How can it possibly be mid-February already?
Two thoughts today that seem like someone else might want to hear them, so, a blog post.
A theory student who shall remain nameless was assigned the last four pieces of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts, with the instruction to determine which modes the composer used in each piece (one of the pieces uses a scale that isn’t a mode of the diatonic set, so there’s that challege, too). The student had trouble completing the assignment and asked for help and an extension. The problem was that the student couldn’t figure out which mode was which.
Help has not yet been forthcoming–this blog is bringing you breaking music theory news, folks!–but when we sit down, my first question will be, “Where did you work on the pieces up until now?”
My theory students are familiar with my admonition that theory homework is to be done at the piano (or other suitable instrument). I specifically warn them not to attempt to work on music theory assignments while watching Gilligan’s Island or whatever else might be on. This has nothing to do with whether Gilligan’s Island is a worthwhile activity.
The truth is that the best place to learn about music is in the practice room, and that goes for music theory, too. An architect may sketch an idea for a building on the back of a napkin, but she wouldn’t dream of coming up with the final design anywhere but at a drafting table (or the computerized equivalent), with T-square and triangle in hand, with the relevant reference materials close by. A doctor might think through a surgery in the car, but would probably prefer not to attempt to perform one there.
What I find that many students miss is that you have to practice music theory in much the same way that you practice your instrument, and if you practice haphazardly, particularly in the formative stages, your knowledge and skills will be haphazard. I suspect–I don’t know, and I’ll give my student the benefit of the doubt–that my theory student may not have sat down at a piano to play through the Stravinsky. This act will allow him to find the pitch centers of the various parts of the pieces, which will tell him which mode is in use in any given measure. I don’t mind that he hasn’t done this yet–he’s still a student and needs to learn what works and what doesn’t.
I may create a banner for my theory classroom that reads What does the music sound like? or some such thing, because this is the fundamental question that has to be answered. If a musician has well-developed aural skills, it may be possible, to a greater or lesser extent, to get an idea of the sound of a piece by looking at a score–this is actually one of the two big goals of aural skills in the traditional undergraduate music program–but I would suggest that if one is really going to understand a piece, one must perform it, and the most convenient way to do that for most of us is at the piano. So: turn off Gilligan’s Island and play through the thing, and play through those part-writing exercises, too, because that’s what I’m going to do when you hand them in…
Item 2 came into my inbox via the Society of Composers email list. Before lunch, there was a posting from an arts non-profit calling for scores, a contest, if you will, for a fairly specific instrumentation. As usual, I looked to see whether I had already written a piece that would qualify (I haven’t), and whether there was prize money (there is, $250) and whether there was an entry fee (there is, $20 per score). As is my practice in such a situation, I deleted the post and thought no more of it. I don’t have time to compose a piece that might be performed, and I don’t have $20 to send along for consideration. It did occur to me that only 13 scores would be required for the organization to receive more in entry fees than it was offering in prizes, and they will surely get more than 13 entries.
After lunch, I returned to find that four more posts had shown up discussing the call-for-scores from the first post. The first was from a well-respected composer, and the next two were seconding that composer’s post. The opinion of these three posts was that such a contest was in some way exploiting composers, who are desperate for performances, and that the organization should be ashamed of itself for charging an entry fee, an act akin to running numbers. The fourth post pointed out that arts organizations have to come up with funding from somewhere, and that no stone should be left unturned in that search, and that composers should be greatful that someone is willing to take an interest in our music for a modest fee. The post went on to point out that SCI charges annual dues and a registration fee for our conferences, and generally if a piece is accepted to a conference, the composer is expected to attend and to pay the registration fee (to which I would add that we are sometimes required to pay to obtain a recording of the conference performance as well).
