One of the things that I like about my job (and I mentioned this earlier) is that I get to have ideas that other people don’t, by virtue of being a composer in a music department. Since most of my job is creating things, I get to think about things in a different way. Often I refer to this as throwing “smoke bombs.”
You think you know how things work, and then someone makes a
suggestion and it reframes your idea of how things work. That’s a smoke bomb.
I got to try this out recently in a committee meeting. We
were discussing general education requirements and how we could rework an undergraduate
certificate. The idea came up of how we structure the program, and how to get
faculty buy-in for keeping track of another list of classes, and different
hoops to jump through.
After sitting for a while, I suggested the idea that we make
the certificate student directed. What if the students put together their
curriculum and we approved it on an individual basis, rather than doing all of
the work to create a unified standardized curriculum. This was not a terrific idea,
but the conversation that happened after I made the suggestion was
substantially different. The smoke bomb that I threw changed the nature of how
we thought about the problem and how we might find a solution.
This isn’t all that different from the work that I do in
composition. Students bring in different ideas, and by and large it is my job
to give them other ideas that might interact with the ideas they have. Often
the ideas that I suggest are painfully obvious to the student once I say them.
It’s not that they would not would not have come up with the
idea on their own, but they needed a second set of eyes, a second pair of ears,
or a second brain to make that obviousness known to them.
I never had the chance to take a music entrepreneurship class or a music business class in college. Drury was too small, and Oklahoma at the time wasn’t interested in such things. And with a school the size of OU, there’s a diversity of thought, and unfortunately a fair amount of thought I saw rejected music as a commercial enterprise. If you wanted to do commercial music, there was the Academy of Contemporary Music in OKC, if you want to find out how to make money with your art, well, we don’t really do that here.
This wasn’t stated, and it may even have been a minority view, but it was my perception. And I think I understand the idea. I made a conscious decision early on that I wouldn’t pursue algorithmic composition, despite my interests in both music composition and programming. My reasoning was that I wanted my art–the creative process itself–to be as organic as possible, and all the other parts of being a composer (marketing, self-promotion, deciding what to compose, etc.) should be as systematized as possible.
I happened upon–and quickly integrated–a quote by Gustave Flaubet: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
The question, it would appear, is where to draw the line between work and life.
After two and a half years, I’m finally giving my first faculty recital at NDSU, featuring all music written in North Dakota.
The planned program is:
The Notes Between The Notes – My song cycle featuring poems by Jamie Parsley. Michelle Gelinske (who premiered the cycle nearly a year ago) wasn’t able to perform in February, so Dr. Kelly Burns, our new voice faculty member, will be performing the cycle with Dr. Amy Mercer.
Next up is the world premiere of Tape Piece, a tape piece featuring…tape sounds.
We’ll round out the evening with the world premiere of Calibrating the Moon, commissioned and premiered by Connor Challey, and featuring Dr. Tyler Wottrich on piano.
The recital poster also features North Dakota:
I hope to see you at Beckwith Recital Hall at NDSU, on February 10 at 7:30 PM!
I don’t want to give the impression that we should blow up the music curriculum. There’s a lot we have to go through in not a lot of time.
Some of the things we have to address in the music curriculum: Grammar and/or Math (Music Theory), Fluency (Aural Skills), History (Musicology), Individual Technical and Artistic ability (Lessons), small group work (chamber music), large group work (ensembles), performance practice (recitals), and then for music education majors there’s a universe of ed classes.
Engineering doesn’t necessarily include history of science. Communication doesn’t go all the way back to grammar. We cover a lot of ground in a four-year music degree–we assume that all students read music starting out, but it’s not an absolute requirement.
But even with these challenges, there are still opportunities for entrepreneurial music teaching. There’s another problem.
Thinking back to the
list of things from the College of Business, they’re all project- or
product-driven. You don’t need Idea Generation for existing, you need Idea
Generation for improvement or for something new.
In Music, every new
composition is a project that requires Idea Generation, Business Model
creation, Audience identification, and so on.
In Music, every
concert is a project that requires the same or more.
In Music, every
ensemble is a project that requires the same or more.
In Music, every
lesson is a project that requires the same or more.
Some of the suggestions that the College of Business suggested we change or include in Music Entrepreneurship involve the following topics:
Creation, and Evolution.
As I mentioned, my
knee-jerk reaction was “But we don’t DO this in music!” And that
tapped in to the issue I have with a lot of books on music
entrepreneurship–several that I’ve read are along the lines of “You’re a
musician already! Here’s how to write a business plan!” (more on this
Getting this list
from the College of Business (and to be clear, the list was far more detailed
and informative than what I’ve included–I’ve excerpted to protect their ideas
and mine) forced me to question why we don’t do some of those things, and it started
becoming clear that we should.
About 10 months ago,
NDSU ramped up their Entrepreneurship efforts, all branded as NICE: NDSU
Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship. As part of that push, the NICE
Center started a faculty fellowship (called NICE Fellows. Seriously.) of which
I’m pleased to be a part. One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking
about since is how we teach music entrepreneurship at NDSU and elsewhere.
