Okay, let’s put it another way.  How important is a top-of-the-line musical education to success as a composer?

Can a composer who went to, say, Houston Baptist University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Iowa be as good as your typical Sequenza21 Eli?

I ask the question because I was listening to WNYC2 (the best source of contemporary music on the Internet, if you don’t know already–playing Tehillim right now) and I heard a terrific piece called Edges by a composer named Luke Dahn, whom I’d never heard of before.  Awfully damned good piece.  So I googled him and discovered that his resume matches my hypothetical resume above.  Before you start with the “elitist” shit storm, let me say that I went to Marshall and West Virginia University and I’m sure that all of the places Dahn went have excellent music departments. But, they ain’t Julliard.

There’s a nice sample of his work here.

86 thoughts on “Does Going to Julliard, Yale or Harvard Make You a Better Composer?”
  1. Talent is a fragile thing, and I think it would be more accurate to say that Top-of-the-line music educators have as much chance to destroy it as those teaching in a small University or college. Certainly the connectedness that Ivy League and other big University programs have into the outlets of “success” have a better chance of introducing someone with no talent into the mainstream than small colleges and U’s have with somebody whose oozing with it. But talent has a way of rising to the top on its own, even if it takes decades; look at Ives, who just about failed his music course at Yale — did so badly that even though his ms. collection forms a major and most visited part of their archival collections, they would not award him a posthumous honorary doctorate, which is what Mrs. Ives really wanted from them. However, they did give one to Duke Ellington, who had no formal musical training. We are warned not to think in negatory terms, but in this particular glass bead game it seems only the negatives really matter — composers die, whole generations of university staff die off, and the music – if it is good and demonstrates talent – lives on. There are many small universities and colleges that provide excellent musical programs and can nuture talent as well as Juilliard, and yet there are still some in the hinterlands where the professors are trapped in thinking from 20-30 years ago and are probably doing more harm than good.
    Nancarrow did not come out of the desert – he studied at my alma mater, or at least one of the predecessors of it, the Cincinnati College of Music, now the College-Conservatory. My formal education was mainly negatory, how not to do things in music, and how not to think of it in the way that they did. A better example of a true, highly functional auto-didact would be Henry Cowell, who did not graduate from high school due to his extreme learning disabilities and studied with Charles Seeger at UC Berkeley through a special arrangement; he didn’t receive any kind of diploma until he got an honorary doctorate from Wilberforce U. in 1953, but he had been teaching musicology at the New School as early as 1928. This kind of strength of character shows that — even without “good” paper, and for Cowell it was worse after 1940 when he was an ex-convict — relevance can be its own reward.

    Also, J.M. Hauer most certainly does NOT suck — check out Gottfreid Rabl’s CPO recording of the Violin Concerto et al,
    one of my favorite orchestral albums of recent years. UD

  2. At the risk of stretching an analogy, composing music, I think, is somewhat like building chairs. I think of Bach – he was brought up in a musical household and thus learned the practical nuts and bolts of his craft from his family and surroundings. When in Leipzig he had to make music that was functional – music to illustrate scripture for church services – and he had to do so rapidly. The music was made from standard materials – harmony, counterpoint, etc and had a standard form – chorale, chorus, aria, recitative, etc. just like chairs are made from wood and cloth and must have a certain shape.

    So it is hard to argue that Bach’s art resided in his understanding of form or materials as these were available and used by everyone. The technical parts were a given, something he would have learned growing up. Perhaps this is the role of the university.

    But what Bach did with those materials and forms constituted his art, and this probably cannot be taught.

    So a Bach chair would be useful, comfortable, sturdy – like many others- but a Bach chair would have an unmistakable look and feel.

    The university must first teach (or at least verify) mastery of the practical nuts and bolts of music. Art is what the individual adds when the basics have been mastered.

  3. Ha…you’re very right, James. Perhaps I should have taken a few more classes involving writing comprehensibly.

    I’ll try again:

    If : Only technical aspects of composition can be taught; one can’t teach a student to be good composer, only a decent technician; Conservatories turn out better technicians…

    Then: A conservatory would be the best place to be as at least you’d get the technical aspects down pat.

    Jeez, brings me back to my BASIC days.

    Am I allowed to write a dissertation using that form? It would make life easier.

  4. “Also, it seems to me that a conservatory would be exactly the place you’d want to go if only the technical stuff can be taught, one can’t be taught to be a composer/artist, and conservatories turn out better technicians. It would seem to me that perhaps the background technical stuff could be what’s getting in the way for a composer trying to find his/her path.” – Christopher

    That paragraph flows but it doesn’t makes sense.

  5. No harm in the quip about the name. My parents gave it to me and I’m happy to carry it. I’ve also been happy to explain just how distant my familial relationship is to the head of the current administration whenever asked. It’s old hat.

