Teaching Composers to Write for the Stage: A New Master’s Degree Program at The Catholic University of America

October 1, 2009

 Introduction: Genesis of the Program

In teaching composition, I frequently say to my students, when they do not know what to write next in a piece, “Go back and look at what you have already written. Chances are that the idea for what to do next will be found there.”

The advice of seeking future paths within existing realities works very well for composition, and, on a larger scale, has been successfully applied to the composition program at my home institution, the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. In fall 2005, the School of Music launched a new graduate program, the Master of Music in Composition, Stage Music Emphasis, which trains student composers to write in theatrical and collaborative contexts. This program was created in direct response to the special characteristics and unique combination of circumstances prevailing at my institution. This discussion of our new Stage Music composition program, therefore, is both a case study and an example of tailoring a distinctive curriculum within the context of an institution’s specific profile.


Fertile Circumstances for Innovation

In the 2003-04 academic year, my composition colleagues and I faced a special set of circumstances in our School of Music. Our composition program, which offers bachelors’, masters’, and doctoral degrees,1 rests upon a traditional composition curriculum—which, in this case, implies instruction and career training primarily for composers of concert music.2 The resources and structure of the School of Music presented certain particular challenges to the achievement of our instructional goals. The circumstances were as follows:

  • The School of Music contained (and still contains) a relatively small pool of instrumentalists, somewhat unevenly distributed.3 As a result, some instruments were quite numerous, others almost nonexistent. In the latter category fell percussionists, an indisputably important group of performers for contemporary concert music.
  • This shortage of instrumentalists frequently resulted in the lack of a standing contemporary music ensemble. I had myself assembled, directed, and conducted a Contemporary Music Ensemble for two years, typically employing the same players who were also in Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Winds, who gamely offered to play on a voluntary overload basis. Programming of pieces was, of course, closely dependent upon the availability and strength of these volunteer players.
  • No electronic music studio or electronic music instruction was then available to students, although an instructional computer lab was installed and operable. Students who wished to study electronic music typically took courses from a partner school in the Washington, DC, research consortium of universities. An electronic studio has since been installed, in Spring 2008.

In light of these circumstances, my colleagues and I devoted a good deal of effort to thinking about how best to address those challenges. In the course of this discussion about the challenges facing the School of Music, I in particular was drawn to consider its assets: in short, through considering what we did not have, what we did have became very clear:

  • a large, thriving Musical Theatre division;
  • a large, vibrant Voice and Opera division;
  • a renowned Department of Drama within the university;
  • a location in Washington, DC, with access to its substantial artistic resources.

Added to this combination were my own activities and interests: I had significant experience as a ballet and dance accompanist, and had developed strong ties with the DC dance community. As a pianist and keyboard player, I had spent a good deal of time playing in theater orchestras and serving as vocal coach and rehearsal pianist for productions of many works, including my own. A final consideration was my own compositional experience, both as a student and in my subsequent professional career. Opportunities for composing theatrical and collaborative music abounded, I discovered—incidental music for drama, music for dance, opera, musical theater, and film—yet I had never received any formal training in writing such music, in coursework or in private composition lessons, at any point in my student career. Given the numerous opportunities for theatrical composition available to composers, it seemed reasonable to try to develop a master’s degree program dedicated to the special concerns of writing theatrical and collaborative music. Furthermore, the resources, structure, and faculty-student composition of our School of Music made us ideally positioned to support such a program.

So, when we looked at what we already had, we saw the potential to build a program that took advantage of the unique combination of factors present at our institution. Moreover, this program would be able to address a need in the field. It would establish a professional music degree offering specialized instruction in composition for the stage, which could serve either as a point of departure for a career in theatrical writing, or as a distinctive qualification in the context of a continuing compositional education terminating in a doctorate.4

The idea for the MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program was conceived, developed, and proposed in fall 2003. The proposal was approved by our university and by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) in the 2003-04 academic year. We advertised the new program during the 2004-05 academic year. Striking brochures were created to help promote the program, and were sent to faculty and institutions through the available College Music Society mailing list. These brochures proved very successful, as anecdotal evidence has related: at least three of the students in our program have told us that they learned about it because of those brochures. In fall 2005, we admitted our first class of two composers. The next year, two more students entered, and three students entered in fall 2007.5



The MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis is a two-year graduate degree program open generally to applicants with a bachelor’s degree in composition, or at least a degree in music with a strong compositional component. Previous stage or theatrical experience is not necessary for admission, but has proven helpful for some students. We have focused instruction on four principal areas: opera, musical theater, dance, and incidental music for drama. The program requires 34 credits of coursework as well as the production and performance of a thesis piece, which must be performed in its theatrical context, and contain at least 30 minutes of original music.6

One distinctive aspect of the program which was established from the beginning is that the MM Stage Music degree be a professional music degree—a Master of Music (MM)—rather than a theatrical degree—a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). This distinction reflects our conception of the program and allows for a degree of flexibility within the musical profession. At the Rome School of Music, our MM in Composition now has two tracks: in addition to the new Stage Music track, the original program is now titled MM Composition, Concert Music Emphasis. The two tracks share a core of private composition instruction, courses in theory and history, composition seminar, and research methodology. The rationale for this conception is twofold: first, as an MM degree, the Stage Music track contains the same academic rigor as its Concert Music counterpart. Secondly, this shared core of coursework allows a choice of paths for students after graduation from the Stage Music program. The academic coursework prepares and qualifies them to continue to doctoral study, should they choose that path; the more specialized coursework and externship program, which I will presently describe, gives them advantages in pursuing a later professional composition career either centering on theatrical music, or a broader professional career of which theatrical composition is a component.


Specialized Courses

The Stage Music Emphasis program contains coursework dedicated to the concerns of writing for the stage. Composing for theater involves significantly different processes from concert music: for example, a composer writing incidental music for a theatrical production is effectively subject to the artistic veto of the production director. In essence, the composer is, in this context, only one member of a multi-person production team, functionally equivalent with set, costume, and lighting designers. Additionally, frequent and continuing revision and rewriting are important and expected parts of the theatrical production process, although this is more foreign to the performance of concert music which many composers have been trained to expect. In the latter model, the composer provides a score and parts, and the musicians interpret and execute that score. In most cases, revisions and corrections to the piece are minimal, and usually suggested with some caution on the part of the performer. Large-scale revisions and rewritings would be undertaken following a concert work’s premiere. Concert music-trained composers, therefore, are often surprised at the amount of revision expected when they work in theatrical contexts. Our degree program acclimatizes student composers to this altered set of expectations through courses involving collaboration with directors, actors, dancers, and singers.

The first specialized course is Interdisciplinary Music Practicum7 (MUS 617, 3 credits). This course, divided into four units corresponding to the four focus genres in the degree—opera, musical theater, dance, and drama—represents the complete program in microcosm. The Practicum combines historical reading, listening, and watching of video with lecture and class discussion, and even more importantly, with practicum projects in each genre. Composers are paired with artists in each of the four disciplines, and must create and present a jointly-developed project for the class. Practicum was first offered in fall 2006. The first unit, Drama, serves as an example for the course. In collaboration with my colleague Jeffrey Sichel, then head of the MFA Directing Program in Catholic University’s Department of Drama, we paired MM Stage Music composers with MFA Directing students. Their task was to choose a 10-minute scene from any play from the time of Shakespeare to the present. The directors cast the show from the pool of available MFA Acting students; the composers were given an “orchestra” of one violin and one cello to perform live with the scene. Director and composer teams collaborated in preparing the scenes; the composers created music, organized the music rehearsal schedule, and coached the musicians. The directors developed a concept and provided blocking and direction while actors memorized the scenes. The artists were given two weeks to complete the project.

