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. Continue reading Don’t Study Composition (yet)