Notes From the Other Side of the Desk

There is a deep, reverberating echo of history in composer higher education, and a palpable unspoken dialogue between current and past students, faculty, and guest artists. Today I continue to look for new ways to engage with our students, all the while drawing upon the words and wisdom of those who laid the foundation for my own pedagogy.

Written By

Kristin Kuster

University of Michigan Music Building

University of Michigan Music building, by Brian Wolfe on Flickr

The teaching artist faced a serious problem. He had to do what he could to develop the traditional craft that might in the future be important for the young artist, but at the same time not stifle the artist’s struggle to find his own individuality.

—Ross Lee Finney

My first knock on the door of room 2243 in the Earl V. Moore School of Music, Theatre, and Dance building at the University of Michigan (UM) Ann Arbor was in February 1998. I began the day in William Albright’s office, among a group of prospective doctoral composers. Albright spoke about the composition department’s curriculum, its extensive history of educating top-notch composers within an enriching artistic and intellectual environment, and gave an impassioned description of the wide aesthetic variety of current students and alumni.

The second time I entered 2243 Moore was the following September for my first composition lesson with Albright. We listened to some of my music, and in each piece he pointed out specific moments: “That! There! That’s a Kristyness I hear. Embrace it, hone into that!” Four years later in Spring 2002, I expressed concerns about my writing to William Bolcom as I finished up my dissertation. Bill said, “You’ve tried new things for yourself in this piece, and you’ll hear what works and what doesn’t work for you. You are doing a good job being Kristy. Keep writing.” These were the last words I heard as a student in a composition lesson. We were in 2243 Moore, which Bolcom took over after Albright passed away in September 1998.
Office doorway
There is a deep, reverberating echo of history in composer higher education, and a palpable unspoken dialogue between current and past students, faculty, and guest artists. Composer Betsy Jolas gives a lovely introduction at her guest seminars, in which she hands out a sheet tracing her musical lineage. It begins with the first sounds of her mother’s voice singing, and webs wide through those with whom she studied, and those she has taught. While I am saddened to have had only a few lessons with Albright in the weeks before his death, he is present, along with each of my mentors, in every lesson I now teach.
In August 2008, I re-entered the Moore building after nearly a decade away. Its familiar air triggered a memories montage of my time here as a student. I felt a heavy sense of responsibility, an amped charge emanating from this room where I was to begin again, on the other side of the desk in 2243 Moore.

I have always taught on the basis of what I hear in a student’s work and not on the basis of a predetermined theory that I wish to impose. It is not an easy way to teach, because it demands an open-minded concentration on what the composer is trying to accomplish and a ruthless attempt to develop a student’s self-criticism, without belittling his effort.

—Ross Lee Finney

A friend once told me having a child is like throwing a giant mirror right up one inch from one’s face—it feels true for me as a parent—and I’m finding that teaching composition has a similar texture. It is hilariously unnerving to hear students repeat the same excitements, concerns, ideas, frustrations, and questions I rattled out during my student days.

The list of composers influenced by Finney both directly as his students, and indirectly as his students’ students, is staggeringly extensive (click here for a comprehensive list of UM composition department alumni, past faculty, guests, and see where they are now). I first came to know the ethos of Ross Lee Finney’s pedagogy while completing my master’s degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I studied primarily with Richard Toensing, who had studied at UM with Finney and Leslie Bassett in the 1960s. Lessons with Toensing were often dappled with endearing Finney impressions and anecdotes; yet more importantly, gems of both his and Finney’s compositional wisdom.

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Throughout my time at CU myriad guest composers visited and gave lessons, held master classes, and had works performed. It was during these residencies that I first met Leslie Bassett, Roger Reynolds, and George Crumb—all of whom studied with Finney at UM—among others. While my time with these composers, like Albright, was brief, specific sentences I heard from them have stayed with me, sentences that left me breathless and invigorated to keep working at bettering my writing. My lessons with them, and all of my teachers, were transformative.

One of my favorite activities to come with this teaching gig is our annual prospective students’ portfolios review. My colleagues—Evan Chambers, Michael Daugherty, Erik Santos, Paul Schoenfield, Bright Sheng—and I pile into a room and go through a mountain of scores. We get a steady groove going and as the day progresses, quotes from former teachers inevitably come out: “so-and-so used to say, about counterpoint…” or “once, I showed so-and-so a piece for this ensemble, and he quipped…” The collective voices of our mentors—among them Albright, Bassett, Bernstein, Bolcom, Boulez, Davidovsky, Druckman, Jolas, Ligeti, Perle, Reynolds, and one another (I studied with both Evan and Michael during my D.M.A.)—are with us in that room.

During the summer of 1960 … there was a special conference of avant-garde composers in Stratford, Ontario, which Robert Ashley, Roger Reynolds, Goerge Cacioppo and Gordon Mumma decided to attend. On returning from the conference, … (they) organized what they called the ONCE Group, which would present annual festivals not only of their own music but also of avant-garde composers such as Cage and Berio, whom they would bring to Ann Arbor.

