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Composition Admissions

ovanovaovanova Registered User Posts: 5 New Member
edited August 2009 in Music Major
I feel confident in my ability to compose music. I think I have the ability required to get into a decent music college as a composition major.

What I'm not exactly sure about is how to approach the application process. I'm not sure exactly what kind of knowledge I should demonstrate in the pieces I submit. (For the record, I'm looking at slightly more classically orientated schools, and nothing like Berklee.)

For example, I'm afraid that I could either go overboard if I submitted something with a lot of 20th century harmony (I study Debussy and Ravel a lot on my own), or not show enough ambition if I refrained from such harmonic practices. I'm not sure which is the case.

I'm also not sure exactly what I'm up against in auditions. I found a student's award winning fugue off of Mannes's website. So far that's all I have for comparison.

I also don't know how long my pieces should be, or how developed they should be, or if demonstrating an exceptional grasp of harmony is more important than submitting something that feels more complete.

I have a lot of other concerns, too. Basically, I'm clueless.

So what should I try to emphasize in my composition submissions? Also, are there any other things I should know? I searched the forum before making this thread, and none of the threads answered my questions.

Thanks in advance.
Post edited by ovanova on

Replies to: Composition Admissions

  • CompGradCompGrad Registered User Posts: 21 New Member
    Originality, or at least signs of originality in your compositions is an important factor. Refinement in terms of the overall structure and harmony is not so much the most important thing faculty are looking for in a 17 year old applicant.

    Try to get your works read and recorded by musicians. Not only will quality recordings strengthen your application - but the process of hearing your works played by real live people will be a vital part of your development as a composer. That is true for all composers, no matter what their age and experience and fame.
  • SpiritManagerSpiritManager Registered User Posts: 2,819 Senior Member
    Composition admissions departments ask for 3 or more works that are representative of your work. They are not looking for particular types or styles, but they do generally like to see works scored for a different number and variety of instrumentation. They want to know what music you've written, and they want to hear it - preferably, as mentioned often on this Forum, performed by live musicians. I think it would be difficult to have any work more 'out there' than any of them have heard or can appreciate even. But different departments have different tastes - or often, in the larger programs like USC and Michigan - a wide range of tastes. It is your job, right now, to figure out what those tastes are, and how your own aesthetic will fit in. And you need to define for yourself what your aesthetic is and what you are looking for in a program.

    Do you study now privately with someone? If so, they can go through your work with you and help you pick out the most representative. As for length - it's unimportant - if the listeners are bored they'll stop listening as likely after one minute as after 10. Sometimes in composition competitions a decision will be made after 30 seconds.

    After much research and listening to the work of the composition professors (almost always linked to the college website ) I recommend emailing the professors who interest you, or the head of the composition department directly. My son started researching then emailing professors in his Junior year - usually attaching an mp3 of one of his pieces. He soon was able to both rule in and rule out a number of colleges. One professor wrote back to him minutes after receipt saying "Your music's great. Come to my school you'll love it." But another refused to listen at all - and just said he would listen after my son applied (which he never did.)

    After the initial email correspondence, which was often quite lengthy - when possible my son arranged a personal meeting with the professor with whom he would be studying. Every one of these meetings was rewarding, and, in fact, made it more difficult in the end to make a choice as he felt like he was personally rejecting these people with whom he had already developed a sincere connection. It is similar to the sample lessons that the performance majors on this board often talk about and I highly recommend you do it with the schools you are most interested in.
  • CompGradCompGrad Registered User Posts: 21 New Member
    SpiritManager is correct on all accounts. I would like to add that never underestimate presentation. Properly, and professionally bound scores and very expertly typsets (if you do not do handwritten score) can go far in determining a composer's seriousness. This include good formatting, setting up proper page turns, and neatness, etc etc etc.
  • ovanovaovanova Registered User Posts: 5 New Member
    I've already listened to a handful of pieces by professors at Northwestern, Mannes, and Manhattan. Honestly, I was turned off by most of what I heard. Most of them are extremely modern, and that's not what I'm going for. As such, at the moment I'm not relying on what the professors have written as a gauge for what I'm going for.

    Is this a mistake? I mean, Verklaerte Nacht is one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard, and it stands in stark contrast to most of Schoenberg's oeuvre. What I'm trying to say by that is the professors obviously understand and appreciate classical music, but prefer to write extremely modern stuff on their own. I've already talked this over a lot with my school's band teacher, who's a smart guy and knows a lot about music and the music culture. And that's basically the impression I've gotten from talking to him. I'm relying more on the reputation of the school and ratemyprofessor.com than what the professors are writing. Again, I'm not sure if that's what I should be doing; I'm just stating that that's what I've been doing.