    Also, having trained at NEC and all that, I also recognize trolling occasionally.

    Also, it seems to me that a conservatory would be exactly the place you’d want to go if only the technical stuff can be taught, one can’t be taught to be a composer/artist, and conservatories turn out better technicians. It would seem to me that perhaps the background technical stuff could be what’s getting in the way for a composer trying to find his/her path.

    Also, I don’t think NEC is an exception at all. I’ve played bluegrass from MSM-trained composers, minimalist chamber music from Juilliard-trained composers, and rock-12tone hybrid music from Yale-trained composers (Wasn’t Yale mentioned by someone as part of the conservatory east-coast coven?). NEC just happens to be as varied as everyone else. Just a little more available time to study music in the curriculum.

  6. 100% of good composers are born with the gift. The gift meaning outstanding ear and natural mathematic ability in the area of composition. I haven’t delved into what part of math it is. I’m sure someone else has a better take on that than me. The other aspect is the natural ability to shape something into a work. Think about back in the hayday of melodic lines. Similar to writing a story. We can teach grammar, but the story….

  7. Help me out here: when you say 100% for everyone, do you mean everyone has the innate potential to be a “good composer,” or do you mean that 100% of good composers are born with the gift?

  8. Absolutely 100% for everyone. Perhaps what is confusing the conversation is that we associate unique voice with composition. as in substitute composer with “good composer.” after all, who cares about composers without their own voice. isn’t that is what is meant by you can’t teach composition? so you are both right. you can teach composition, but you cannot teach someone to become a composer with their own voice.

  9. No, that’s not what I was saying, although I understand your point. I’m trying to understand if David believes that what he calls “composing itself” is 100% innate, with no connection to learning, regardless of who is doing the teaching.

  10. “So do I understand correctly that you believe “composing itself” is 100% nature and 0% nurture?” LD

    Saying nurture is just another way of saying taught right? Sort of a semantic argument at this point. Can one be self-taught? I think history has already answered that definitively.

  11. From my perspective, the kernel that takes it out of just “composing” (no matter how competent), to that thing called “art”, can’t really be taught. It can maybe be awakened, and aspects of a conservatory education can help make that happen. But either way it has to happen in the person, and neither are guaranteed, just as either are possible.

  12. Lawrence, you misunderstand. Technical training is necessary, but not sufficient. There are a lot of people with more than the requisite technical skills. But they ain’t a Stravinsky. And in Gershwin’s case, are you insinuating that it took less skill for him to write for voice and piano? I think that took considerable innate skill, more than any of us probably have. He lacked orchestration knowledge but that can be learned. Composing itself can’t. And there was no disrespect intended in my comment about Bush’s name. It was clearly a quip and I suspect your friend could speak for himself, having trained at NEC and all that.

  13. “You’re only talking about technical background stuff.”

    You know, the older I get, the more I am fascinated by “technical background stuff” and find that revisiting some of the basics I recall from my conservatory training (i.e. harmony, counterpoint, orchestration) inspires fresh ideas for my compositional output.

  14. I’ll disagree with that, David – I think Stravinsky’s technical skill with an orchestra was one of the things that made him a great composer. If he had spent his life writing for piano or guitar, I’m not sure he would have had much of an impact. Gershwin, on the other hand, could have spent all of his time writing for piano and voice, and his impact still would have been considerable. But that doesn’t mean Gershwin was a better composer than Stravinsky. Apples and oranges. When you refer to technique as “background stuff,” though, you diminish the role it can play in a composer’s artistic core – and I believe Stravinsky is an example of someone whose technical skill played a huge part in his artistic development.

    In other words, I think “technique” and “composition” can be viewed as a continuum, as opposed to being totally separable concepts.

    And go easy on making fun of people’s names. It’s a good way to suppress opposing points of view, but in the end it just distracts from your ideas.

  15. Mr. Bush (and my condolences for your unfortunate monicker), I already indicated that someone would say that his or her alma mater is an exception. That’s not the point. All you’re indicating is that a place like NEC produces better technicians. Sure, one will learn more theory and other technical aspects like orchestration. But I don’t think that makes someone a better composer. Gershwin was by his own account a poor orchestrator. I think he was a great composer. No one could have taught him to do that, not Stravinsky and not NEC. You’re only talking about technical background stuff. I’ve already mentioned this if you look back at my earlier snarkiness.

  16. As an NEC-trained clarinetist, I’m amused that those who haven’t trained at a conservatory have anything at all to say about what’s going on there. Thinking about the composers who studied there during my BM (2001) and MM (2003) years, there are a number of different types of music represented in what they are now doing after school. We’ve got very complex, mathmatical works, musical theatre pieces, tonal fugues and sonatas, pieces involving biscuits being thrown at audience members, Hawaiian combo music, electronic dance music, film scores, and everything in between. I’m only thinking of the kids in the classical comp. program. The Jazz and 3rd Stream/Contemporary Improv. departments are probably even more wide ranging.

