Tag: career advice

More Tips on Learning

As August draws to a close, I find my focus turning away from my independent projects and towards the beginning of a new school year. Gloriously unscheduled days devoted to compositional contemplation gradually yield their thrall as syllabus tweaking and course scheduling clamor ever more loudly for attention. During these periods, I ask myself what I consider to be the most important aspects of each class, and exactly what I hope students will gain from our time spent together in the classroom. As I prepare the ingredients towards creating what I aspire to be a worthwhile intellectual experience, I reflect on how I can improve my teaching. I also keep returning to everything I’ve learned about how to be a better student. I find it somewhat ironic that I gained many of my best lessons on the latter topic only through my experiences on the other side of the desk, and I hope that I can help new generations avoid my copious errors.

Two years ago at this time, I offered some guidelines for composers about to embark on their first graduate degrees. Although I still agree with the three basic pieces of advice I proffered at the time, this year I would like to add some further guidelines for students about to commence a new year of learning.

4) Know exactly why you are enrolled in school. If you are working towards a diploma in music composition or performance, then you might be tempted to think about your studies as a vocational degree and to focus solely on your lessons and new pieces. In that case, you could have possibly saved tens of thousands of dollars by engaging in private tutorials and music making without participating in a degree program. You should only enter into academia if you intend to take advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement offered by these programs—including the vast research libraries and the constant contact with numerous peers and colleagues—that are less accessible to independent scholars. This self-awareness can help you to become an active participant in planning a course of study uniquely designed to help you achieve your goals, wherever they may lead you.

5) Remain curious about everything. The more you learn, the more you will be able to say as an artist. We can find inspiration for new works in bird songs, quantum mechanics, contemporary poetry, biological structures, economic theories, and in any other bit of knowledge. We create new avenues for self-expression whenever we develop a profound understanding of any aspect of the world around us. Sometimes our interests develop over time, and those subjects that once seemed boring and arcane can become sources for our most transcendent creations. These unforeseen enthusiasms can often become great treasures.

6) Remember that learning is a full-time job. While you’re in school, the search for knowledge needs to be both your vocation and avocation. If you only attend class and peruse the assigned readings, then your understanding will lack context and mastery. Meet with your professors beyond the classroom to talk through interesting insights that you might have gleaned beyond the class discussions. Gather your peers to deliberate over the further implications of new concepts and how they might apply to your lives. Go to art, theater, film, and literary presentations sponsored by your institutions or available in your general community. Attend lectures on non-arts topics that are open to the general public. Whenever possible, travel to those events that interest you but take place beyond your immediate area.

Best of luck on embarking on what I hope will be a most excellent year of learning!

The Top Five Composer Blunders

Following my recent open letter to new music performers, I thought it might be worth turning a critical eye on composerly habits that can grate on others and stunt personal growth. Being a composer, and knowing a lot of them, I’ve tried to identify the general areas where composers tend to fumble, bumble, and blunder their way into unfortunate predicaments. Avoiding these pitfalls won’t make you a good composer (the items below have almost nothing to do with writing music); but these are all mistakes than can snuff out an aspiring composer’s career:

5. Shoddy Materials. The musical scores and parts (if that’s how you work) are how others come to know your works in both artistic review and performance. The performers might be you and your buddies, who have a “system” worked out on some of those shifting rhythmic patterns, or they might be members of an orchestra who expect MOLA guidelines to be followed, workable page-turns, and heavy paper with binding that won’t be crushed in a rehearsal folder. Expectations differ as do ensembles, but it’s the composer’s responsibility to present materials in line with the expectations inherent in each situation. I’ve seen many young composers make the mistake of pouring countless hours and amounts of energy into their work, only to have all that potential limited by and smothered under a confusing presentation. Short of basic music preparation skills, not explaining things is probably the biggest problem; if composers are asking for something out of the ordinary (like that ever happens!), they should dedicate more than a little thought to how to best communicate these ideas. It can be helpful to mime performing parts (extremely useful for percussion setups or for keeping track of string/trombone positions); engaging with how your materials are presented will bring a lot more focus to your work, and I feel this is an especially important point in an age when most composers are their own publishers.

4. Lateness. Composing is often about juggling two or more big, time-consuming projects, and it can be difficult to manage these demands while also maintaining a stable life. Get in the habit of making time for the kind of work that is very important but easily lost in the comparatively petty day-to-day tasks that can obscure larger goals. Many successful and famous composers have had lateness issues, so it’s very possible to get to a high level in one’s career without having learned how to manage one’s time—I’ve learned (after several tense races against the clock) that the actual composing usually takes only 50-70 percent of the entire work time, whereas it’s easy to assume that the composing component is much greater. Often coupled with lateness is the fact that many composers are prone to disappearing during crunch time, which is always terrifying for everyone else! Stay in touch with your performers and commissioners during all stages of the process; they’ll appreciate your reaching out, and they’ll be more sympathetic to the need for an extension should that arise.

3. Pushing too hard. While shying away from interaction and promotion can be its own brand of problem, pushing too aggressively for attention and action can appear desperate or transparently selfish. Composers can also have a bad habit of comparing themselves to their peers, often making the mistake of assuming that attention or success for one is somehow a slap in the other’s face. It’s better to build a community of people whom you like and support, rather than waste energy and attention on the ones you don’t.