Rather than add my voice on the SCI list, I thought I would put something up here. I think there are points on both sides. First, I generally don’t submit to competitions or calls for scores that require money up front. I wouldn’t run my career that way if I were primarily a performing musician, either: I would want to be paid as a trombonist, but I wouldn’t expect to pay for the privilege of being considered as a potential trombonist (although it can be argued that union dues are just that). I’ve already paid enough in tuition, technology, website fees, books, scores and all the rest. I’ll happily submit my music for consideration, but I can’t say that I’m excited about attaching a check, and I generally won’t if that’s a requirement. There is one gig that I regularly pay to be a part of, TubaChristmas, but I do that just because it’s fun, and I like pulling out my euphonium and my silly scarf and just making music and meeting new people in a setting that more-or-less only brings joy to everyone connected with it.
I find that most composition prizes that are a big deal–the ones that would really make a difference in a composer’s career by getting the winner notice on a national or international level outside the new music community–don’t have an entry fee. I’m thinking of MTNA-Shepard, ABA-Ostwald, Graewemeyer, NBA-Revelli, Barlow and similar awards. If a composer were to win one of these, there’s a hefty prize from the organization’s endowment or dues, and it’s safe to assume that musicians would take notice (on the other hand, there are no guarantees…).
The prizes that have smaller awards and generate the funds for those awards through entrance fees (presumably) are smaller potatoes. Sometimes they are just artists or organizations looking for new music for their program, and trying to generate interest by offering a prize. Not having prize money in hand, it has to come from somewhere, as does the money that pays for the expense of having the contest. I’m mixed on this–it’s great to want to program new music by a wide variety of composers, but why does the composition community have to bear this cost? Maybe it would make more sense to commission a local composer or two who will bring their family and friends, who will become patrons when they buy tickets to the performance. Of course, as one of my teachers said, half-jokingly, a prophet is without honor in his hometown (that said, my hometown, Columbus, has been relatively good to me, although arts organizations there aren’t knocking on my door–I have better luck when I knock on theirs).
And composers–if we keep sending in our entry fees, don’t we just perpetuate the process? Doesn’t it feel a little bit dirty, knowing that your score only got looked at because there was a check paper-clipped to it?
And yes, SCI charges dues and registration fees. It is a voluntary organization with expenses, and dues make perfect sense, even if we never put on a performance of a single piece. Registration fees are for composers whose work is accepted to a conference, not for composers who just want to submit their score, and anyone can submit, with the understanding that they will need to pay their dues before coming to the conference. This makes more sense than charging higher dues so that conference attendance can be free, doesn’t it? The value of the time donated to SCI by members who run the organization and by non-members who perform at our conferences far outweighs the value of the money spent on dues and conference registration, I am certain of it. Like Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances, we’re a group of people interested in new music (including our own), so we put on concerts occasionally. This has been a viable model for two centuries, and continues to be so in the absence of massive government patronage. This is what brought Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart to the middle class.
The author of that fourth post suggested that university composers have the support they need and can find plenty of performance opportunities on campus. My experience being around university music for the better part of two decades suggests that this isn’t the case. Even in the best situations, university music departments don’t exist to simply play the music of faculty composers, just as English departments don’t give over their entire curricula to the works of faculty authors. Music majors need to have a chance to play new music, of course, but they also need to play in various styles. No composer is going to get tenure just by having on-campus performances, and even if that were possible, very few ensemble directors would be willing to give a place on every concert to a faculty composer.
And at any rate, the thrill of composition is as much in the preparation of a piece as it is in the actual performance. If I were on faculty at a school where everything I wrote would be performed, I would hope that I would still want to seek out new and different venues and performers for the sake of developing relationships with collaborators who would help me see music in a new way. It seems to me that charging an entry fee puts a damper on that aspect of music making because it sets a tone for the relationship that reduces it to a business transaction–or a lottery drawing, as was suggested earlier.
In the end, composing is about sharing part of ourselves with others–listeners and performers. I’m not saying that I haven’t paid or won’t pay a contest entry fee, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that on a regular basis.