What is it like studying composition in the United States?
(written by Dante Thelestam)
Korvat auki member Dante Thelestam interviews two
of his colleagues at Chicago College of Arts, Michelle Isaac and Jordan Jenkins, to offer one view into the daily life of student composers in the USA. Accompanying the interview Dante, Michelle and Jordan
enjoy korvapuustis baked out of
strange Finlandia butter found in Chicago’s grocery stores.
You both started your graduate studies at CCPA this fall. What is it like being a composition student in Chicago?
Michelle: In general, it is a big change. I went to college in a small town in Minnesota where I was one of only two composition majors. I was a big fish in a small pond. Here I am a very, very tiny fish in a big ocean of opportunities and other composers. The first couple of weeks I was just overwhelmed: by what the standard was, what I was supposed to be doing, and everything… I was freaking out a little bit.
But now, day-to-day it’s mostly just: go to class, try to get all the work done for class, try to hit the deadlines for recitals, and find performers. That’s just life within school.
Jordan: I also went to a smaller school for college – it was in Wisconsin. This summer, after I graduated, I went to a big music festival – the Atlantic Music Festival – with something like forty composers. So coming here to CCPA, it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s bigger than my school, but smaller than what I experienced during the summer. I find it very cozy. It’s a very supportive network, I think.
As far as my daily life goes – I perform a lot less than when I was an undergrad. When I was in college I played in orchestra, and jazz band, and I played around town a lot, and I did a solo piano recital… Now I’ve virtually played nothing. Generally I just write.
There are a lot of different music universities in the US. How do you choose schools?
Michelle: I went far enough away for college that I knew I wanted to be a little closer to where I grew up for graduate-school. I basically applied to schools within the Midwest: UW-Madison, University of Minnesota and CCPA. I knew that during graduate studies you will be networking more and start establishing yourself as a professional. Chicago just seemed like a perfect opportunity.
Jordan: My situation was different because I went to college closer to home. For grad-school I knew I wanted to go somewhere farther away – a bigger city – with a larger music community.
I applied to a number of schools – and I got into Manhattan, Peabody and CCPA. My first choice was Peabody because I really liked the teachers there. I really wanted to go there, but they didn’t get me any money.
So the reason I went to CCPA was that I got a music theory assistantship which pays for a bunch of school. That is a big consideration when choosing schools – because you have to pay for school, and you have to take on all this debt. It’s virtually impossible to pay for all of it working on your own.
Michelle: I think unfortunately there’s just a general understanding in the US among young people that they will have student loans to pay off for years after their studies. You just have to accept it. And I know I will have to come to terms with that I’m not in an engineering program that guarantees a big pay check when I get out.
Jordan: If you think about the Unites States, with its heavy emphasis on individuality, entrepreneurship and the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, that applies across the whole culture, including music. There is not a lot of state support. You’re expected to be an entrepreneur, and we get a lot of that in our program. The business of composition. And all this corporate crap which has flown into almost every aspect of American life, including music and art. Which I’m not saying is a bad thing necessarily – but that’s how it is.
I get the impression that the schools are also very different – you have “top schools” and “small schools” etc. Do you recognize different types of schools?
Michelle: Definitely! In terms of top schools: those are the names that you recognize – like University of Michigan, Yale or Eastman. And I don’t know if this is true, but I get the impression that if you go there, the teachers have their own steady careers in composing, and: A) they will not be present enough for you to learn from them, or B) you will have to write in their style or else you are just wrong.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have these small schools which no-one’s ever heard of. And you’re thinking: “Are these even legitimate?” or “Is anyone going to care if I went to this school?”
CCPA to me was extremely appealing, because I did my research on Dr. Garrop and Dr. Choi, and I saw that their styles are very different. So I think researching the faculty is extremely important.
Jordan: My impression, from applying to some of those top schools, is that it isn’t really that you have to write in a certain style. I think though, that some of those schools favor a more academic style of composition, or are more receptive to whatever the main popular style is. It really depends on the specific institution, though.
Michelle: I don’t want to make any big general statements about this, but it was personally important for me that CCPA had female composers on their faculty – because it does a lot of times seem like a big boys’ club – and just knowing that these people are successful and they’ve found a way of navigating the system. That was important for me.
What is the future for you as a composer? What will happen after you graduate? Or what is your dream?
Jordan: Right after school I’m probably going to take a few years off, and think about doing a doctorate. Or maybe do a performance diploma. But I’ll definitely need take some time off first.
The goal is to support myself with composition. To be able to live. Not necessarily to be famous.
If I think about my career… My dream is to write concert music. The people that I like to emulate are composers like Ted Hearne or Kevin Puts – people who kind of challenge norms of contemporary music, or the classical canon, or whatever.
Sometimes when we are talking about the economics it can sound kind of bleak. But at the same time there are also a lot of musicians going through school that are in the same position as us. The institutional jobs of being in an orchestra are becoming very scarce. And that creates this need for them to find to find their own way. So there is actually quite a lot of opportunity.
Michelle: The dream is to have some sort of steady income. And while I’m doing that, continue to learn about different aspects of composing. I’m really interested in video game composing, or composing for indie films. And I’m also interested in the wind ensemble world in schools. And then I’m also interested in the music publishing world, and how that works. But ideally, I will be supporting myself by writing music, whether that is for games, or films, or schools.
A long-time Korvat member,
is studying for a Master’s degree in composition at the Sibelius-Academy. He is currently living in Chicago as an exchange student at Roosevelt University, CCPA.