Friday, May 30, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 4: The Teacher After Your Teacher

Fourth in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

One of the scariest moments I ever faced as a composer occurred way back in the summer of 1992. I was working on a short virtuosic duo for bass clarinet & cello entitled Postscript and must confess from the outset to those yearning for a good adventure yarn that nothing really dramatic occurred during the actual composition of the work. Rather, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this particular piece were scary for me. The composition put me at a crossroads in my young career as I was trying out two things I had never done before. First, I decided to use a computer for the notation of the piece. Though it must seem incomprehensible to those younger composers out there reading this blog, there once was a time when composers wrote scores in pencil and then arduously copied the work over using pens, ink, rulers, vellum paper and a fairly robust amount of patience. Given the state of computers and music notation software in the late 20th Century, my trepidation should not seem too odd.

As nervous as I was to use the computer for the first time, there was a second circumstance that caused even greater unease and truly placed me at the crossroads in my career. In 1992, I had just completed my D.M.A. at the Cleveland Institute of Music under my extraordinary teacher and mentor, Donald Erb. It was the summer before I moved from Cleveland to Atlanta and began my first academic appointment. On my way out the door, I decided to write one more piece for the road. Thus, Postscript became the first really serious piece I composed completely on my own. Up until the writing of this duo, all my compositions and gone through the scrutiny of my teachers: Roger Hannay during my undergraduate studies and Donald Erb thereafter during most of my graduate work. As Postscript was my fist solo voyage as a composer, I was filled with burning questions: Was I ready to be my own teacher? Could I look critically at my own work the same way Erb or Hannay did? Would the piece be any good not having had a single lesson with a master composer while writing it?

Donald Erb (1927-2008)
Unlike the fear of using a computer, students today may still understand the unease of working alone for the first time. To address my fear while writing Postscript, I constantly tried to imagine what Erb would say about the piece. This was fairly easy at the time as the echo of my teacher’s voice had hardly faded from my ears, much less my memory. Time however can be a cruel companion in life. Over the years, it has become harder to easily remember everything I was taught. I am grateful that I at least paid very close attention during my lessons. This allowed me to retain many of the most important lessons Erb and Hannay had to teach. It has also been extremely helpful that I have become a composition teacher myself. Most of what my teachers taught me is still passed on to my students. However, if my memory still gets a little fuzzy, I simply play my teachers’ music and listen intently. Everyone knows the power of music to transport one back in time. Merely hearing my teachers’ music  again instantly brings me back to my lessons. Their voices and admonitions become fresh again.

As useful as it is to remember one’s training, however, I don’t think a composer should rely solely on ghosts from the past. In addition to remembering past teachers, I have also come to rely on a new composition teacher. This teacher can be brutally honest and dispassionate to a fault. If I pay attention to this new teacher as keenly as I did my former mentors, I find my professional career moving in a positive direction. If I ignore this teacher, I begin to stagnate.

This teacher is my curriculum vitae.

If you’ve read any other entries in this blog, you might immediately note that I often draw a big distinction between obligations and work. The true work of a composer is to write music. That’s it. Everything else is an obligation. Maintaining a current CV may seem like the quintessential obligation of a university professor. For the academic, the CV is a necessary tool for obtaining a university position and once secured, providing a formal record for evaluation. So why the emphasis on such a stodgy document?   

A recent performance of my work,
"Chasing Time." Always a good item to list in a CV. 
Simply put, the CV can be the warehouse wherein a creative artist stores the documentation of all facets of a career in one place. A comprehensive CV allows one to constantly take an inventory of a career. It’s the opportunity for evaluation that I find to be my best teacher. That’s why I believe the CV is important. It’s so important that I believe every composer should have one whether they teach for a living or not. It’s not the university administrator or search committee that is actually the most important reader of the C.V. The most important evaluator of my CV is me.

Another good CV entry: Composer
Athanasios Zervas and myself after
a neoPhonia Concert on March 25, 2014.
There are broad categories that all composition CVs have in common irrespective of format: a catalog of works, lists of awards, commissions, performances, recordings and reviews among others. How do these categories teach a composer anything? Let’s take the example of the first category usually found in a CV, a person’s education. What is the highest degree listed? What degree should be at the top? Many composers try to fill in DMA or Ph.D in that line. Why might this be a good idea? Is it absolutely necessary given one’s personal career goals? How you feel about that first category goes a long way towards answering where your energy should be spent. If teaching in academia is an important career objective, that top line needs to list a doctoral degree. If teaching in a university is not a priority, what’s the alternative game plan? Very few composers make it out there just by writing concert music. If created honestly, what is (and, importantly, is not) listed in a CV can be an good indicator of one’s career to date and its trajectory. Longing to fill deficiencies in education, a catalog of compositions as well as the aforementioned lists of awards, commissions, grants, recordings and reviews helps one to begin to prioritize. If you notice that you only have a few pieces in your catalog, get busy and start writing. If you lack  performances of your work, an impressive trophy case of awards, commissions or recordings (or anything else that may be important to you), then get busy submitting to or creating opportunities. When you do find opportunities but learn that they seem to consistently ask for works in genres you have never written for, check your CV and look at your catalog of works once again. It will teach you something. Note the deficiencies throughout this document and do something about them.

I’ll have more to say in the next blog entry in this series about strategies for submitting to and creating your own opportunities. For now, here are a three final thoughts about the C.V. itself:
  • Once you commit to creating a CV, research formats of similar documents by people you trust. These folks could include teachers, classmates or simply composers you admire. Click HERE for a peek at my CV. It’s not the way to format such a document by any means. I make it available here simply as a point of reference and a possible model to use when adapting a similar document to your specific needs. 
  • Make sure the CV is free of all superfluous material. One might not be able to define what “fluff” is in a CV, but everyone sure knows it when they see it. So there is no need to list your fast food retail experience in high-school, your Citizenship Award from elementary school or really anything that takes away from the focal point of the document: an honest presentation of your work as a composer. If you list as much information about work in another field (performance, music theory research, etc.), then the CV becomes confused. A reader may wonder, “Is this person a theorist, a composer or a performer? This person lists as many research papers as compositions. What is the priority?” If you seem to be going in many directions at once and not succeeding at the level you had hoped for in any one of them, an honest look at your CV may provide the reasons. A CV must have a central thrust. By focusing on the discipline you most want to highlight in the CV, you have answered an important question about your professional priorities. For example, when I went through this exercise, I learned that, despite my extensive performance background, what I really wanted to be was a composer who performs rather than a performer who composes. There is a very big difference in these two. One is not better than another, but they are distinct paths and require different priorities in life. You might experience a similar epiphany if you confront your CV honestly. 
  • Once you have created your CV and made sure that it is honest, accurate and free from all fluff, the document serves another important purpose. It becomes the platform from where you can launch a substantive and successful online presence. This is a topic for another (hopefully shorter) entry in this series! 

The road to presenting the “Outer Artist” then begins at home with the lowly curriculum vitae. Despite its stodgy name and academic baggage, it’s the first and maybe most important tool in the composer’s toolbox. It's also a great teacher!

As always, if you find anything of use in this article, or any of the others in this series, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!  

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