The finished scenes were presented at a special session of Practicum. Each scene was performed by the actors, with live music from the strings; after each performance, Professor Sichel and I provided commentary and suggestions. The entire session was recorded on video by technicians from the university’s Center for Planning and Information Technology (CPIT), and the footage from the fall 2006 Drama performance session is currently available for viewing on our website.8

The other specialized course is entitled Topics in Stage Music (MUS 555, 1-3 credits). The structure of this course is an innovation for our university, which I was glad to be able to initiate. The goal of the course is to provide instruction on important topics which are often too small for an entire semester of classes, but are also too large to be adequately covered in one or two class meetings. Topics in Stage Music consists of three five-week “mini-courses,” 1 credit hour each, of which three may be offered during Catholic University’s 15-week semesters.9

Students in the program must accumulate three sections of the course (i.e., 3 credits of MUS 555) prior to graduation. The course is offered every year; thus, in the course of the two-year program, students are offered as many as six different courses from which to choose three (sometimes, a course may be offered in consecutive years: one such course, “Text-Setting for Composers,” has already been offered twice). Other topics which have thus far been taught include “Scoring for Pit Band,” “Opera Production for Composers,” “Contemporary Opera: Repertoire and Composition,” and “Writing for Voice.” These focused courses allow us to teach students about topics as diverse as woodwind doublers, holding and managing auditions, and parsing and setting a range of English-language texts from the Renaissance to the present day, few of which topics could be so thoroughly accommodated within a traditional composition curriculum. Students in the program must also take one course outside music, in a related artistic discipline such as film, dance, or drama. To date, all of our students have chosen to take their outside courses in drama: Playwriting I (DR 565, 3 credits) and Adaptation (DR 762, 3 credits) have each seen enthusiastic participation by our composers.


Practical Experience

In addition to the coursework, students are eligible for numerous practical opportunities. An optional externship, offered to second-year students, places them with a professional arts organization in the metropolitan area of Washington. The student composer either works with (or for) a master composer or writes music directly for the organization. Our first extern was in residence at the Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, working with a faculty choreographer to compose music for her jazz and modern classes, with an eye towards eventual performance of some aspect of that music. The student composer, by mutual agreement, also spent some time working within the organization and learning about the functions of its various offices: development, publicity, and others. We do make it clear that an externship is not intended to have the students brought into a host organization solely as office assistants, but rather as junior artists-in-residence who will interact with artists affiliated with the host organization. Opportunities to learn firsthand about arts administration along the way, however, are encouraged, provided that both parties are amenable to that possibility.

Students have also gained invaluable practical work experience in the program in a variety of other ways. Besides the necessary experience in mounting a production that they acquire through their thesis projects, Stage Music students have been offered opportunities to participate in internal (university) and external professional productions, such as orchestration and music direction. One composer, for example, was hired to orchestrate a previously unorchestrated song from Lehár’s The Merry Widow for a local professional troupe, while another re-orchestrated the “dream ballet” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! for the university premiere of the musical including Susan Stroman’s new choreography. In fall 2007, an MM Stage Music student served as music director and conductor for a fully-staged production of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, an MFA Directing thesis production in the Department of Drama.

Master class, audition, and rehearsal attendance also allow the students to develop as musicians and gain unfiltered insight into the stage production process. In fall 2007, Stage Music composers presented their work at master classes with William Bolcom and John Adams; in spring 2007, the students were invited to attend dress rehearsals of a new musical, Meet John Doe, at Ford’s Theatre, and to talk there with the show’s co-writers.10


Collaborations and New Projects

One of the most exciting aspects of this new program has been to see how the students have developed their own collaborations with one another, independently of the program or even of the university. Our connections with the Department of Drama, for example, have yielded some wonderful results. MFA Directing students regularly collaborate with MM Stage Music composers on their productions, and Stage Music composers have provided scores for Drama mainstage productions, as well. In the 2007-08 academic year alone, student composers at Catholic University created sung and incidental music for a new production of Aristophanes’ Frogs, incidental music for Molière’s Le médecin malgré lui, interlude music for a new production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and scores for Shakespeare’s Richard III and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. The first graduate of the program, too, now a student in our DMA Composition program, is currently collaborating with an MFA Directing student on a production to be presented at the Capital Fringe Festival in summer 2008. (The same student premiered a new opera at the 2010 Fringe Festival, in a production directed by a current MFA Directing student.) Other special events have been taking place under the auspices of the School of Music. The student composers, for example, organized and held a “24-hour musical” festival during the spring 2008 semester. There, composer-director teams, together with performers, conceived, wrote, rehearsed, and performed a musical within a single day’s span. The Junior Musical Theatre Workshop, led by my faculty colleagues in Music Theatre, has also been regularly rehearsing and, in some cases, performing scenes by our students, with continual feedback and commentary. Finally, spring 2008 featured two MM Stage Music thesis productions. Life in Death, a one-act opera based largely on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, was staged in January; and the first act of a two-act musical adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo took place in late April.11

