Why Composers Should Drop Out of University (and What They Should Be Learning), Part 1 | Aaron Gervais, composer

Why Composers Should Drop Out of University (and What They Should Be Learning), Part 1

Why Composers Should Drop Out of University (and What They Should Be Learning), Part 1

Photo CC by Takuya Goro on Flickr

The challenges of learning composition in academia

I’ve always said that I learned despite my education and not because of it, and after my master’s degree I decided to put my money where my mouth was and not pursue a PhD—much to my relief, the commissions and composing continued anyway. A few months ago I read a great article in Slate by William Pannapacker that really struck home for me. The basic premise was not that new: universities are making themselves irrelevant in the humanities, arts, and sciences. What was refreshing, however, was that this wasn’t an anti-intellectual rant, it was just an honest examination of what higher education as an institution is trying to do and how it thinks it should fit into society. So what if your goal is to be the best composer possible and to have your music heard by other people who are interested in similar types of music? Should you get a degree in composition?

Sure, I did get a lot out of my post-secondary music studies, especially in terms of meeting interesting people and mentors that helped me to realize what I was really after. School also gave me a kind of legitimacy that was useful when networking with other people and organizations outside of school. I don’t regret any of that, but when I think back, school certainly wasn’t necessary to develop these things, and I am wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to develop them in some other way instead.

What happens after composers finish their degrees
Excited graduate

Even at the best of times, the relationship between academia and the creative arts (composing, filmmaking, literature, choreography, visual arts, etc.) has been problematic. Today, it’s even more so—many schools have an overt interest in producing unsuccessful artists. It’s not that there’s some nefarious grand agenda, it’s just that the economics of art and of art school are very complicated, and well-meaning educators haven’t found a better solution. The many “failures” end up subsidizing the few superstars. From the perspective of the student, it’s a bad deal, but maybe it’s the best deal there is. When they realize this, most students become disillusioned and cynical and choose one of three paths: (1) drop out of music altogether; (2) carve out their own bunker within academia; (3) look for alternative ways to make music. I know lots of people in each of those categories.

All three of those models are less than ideal. The first is a tacit admission that the program was a waste of time—worse than that, it can destroy the individual’s desire to do music at all. In the best case scenario, it creates an educated consumer of cultural products but does nothing to educate the student beyond what any liberal arts degree would do. It’s hard to justify the existence of music programs based on their ability to create ex-musicians who might go to concerts.

The second solution is dishearteningly cynical: “The system is broken, but I’m going to milk it for what I can and ride it through until the end.” To be fair, many composers also take the academic route simply because they love teaching. And yes, teaching is important, but how we teach is perhaps more important than where we teach. Great artists have taught, mentored, and taken on apprentices for millennia. They would continue to do so outside of a university context.  How many university composition professors would keep their teaching positions if they had a guaranteed stream of well-paid commissions outside of academia? I suspect almost all of them would quit their jobs, take their best students on privately, and just compose.

Solution three is what I decided to do: look for alternatives. Here there’s a lot of variety. Some people decide that their artistic vision is what’s most important, regardless of how well it is recognized, and subsidize their music with non-musical income. Some decide it’s better to earn a living making music, no matter what that music is, and find creative solutions to be able to scrape by. Some find a mix of music-related livelihoods and try to put together the projects they feel most strongly about (a sort of middle ground; this is the “slash” crowd: composer/performer/organic farmer/stunt driver). The common thread here, however, is that the education begins where academia ends. You make connections with people, you find a community, you decide what really matters, you find time to do what you love, you find a way to earn a living. You might do some of this while at school, but little or none of it is taught at school. So why don’t more composers just skip straight to the career and not bother with the degrees?

Why music school will always be optional
Learning by osmosis

Some of my favorite composers are people who have no university music training. As Hans Abbing points out in Why Are Artists Poor?, the arts would never be able to enforce the kind of certification that is essential to the medical profession or law and which makes these quintessential university disciplines. It’s repulsive to most people to think that a group of artists might bully a self-taught artist out of the profession by reason of not holding the correct certifications, or that the police might arrest you for practicing guitar without a license. Yet even biochemistry, physics, and mathematics majors are having a tough time making their university educations relevant (i.e. applying their knowledge after the end of their programs), and those are some of the most university-esque of academic disciplines. I’m not saying this situation is right, or that our society isn’t nearly completely dysfunctional (because I think it is), but this is the age we live in.