    Of course, I think actually visiting these professors would be a lot more telling than idle speculation :)

    I don't study privately with anybody right now, unfortunately, but I'm close to my high school's music faculty so I'll talk it over with them.

    Thank you for the input, everybody.
  • SpiritManagerSpiritManager Registered User Posts: 2,819 Senior Member
    If you're looking for a more conservative traditional, tonal, more 19th century based program - that is a good thing to know in advance. Every department will teach you basic theory, counterpoint and music analysis. But what the professors will be pushing for you to write will differ. There are more traditional programs out there - but you need to do your research. You're probably best off either in a huge program where there is a wide variety of professors, or in a smaller program off the radar. For instance, my brother-in-law, a liturgical composer, chose North Iowa State over U of Iowa (or maybe that's Univ of North Iowa? Not sure of the name.) for his post-grad work, as their aesthetic fit better with his. Check out Bowling Green State, Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City (although it may be too contemporary for your interests - but it's certainly huge), USC, Michigan, UT Austin, and Indiana.
  • compmomcompmom Registered User Posts: 9,851 Senior Member
    You have gotten a lot of great advice, from some knowledgeable people. Definitely try to have some very good musicians play your work, record them (you can buy a Zoom H-2 that is relatively affordable), make CD's, do neat labeling as each school requests, and pay a good quality copy place to professionally bind your scores, which should also be neatly labeled. This is all quite time consuming for 3-4 pieces, and can be expensive too.

    Some schools will ask you to, say "Pick the 2 minutes of each piece that you feel represents your best work" and provide a cue so they can listen to it. Some will want at least one handwritten score. Look into requirements at each school you are looking at.

    Most importantly, you are asking what music you should be writing in order to get into schools for composition- and this is just sort of backwards. As others have implied, you should write the music that you are moved or inspired to write, then find the best school for what you want to do.

    You can demonstrate technical knowledge by taking some theory classes, music history, solfege, that kind of thing. Many schools have exams as part of the application process for composers, but it is also true that some of these exams are for placement purposes, not admissions.

    It would be good to find a private teacher for this fall, at minimum. Preferably one who can give you a good survey of music history, particularly the last 100 years or so. "Modern" and "classical" are terms that do not begin to describe the different schools or movements or styles of composing that have gone on. Have you heard of serialism, or minimalism, for instance?

    You can see a teacher once a month and bring your work with you, if money is an issue. That can be a very effective way of working with a teacher, if you like to write drafts first.

    There has been somewhat of a backlash against the academic music of the 1960's, in many places, and a little bit of melody isn't always a bad thing these days(!) What a lot of schools are looking for is an individual "voice," which can't be learned, but can be developed.

    Stand by whatever it is that you are driven to compose, find a teacher to discuss things with, prepare your portfolio in a professional manner, and research schools to find the place where you feel you will flourish, without having to change yourself or your music to fit some preconceived notion. Good luck!
  • CompGradCompGrad Registered User Posts: 21 New Member
    SpiritManager suggested Indiana. I have two friends in that program who write music in a "neo"-whatever style that borders closely on diatonality, so I'd have to guess the program is open to that sort of music.

    The music being composed at Yale University also is known to be at times very neo-Romantic. The professor Chris Theofenidis has a bit of that sort of reputation. Michael Gandolfi of NEC and Jennifer Higdon of Curtis have also become very well known for writing music that is often neo-Romantic and tonal.

    This doesn't mean, however, that their students write music that sound like them. While it is a great place to start your research, be careful when judging whether a program would be fit for you purely by listening to the professors' music. At the top notch destinations in composition, the faculty generally make it a priority not to impose their own aesthetics on the student. Just as a tenor can make a good teacher for a soprano, a composer with a varying style can still make a great teacher for a student.

    I want to give some examples to back up. You mentioned listening to the professors at Mannes where you found the music to be too "modern". And yes, Mannes is a small closely knit program that is indeed known for being a post-WWII avant-garde type of atmosphere. However, FWIW, one of their recent faculty (who now has gone on to teach at CIM) was Indiana-educated. You also mention Northwestern as being very "modern". Well guess what, one of their professors, Lee Hyla just happens to be the former longtime chair of composition at NEC (where Gandolfi teaches).

    Therefore....this just proves that there is no "blanket" category to put any school. You do have to do your own research and balance out whatever your needs with what you feel are the faculty's strengths and weaknesses.

    I do want to restate my point, though, that some signs of originality is needed, even if you do write in a neo-classical or neo-romantic style. Originality doesn't necessarily mean shocking harmony or unconventional orchestration or sctructure. It means, amongst other things, applying your own styles and aethetics towards your music to create something exciting and fresh and interesting. Nobody is interested in listening to music that merely sounds like a lower quality imitation of Brahms.
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