2. Rehearsal manners. There is often so much mutual nervousness in rehearsal that it’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to blow. In my experience, composers can be over-anxious and over-involved in rehearsals; prioritizing (writing down all the ideas/spots and then circling three to bring up to the conductor) is a must. Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Does me stopping everyone here resolve the issue any faster than them just working it out?” Some mistakes require urgent correction while others work themselves out with a few more run-throughs. Learn to let go of your own nervousness and you’ll accomplish more, as well as be more aware of the needs of others.

1. Narrow focus to the exclusion of broad awareness. Composers have to focus in on so many specific details, and we become wedded to our ideas of our new creations which may end up not resembling reality. This is not necessarily a failure, but composers do their best work when they remain open to the needs and input of others—neither pandering nor dismissing. Sometimes unexpected things can happen in rehearsal or a meeting, and they’re not necessarily problems just because they take us off our normal tracks. This seems to be one of the most pervasive problems faced by largely introverted, technically oriented types, and stories of composer diva-hood over tiny details are common parlance. Part of being a composer is knowing how to stand up for your ideas and beliefs in a way that does not disparage those of your collaborative partners, and for this to occur composers have to be able to loosen their grip slightly more than they are accustomed to during those endless work hours (where they get used to having the last say!)

Teaching the Teachers

Last week I touched on composition education at the college level as a result of two other articles by Colin Holter and Alexandra Gardner. Colin’s perceptive column demonstrated a very common attitude—the never-ending quest for recognition and approval—in college-age composers. Gardner’s piece describes the awkward interaction between composers who thrive outside of academia and other musicians who assume that a university gig is the only option for the career-minded composer. Both articles are indicative of composition’s seemingly intractable relationship with higher education and the various assumptions that thrive both within and without. My own column suggested that it is these assumptions, and the teaching and learning habits that accompany them, that have inadvertently shaped both the state of and attitudes toward college-level composition education.

I also mentioned several concepts—feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability—which have become important touch-points in any discussion of composition education. Depending on whom you talk to along the student-teacher-administrator-professional continuum, there are many questions that these concepts bring up: Should we encourage students to study composing? Can they really be “taught” to be composers? Have we created an assembly line where the finished products (composers with graduate degrees) have little-to-no chance of employment? Do we even need to employ composers at universities since there are enough theorists to teach the courses that were traditionally taught by composers in years past? Hard questions, to be sure, and answering them all would take way more space than I care to take up, but I do have a few suggestions—three, in fact—which might help to re-contextualize the questions in a new way.

My first suggestion is to re-think the role of composer within the university music department. By my observations, there seem to be two basic models that are most common at colleges and universities in the United States: those who teach theory and ear-training classes and those who do not. Both teach composition lessons to majors, and those who do not teach theory/AS courses may simply have more majors to teach, teach related courses in orchestration or electronic music, or direct the new music ensemble. If the faculty composer does teach theory/AS, most music students tend to associate them with arcane rules, Roman numerals, and bleary-eyed early-morning classes during their first two years of study. If the faculty composer does not teach theory/AS, their interactions with students outside of their own studio is minimal, with exceptions including the occasional premiere with a student ensemble or a small cadre of new-music aficionados that might crop up from time to time.

There is, however, another area of the music department within which the faculty composer could become an important component: music education. Most composers don’t realize that there are national standards, created by the National Association for Music Education (formerly MENC), that outline the skills that primary and secondary music educators should be able to teach to their students in the public schools and that “composing and arranging music within specified guidelines” is currently National Standard #4.

This situation creates several needs. Student educators need to be able to incorporate composing into their classroom—not as a lecture tool or a demonstration, but by giving their students opportunities to compose. In order to do this, the educators need to not only be comfortable with the art and craft of composition and arranging on their own, but also understand how to teach composition to young students. It would not be difficult to formulate creative ways to incorporate a composition faculty into the music education curriculum through beginning composition courses, guest lectures in methods courses, workshops, projects, and collaborations between student composers and educators.

The issue is that there is hardly any communication, much less interaction, between composers and music educators at the college level. Most music educators view composing as something that only the truly gifted can do and subsequently don’t even consider pursuing it as a skill, even though conducting, arguably an equally daunting skill, is seen as commonplace. Most students in pre-college education have never met a composer, much less seen them work; by the time prospective music educators reach their undergraduate studies, they have no model for what a composer does. Conversely, many composers actively encourage the concept of “composing for the truly gifted” and make no pretense about their disdain for anything smacking of “educational music.” This is completely understandable, I admit, as there is so much uncreative music in band and choral folders across the country, but the situation has become such that even well written music for younger musicians is looked down upon.

Opening up communications between educators in composition and music education at the collegiate level is important for several reasons. It would help music educators to learn an important (and required) skill. When they then later teach their students to compose, over time the size of the general population that appreciates what a composer does (and realizes that you don’t have to be dead to do) will grow. These students will be more creative, more intuitive, and understand both music and themselves much more than they did before. Composers would do well to open up their own views and creativity to not only focus on the most experienced audiences and performers, but on the general population as well. This is most easily done at an early age, and therefore it is through working with those who will teach those young students that a composer will have a more lasting effect.

