Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Selecting a Graduate School Composition Program

An undergraduate degree serves as a wonderful way not only to get a firm grasp on the components of music composition, but also to develop one’s critical thinking and the ability to write papers (which comes in handy when putting together a grant proposal to compose a new work). I find that graduate school composition programs serve a different purpose.

What is the best composition program for you to do graduate work? It depends on what you want to do when you graduate. First, let’s consider a few factors you should weigh when picking a school; then we’ll look at a few possible career paths, and how these paths can impact your graduate training.

Performance-Based Schools versus Research-Based Schools

There are two principal career paths for composers: performance-based and research-based. Performance-based music schools offer degrees in instrumental and vocal performance, as well as in music composition, theory, history, and sometimes ethnomusicology. The size of the student body depends on the scope of the conservatory or school of music, but it is likely that the larger the school, the more graduate assistantships there will be. These assistantships are usually for teaching, but some are given to cover other types of work within the music school (such as orchestral librarian or music copyist for the composition faculty).  These can cover part or all of your tuition; some also include stipends for living expenses. Schools that have multiple orchestras and wind ensembles will typically have multiple teaching assistantships in composition and music theory (among other subjects). Depending on the school, students can also be offered scholarships without any teaching duties attached.

Research-based graduate programs offer degrees in theoretical subjects (composition, music theory, music history, and ethnomusicology); these generally do not have performers walking the halls. Their funding can be very substantial, with some schools offering enough funding for both tuition and living expenses without any teaching duties attached for the entire duration of one’s degree program. While it can be a wonderful gift to be given enough funding so that you don’t have to have a job while in school, you might find it beneficial to seek a program that gives you some amount of teaching experience if you plan to eventually teach at a university or college.

The Composition Faculty

As you sort through research- and performance-based schools, check out who is on the composition faculty. Research these composers’ music via their websites and listen to their music. Study their scores, too, if you can. Do you like what you hear? Does the faculty offer an interesting diversity of musical styles? Do you feel that you have something to learn from one or more faculty members? If you have an interest in writing choral music, is there someone on the faculty who has written a body of choral works? How about operas? …and so on. Basically, you’ll be spending a lot of one-on-one time with these composition teachers, and you want to make sure you’re choosing a school with faculty that you believe can help you develop your skills. It is quite common for prospective students to contact professors in advance of applying to inquire about a school’s composition program and see if it offers what you’re looking for. (Before you do this, however, first check out the school’s website – most composition programs have webpages that discuss degree requirements, extracurricular activities, and application procedures.) If you’re curious to see how you might work with a particular professor, ask if you can meet with him/her for a composition lesson. It is best not to ask for a lesson on the school’s audition weekend – the faculty will likely have packed schedules interviewing prospective students and won’t have time for any add-on meetings – so if you will be in town at another point during the year, set up a time to meet.

Post-Grad School Route #1: Teach at a College or University

It can be very rewarding to pass on your knowledge to students. Not only can you help shape upcoming generations of composers, but you’ll also sharpen your own composing skills in the process of teaching. In order to be competitive in today’s tough job market, you will need to earn a doctorate in composition. This usually means that you need to get a master’s degree first, though there are several graduate programs (mostly in research-based institutions) that allow you to get both degrees in less time than it would take if you attended two separate schools to obtain the degrees. To help make yourself more attractive for potential academic jobs, consider getting a minor in a secondary topic in order to expand your teaching portfolio. Music theory, electroacoustic music, conducting, and ethnomusicology all are good areas; instrumental or vocal performance can also be useful.

Also, make sure that you go to a school that will give you actual teaching experience in which you are the primary instructor, versus an assistantship that consists of mostly grading assignments with perhaps the opportunity to get in front of the class once or twice per semester. Teaching for one to two years in composition or music theory is a good start; more is better if you can get it. Try to get both classroom and studio lesson experience. If you walk into a job interview and show you know how to confidently handle students, you’re in a much stronger position to obtain the job than someone who has never stepped in front of a classroom before.

Post-Grad School Route #2: Freelance Composer 

If you plan to jump directly into the professional world and freelance, then you are seeking a different set of skills. Look for schools that offer classes in music entrepreneurship. Of particular interest, seek classes that offer the basics of website creation and self-publishing, strategies for marketing your works as well as creating commission opportunities, recording techniques, organizing crowd-funding campaigns, and how to establish and run for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Learn about and experiment with various income revenue streams, both non-commercial and commercial. While it is possible to learn everything that I’ve mentioned outside of the university system, it is worthwhile to hone your music business skills while in school. After all, when you graduate and start a freelance career, you are in charge of running your own career, which you should view as a business.

Another important factor is to find a school that will give you a lot of performance opportunities. You need to compose a lot of works and learn as much as you can from every piece you write. Develop relationships with your fellow students and write pieces for them; your peers will go out and create careers of their own, hopefully performing your music and commissioning you for new works over the years. Go further than this and form relationships with professionals outside of the school. Collaborate with local artists, and set up concerts in non-school venues. Basically, you are trying to establish yourself as a professional so that when you transition out of college, you already have a network in place that will work with you on future collaborations and perform your music.

Also, figure out what kind of works you want to write or what field of music you’d like to go into after graduation. If you’re interested in writing orchestra music or opera, then seek out schools that have reading sessions or performance opportunities. If you want to go into video game or film music, then find masters programs that offer classes in these areas.

For Both Route #1 and #2: Carefully Consider Taking on Debt 

No matter which route you choose, do everything you can to take on as few loans as possible while in school. The majority of composers find it difficult to solely support themselves from compositional activities upon graduation for several years. You’ll likely need to find a job within the months following graduation to cover living expenses and start paying back any student loans you have accumulated; depending on what job you get, you might not have a lot of time to compose. The best way you can set yourself up for a future as a composer is to find a school that will give you a scholarship or grant to cover at least some (or more) of your expenses. If you need additional money, try to take on the smallest student loan possible. You can make supplemental income while in school by doing copy work for professional composers (you’ve already perfected your notation skills, right? put them to use!), tutoring students in music theory, accompanying vocal students in their lessons, and playing gigs around town. If you’ve got experience in recording techniques, then you can make extra money by recording your fellow students’ degree recitals. Look at all of your skill sets, musical and non-musical, and see how you can create multiple revenue streams that will allow you to support yourself.


The best strategy in navigating a graduate degree in composition is to consider what you want to get out of it before you apply. Picture what you want your composing career to consist of five or ten years from now. Make a list of the types of projects, pieces, and teaching experience you need in to make that future happen. Then research schools to find programs that will cover what you need. You will get a lot more out of a graduate school education if you know ahead of time what you’re looking for.