    I’m pretty sure the biscuit tossing composer isn’t too intent on winning a composition prize. He probably understands that he’s not what they’re looking for and goes back to his bakery products. They were tasty.

    As a player, I have sadly seen quite a difference in conservatory trained composers and those who had to spend more of their academic years studying other subjects. I tend to see more of a handle on the craft (more mastery of notation, orchestration realities, etc.). An original voice is very nice, but having the skills to translate that voice for players like me to understand is important as well. Like it or not, these kids are spending more time learning these things, so they’ll probably be better at it when they’re right out of school. Of course, they may not be as well-versed in any of the other, non-musical subjects that university-trained composers also studied.

  17. Antonio, since Josquin was too “difficult” and intuitive a composer to be a good teacher you may also have to go with Haydn. Here is a lead:


    And I am also struck by this comment:

    “Elite institutions are useful for administering certain types of training.”

    I think that there is a perhaps healthy tension between the two opposing concepts of education as rigorous training in skills (such as a doctor or lawyer undergo) and “learning to learn.” Isn’t that why conservatories today are trying to teach music students how to “learn to learn” and why colleges and universities are trying to craft well thought out packages and sequences of training in musicianship, harmony, counterpoint, form and analysis, figured bass and scorereading, orchestration, and musical literature?


    Mr Shanfield, thank you for both your comments and explanations above.


    Happy new year to all!

  18. Mr Celaya is no doubt correct in ascribing elitism to my comment out of context. What I meant to suggest is, I knew people who were wonderful before attending excellent schools, but saw them become exponentially stronger composers and more mature people as a result of their time in those schools. Certainly any experience in or out of school can produce such results; my comment was in immediate opposition to a contrary viewpoint expressed in this thread, that conventional schooling is a bad thing, leaving conformists and small-minded academics in its wake.

    In any case, as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, it seems to me not delusions that create tyrannies, but the weakness of those who would oppose them doing nothing.

  19. Zeno gives me hope. I think I’ll buy a ouija board and get counterpoint instruction from Josquin.

  20. Thank you for the insightful comment, Antonio.


    “I most certainly would have been a more skilled composer than I am.”

    I, too, am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to study counterpoint with F.-J. Haydn. [And with all due respect to Stanford U. and its efforts to import world-class composers to its faculty, I believe that I would have become a more skilled composer studying counterpoint under Haydn than, for example, studying composition and electronic music under Jonathan Harvey, who taught at Stanford, during the period 1995-2000.]

  21. I was taken aback by one comment of Mr. Shanfield.

    “It’s just that all my close friends went to some combination of Juilliard, Yale and U Mich, and the experience made them awesome composers and better people without exception.”

    The term “better people” seems to imply some condition of character or moral fitness. The term “better” implies comparison to what those individuals would have been but their studies at elite institutions. It implies that those who are fortunate enough to study at Harvard are more moral fit than had they, for example, not attended college and gone to work doing the necessary task of collecting garbage, or had attended a lesser school. That is elitism of a most unfortunate sort.

    I am not opposed to elite institutions. I wish I had attended one and received the educational benefits described some other writers. I most certainly would have been a more skilled composer than I am. Elite institutions are useful for administering certain types of training. However, when one assumes that such an institution creates an overall better person one has deluded oneself. From such delusions flow tyrannies.

  22. Wow. Exhausting.

    As someone who attended SUNY Potdam — Crane School of Music (B.Mus. 2003, M.Mus. 2004) and The University of Iowa (Ph.D. 2007) AND is friends with Luke Dahn, I can honestly say that I would never ask for an education in Julliard or Yale. It’s far too steeped in incestuous nepotism for me; I mean SERIOUSLY. Is it any small coincidence that the kids there win the composition prizes being awarded by their very teachers? Of course not. That aside, the lack of connection to “the Downtown Scene” or what-ever-the-fuck-else is the hot business now is a bit annoying and finding performances is terribly frustrating. However, I have a fair number of personal acquaintances who commission me and ask to perform works. When they are performed, someone in the audience wants to play it, too. (Sounds like a virus, no?)

    What this tells me is that, while it may be slower and far more mind-numbingly irritating than a ticket to the fast lane where I, too, can sound like the other 10 composers admitted in my same class year, my work stands on its own and will be appreciated for what it is, not who I studied with.

    To me, that’s far more valuable than some name on a certificate. No one can change the fact that I’m a doctor or take my education away.

    OR that I’m a “bona-fide” composer. 😀

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