The Washington, DC, arts community has proven very helpful to our student composers, as well. In January 2007, for example, a group of Stage Music composers presented a program of new dance music in connection with dancers from Joy of Motion Dance Center at the Arts Club of Washington. This program of dance music, incidentally, was developed during the Dance unit of Interdisciplinary Music Practicum in fall 2006. It was initially premiered at Joy of Motion, and the Arts Club event represented an invitation for that most valued of new music opportunities: a second performance! Also in September 2007, the first graduate of our program presented his thesis musical, The Eden Diaries (based on writings by Mark Twain) at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during the Center’s annual Page to Stage Festival. It is now a general goal of the program to have excerpts from each year’s previous thesis projects repeated there. The most recent large-scale Stage Music project took place in February 2008, during the annual CUA President’s Festival of the Arts. At the invitation of then Rome School of Music Dean Murry Sidlin, several Stage Music composers (and one DMA composition student) participated in creating incidental music for productions of short plays by Thornton Wilder, and one student created a five-minute “miniature opera” on a Wilder play. Entitled “Playing, Singing, Talking Wilder,” this performance featured the music by these five student composers (and a new miniature opera by the author), performed by musicians from the CUA Symphony Orchestra, sung by CUA Voice majors, acted and directed by undergraduate and graduate Drama majors, and conducted by the Music Director of the CUA Symphony.12 This program, a co-production of the School of Music and the Department of Drama (Gail Beach, Chair), represented a new height of collaboration between the personnel of our two divisions.

Thus far, for their thesis projects, most of the composers have themselves crafted their libretti, or lyrics and book, although they are not required to do so. There is great value in this process, in that composers who create their own texts gain particularly acute, experiential insights on text-setting, rhyme, proportion and sectional pacing, even if all of the composers do not possess equivalent text-writing skills. As a music degree, the MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis program does not offer a separate track for librettists or lyricists.13 However, some thesis projects involve libretti and lyrics written by others. One of our first-year students (he entered the program in fall 2007), for example, collaborated with an MFA Playwriting student from the CUA Department of Drama, who created the book and shared the duties of lyric writing with the composer.


Future Plans

As we develop and learn from our program, we envision many enhancements. We continue to strengthen our connections with the CUA Department of Drama and are encouraging more formalized collaboration between MFA playwrights and MM Stage Music composers. (For instance, we are considering the possibility of providing required practicum credit for a playwright who creates lyrics or a libretto for a Stage Music thesis.) We also plan to provide more workshop and reading opportunities for student work through an Opera Workshop course offered by the Voice and Opera division within the School of Music. (Scenes from two student operas were performed by Opera Workshop in spring 2009). Because composing for the theater frequently involves electronic resources, we are in the process of installing a functional sound design studio in the School of Music,14 including digital audio editing software, sampling software, and recording equipment. Having electronic editing capacity will support the rehearsal processes for collaborative music-making, especially in the cases of drama and dance. It will also allow for the inclusion of theatrical sound design in the curriculum.

