Don’t Study Composition (yet)

In the past couple of weeks, I have been asked twice about my opinion on studying compos­ition as an under­graduate. First by friends of mine who have a son that is devel­oping into a fine young musician and once on Reddit. Studying music is a tricky thing, and studying compos­ition is even trickier. You are putting your devel­opment as a creator of music in the hands of a few people. This is a big decision, but I haven’t seen much useful advice about it online so I thought I would add my opinions as something to ruminate on if you or someone you know is orbiting this decision.

My Story

My story starts in high school in New York. I started out playing in the school jazz band as a bassist and started writing some tunes for the band. A couple of the music teachers at the school encouraged me to try writing more formally organised music for the school’s various ensembles; wind band, recorder consort and string ensemble. There wasn’t any formal instruction but the high school music teacher guided me and I studied harmony and counter­point from books.

Over my four years at the school I learnt a huge amount. I was very fortunate indeed to be supported by the staff and even my fellow students who were willing to have a go at playing my music. It was exciting to hear my music realised. There was a wide variety of talent levels and exper­ience in the school’s musical people from profes­sional level players on the staff to young middle school recorder players. This placed all sorts of different constraints on me in writing for different people, which was incredibly valuable in making me think about how music conveys complexity. Much of what happened to me was simply good luck, the exper­ience worked for me and I developed a naïve but enthu­si­astic approach to writing music.

In my last year of high school I put on an evening of music that I had composed. I put my head down to write and rehearse an hour and a half of music. Making something like that, at a young age, was very cool indeed. Marshalling all the people involved was perhaps harder than writing the music, both were valuable exper­i­ences. I developed a very strong sense of authorship, both of the music and of the evening as a whole.

Applying to Conservatory

While this was all playing out I decided to apply for a place on a conser­vatory compos­ition programme. I assume one of my teachers suggested this as a possib­ility at some point. I am no longer sure of the genesis of the idea. I do remember feeling excited that this was even possible. Going to conser­vatory was intox­ic­ating stuff. That was what really good musicians did. I had come to this game fairly late by tradi­tional standards and had little formal training so that good adult musicians were encour­aging me felt intox­ic­ating.

Applying for compos­ition programmes was my only option to go to conser­vatory. I defin­itely was not a good enough player. At this point my main instrument was bass guitar. I played piano but in a rudimentary way. The keyboard was a tool for getting music out of my head rather than an instrument I could perform well on. I had played double bass for a year and a half and trying to teach myself clarinet for about the same amount of time. There was no way I was getting in as a player, but looking at the compos­ition entry standards for the conser­vat­ories in New York City where I was living, I had a shot.

I didn’t consider any other routes into music. I had made a decision to focus on writing music when I was 14, but I had no plan about where that might lead. Looking back the key question was, “How do I keep getting music performed?” That was the really exciting thing, but I became distracted by the shining city on the hill of music school.

I thought I had most of the things I needed to apply in place. I had scores, I could play some simple pieces on piano and I knew my theory pretty well. The scary part was the ear training exam. I knew I was weak in that. I got help from one of the music teachers at my school, but she focused on teaching me to sing. This was a good thing to know but didn’t really help when it came to the horrors of auditioning.

Applying for anything is scary. Conservatories were these fantastical places to me where the base raw material of young people were trans­formed into musical heroes. It felt like I was about to try to capture the Ceryneian Hind. I was lucky in that I had only applied to schools in the city I lived so at least I didn’t have to travel to suffer.

Auditioning at Conservatory

During the audition process it became clear I wasn’t the type of person who fit easily into the composer candidate box. The people who seemed to fit best were all very good players. They could have gained entry on their instru­mental skills but were also inter­ested in writing. At Julliard my short­comings were painful. The graduate student who handled the non-pianist piano evalu­ations didn’t laugh at me, but the effort not to was palpable. The compos­ition jury was perhaps worse. Milton Babbitt was fairly friendly. The rest of the panel was not happy with how shallow my knowledge of reper­toire was and I suspect the lack of sophist­ic­ation in my music. It was only looking back on this exper­ience that the true horrors of it became clear to me. Thank goodness, I probably would have combusted with embar­rassment with a bit more self-awareness.

