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Music composition majors

Ame E.

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My 16-1/2 year old junior is starting to think about college. We live about 40 miles from Boston, and at this point are looking for something local.


He is a pretty good composer, his tunes are melodic and appealing. He thinks he wants to score music for films, and I fear he is thinking "specialization" too soon.


He is not interested in music education. He is interested in music production, organ, accompanying. He also really loves working with others, piano duets, chamber music, though chamber is his favorite. He wants to rule out conducting and choir directing, but he's never done either, and he does not want to go into piano performance. He is a very creative guy.


We are thinking of Boston University, Berklee School of Music, maybe Emerson College, maybe New England Conservatory. If he were to live away from home, we were thinking maybe Catholic/Christian University. the only Catholic ones I found were Catholic University of America that has its own music school. I would also be open to him going to one of the state universities in either Massachusetts or NY. His teacher told him to basically get an education where he can major in music, and then to go on to graduate school in composition. I don't think he quite heard, because he wants to major in composition as an undergrad.. He has had no formal music theory classes, so I'm a little concerned.


I am really more concerned about him earning a living afterwards after he gets into one of these schools. He is currently working as a church organist twice a month, and occasionally accompanies.. this is where his bread and butter comes from, but he still prefers composition.


any thoughts?




I have gone on college board but have had password problems.

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My two college age dds are pursuing the arts (1 in violin and 1 in theater), and my high school age dd is attending an arts boarding school (flute). Oy! I hear you about the ability to earn a living. I've decided that outside of a handful of majors, college doesn't guarantee anyone a living anymore. My dds are smart, and they'll figure it out when the time comes. They might change course midstream in their undergrad major, they might pursue graduate school, or they might even learn a trade to support themselves while they also pursue the thing they love.


I know students who are composition majors in conservatory as undergrads, but they all plan to pursue grad school as well. Composition programs are competitive, and you're looking at some really good schools, so now is the time for your ds to become realistic about what it takes to apply. Go talk to someone at Berklee.......it's a creative place. Can your ds take AP Theory anywhere? It would be a helpful start. Others (not everyone) applying to composition programs will have taken it.


Good luck! Art matters!


ETA: I know you're looking local, but DePaul University in Chicago is a Catholic school with a great music program. They also give generous scholarship assistance to talented students. Flights between Boston and Chicago are cheap--around $200 ;-)



Edited by Beth in OH
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Former Piano Performance Major here and I worked with a lot of Composition majors,


So first of all....New England Conservatory is grand! But, the experience he will have is dependent on a number of things. My best friend in college did three years there, was one of their top students, and dropped out depressed and not certain if he even wanted to continue in music. The level of PUSH is collosal and some personalities will struggle with that; others will love it! You need to carefully consider that.


Second of all, sometimes smaller is better and especially in composition. I think that if you can find a stellar program but with limited theory and composition class sizes, the education is better. Large theory classes are okay for say music education or vocal performance majors, but the level at which a composition major needs to delve into and understand theory is much more deep and it's good to have small class sizes and access to the professor.


Get him a formal music theory class now! Seriously, at my college, we were given a theory exam on the first day of class, if we earned less than 80% on the exam we could no longer be a declared "provisional music major". Some people were out and out booted from the music department. He needs to completely understand all twenty-four of his key signatures and the three forms of the minors, plus rhythmic notation, very basic chord structures (these are mathematical relationships), and read both treble and bass clef fairly well. Most music departments will not accept a music major (if the department is competitive) that they have to bring up to speed on music basics that should have been learned in band or choir in high school or in private lessons. I can't tell from your original post if he has learned a lot of theory through the organ accompanying. Some people manage to learn to play an instrument very well and yet do not understand fundamental music theory.


Visit, visit, visit, and talk to not only composition majors currently enrolled, but also alumni of the department.


He'll need grad school. Also, he will need to be willing to take basic conducting classes as well. Though he has no interest in personally conducting, a composition major needs to have a full understanding of the orchestra, voicing for each instrument, and how to lead one at least in a rudimentary way. There is so much that is learned from conducting that is applicable to composition and I highly doubt that he can graduate without basic instrumental conducting. He may also need to take a piano proficiency exam. If he doesn't play at all, don't worry, most departments provide undergrad piano majors or adjunct music professors to teach the catch up lessons necessary to pass the proficiency exams - usually this means playing with at least some ease although not speed, scales, arpeggios, hanon basic technic exercises, and one or two intermediate level piano pieces plus chords and their inversions.