Another major issue with teaching music in a university is that you can’t teach someone to be creative. Shortly before I started grad school, I met iconic Canadian composer and philosopher R. Murray Schafer. He asked what I was doing after my undergrad. I told him I was going to grad school. He replied quite bluntly, “That’s a fucking stupid idea.” After some more conversation, I asked how he learned to compose. He said it happened naturally as he was pursuing his career in journalism.

You can teach theory and music history and give students performance opportunities and introduce them to interesting people, but all of this is essentially beating around the bush. To a composer, none of those things have value without the creative spark. Yet schools emphasize conformity and reward students that model themselves after their teachers; the best composers have to be creative enough on their own to break out of this mold.  It’s like what the young Arthur Agatston, fresh out of med school, purportedly received as advice on starting a successful cardiology practice: choose patients with healthy hearts.

If great composers come into music school as such (or less refined versions of such), why do they go to school at all? It might be for the stability of an academic job, but that’s a false hope. Only a small minority of composition PhDs get teaching positions. Of those, almost all are teaching for rock-bottom wages, some without health insurance and no hope of a tenure-track position, and most holding course loads that prevent them from finding real time to compose. Universities are increasingly folding music chairs, asking professors to teach more classes and/or hiring grad students at paltry wages to teach them instead. Funding is usually connected to enrollment, if not directly then at least indirectly, so undergraduate programs attempt to attract as many students as possible with popular offerings instead of with meaningful material. Courses are developed using essentially the same criteria as prime-time television.

Amazingly, many music students are at least somewhat aware of this, and yet they continue to go to school. I suspect it’s because most don’t see a better alternative. It is, after all, an opportunity to focus on your craft with few other distractions, and it provides structure. To the “focus on your craft” argument, I would suggest artists’ colonies and residency programs, many of which count as academic courses, so you can get student loan funding for them. If we all went that route, it would create a model more like culinary school, and would that be so awful? To the question of creating structure, there is no such thing once you finish your degree anyway. Great artists have always been self-driven—it’s simply antithetical to the definition of being an artist that you would need to be micromanaged in order to get your work done.

Making a career versus being a composer

Many people have written at length about what would make for a better post-secondary arts education, so I won’t get into that here. I also won’t get into the philosophical questions behind what being a composer actually is. I’m simply going to start with the assumption that the goal of composing is to create transcendence through music: composers want to write music because great music gives people (themselves and/or others) a sensation they wouldn’t have any other way.

I also don’t really care whether or not music pays your bills. Very few of the best composers in history made a living directly from their music, so I don’t think that’s a question worth considering, and I’ve talked before about the fundamental problems of earning money through the arts. You’ll find a source of income that works for you.

Making a career is all the stuff I described above: how people get teaching positions, or how they hustle up a grab-bag of income sources, or how they do something else (German composer Thomas Stiegler lists his medical CV in his CD liner notes). Being a composer, on the other hand, is more of a journey in self-awareness.

I know the student composers reading this are probably not going to drop out of school because of what I’m writing, but I wish more composers would. It would force universities to develop more relevant programs. Like how German consumers in the ‘90s forced manufacturers to deal with excess packaging in the store, eventually leading to the successful Grüne Punkt program. Apparently, the number of musical masterpieces being produced has remained roughly stagnant for the last 800 years, despite a 1,000-fold increase in the number of artists and many doublings of the world population. I just think our educational system should be able to do better.

Whether you drop out of school or not, you’re going to have to teach yourself how to be a composer. Although I’m still in the earlier stages of my career, what I have noticed from hanging out with successful, established composers is that certain trends manifest themselves over and over. Some of these people went to school, others didn’t, and they have varying opinions about the value of post-secondary composition education. However, I have been quite interested in the common threads in their words of wisdom, which will be the focus of the second article in this series.

(Research assistance: Carolyn Smith)

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