Julliard was the worst of it. The other auditions were at least a bit better, apart from the dreaded ear training evalu­ations. When it all shook out I got in to one school Manhattan School of Music. It wasn’t a bad place. It had a decent sized compos­ition faculty and they had accepted me. That acceptance outshone everything else like the noonday sun obscuring distant stars. This really could happen and at no point did I pause to think if it should.

Confronting The Possibility of Being in The Wrong Place

During my first week at Manhattan School of Music I was in Tower Records near Lincoln Centre with one of my new class­mates browsing CDs, because that’s how long ago this was. We were both very excited about our new venture and our musical lives seemed full of possib­ility. We chanced upon Dr David Noon, one of the compos­ition faculty (later to become head of the department) and music history professor, also browsing and struck up a conver­sation.

Dr Noon, ever the provocateur, told us that he didn’t think teaching compos­ition to under­graduates was worth­while. We just weren’t ready for it. My colleague and I were outraged at this and let our indig­nation be known. Dr Noon walked off having success­fully started the fires of indig­nation in our young hearts and wishing us luck in our doomed endeavour. It was only some years later that I came to believe he was probably right.

Why Not to Study Composition as an Undergraduate

So why wouldn’t you start studying what you want to immedi­ately? What possible advantage is there to waiting and what would you do instead? There are two main arguments against studying compos­ition as an under­graduate. You’re unpre­pared musically and you are not ready artist­ically. I would expect most young composers to rail against this furiously, but I would stand by it for most people.

Being ready musically is a hard thing to define but most 18 year olds just haven’t had that much time to develop musical skills and knowledge of the genre. There are two kinds of musical skill that I think are relevant, the first is playing ability. Being able to play well is a huge advantage in how you can embed yourself in musical culture. The oppor­tun­ities to have your music realised by good musicians are rare, even for estab­lished composers, if that is your only method of engaging in musical culture you are limited. If you can play to a reasonable level you can engage with other musicians through playing together. Conversely cutting yourself off from devel­oping the skills that would make playing with others easier at a young age can hurt you.

Focus On Playing

Being able to play your own music, either solo pieces or as part of an ensemble, is a huge advantage too. From the classical and romantic eras many composers were virtuoso pianists. In the late 20th century Phillip Glass and Steve Reich both used their performance skills to found ensembles that allowed them to realise their music. Being able to parti­cipate in those ensembles was a big help. If nothing else it is one less person to have to round-up to play for you. You can also be part of playing other people’s music. One thing that becomes clear quite quickly as a classical composer is that performance oppor­tun­ities are limited and well-rehearsed ones even more so. Becoming part of creating a musical culture you want to parti­cipate in is a powerful thing. That empowerment comes, in part, from your ability as a player.

Playing to a high level within the classical idiom also connects you to a large amount of reper­toire. Knowledge of standard reper­toire is a very useful thing in devel­oping as a composer. The study of harmony and counter­point in conser­vat­ories is often linked to chrono­lo­gical devel­opment of classical music. You start in the renais­sance with species counter­point and move through things like baroque figured bass, complex classical homophony, romantic extended harmonic techniques to early 20th century serialism. Familiarity with works from all those periods is a huge help. Not just famili­arity in the sense of having heard them but a deeper famili­arity that comes from having rehearsed and performed them. For instance, the different augmented 6th chords make sense much more easily to pianists who have played Beethoven or Schubert sonatas. They have examples in context in their ears and mind already.

Get Ready to Write

Artistic readiness is probably a bit more conten­tious. It is certainly harder to define. As an, at least partial, autodidact I think there is a lot of devel­opment you can achieve yourself by writing music and having it performed informally. I suspect that everyone has a quantity of less developed work in them that they need to get through. A great deal of artistic devel­opment comes through failure. You try things, sometimes like them for a while, sometimes not, and then come to appre­ciate their short­comings. I think this process is crucial to the devel­opment of most people in any creative endeavour.