—Ross Lee Finney

Michael Daugherty has a deep love of history and often speaks of feeling profoundly grateful to his teachers, one of whom was Roger Reynolds. In 2010 Michael spearheaded, in conjunction with the UMSMTD’s Center for Performing Arts Technology and UM’s Institute for the Humanities, the ONCE.MORE. festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor.
Pioneering composers Ashley, Mumma, Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda reunited in Ann Arbor for the first time since the 1960s (Cacioppo passed away in 1984 and was lauded by his comrades throughout the festival). There were concerts of historic and more recent works, an exhibition of artifacts from the initial ONCE Festivals, and a day-long symposium. In a nod to the past, the concerts featured 1961 ticket prices: $2. I popped into the artifacts exhibition early one morning and found Gordon Mumma there, alone. As he described some of the program booklets and pointed out friends in photos he said, “This wall, with these objects, it speaks to how we all came together in this magical place to try something new.”

The Rackham Graduate School furnished funds to equip an electronic music studio … I appointed George Wilson to head the studio but also persuaded the dean to appoint Mario Davidovsky as visiting professor for a semester to teach the faculty. Mario made a great contribution … and (gave) great encouragement to both Wilson and Bassett … It was our conviction that emphasis should first be put on the student’s being a composer, treating the electronic medium as one of many devices he could use in producing music.

—Ross Lee Finney

When I met Mario Davidovsky at the Wellesley Composers Conference in summer 2003, he immediately spoke with excitement and fondness of his time at UM. I asked if he would give me a lesson and he said, “You don’t need my opinions on your music now. How can I be useful to you in thinking about your future as a composer?” My time with Mario was a mere two weeks, yet I think of his advice often. “How can I be useful to you?” is my most frequently repeated sentence in 2243 Moore.

Mario also said, “Ah, that magical town Ann Arbor! Always so much happening there!” Indeed, in the years since Finney set up the composition department in 1949, along with the growth of the University Musical Society into the longest-running performing arts series in the country, much has happened and continues to happen here. In a brief interview for UM American Music Institute’s “Living Music” collection of first-person commentaries on music today, George Wilson recalls calling on Motown for help with the first-ever presentation in the U.S. of the four-track version of Stockhausen’s Kontakte. From the original ONCE Festivals, to the legendary 1984 premiere of the third scene from Stockhausen’s Samstag, Lucifer’s Dance—commissioned and premiered by the UM Symphony Band and H. Robert Reynolds—in Hill Auditorium, to Bolcom’s epic Songs of Innocence and Experience on the same stage in 2004, the list of Ann Arbor’s happenings is massive and continues to grow.

Students have often made remarks about me as a teacher which are apocryphal. No teacher should be a psychiatrist, but there are times when it is hard to know what is the best critical approach to take.

—Ross Lee Finney

Tacked onto a cork board on the wall in 2243 Moore is a note that reads: Albright, Chichester Mass. Upon hearing this piece for the first time, I knew Albright was a composer with whom I wanted to study. The note is a warm reminder for me, of how I initially got here, and am back again. It is stunning for me to consider how much talent has, and continues to, pass through this office—Moore legend has it Ligeti wrote some of his piano etudes in this room during his 1993 residency. In a recent semester, as I showed a student a cool-sounding way to voice a chord in the brass, I remembered Bill Bolcom showing me that exact voicing, at this very Steinway, in this very room. Not so long ago I was on the student side of this desk. Today I continue to look for new ways to engage with our students, all the while drawing upon the words and wisdom of those who laid the foundation for my own pedagogy.

A composer doesn’t retire. I knew the Composition Department would continue to grow with Leslie Bassett as the new head and with William Bolcom recently appointed to the faculty.

—Ross Lee Finney

In a tribute to Albright’s music on NewMusicBox in 2004, Evan Chambers wrote: “We fall so often into the trap of listing awards and commissions as the primary evidence of our accomplishment and relative worth that we can easily forget what really matters once a person, an artist, a teacher, has left us.” Even when I feel grumpy about our economy and the state of the arts in this country, the admissions season at UM jolts me into a state of optimism. The music we receive in applications is interesting, thought-provoking, and viscerally exciting to see and hear. These young composers are just getting going, and I sleep better at night knowing they will be making music in the years to come. When the academic year winds down, I am tempted to send a mass email to all composers who teach; a note congratulating them, giving them a virtual high-five, for the work they are doing nurturing young composers. There is another note I would like to send, to a composer I never met in person:

Dear Mr. Finney,
Thank you. Thank you for establishing this magical place and guiding those who have guided me. It is an honor and a privilege to teach for you, with you, in room 2243 of the Earl V. Moore building in Ann Arbor.