A Commentary on the Education of Composers

I read with interest Professor Dinos Constantinides' article regarding the training of composers and their attitudes toward their audiences in the January 2001 Newsletter. His observation that "audiences and the young composer have different basic music experiences" is of course more true today then ever before. Indeed, the same can be said for these students of composition and their student colleagues in other areas of the profession such as performers, teachers, etc. In the same Newsletter, Max Lifchitz, Chair of the CMS Committee on Cultural Diversity, discussed his views on the cause of the divide between composers and their audiences. Academia will be confronted with the teaching of the composer in this new century and, as Professor Lifchitz indicated, with the "necessity to provide new thinking about the role of the composer in its midst."

Perhaps these two articles reminded some of the efforts of the Contemporary Music Project (CMP) and other national initiatives, such as the Yale Seminar and the Tangelwood Symposium, that hoped to address similar concerns during those active times of change from the 1950s to the 1970s. CMP was begun because of these same considerations, then expressed by the American composer Norman Dello Joio who convinced the Ford Foundation and the Music Educators National Conference to establish a program that would put young composers in residence in public schools through out the country. These initial residencies, eventually expanded to include cities and even states, continued to expand into an extensive review of music curricula. All this was based on the belief that these composers, as Dello Joio said, "could demonstrate, through the use of living creative forces, a more secure basis for our society's future musical life."

These young composers did learn to bring their creative gifts to serve the music making of the students and teachers they worked with. Many of these composers went on to become professors of composition in higher education and several have been active members of CMS, often influencing its programs and development. For many, these residency experiences were career shaping and, as such, profited both them and the profession. As one put it, this program was "the opportunity of a lifetime."

As we know, today there are some composer-in-residence positions for such organizations as orchestras, summer festivals, etc., using primarily established composers, but the influence these programs have had on the education of young composers seems negligible. We have developed a system in which both the composition faculty and their students are often insulated in the relative security of the academic environment. Thus, our student composers can, as pointed out in the January Newsletter articles, mature in isolation without contact with or understanding of their potential audience. This is in contrast to the fact that most of the major composers of Western art music composed some their most significant works "on commission."

I would like to propose a further consideration to Professor Constantinides' concern regarding "composition education." That is to encourage these programs, particularly at the graduate level, to include a required residency with a local school, a community performing organization, or some other appropriate organization as the focus of one of the student's compositional projects. This assignment would include becoming acquainted with the mission and level of music making of the host organization and then working with its various constituencies to compose a work for their use. To my knowledge, there are only a few college programs that include such experiences for the student composer. Unfortunately it is far from an established procedure.

I believe that an initiative to discuss such training experiences under the umbrella of CMS could have a significant effect on the education of young composers. It would be quite appropriate for them to learn to work with teachers, conductors, performers and laymen, sharing a love of the art and their excitement for the creation of new works. The dialogue and interaction that such activities provide could be the basis for developing audiences for not only new music but for an appreciation of the traditional repertoire as well.

It would be most appropriate if the various areas of the profession, represented by CMS, would engage in a dialogue on such an approach to the education of the next generation of composers. Many will also become the next generation of college teachers who might then bring these experiences as the basis for the training of composers for this new century.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Robert J. Werner

Robert J. Werner is Dean Emeritus of the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, having served as Dean of the institution from 1985 to 2000.  He served as Director of the School of Music of the University of Arizona 1973-1985, Director of the Contemporary Music Project from 1968 to 1973, and as Associate Professor of Music at SUNY-Binghamton from 1966 to 1969.  He has served as President of the International Society for Music Education (1984-1986), the National Association of Schools of Music (1989-1991), and The College Music Society (1977-1978).  He is author of numerous textbooks, scholarly publications, and articles; has served as a conductor, clinician, and speaker at numerous state, national, and international conferences; and has served as a consultant and accreditation reviewer for over 100 institutions in the United States and internationally.

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