where success doesnít always go to the most capable.

Again, the mentorship process in music doesnít do a particularly bad job of rewarding accomplishment. I just think itís important for everyone to understand that it is a central driving force behind the music that gets heard and doesnít get heard.

A female composer friend once told me Ė this was a while back Ė that one of the obstacles women faced is that they didnít 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 thatís true, I hope it has begun to change.

I have no complaints about my situation Ė my professional life is very satisfying Ė but it was tough getting started. Hereís 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 Persichetti, 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 isnít a sob story Ė 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 hadnít worked hard and been lucky, I wouldnít be typing on this screen right now. And, again, Iím very happy with the scope of my professional life.

But Iíve known composers who didnít 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.