Training to Compose

Questions about studying composition conducted in a questionnaire.

1. Would you say that the profile of composition has changed in the past decade?

Certainly. In the first place, institutions like mine encourage students to try the composition pathway; there are transferable skills even for those who don’t stay the course. In the old days, no one offered progression in composition activity; it suddenly appeared, grandly, as a final-year ‘option’. In today’s courses in the UK, it is an equal partner to musicology and performance. Secondly, the rise of technology facilities has attracted many new students interested in using non-traditional sound sources from the studio to make pieces of their own. Even a studio dunce like me knows that digital technology facilitates the mixing of sounds that used to be a grinding process of tape and scissors.

2. How did you find your way into the field of composing?

I needed no leading, since it was what I wanted to do long before any formal musical training. But many others need help in discovering the discipline, and that is crucial. I was lucky to have encouraging teachers – a support that is very necessary now, as the composition discipline denies the easy rewards that young people are encouraged to seek. My parents took classical music very seriously, while at the same time there was pop and jazz at home; all that was (and continues to be ) crucial for me. I have to say, though, that most of my motivation has always come from somewhere inside.

3. What advice (or more) would you give to a student who is wishing to pursue composition at university level?

*Devour music of the past, in recordings, performances and scores where possible. Composers of the past learned their musical landscape without recordings, so it’s got to be easier now! No one can create in a vacuum *Base your ideas on the reality of what instruments (acoustic or electronic) can do, and gain practical familiarity with their properties. *Study score conventions of how to present your music, since the composer is rightly held responsible by players for everything on the page. It’s no good blaming a computer! Never use one until you are absolutely familiar with notation practice to professional standards. Reliance on software is no substitute for real expertise – a big problem nowadays. *Exert yourself to get players together to play your work. No one will care as much as you do about your work, so don’t expect your opportunities to be dished up by others while you sit and wait. *Stop thinking of listening to music only as entertainment and start approaching it for what you can learn from great composers. It’s possible to learn just as much from a work or composer who does not really light your fire! *Don’t be afraid to ask for help. With standards of technical training under dire threat in our exam curriculum, students with vision are increasingly turning to tuition for those traditional skills forced out by the commodifying of education. These have not suddenly become less important, and there are musicians around who can help you.

4. What do you look for in a potential composition student?

A desire to express and create what was not there before, through the organizing of sound. Means can be developed, but students who merely want to reproduce music that they already know will not be composers, however skilled they may be. Even when young composers get furious with modern music, I know they have a mission and the potential to develop. But a student whose ears and mind are simply closed to artistic issues will never be a creator.

5. How realistic should composition students be when deciding on their future?

They should be realistic – but everyone needs a dream hidden in a corner. Students today are much more hard-nosed and unromantic about what they face, and that rightly deters all but the few from keeping going as ‘composers’; most cannot earn a living from it in the UK, and the trick is to find the richest parallel activity that lets you be a composer. Meanwhile, there’s that dream: some of us in ‘my day’ whom reason should have deterred from composition kept going, while I know of other people that I saw as composers, but whose practical streak soon brushed away that dream.

6. In your opinion, how much would choosing between a conservatoire and a university affect their future career prospects in this competitive field?

There are strengths to be had on both sides, but they relate more to musical development than career prospects: composers prosper from both backgrounds. But why choose? Our students who go on to compose as ‘postgrads’ at conservatoire say they have had the best of all worlds, and feel the better equipped by their degree course for the unique opportunities of a conservatoire.

7. What pressures do young ‘classical’ composers face?

Composing your own music continues to attract youngsters despite the blandishments of other, much more superficially rewarding pursuits. This is amazing: composition offers no easy answers, no guarantees and little material rewards. It is appallingly difficult to get works heard in live concert form and still harder to obtain repeated performances of them; if you do so, meanwhile, there is the continual drip of disdain for anything mysterious, or inscrutable, from a media obsessed with messages of simplistic attraction. We have lost the power to enjoy things we don’t understand, since popular culture is all about consumption. Who comes out of a Hollywood movie or pop concert arguing what on earth it was about, the way we do from a visit to Tate Modern? The commercial consumer digests a product honed for purchase; its commercial value relies on its being unambiguous. Why not measure depth, as well as breadth, of participation? Despite these discouragements, students enrol in buoyant numbers for composition. They are not deterred when I tell them it is not as easy as they thought, for if it were, the world would be even fuller of composers.