In this STEM-centric world we now live in, the very idea of pursuing study in the humanities or the arts is continually being called into question and composition, by most accounts, is a peripheral vestige, a luxury, an oddity that few, even in the musical community, understand or willingly embrace. I have just suggested that by collaborating with music educators, the concept of composer as oddity may be changed. In my next column, I will turn the tables and look at how composition pedagogy—the teaching of professional composers—may be addressed as well.

Graduate School: A Backward Glance

As I write this post, it’s been almost exactly six years since my first contribution to NewMusicBox’s ongoing conversation went live: My assignment, if you’ll remember, was to offer a grad student’s perspective on contemporary music. Very soon, however, I won’t be a grad student anymore, and I won’t be able to comment meaningfully on a landscape of opportunities, anxieties, and epiphanies that must be quite different even now than it was six years ago. My last post on NewMusicBox will appear on April 25, the day I defend my doctoral dissertation.

In the handful of posts remaining to me, I’d like to examine some of the issues that my rounds in the ring as a NewMusicBoxer have clarified for me. For starters, let’s talk about the condition that got me into this gig in the first place. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on graduate school, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you now:

Do not go to graduate school.

That’s putting it a bit bluntly. I’ll try again:

Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Let’s say you’re a composer finishing up your four (to six) years of undergrad, possibly with the extra burden of student debt. You’re looking for a way to refine your craft and get ahead in the field of new music. Your professors, with the absolute noblest of intentions, might advise you to consider a master’s degree. You apply to a few programs, and they get back to you with offers of fellowships and assistantships that seem no less remunerative and stable than the entry-level jobs you might be filling your days with as a recent college graduate. Why not accept one of these offers? Let me hit you with a few reasons.

First, the opportunity cost is very high. By the time you leave grad school—particularly if you continue through a doctorate—you won’t be competitive for the very entry-level jobs outside of music that you could have gotten into when you were leaving undergrad. There’ll be a whole raft of people who spent their twenties acquiring work experience (and, in all likelihood, getting paid more than you) who will elbow you aside if you decide to jump ship once your advanced degrees are complete.

Second, even if you do everything right, what happens when the time comes to look for a job in music? The “default” path seems to have been to find a university teaching position, but you don’t need me to tell you that’s easier said than done. Furthermore, regardless of your professional qualifications, not everybody is inclined to be a teacher—the prospect of spending years explaining key signatures to freshpeople may terrify you. (But what about jobs in arts administration, you ask? They have dedicated degrees in that now; I imagine you need one to snag one of those gigs. Tough noogies.)

Finally, the deprofessionalization of cultural production is now sufficiently advanced that we’ll all be out of our jobs in 25 years, probably. If you have the discipline to train in music, you could probably hack it in the more lucrative STEM fields as well; that’s what I recommend. You’ll be able to do more concrete good for family and country. Music is a much better hobby than a job, and we all know plenty of amateur musicians who derive (and even provide) as much satisfaction from music as pros.

I know it sounds like I’m arguing myself out of a job here, but as an instructor, I feel a duty not to mislead the students who have entrusted themselves to me and whose long-term livelihoods are the stakes of this discussion. However, let me attach a more hopeful postscript: Music schools around the country seem to be getting a little hipper to the notion that turning out highly specialized graduates doesn’t serve them well. If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case, and I hope I can help in some modest way to bring these urgently needed changes about. After all these years of graduate school, it’s the least I can do.

The Cycle of Get

The Cycle of Get

Mozart never went to Kinko’s.

In an often-cited letter to his father, Mozart complained about working all night to transcribe Die Entführung aus dem Serail for winds before less-operatic pirates could claim the royalties. However, Mozart never paced in shops redolent of toner fumes while his scores were prepared the night before a postmark deadline. Similarly, Haydn never submitted a portfolio of major compositions to receive his honorary doctorate from Oxford, but simply recycled a symphony (Hoboken 1/92) previously commissioned by Count d’Ogny.  Beethoven had no transcripts sent to Albrechtsberger in advance of his studies.

The 18th-century composers received training and pursued careers in a small, guild-like network that was considerably less formal than their waistcoats. Modern composers confront a bewildering array of career paths.  Because of the confluence of the concert season and the academic calendar, many of these opportunities begin with an application submitted in the spring.

April is truly the cruelest month, during which established composers anticipate the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the Rome Prizes, and the Guggenheim Fellowships.  Emerging composers learn whether or not they have earned one of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards or have gained a placement in a summer festival or artist colony (knowing they will still contend for the Bearns Prize and the BMI Student Composer Awards, both announced in May). Most composers in higher education will be consumed with admissions or applying for teaching positions.

The first day of May is circled on many calendars because it is both the NACAC-approved deadline for responding to college admissions offers and last day for colleges accredited by NASM to hire faculty teaching at other colleges without negotiation.  In short–and in the sadly more-familiar jargon of sports–May 1 is both the day that students sign letters-of-intent and the faculty trade deadline.  What follows is a denouement of mortarboards and Elgar: that bottomless cup of trio.


Some composers will thrive in this market of opportunities. For them, spring will seem as orderly as the cadential rhetoric in a sonata, with the supertonic six-five of interviews giving way to the tonic six-four of an obvious choice. A few others may find themselves suddenly ennobled by an unsuspected windfall.  For them, spring is like a perhaps handout, raising the flats of outrageous fortune into a Picardy third. Or so it would seem.