This is where you can begin to develop your compos­i­tional voice. This is something that never stops (I hope), but there is defin­itely a ramping up process. In 2013 Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics in the Netherlands looked at when a selection of painters produced their most successful work (in terms of financial value). The answer was 42. I am not advoc­ating that you should wait until your 40s to study only that at 18 for almost everyone your journey is just beginning.

There are two reasons I believe giving yourself some time to develop a compos­i­tional voice is important. The first is that it makes it easier to choose the best possible compos­ition teacher for you and the second is that you will be better able to fight your corner with them once you find them.

Selecting a Conservatory or University

I suspect that for many people selecting a compos­ition teacher is a haphazard process. It was for me. I ended up at Manhattan School of Music and then picked the best available fit (and luckily they accepted me as a student). This worked out pretty well for me, but the amount of serendipity involved in such an important decision was uncom­fortable. Your choice of teacher should probably take precedence over your choice of school. This is a very important relationship and taking as active a part in it as you can be useful.

Having a developed sense of what your compos­i­tional voice is will also help you get the most out of your time with your compos­ition teacher. You are not a blank slate or a seed in the wind. You can take a more active role in your lessons directing them to areas that will be of the greatest benefit to you. Beginning to study compos­ition this intensely at a younger age makes directing the devel­opment of your own voice more challenging. I suspect that very few 18 year olds have a strong sense of their compos­i­tional voice. This isn’t a disaster there are lots of good compos­ition teachers who can help you develop your voice, but you will lack agency in the process.

What to Do Instead

What can you do instead of studying compos­ition as an under­graduate? There are several useful paths. Perhaps the clearest is if you are a performing musician of suffi­cient ability, study your instrument at under­graduate level. This gives you a gentle entry into the world of conser­vat­ories, it gives you scope to develop your playing skills and it gives you access to many of the classes you would take as a compos­ition student. These are things like ear training, conducting, orches­tration and music history. These are things you will continue to study at masters’ level and beyond but having studied them at under­graduate level will help you when you move on to study compos­ition.

There is one thing having the goal of studying compos­ition at masters’ degree level changes for your choice of under­graduate conser­vatory. I would suggest you would be better off selecting a school that has a better reputation in the classes mentioned above than one that offers you a stronger teacher on your instrument. When I was applying Mannes School of Music had the best reputation for teaching musicianship in New York. These things fluctuate over time and there will be many good schools to select from.

If entering a music school isn’t an option or isn’t appealing to you there are several fields that will be compli­mentary to devel­oping as a composer. Things that expose you to new ideas will be useful. That can mean different things to different people. It could mean English liter­ature for some or mathem­atics for others (it didn’t hurt Boulez). One of the downsides of attending a conser­vatory is the intensity and specificity of focus on music can be limiting, gaining a broader under­standing of the world and mixing with people who are inter­ested in things beyond music can be very useful. A key tip is learning a second language can be a huge advantage in studying music. It gives you access to material written in that language, an under­standing of vocal music written in it and even the oppor­tunity to study in that country in addition to yours.

If you choose the less explicit route it will be important to keep working on your music both as a player and a writer. This can be a challenge but many univer­sities have good music courses that may be available to you as electives. It may even be possible to do a joint degree. There is also the option of private lessons in theory and harmony. To keep up writing and most import­antly hearing your work many univer­sities have musical societies that will help you hear your music at least in a rehearsal situation. This is much more likely to work for you if you parti­cipate in these societies, but this is a good idea anyway.

Learn More About the Culture You Are Entering

Having some time between secondary education and formally studying compos­ition also gives you time to listen more broadly. My knowledge of standard reper­toire was not great at 18 but my knowledge of contem­porary classical music was even more narrow. My knowledge of 20th century music was not so bad until 1950 or so, but after that things got patchy for me. This is an artefact of classical music’s resistance to new music. Many pieces, even ones generally recog­nised as good, get relat­ively few perform­ances certainly compared to their counter­parts that benefit from 100 or so more years of age. This is the immediate culture you are entering into. It is worth knowing as much as you can about it.

