Actually, It’s Those Who Can

Actually, It’s Those Who Can

 “…one reason why certain professorial types feel threatened by students who actually DO have talent–because it took little if any talent to become a professor to begin with.”

–From comment in chatter “Making Things Up“

Why do we composers have a tendency to dismiss our colleagues’ talents, based on their pedigrees, accomplishments, or lack thereof? It used to be that composers were not taken seriously if they chose to do commercial work, say in film or other arenas. Now the pendulum has swung, and it is the professorial types who are getting the stones thrown at them. If you have a doctorate and teach in an institution, you must not be able to write good music, only “ecrititure” (as a former teacher describes it).

I myself am a purebred academic. I went to the top schools and did all the prerequisites needed to gain my pedigree. I was prepared to enter into the academy of higher learning as an instructor on the tenure track towards professorship. During that process, I also took a break from academia, feeling the need to get perspective outside the isolation of the ivory tower. I moved to NYC, got a job, and experienced being a young composer in one of the richest cities for music of all types and styles. In my experience, it seems that in all areas of music you are going to find a range in quality, regardless of whether the composer is a professor at a conservatory or working a day job at McDonald’s.

So, if one is going to go the route of getting music degrees, as a lot of my friends and I see it, you will find:

There are good composers who are good teachers.
There are good composers who are bad teachers.
There are bad composers who are good teachers.
There are bad composers who are bad teachers.

I, myself, can list off the top of my head a dozen composers who fall into the top category, including Joan Tower, Steve Mackey, Martin Bresnick, William Bolcom, Jorge Liderman, and many others. I can also list a crop who fall into every other category, as I am sure most of us can.

Perhaps we should let the market weed out the bad and praise the good. The Internet now has a site called There you can find almost any school of higher learning, get a list of their faculty, and rate them on a one-to-five star basis, similar to the review process on I know of students applying to graduate schools who have used this site to help them determine where they should apply. The site is still in its infancy, but the potential of it is huge: what better way to make a program step up to the plate and bring in more talented composers that can teach, rather than those with just a marquee status?

So, I think it is naÏve and even unhelpful to dismiss categorically the talents of composers who choose to teach others. It dismisses the potential role academia has in helping young composers grow while simultaneously offering stable employment for older talented composers who love teaching and who are capable of mentoring our younger counterparts. Instead, let us make opinions, rather than judge—for one offers possibilities, while the other shuts the door.


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