In fact, those who prosper will almost certainly tell their stories differently.  Any accomplishment in music requires sustained and dedicated effort.  When the spotlight of recognition lights upon an achievement–be it an award, a job, or a fellowship–the achiever will often take pains to explain the unglamorous hours spent in pursuit of the goal.

The personal narratives of the accomplished and recognized may be moving and even inspirational, but they are largely disregarded.  Work is not sexy. Luck is sexier. Effortlessness is the apotheosis of sexiness.  Music–even music in the academy–is a world that trades on the fantasy of talent: the divine right and manifest destiny of artistic triumph.

From our earliest encounters with music, we are told tales of extraordinary accomplishment by musicians: stories so magnificent that no musicologist could hope to put them into context. It is absurd to think of Mozart applying for graduate school, but we scarcely question a cinematic portrayal of him dictating the Requiem from his deathbed.


I have been facetious in pursuit of a specific and uncomfortable fact of life:  the ongoing dialectic of accomplishment and recognition.

Accomplishment is a subjective measure of achievement. Given the solitary nature of composition, the sense of accomplishment is largely self-assessment. Others may say, “Wow, that piece was quite an accomplishment,” but the composer is more likely to sense accomplishment months earlier when looking up from the staves and proclaiming, “Wow, that is one sweet-ass lick of counterpoint!” Only the composer can truly make this assessment because only the composer can put the accomplishment in the intertextual context of his or her idiomatically indexed library and inner-iPod.

Recognition is the acknowledgement of accomplishment. As a matter of logic, everything described in the previous paragraph is recognition: the individual recognizes his accomplishment.  However, in our workaday vocabularies, recognition is the observation of the other, where the other may be a performer, teacher, audience, Pulitzer board–even Jaye P. Morgan, mallet in hand, poised to end your appearance on The Gong Show.

The difference between accomplishment and recognition, as here defined, is as obvious as it is fraught with danger.  In short: what the artist values may not be what the other observes.  Indeed, these two observations may be so different as to not even intersect.

Everyone knows that accomplishment and recognition are two different things, but anyone who has achieved accomplishment without recognition forgets the difference.  It creates a wild imbalance to the ego and the sense of aesthetic propriety, and we tend to project the inverse of that imbalance on the individual who is recognized in our stead.  If I have accomplishment without recognition, then clearly the talentless hack that wins the job, commission, prize, or admission offer has recognition without accomplishment.  Whew.  [Mop brow.] Balance is restored.

Projecting our disappointment by challenging the selection process is a first-line defense: easy, natural, and more readily available than bourbon or Mahler. But when the hurt and anger passes, and the last acquaintance says the final reassuring platitude–perhaps accompanied by a graphic that features a kitten Photoshopped into implausible peril–there are things to consider about what may have happened in an elsewhere beyond our ken.

There are significant differences between applying for a degree program, a prize, or a job, much less a summer festival or commission.  Since I am largely concerned with the deliberation and outcome, I have adumbrated these differences.  In what follows, the composer that applies for anything is an applicant or candidate; the people tasked with making a decision are the committee or adjudicators.


We apply with a view of the big picture, fearlessly not sweating the small things.  Sometimes score readers–especially young score readers–obsess over details.

For example, when I began teaching orchestration, I insisted my assignments be done with impeccable precision in placing dynamics and a careful measurement of hairpins. As if channeling a Victorian schoolmarm, I wanted every assignment “neatly lettered.”  About a month into this reign of prissy terror, I had an unwelcome epiphany:  notation is easy to grade; evaluating orchestration is difficult and time-intensive.

I lead with this confession to note the difference in the kinds of judgments that inform a selection process: the measurable quantities and the subjective qualities.  We all sneer at rules and guidelines as so much administrival drivel.  But regardless of our private thoughts about recommendations, transcripts, or anonymous submission, anyone applying for anything should take pains to observe the rules.  Whether or not a portfolio of compositions will crown the composer as the voice of a generation is a matter of aesthetic judgment.  Whether or not the portfolio arrives in three bound copies by the postmark date is a simple binary decision.

I do not mean to suggest that a score of unimpeachable brilliance would be summarily dismissed for a breach of protocol. Just as gravity bends light, extraordinary musicianship will scramble the best-laid plans of orderly conduct. Rather, I am suggesting that in matters of application, a poor first impression may prevent unimpeachable brilliance from getting past the first round.

A careful aggregation of statistics from multiple resources has led me to conclude that there is … like … a metric buttload of composers out there. A college teaching job will draw dozens of applicants.  A competition will draw hundreds of scores.  Any application for anything will likely be received by an assistant of unknown musical aptitude. These score-wranglers have the thankless task of making sure the rules are observed, for the sake of good faith and best practices. But even the greatest musical minds and sharpest score-readers may overlook brilliant music in a badly rendered score, considered in haste.  And the early stage of a selection process is often characterized by haste.


The adjudicator may enter into a selection process with any number of lofty goals and forward-thinking aspirations, but the moment the process begins, there is one immutable fact:  there is an awful lot of good music on the table surrounded by an awful lot of less-good music.  The sheer volume of applications is daunting.  It is the perfect time to panic.

The first round of evaluating a large sample of applications is typically a cursory scan that results in a binary decision: yes or no. These tend to be snap decisions: the kind of thin-slicing Malcolm Gladwell explores in his book Blink.  Given the urge to purge, any aspect that must be qualified or nuanced with explanations–i.e., any element that slows the process–may result in elimination.

