Question of Degree

Question of Degree

I recently contacted a composer I admire to get his input on a couple of issues in a piece I was finishing for youth chorus. He wrote me back a generous letter, discussing choral music for amateurs and other topics. But what really struck me was this comment:

I have a cloud of doubt that hangs over me once in a while because I’ve never studied composition per se; outside of basic music theory courses in college, I’m home grown. I have a vocal/general music ed degree, and it makes me doubt my ‘legitimacy’ as a composer sometimes. Funny, that doubt vanishes every time I hear my own music performed well, though! I know that a degree isn’t required for my success, but it is just a mental block sometimes…

Now, this guy is being performed and is receiving critical acclaim from audiences, students, music critics, and colleagues. In fact, I regard him to be someone I and others could learn a lot from when it comes to composing for young singers. Yet he questions his “right” to be in the “club” of composers.

So, what does this have to do with writing music for amateurs? In my experience, I meet many “non-trained” composers who write more successful music for amateurs than the trained “professional.” But it is these “home-grown” folks that seem to most often question their own skills.

And let’s face it, in the arena of contemporary music, writing for young players is still widely regarded as taking less skill, less talent, and thus to be of a lesser artistic value. For instance, when I was in graduate school I mentioned to a fellow student that I was composing a work for children. He completely dismissed it, effectively saying that writing for kids was no more than a musical exercise. No wonder so many talented, skilled composers that do not have formal training and write for young players question their legitimacy as “professionals” in our field.

What makes a professional composer anyway? Is it experience? Income? Pedigree? I know more than a dozen composers with Ph.D.s in composition who have essentially given up composing, yet still consider themselves to be professionals in the field, especially in academia. Do they have the right to call themselves professionals, compared to the self-taught composer who is working a “day job,” but is getting pieces performed and recognized, with no financial or institutional backing of their efforts?

Brad Lubman summed it up nicely: “Did Stravinsky have a composition degree? Does Boulez have a conducting degree?” Lubman is a composer and conductor who is on the conducting faculty at Eastman, has a CD of his works on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and is the preferred conductor of Steve Reich. But his degrees are in percussion.

As a composer that does have the degrees and does make some money and does have experience, I say that formal training does not a composer make, professional or otherwise, and composing for any level takes skill and talent. Remember that fellow student I mentioned who dismissed writing for kids? He has a Ph.D. in composition, and he’s barely written a note in years.


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