I would like to also make a plug for both Catholic and Lutheran Universities - Concordia in Chicago comes to mind. Both of these denominations have RICH, RICH, RICH, heritages in music and they usually do an outstanding job of teaching music. I do think that most Catholic Universities are stronger in composition than the Lutheran ones but that is a generalization and so much depends on the faculty and how the student gels with the composition instructors.


I really think that in order for your ds to get into any of the above music schools, he will need to get some serious theory and music history under his belt now plus piano lessons if he is accomplished at the organ but not at the piano. There is a very big difference between these two instruments and the aural harmony classes are taught at the piano plus I don't think he will be able to get out without that piano proficiency exam. If he already has accomplished piano skills, great! If not, he should be doing more in that department.


Also, have him keep a portfolio of work he has already done. He'll need that when he interviews at these schools. Letters of reference from professional musicians he has worked with, are a must.


As for the bread and butter, in most cases in composition, not only is grad school needed but there is a period of time in which one has to teach, accompany, direct, etc. in order to keep a steady income while waiting for the reputation as a composer to develop enough to make any money at it. During a recession, orchestras, choirs, and even film directors commission far fewer works than when the economy is good. This year, the number of films using commissioned music is Far, Far, lower than it was five years ago. Harry Potter and the like, films that are expected to gross MEGA dollars despite the recession, are the ones spending money on new music. Many of the others are using canned stuff already on the market and classical stuff in the public domain. Many composers can't get their own in-state orchestras to commission anything new do to budget cuts. So, it is important to be doing other things in music to keep that income up until the economy recovers and the arts are flush with money again.


He may be surprised...I was dead set against doing any teaching and accompanying at all when I left for college. I ended up being an awesome teacher and developed a virtual obsession with being the rehearsal accompanist for opera, ballet, and theater groups. Loved it! Still do! It's an art form all of it's own and when the last youngling leaves for college, I will be back at that professionally and loving every minute of it!



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I did not mention that he has 11 years of piano lessons under his belt, and is VERY GOOD at piano... if he were more driven, he could definitely do piano performance.., but he is not and he hates competition (in piano performance). He is a very good pianist.. He basically picked up organ as a side job, but is not really that proficient in it (has not really taken organ lessons)... just picked it up on his own, and plays really well... interesting the improvisations at certain points in the service/Mass are his forte.


Back to reading and digesting the posts.


DePaul University in Chicago is a Catholic school with a great music program. They also give generous scholarship assistance to talented student


Thanks also for the tip on Depaul. I had never heard of them. We attended a college fair tonight, and spent about 5 minutes chatting with the woman from DePaul there... Chicago is far away and cold... but it sounded like a good school.





Edited by Ame E.
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Okay, this is sort of "out there" since you're looking for local, but I'm gonna mention it anyway.... I've heard that the Univ. of Tulsa is really building their film-scoring school. Vern Howard, who was a coordinator at Interlochen for many years, is director of jazz at U of T. My son is taking jazz/improv piano from a teacher here in Dallas (she was Norah Jones' teacher when Norah was in Dallas) who taught at a music camp at Univ of Tulsa last summer. She was impressed with the vibe of the school and the direction they are heading. As much as my ds' 2 piano teachers (he takes classical at SMU) would like to see a music major in the works, I don't see it happening here, nevertheless your post caught my attention. Just thought I'd share the buzz we've heard about about Tulsa.

Sorry fro rambling... trying to rush - lol!

Good luck to your son!!!

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You do not need to attend a music school to study music composition. I attended at competitive LAC, and there were quite a few students who concentrated on composition and successfully went on to grad school in composition at highly-regarded schools.


I agree with the other posters that grad school is a must for composers. In my PhD program (I was a musicologist), many composers did not come from music schools or conservatories--some came with BAs from Ivies or other competitive private universities or liberal arts colleges, some from state universities. Some had masters degrees, others did not. My program awarded an MA along the way, if you wanted it. I will also add that having some kind of masters degree did not significantly shorten the time to a doctorate (it only shortened coursework by a semester). Of course, some people may decide to get a PhD while in school for a masters, but I was very glad that I went straight into a PhD program with a BA.


And, absolutely, get your DS going with formal music theory. The theory expectations for composers are much higher, and you really cannot start too soon.


ETA: my DH went to a private Catholic university and was fully prepared to enter grad school in either musicology or composition. (we met because he picked musicology :) )

Edited by tearose
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