There is an unpleasant irony in considering such snap decisions. The worst-case scenario conjures a situation wherein the extremes of originality are discarded for the comforting heterogeneity of the middle.  In short–and thin-slicing is the epitome of “in short”–it is survival of the safest.  Unfortunately, the history of musical innovation is a record of extremity. One wonders if a committee empaneled in 1942 would have even considered Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” a song with piano accompaniment.

Brilliance shines through blinders and brilliant adjudicators will bend to accommodate irregularities attending innovation.  But only if they see it.  Thinking outside the box is better saved until one actually gets invited into the box.


Berlioz believed that a unison part played by fifteen average violinists sounded markedly better than the same passage played by four first-rate violinists.   While he may have been overly optimistic about the chorusing effect, he was right about one thing: a large sample blends variance and cancels extremity.  A committee considering an application is a small sample: every voice is heard and must be considered.

When three people enter a room to make a decision, they are likely to make a decision that none of them would have made as individuals. The nightmare scenario is well known:  one adjudicator has his heart set on one applicant, while another adjudicator keeps patiently explaining the logic of her choice.  When Twelve Angry Men becomes three adjudicators at an impasse, sometimes the only way forward is a compromise that crowns the candidate acceptable to all parties.  While the expression “compromise candidate” is pejorative, that candidate is not necessarily less worthy or less deserving.  Indeed, a different committee may very well have unanimously selected the compromise candidate. The committee itself may be comprised of compromise selections. For just as the committee may be confined to submitting the top three choices, the overseeing organization may be confined with selecting three judges in an effort to cover a broad cross-section of styles and aesthetics.


In his seminal essay “New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea,” Schoenberg wrote, “It is very regrettable that so many contemporary composers care so much about style and so little about idea.”  In Schoenberg’s formulation, style comprises the elements of a composition that reflect the composer; the composer does not affect this style but is rather concerned with the development of the idea:  the germinal and generating gesture that is mapped-out over the compositional whole.

Of course, Schoenberg was not the first to express concern about varied kinds of music. Indeed his Verklärte Nacht was, by his own admission, an attempt to merge the style of Wagner with the developmental technique of Brahms. (The merger involved an inverted ninth chord: an irregularity that made the score-readers of the Vienna Music Society reject the sextet in the search for safer fare. Accomplishment with recognition deferred.) Similarly, a self-conscious use of style was hardly novel.  Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is an object lesson in polystylism.  Schoenberg realized that these topics, which had been largely the shop-talk of composers, were increasingly communicated to audiences in an unsophisticated way.  A preoccupation with style became a fashion, and composers were reported to be making style the agenda–the idea–of their compositions.

Policy statements of modern composition departments reflect Schoenberg’s sentiment, if not his taxonomy. Professors are eager to relate that discipline and technique are learning objectives, that they do not admit students or hire (or tenure) colleagues on the basis of style.  Music directors and foundations are similarly tolerant, if less precise, speaking to the transcendence of artistic vision.  From the faculty mixer to the Polar Prize, modern music is a big-tent coalition.

We needn’t tax the angels of our better nature to embrace a variety of styles: our earliest exposure to music was an ad hoc mixtape of the polished and profane.  There are no Darmstadt lullabies, no fight song from dear ol’ IRCAM.  No pianist credits her “mad chops” to hours of drill-it-and-kill-it with a tattered copy of Fluxus Fingerpower!. At every stage of our musical training, and even our basic socialization, we are inculcated with a mesh of musical styles.

A cursory glance at the programs for any ensemble reveals our variegated listening diet. A new music concert might span works from 10 to 100 years (always gerrymandering Webern into the contemporary). An orchestral concert can easily span 250 years back to the middle period of Haydn.  A musician who plays the recorder may have a working repertoire spanning 500 years, including “Stairway to Heaven.”  And then there’s the internet. Spotify is poly-style porn.  One recent evening, I was embarrassed to be caught red-handed, listening to the American Top-40 Countdown from 1979.

The guilty pleasures of our listening habits betray us. But to listen is not to compose.  Composition asks more of us.

Composing music will not bring fame to most. Or riches.  Composition will not make us more attractive or desirable. (At least while we are alive.) In short, but in words too romantic by half, the only reason to compose is to scratch the itch that attends not composing.  We may seek variety in listening. We may support colleagues and students in their choices. But we compose as we think we ought.


Thus far, I have treated applications to school, jobs, and competitions from a safe, ironic distance, as if they were the occasional pursuit of some people, unsatisfied with accomplishment and desperate for recognition.  In fact, submitting scores is the constant work of the professional composer.  Some people who compose may sell insurance, conduct the Wiener Hofoper, or even be an Associate Dean, but the composing profession, in the inglorious abstract, is the acquisition of opportunities.

For most composers, this will involve successive roles in academic life, from graduate student to emeritus.  In a fantastic article in The Musical Times–which everyone should read if only to learn how composition may be a “FUBU discipline” (#respect)–Jonathan R. Pieslak writes about the measure of composers as professors.  Professors advance through the tenure ranks by publications and research grants, but:

…because these criteria are not immediately apparent aspects of music composition, academic administrators seem to have been forced into developing different norms to evaluate the quality of a composer’s work. Books and articles are now commissions and performances, and an increased emphasis is placed upon awards, recognitions and honours. A steady stream of performances, high-profile commissions and honours from reputable professional associations symbolises success, and this means that the music itself is seldom evaluated on its own terms. A work is only as good as the commission that funded it, the group who performed it, the reviewer who acclaimed it and the professional organisations who awarded it.