There are lots of nooks and crannies to invest­igate. Sometimes you will find things you love and that you find inspiring and sometimes what you find will repel you. Both are valuable exper­i­ences. Knowing what you don’t want is important too. This is an extension of the exper­ience of making your own failures as a composer. The culture you are joining has made many failures for you and you can benefit from not needing to repeat them. Alternatively, there are people who have blazed trails you may wish to follow. The advantage of joining an estab­lished culture. There is much that has preceded you. There are many ways to parti­cipate and even many ways to be an outsider.

My exper­ience of this was before the internet existed. I suspect that on the whole things will be easier now that databases and other research material are online and YouTube is such a vast repos­itory of recorded music (even if the quality is poor). Even back in my non-networked days much could be achieved in a moder­ately well stocked listening library.

Keep Writing Music

The most important thing is to write music. Whether you are at a music school, university or outside of education, write music. Write music every day and make sure you can hear that music as often as possible. With modern music software this is much easier than it was when I was a teenager, but try to get people to play your music too. This helps you develop a whole other set of skills.

Every instrument has quirks to its sounds and techniques. For instance, woodwind instru­ments have a “break” in their ranges where they switch from sounding funda­mental tones to first overtones, switching quickly back and forth between these registers is tricky for the player. You can read about this in a book but hearing it in practice is a much more solid lesson. There are also techniques that are part of a vernacular for individual instru­ments. A great way to learn these is to spend time with players and listen to them talk about how a part you have written could be more suited to their instrument. And every instrument has a variety of timbres it can make. There is no substitute for having a good player demon­strate some of these for you.

I would also urge you to try to write in the style of other composers, partic­u­larly the famous old dead ones. Trying to write a chorale in the style of JS Bach, an aria in the style of Handel or even a string expos­ition in the style of Mahler is a great way to get an under­standing of the musical language of their time and an appre­ci­ation of their music. Try to exper­iment with particular harmonies or tricky modula­tions too such as from a major tonic to a subme­diant minor and back. Try some serial techniques and if you can gather sympathetic musicians try some stochastic music too.

This can be a time of great liberty for you to develop your skills in areas that interest you. Once you are enrolled in a formal programme there will be less space for you to follow your own whims. Take advantage and exper­iment boldly while you have this scope. Graduate degrees pass by quickly and neces­sitate a high degree of focus on the gradu­ation require­ments. This is a chance to play. Embrace it.

Figure Out the Best Place for You to Study

A further advantage of delaying your compos­ition studies is that you have more time to research where you want to go and whom you want to study with. This is not as easy as it sounds. All conser­vat­ories and univer­sities are trying to sell themselves to prospective students. This makes objective inform­ation hard to come by. Even student reviews (and articles like this) are subjective. They just offer an altern­ative view to the marketing material of the insti­tution. The more data you can gather the better picture you will get.

In terms of the school there are a few things that can reveal a lot and are worth visiting in person to see,

  • Do the students look happy or at least inspired?
  • Do people seem to talk to each other partic­u­larly across instrument bound­aries?
    • Do the pianists talk to the brass players?
    • Do the percus­sionists talk to the vocalists?
    • Etc
  • Are the practice rooms in good condition (pianos in tune etc.) and are there enough of them?
  • Looking at past perform­ances by the main groups (orchestra, choir, etc.) are contem­porary pieces well repres­ented?
  • How many performance oppor­tun­ities are there for student composers?
    • This could include studio ensembles that don’t perform publicly

Selecting A Teacher

To find a compos­ition teacher learning about their music is important, but perhaps more important is what kinds of music do fairly recent students of theirs make. You should be able to find recordings of gradu­ation concerts in the school library. Listen to these and you will learn a lot about the scope of styles various teachers can help foster and also the quality of the perform­ances might give you some clue to how much rehearsal time these concerts are given. At schools that don’t value composers highly you might only have a couple of quick rehearsals for the culmin­ation of your studies. Schools that value composers more will present composers gradu­ation works in a better state. Keep in mind that work that requires complex techniques and/or performance methods will always be harder to pull off even for good performers with reasonable rehearsal time.