We also envision in the longer term an expansion into the relationship between music and film. Because Catholic University does not have fully fledged production facilities for film music per se, our endeavors will most likely begin with a Topics in Stage Music course on composing music for silent film. There, students will be assigned a 2-3 minute short film for which they will create a new score to be performed live with the film at the conclusion of the course.15



Since its opening in fall 2005, we have seen the Stage Music program grow and develop in unexpectedly rewarding ways, as fresh opportunities for collaboration and performance have constantly come to light. In many ways, this is uncharted territory for us, and we are never entirely sure where the next semester will take the program or its students. What is certain is that the program is thriving and developing, and the students within it are developing a distinct cohesion and esprit de corps, while still remaining closely connected to their composer colleagues in other degree programs. A final benefit of the Stage Music program for us, and perhaps the one that has the most significant consequences for our institution as a whole, has been that our entire composition division has been re-energized and is enjoying significant growth. As of fall 2007, we have seventeen composition majors, ranging from BM to DMA students, five undergraduate composition minors, and three non-major students taking lessons. This is a far larger number than I have experienced since I have been at Catholic University, and is double our numbers in 2003, just before the Stage Music program was conceived. The constant flow of projects and events into and through the Stage Music program has created additional opportunities for non-Stage Music composition students, and has increased the number of new music performances at the school, as well as around the city. We believe that this vibrant schedule has not only enhanced our general visibility, but has also shown all of our composers and prospective students what imagination makes possible. By assessing our own particular institutional characteristics and working to take advantage of those assets, we were able to tailor a program which fills a distinct and, in our view, necessary niche in the compositional field. The principal message of this essay, however, is not to proclaim our innovation, but rather to encourage professional colleagues to look at their own institutions, to take advantage of what they do particularly well—or even what makes them unique—to develop curricula and programs which draw on the best strengths of their particular circumstances. There are potentially as many distinctive new programs as there are institutions, and this holds much promise for an immensely rich and diverse musical future.



1The degrees are BM Composition, MM Composition, Concert Music Emphasis, MM Composition, Stage Music Emphasis, and DMA Composition.

2The complete curricula are available online at http://composition.cua.edu/degrees.

3The majority of undergraduate music majors at our institution are either Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance or in Musical Theatre.

4Our program, as a Master of Music, is the only professional music degree in composition for theater of which I am aware. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts offers a two-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree through its Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program. The emphases, structure, and goals of the two programs differ significantly, as the subsequent discussion will reveal.

5At present, given the total size of our student body (roughly 300 students, split more or less evenly between undergraduate and graduate students), an entering class of about three students is an ideal practical size. Because the program requires actual production of a stage work as the thesis, more than six students in the program at any given time could potentially exceed resources, both in terms of performance space and available performers for thesis productions.

6This means that the thesis work should be performed in actual stage performance conditions, rather than in concert format. For example, if the thesis consists of incidental music for drama, the thesis performance should take place as an actual dramatic production. The same is true for theses which are musical theater, opera, or dance works.

7Now called “Stage Music Practicum.”

8The video is accessible at: http://composition.cua.edu/Degrees/mmstage.cfm.

9For registration purposes, the course has three sections, organized temporally. Thus, the first five weeks of MUS 555 in a given semester represent section 01, the second five weeks are section 02, and the semester’s final five weeks are section 03.

10Composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman, who were extraordinarily generous with their time and advice on a very busy day of rehearsal in the theater.

11Life in Death was presented in the Callan Theater in the building of the Department of Drama, representative of the good collaboration which is taking place between Music and Drama. Count of Monte Cristo was performed at the ATLAS Performing Arts Center in NE Washington, not far from the Catholic University campus.

12Maestro David Searle. The Wilder event’s website is http://composition.cua.edu/wilder.cfm

13This is one important difference between Tisch’s MFA program and our own.

14Operational as of April 2008.

15This represents a connection with my own recent professional activities as composer and performer (pianist, organist) of silent film music. This course was offered in the spring 2009 semester. The students' new silent film scores were performed live, accompanying the films. Their scores were also choreographed, and each score was played a second time, with dancers. The event, entitled “Silent Explosions, Invisible Jumps: Music, Dance, and Film Create a Ruckus,” took place during CUA's Presidents' Festival of the Arts in March 2009. More information at http://composition.cua.edu/filmdance.cfm.

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