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We’re starting a composition program at NDSU

I had some writer’s block earlier this year. After completing Shindig for horn choir, I flailed a lot from about March to August. I think part of it was the workload from taking classes and teaching a full load across two campuses. But another part of it was that I spent mid-to-late part of the semester designing, proposing, and planning a composition program at NDSU.

Our composition degree has been approved and accredited, and we started our first students this fall. And as an extension of that, I’ve joined NDSU full time.

Does the world really need another composition program? Probably not. I attended a paper this summer about the overcrowding in the composition world, and especially in the time of COVID, the opportunities seem to be dwindling.

Does the region need a composition program? Yes. Looking at professional undergraduate (Bachelor of Music) degrees, ours is the first in the Dakotas. There are four in Minnesota, one in Montana, and one in Manitoba. It gets better the further south and east one goes. But new music opportunities are, well, not numerous up here.

Of course, at many schools, students interested in composition can take composition lessons within the context of the BA or BS in Music. My intention is that having a collection of degree-seeking composers will give us the ability to do several things we wouldn’t be able to do within the context of a BA or BS, such as produce more composer opportunities and resources for the region. Things such as a new music concert series, Dakota composer residencies, a student-run music press to experiment with self-publishing, and assembling materials for high school students interested in composition.

NDSU is an interesting place to do all this. We have a named and endowed School of Music within a comprehensive STEM-focused Land Grant university, which puts us in an ideal place for both collaboration and outreach. We already have a full range of academic music programs from the BM to the DMA. Our undergraduate music curriculum already requires Music Entrepreneurship which intersects with the university’s entrepreneurship initiatives. And NDSU is already quite new music friendly, with the annual Fissinger Composition Contest, the new Pilafian Composition Contest, and regular performances of works by living composers.

So looking at the reality of the new music scene in North Dakota and what the future of music composition might be like, we’ve tried to make the degree as flexible as possible. Composers have to know a little bit of everything, so we’re having them do the same instrumental or vocal performance requirements as our BA/BS students do. Proficiency on piano, conducting, counterpoint, advanced theory, and instrumental arranging, of course. But then we’re also opening up a chunk of electives for the degree, giving students the opportunity to gain some additional specialization or marketable skills. This might include taking some of the music methods classes to learn how to play all the instruments. Or taking on a certificate or minor through the college of business, such as Entrepreneurship, Accounting, Business Administration, Management Information Systems, or Community Development. Or pursuing minors in Creative Writing, English, or Theatre Arts. Or there’s the certificate in Publishing.

The hope is to twofold: To create resources and opportunities for composers in the Dakotas, and to create a composer incubator which gives students the tools they need to be successful musicians in the region and the world.

Oh and that writer’s block finally lifted. I have a new song cycle of hilarious poems by Mark Vinz that are getting the finishing touches soon, to be premiered in February.