Different places can also favour different types of contem­porary music. This can be influ­enced by the compos­ition faculty, particular performance depart­ments and even just tradition for the school. Looking at recent (past 10 years) graduates and performance programmes will help you discern this. If your music is not going to be a good fit there you may have to struggle for performance oppor­tun­ities. Sometimes even if a teacher who works in a particular style is on faculty their music can be out of favour at the school.

Try to make contact with people you want to study with well in advance of applying to their school. Make enquiries about their avail­ab­ility and invest­igate how they might feel about taking you on as a student. People take sabbat­icals or retire without any regard for your wishes and wants. This may not always be advised on a school website but if you can engage in a conver­sation with a decent teacher and let them know you are coming to their insti­tution to study specifically with them most will let you know if this is not possible.

Cast A Wide Net

Be broad in your search. Conservatories might offer a flush of prestige but this has less value for a composer than it does for a performing musician. There are univer­sities with very good music depart­ments that may be a better fit for you. Some univer­sities have large music programmes and some smaller. For some people a smaller programme can be beneficial and sometimes smaller insti­tu­tions have better schol­ar­ships and bursaries available to attract good students.

Smaller insti­tu­tions can be more proud of work being produced there resulting in greater performance oppor­tun­ities. A power­house insti­tution will have churned out many composers who will have gone on to achieve some notoriety. There you become one of the many and are in a sense competing with people who may have achieved a great deal. At a smaller school you are probably being compared to fewer notable alumni. If this is a decent school there can be a big overall advantage. Schools also develop insti­tu­tional person­al­ities over time. Finding a place where you fit the overall culture can make for a much happier exper­ience. Some places foster collab­or­ation or exper­i­ment­ation where others might keep to a more tradi­tional and rigorous line. Both can work equally well for different people.

A note of caution. Many schools don’t value composers partic­u­larly highly. There is a harsh economic logic to this. Performers can be sent out to perform. It is common for partic­u­larly talented pianists or violinists to perform with profes­sional orchestras or for partic­u­larly good chamber groups to play on profes­sional programs. This builds publicity for the school and raises its profile greatly attracting both more students and endow­ments. Composers are less useful in this regard.

This is in part sympto­matic of the regard contem­porary classical music is held in and partly that while studying composers tend to be well short of their peak years. The results of this can be under­funding of the compos­ition department and less financial support available to composers. This does tend to be mitigated the higher up the degree structure you go. It is better as a masters’ candidate and even better when studying for a DMA.

This Advice Is Subjective

As a caveat to all the above to show that almost all advice is heavily biased towards the person providing it here is my Leonard Bernstein story.

Bernstein was a guest a Tanglewood giving seminars and clinics in conducting before himself conducting a programme of his own music with the festival orchestra in the evening. The first piece of advice he gave to the young conductors was that the most important thing in conducting was restraint. They spent all day working on creating effective direction with the minimum of movement while still preserving clarity. Evidently Bernstein was very stern with his charges if they became in the least demon­strative on the podium.

Then it is time for his own concert and the maestro takes the stage to commence his full reper­toire of leaping, gyrating and gurning to lead the orchestra. The student conductors were outraged that Bernstein couldn’t follow his own advice, but perhaps the advice that restraint was the primary issue was intended for himself? As advice is subjective it is always filtered through the exper­ience of the advisor. The thought I have offered here are very much filtered through my exper­ience even if they are slightly broadened by conver­sa­tions with and obser­va­tions of other composers over the years.

Learning to write music is hard. Learning to write in the classical tradition is very hard. There are, I believe, substantial advantages to waiting a while until formally starting this endeavour. Delaying the start of your studies gives you some important leeway in making some critical decisions about how you go about this. It may even be that studying classical music is not right for you. Music is an immense landscape and there are many ways to thrive within it. Take the time to find the path you want to tread and don’t follow one just because it is well travelled.

About Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at
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