The Musical Times, Vol. 146, No. 1890 (Spring, 2005), 51.

That sounds suspiciously like work. Unsexy work.  We may imagine Beethoven strolling down a country lane pondering the rise of Napoleon and the subversion of E-flat major with a C-sharp, but the modern composer must seek such insights in spare moments of the Cycle of the Get:  get into school, get a prize, get a job, get another performance, etc.  And each acquisition, while a momentary rush, is little more than an opportunity: a berth to compose in the service obtaining the next opportunity.

These are high stakes, and the stakes increase with each success.  The big tent of modern music begins to narrow.  I might like my colleague.  I might respect his work ethic and technique. But when my colleague is selected for the opportunity I sought, my thoughts become uncollegial and complicated.  The great irony of these situations is that the conflict is real and visceral: a threat to future success and even one’s livelihood.  But the conflict is expressed in terms of aesthetics:  They hired that guy?  Dr. G-flat ninth chord? Not even inverted?  Our accomplishment without recognition makes us doubt the accomplishment of the recognized.

Most composer-on-composer crime in the university happens in private meetings.  These are personnel issues in which the participants are sworn to confidentiality.  Sometimes these ethical bonds are so strong, it takes both gin and tonic to dissolve them. We’ve all heard the stories, spread with suspicious annotations like the fingerings in cheap editions of Mozart’s sonatas.  But when these matters do not concern employment, public speculation and second-guessing is only inhibited by tact.  And tact, it turns out, is a poor inhibitor.

Consider the Pulitzer Prize.  The amount of ink and kerfuffle attending the annual announcement from Columbia seems wildly disproportionate to the actual cash prize: a mere fraction of the amount awarded for the other prizes, but given the broader exposure in the mainstream media, specialist publications like NewMusicBox are obliged to chronicle the “hum near Harlem.” The sudden rush of colloquy and calumny rapidly floods the narrow channels we frequent for community and advocacy.  Feedback and hullaballoo ensues.

The “problem” with the Pulitzer Prize–and may we all have such problems–is the problem with every prize: there is only one to give. In any given year, a committee might find “distinguished musical composition” in five pieces in three different styles by ten different measures. Somehow, the committee must find a way to relate the achievement in one style with the achievement in another style. The metrics of that comparison are idiomatic: one doubts they are truly shared by all members of the committee. But the committee does share the burden of making a decision that will have significant implications.

Uncomfortable questions follow. Should the committee consider the results of previous years? Has the award historically privileged one style over others? Does the list of prior laureates show an awkward homogeneity in gender, or race, or the pedagogical lineage of Roger Sessions? And if so, should the current committee make amends?

These are awful questions, the very asking of which presumes an inequity. That these are necessary questions may be inferred from the fact that too many readers are now too carefully considering which Pulitzer recipients may have studied with Sessions and his students.

Such are the high stakes of a solitary recognition. Given the broad colloquy about the Pulitzer and routine expressions of dismay, the winner is often put in the awkward position of minimizing the importance of what should be a crowning professional recognition.  Why would anyone consent to join a committee tasked with making such a decision? And how is the final decision made?


Otto von Bismarck famously observed that people shouldn’t see how laws or sausages are made. We might add that people should not see how final decisions about admissions, applications, and prizes are made. (Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that von Bismarck ever said his famous bon mot. John Godfrey Saxe wrote it in the Daily Cleveland Herald, 29 March 1869: accomplishment without recognition.)

Let’s take the segno to the coda: the last stage of adjudication.  Fade in on the weary committee at a shabby table. The easier work of thin-slicing the applications into a more-manageable group must seem like ages ago.  In each subsequent pass, the decisions are more difficult for each individual and far more difficult for the entire group.  In the periphery of each exchange between committee members, there is a meta-conversation, a subtle give and take about what might be ideal and who might be acceptable.  Nothing is too adversarial, and there’s undoubtedly a genuine sense of respect among the adjudicators.  And yet, the committee also has skin in the game.

An admissions committee will reflect the interests of the individual faculty. Naturally, teachers want to place students into situations where they will succeed, but students define the working life of a teacher.  Perhaps the teacher wants variety. Perhaps the teacher wants ease.  But whatever the case, the teacher recognizes the commitment that comes with a student and the degree to which the student/alumnus will reflect on the teacher in an increasingly interconnected network of schools and performers.

A faculty search committee, at its best, will reflect the needs of the students.  Unfortunately, the “needs of the students” is a moving target.  Students will come and go; their needs will change.  But the hired colleague will likely be around for some time to come.  Once again, the working lives of individual teachers are at issue. A faculty search committee would be foolish not to consider the collegiality of a candidate.

The prize jury is the most difficult group to read. Their motivation is ideological.  Sometimes judges agree to serve because of their commitment to an institution.  Sometimes judges are eager to contribute to the musical discourse of society. But ultimately, judges agree to judge–and are probably cajoled to judge–as a way to pay it forward.  The sense of obligation we feel to our teachers, we owe to our students. What we learned from the past, we share with the future. The Cycle of the Get is recursive at the Cycle of Intergenerational Debt.