Entrepreneurship class is a music business class originally intended for
juniors and seniors seeking elective credit, and has become a requirement for
all music majors. Which is great to have in the curriculum, but it creates a
challenge in developing curriculum, especially as sophomores through seniors
take it. It’s in a perpetual stage of being tweaked.
Recently I submitted
the course in consideration to substitute ENTR 301, the College of Business’s
“Entrepreneurship Toolbox” course. Business responded with a list of
suggestions of how we could bring our course in line with their course, which
my first thought was “These are great, but we don’t…do…this in music.”
In the mid 1920s,
nearly a century ago, Graham Wallis proposed his model of the creative process
in a book called The Art of Thought. The four-stage model borrows from earlier
work and thoughts by Herman von Helmholtz and Henri Poincare, and consists of Preparation,
Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.
Preparation is the
realization of a problem that needs to be solved, Incubation is a subconscious
working out of the problem, Illumination is the conscious work on the problem,
and Verification is checking to make sure that the end result matches the preparation.
It’s a compelling
model, and it seems to have aged well over the past ten decades.
And I think it’s
wrong. Well, maybe not wrong. Incomplete.
I think there are several problems with the Wallis model, but the first issue and the one most important to artists is the lack of aesthetic judgment. The model addresses what is right or what is wrong, but not what is good, or what is quality.
As I’ve been teaching composition and refining my own creative process, I’ve found that I think of composition gigs as projects: Write a tape piece, compose a tuba sonata, record an album, plan a recital, and so on.
This works pretty well for my own process, but some of my other students don’t have such a process. Instead, they have multiple works going on at the same time, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it’s often paired with a lack of focus. To make matters worse, the works don’t often get played. Their composing is for the sake of composing.
This is related to three other issues with composition and with how we teach music in general. The first issue deals with delusions of grandeur and transformative change: The idea that “this is the best piece ever and it will make me famous”. Honestly, being delusional is an important part of my creative process, it goes along with the maniacal laughter part of my process. But the idea that one piece will change everything is a bit of a pipe dream.
Unfortunately, starting out as composers, our plan to become famous is by hope: The hope that someone will notice how brilliant we are.
The second point this touches on is project-based music making, which is something our music major curriculum doesn’t always address. I think composers have it better off than most musicians, since compositions are more project-formatted than education or performing, but we don’t really frame our curriculum around projects. There’s a lot more to say on that subject and how it interfaces with entrepreneurship at a later time.
Finally, there’s the idea of compositional intent. Intent is another big topic that will receive attention soon. For now, we’ll leave the discussion as “we need to know where we’re going if we’re going to get there.”
How do we do this with composition? And also, how do I get my students to do it?
In my process, I’ve introduced a form. a Music Creative Brief.
The Music Creative Brief forces me to address some of the big questions that come up at the beginning of a new music project. First and foremost, the deadline. It asks for which performance forces, what the piece should be about, how long it should be, what it can or can’t do, other similar pieces, and what inspires it. There’s also a section for marketing, which addresses the competition, how to sell it, and who might be interested.
For example, for my next piece, a clarinet choir piece, I have a physical copy of the form that lists what the scoring is, the other pieces on the program (so I know what to do/what not to do), who some of the major clarinet choir groups are, and so on. It’s been incredibly helpful since I started using it about a year and a half ago, and my plan is to start having my students do the same this spring.
I spend a lot of
time in my teaching trying to find the happy medium between mercy and justice.
manifested itself this past semester in terms of late work. With an expanded
number of classes and students, I instituted a new late work policy, which is
basically that everything turned in by the end of the week (11:59 Saturday
night) would be graded without penalty. Everything turned in after that would
not be graded. In my immediate experience, students who needed some extra time
to complete an assignment only needed an extra day or two.
This worked well for
my freshman intro to college class. For my entrepreneurship and arranging
classes, less so, probably because I’d make an exception once early in the
beginning of the semester, and after that it was unfair to enforce it.
Also, the work we do
in my non-freshman class is largely project-based, and when working creatively,
sometimes writer’s block happens.
So, what I need is
an easy-to-administer, easy to understand late work policy that gives students
the flexibility to navigate their busy schedule (and promote
self-time-management) and affords students the ability to spend some extra time
on a project to bring it to its full potential.
This semester, I’m instituting the Late Work Pass.
The Late Work Pass
(LWP) is a physical business card-sized piece of card stock which each student
gets at the beginning of the semester. If they have an assignment to turn in
after the grace period, they can turn it in with their LWP.
Even though each
student gets one LWP per class, there’s nothing governing whether they keep it,
barter it, sell it, or stockpile it for future classes. It can only be used for
one assignment (no turning everything in during the last week of classes, unless
you have enough LWPs to cover it), and you can’t use it outside of a semester
(no turning in things after grades are due).
As an added benefit,
it opens the discussion for supply and demand in Music Entrepreneurship.
And it lets me spend
less mental energy on late work. And probably less on grading, too.