The varying agendas and responsibilities I have suggested are most manifest in the large middle of a selection process, spanning from “this is going well” to “how will we ever decide?” The very last work of the committee is profoundly mysterious. There have been various studies of musicians adjudicating performance competitions.  That method of judging is easier to evaluate because the individual judges make an independent evaluation in real time.  A collective decision is very difficult to study.

I once took minutes for the final meeting of a faculty search that was about to implode.  The report of that final meeting is an amazing document: it reads like the transcript of a basketball game. Without officials.  In a prison yard.  I make the comparison to a basketball game in part because the participants were sweaty and cellblock-indelicate in their choice of vocabulary.  But mostly I refer to the fact that, like many basketball games, you only really needed to see the last five minutes.  Nothing in the preceding ninety minutes predicted the outcome of the final vote.

I don’t mean to suggest that hours of work were negated by the random outcome of a final vote.  Rather, I think that the final minutes of that committee’s deliberations–of any committee’s deliberations–involves a kind of decision-making that is ineffable. And even if those decisions were effable, the participants might be unwilling to eff them: the decisions might be inconsistent with their personal preferences and professional postures.  The unrepentant serialist might go secretly gooey for a well-placed D-flat major seventh chord.  The pedantic professor might be enlightened by the genius who is too ecstatic to follow the lesson plan.  In the end, we plan for the good; the great we can only behold.

After the detailed and principled work of each successive stage, the committee is reduced to the highly cultivated intuition of artists.


Independent of a commitment to composition, a commitment to the composing profession includes a lot of applications.  All that applying will get you a lot of big fat “no.” Get cozy with rejection: it is the baseball card clicking the spokes on the wheel of the Cycle of Get.

Many of these rejections can be taken in stride. Some are potentially devastating. When your current teachers do not accept you for a graduate program, it hurts.  When your colleagues do not select you for the teaching job you are occupying on an interim basis, it is embarrassingly disappointing. At such times, we are not ourselves. Even the proud and private should seek advice while carrying on with dignity. Public rejections cripple the ego.

At such times in my own career, I try to return to the work I have done with fresh ears.  Often, what I find is that my aspiration was based on a self-assessment that was inaccurate. Sometimes I gave insufficient attention to a quality I considered a strength only to find that it was a liability. Perhaps, in retrospect, that sweet-ass lick of counterpoint might need some textural space to bloom. Perhaps my glib answer to a question about remedial studies did not reveal my extensive experience in this area and offended the committee member committed to outreach in at-risk communities.  In either case, and in many others, what I prized as accomplishment was poorly presented and thus, not recognized.  Difficult and unproductive hours follow, with satisfaction hard to come by.  But those schools that did not hire me? They are never getting their staplers back.

I note one last time that throughout this piece, I have treated the issue of applying for schools, jobs, and prizes at a cool, ironic distance.  These are weighty matters.  Even the idea of “a career in music” is fairly abstract.  The topic I have been discussing–the topic to which we should address ourselves–is nothing less than the way we will spend most of our waking lives.  Will we compose on a cycle of semesters or in the five-to-nine complement of a nine-to-five job?

Hard work attends such questions, work that will drag through a summer of Sundays and into the next year. And as one works through those questions, it is useful to separate the practical need for recognition from the immaterial appreciation of accomplishment.  Recognition may be beyond our grasp.  Recognition may require work we do not care to do.  But the sense of accomplishment is always nearby.  You may have begun a composition with visions of recognition, but what has sustained you through hours and hours of work is the sense of accomplishment.



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Gann, Kyle. 1998. “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music.” Kyle Gann. http://www.kylegann.com/downtown.html.

Ginsburgh, Victor. 2003. “Awards, Success and Aesthetic Quality in the Arts.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (2) (April 1): 99-111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3216859.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/55679231.

Hartke, Stephen. 2004. “And the Pulitzer Prize for the Best Apple of the Year Goes To—an Orange!” NewMusicBox (July 1). http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/And-the-Pulitzer-Prize-for-the-best-apple-of-the-year-goes-to-an-orange/.

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Silverman, Adam. 2000. “Keep Your Ears on the Prize: A Hyperhistory of American Composition Awards.” NewMusicBox (June 1). http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/Keep-Your-Ears-on-the-Prize-A-Hyperhistory-of-American-Composition-Awards/.

Suzuki, Dean. 2003. “View From the West: New Hope for the Pulitzer.” NewMusicBox (August 1). http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/View-From-the-West-New-Hope-for-the-Pulitzer/.

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Last week, I briefly discussed the importance of setting goals that reflect our artistic needs and desires. When we choose our aspirations wisely, we can better enjoy traveling along our career paths. We are better able to distinguish between true setbacks and temporary diversions. I find the best goals are those that allow for me to be easily sidetracked.


Often, I find that I can become functionally myopic. I slowly creep from one task to the next one in the queue. As my schedule fills, I take less and less time to consider options outside of this very narrow path. On those occasions when many projects need my full attention, this single-mindedness can be a most utile asset. But once I fall into the habit of moving forward within proscribed boundaries, I find that it can be very difficult to jolt myself into even considering secondary options.

For me, it’s very important to leave myself open to following these sidetracks. The vagaries of chance can create possibilities that I never would have pursued on my own, and often these initially unperceived paths are the most fruitful. When presented with a fantastic bassoonist who wants to play anything that I can dream up, I found myself writing some pieces that I consider among my most successful for this oft-neglected instrument that always had frightened me when I would try to incorporate it into ensembles. A commission that came out of left field initially introduced me to the toy piano, and a chance conversation started my secondary interest in improvising extended techniques for that instrument. Indeed, I can trace my entire career in music to another chance encounter when I was in high school that led me to my first experience composing.

While these alternate byways in actuality might be the best roads towards my larger goals, I often find it difficult to turn away from the route I carefully mapped. Emotionally, I want to continue traveling along the path that I’ve researched, that I know will bring me to a certain place.

As I set goals and as I consider what artistic possibilities I would like to pursue, I need to remember that sometimes the best opportunities are those for which I’m unprepared. When an inviting alternative route presents itself, it’s important to be able to explore that sidetrack.


While I was seeking advice from a relatively well-known composer a couple of years ago, she asked me to tell her my compositional goals. I launched into a lengthy explanation as to what sorts of pieces I wanted to work on immediately and how those would help me to develop skills for my future projects, what I perceived to be the flaws in my current compositional voice and how I would correct these deficiencies as I moved forward. When I finished, she looked at me with an odd expression on her face, and then commented by saying that, although she liked my answer, that most people responded to that query by stating their career aspirations.

In the years that have followed, I often have thought about this exchange. To me, the whole point of having a compositional career is to increase my ability to achieve my artistic dreams. If I wanted monetary success, I never would have left my first work field in order to go to graduate school. If I wanted fame or to reach as many people as possible, I would have focused on popular music or composing for films or video games. I followed this path because I had a creative itch, and there was no other way to scratch it.

I think that it’s emotionally unhealthy to set goals that lie beyond the realm of what we possibly can control. We can create art that more clearly expresses our ideas, but we absolutely cannot predict how that art will be perceived by any specific audience, no matter whether that audience is an awards jury or a programming committee or the crowds at our local symphony’s subscription concerts. If we want to write a beautiful opera and have it produced in a fully staged version, we can set aside time to compose the piece, then fundraise over years until that dream is realized. If our main objective is to have the Met commission an opera from us, then the process becomes far less relevant to the work itself and greatly dependent upon factors beyond ourselves. I think that it’s important to place our goalposts carefully so that we always will be striving towards creating a better product.

many sizes of goals

Many sizes of goals.

The main reason why I’m considering this issue right now is because of a recent post on Fluting High, the blog of Helen Bledsoe, the flutist for musikFabrik. First, I’d like to take a moment to recommend this blog in general for all composers. She writes quite clearly on many aspects of new music from a performer’s perspective, giving advice on topics as useful as how composers can notate microtones in order to make them more legible for interested performers, and a step-by-step guide on how to teach yourself to play the difficult embedded tuplets found in the music of composers like Xenakis and Ferneyhough (yes, each step is remarkably difficult).

In this post, however, Bledsoe discusses the intricacies of the “Vision Training” that her ensemble has been following in order to help them grow as an ensemble. In her assessment, the focus of this exercise is far too heavily weighted towards perception, with little consideration of the product itself. In short, the ideas generated in these seminars rarely relate to methods for improving musicianship, instead focusing on topics like audience outreach.

I whole-heartedly agree with the conclusion she draws, and so I’d like to simply quote it:

As musicians […] when you ignore the music, when you ignore the basic precepts of artistic integrity (be genuine, don’t compare yourself to others), you gonna die. Even if you don’t immediately expire, you will suffer the indignity of being back where you started. Like a revolving door.

Rules for Design

bad artA few weeks ago, I was eating dinner at an amazing Peruvian restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware, (I mention this on the off chance that you’re planning to visit Wilmington soon, in which case you should look up Juliana’s Kitchen) with some visual artist friends. One of them brought up an old maxim of the art and design world: If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.

The more I’ve thought about this phrase, the more practical this advice appears. A budding artist who wants to attract notice would be best served by creating outsized pieces that literally tower over their peers. Someone who wants to sell pieces needs to think about matching customers’ home design color schemes, which are generally based around neutral and wood tones, perfect matches for a nice splash of red art. Of course, this adage is based upon the premise that creative artists will accept their basic inability to create something they might think is good.

With very little tweaking, this adage translates quite well into music, where a parallel phrase might begin, “if you can’t make it good, make it loud.” There’s nothing like the sound of a full set of orchestral strings sawing away with brass blaring above them to help convey the sense of grandeur and awe, regardless of whether or not the basic materials are worthy of such treatment (what David Rakowski terms OLAMBIC music). Probably the musical equivalent of “red” in this interpretation would be “octatonic”—a modality found in Russian folk music that was utilized by a diverse swath of 20th-century composers, which goes well with just about every other type of pitch construction.

The main thrust of the quoted advice is to help beginning artists to emerge, to stand apart from the crowd. In an exhibition filled with medium-sized well-balanced images, a room-sized work will guarantee that the viewer will take notice of the artist. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of this grand design, its creator will be remembered. Paradoxically, in a setting in which enough artists have heeded the time-honored adage, a microscopic creation might provide the contrast necessary to convey an individual voice.


I hope that everyone who reads this has a happy and safe holiday season. Since this is the first night of Hannukah, I would like to extend particularly warm wishes to those people lighting the candles tonight. In the New Year, I’ll return with more thoughts on standing apart from the crowd.