Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 3

Table of Contents

Promoting Contemporary Music Engagement through the Composer Interview Project

Terry L. Dean, Indiana State University

Musicologists who teach the undergraduate music history survey are often faced with the challenge of balancing a need to provide students with the skills and knowledge essential to their success in the field within the context of an ever-expanding and diverse body of musical works/styles and historical record. Likewise, in some programs, the music history survey has been designated the curricular nexus point — the two or three courses where students are trained to think critically about music, master information literacy and effective writing, and apply written and aural theory skills through active listening and score study all while developing a working knowledge of music history and literature. In many ways, it boils down to an issue of breadth versus depth, and the relative merits of traditional versus innovative approaches to teaching music history have been a point of discussion in recent years (Burkholder 2015, Lowe 2015, Seaton 2015). Such issues are, in turn, complicated when music history courses also become the curricular venues for discussions of various popular and world music traditions (Crain 2014).

As a result of such debates, a considerable body of recent scholarship on music history pedagogy has emerged to explore strategies for addressing specific challenges. Most of this scholarship, however, has focused on particular aspects of teaching and learning, such as the use of peer learning; in-class and out-of-class composition assignments; games, in-class performance, and other types of active and experiential learning activities; the use of technology; and varied approaches to teaching research through high- and low-stakes writing as well as online publishing (Burkholder 2002, Clague 2011, Crain 2014, Fink 2002, Francis and Stimeling 2013, Haefeli 2013, Knyt 2013, McManus 2014, Natvig 2012, Shadle 2012, Yang 2012). Regardless, no discussion of strategies for increasing student interaction with the most recent expanses of music history, specifically the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, has yet transpired. In light of this limitation, the present essay outlines one assignment intended to facilitate such engagement. The Composer Interview Project promotes awareness of contemporary art music by placing students in the role of independent scholar and providing a venue for disseminating their findings publicly.

In my experience undergraduate music students often demonstrate limited interest in contemporary art music. Many have communicated the perception that contemporary music is esoteric and inaccessible, dominated by levels of virtuosity they have yet to develop, extended techniques they cannot imagine mastering, and tendencies toward cacophonous dissonance they find off putting. In short, contemporary music is not music they want to get to know. I have always found this to be odd, especially given that the large ensembles at my institution often feature new music and my colleagues regularly perform new music on their recitals, sometimes works that they themselves have commissioned. Additionally, we host a three-day Contemporary Music Festival each year. For many of my students, the only contemporary music worthy of their time and energy is the popular music they regularly consume and the occasional audience-friendly works they encounter in their ensembles. All too often, until they tackle the Composer Interview Project, I believe the students in my courses would prefer to end their study of music history at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Composer Interview Project was designed as part of Music History II (Music from 1750 to the present) to allow students an opportunity to learn how music composed today is a product of (literally) centuries of influence by earlier composers, works, styles, and events. Moreover, the project reinforces the fact that the composition of art music continues today although it often does not receive as much attention as other more popular styles. Interviewing living composers makes students aware not only of the problems they face, but also how these individuals tackle the challenges they encounter, how they make their living, how they are trained, how their music reflects their various influences, and what their opinions about the current state of Western art music composition are. Ultimately, the project is intended to reinforce the notion that the composition of art music continues to be a living, breathing tradition.

From a practical standpoint, student interaction with living composers necessitates a pedagogical duty to discuss the ethics of doing research using human subjects. Generally, research involving human subjects requires approval by a university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB); however, student projects are often exempt from requiring IRB approval unless specific criteria are met, such as research completed as part of a thesis or dissertation, or an intention to disseminate the research through publication or presentation at a conference (including conferences associated with the institution). Historically, however, my institution has exempted the Composer Interview Project from requiring IRB approval by interpreting the interviews as a form of oral history. Furthermore, IRB members have consistently argued the project is not subject to IRB approval for three reasons: 1) interview data is not intended to be generalizable, but rather to capture idiosyncratic personal experiences; 2) the level of risk associated with participating in the project is minimal; and 3) the Oral History Association’s best practices exceed the protection that Human Subjects regulations provide. Nevertheless, when the project is introduced, I carefully outline the process for requesting permission to conduct research with human subjects and require students to complete IRB training before they are approved to contact composers. In turn, composers must provide a formal email to the instructor granting permission for students to conduct the interviews and to use the interview data for the purposes of the poster presentation. It is important to note, however, that individual college and university IRB policies vary. As such, instructors who wish to implement the Composer Interview Project should contact the Boards on their campuses to determine how to proceed with regard to this issue.

For this project, students identify living composers who interest them and conduct interviews to discover the composers’ thoughts on contemporary art music in the West. I encourage students to select individuals who have established reputations as promising figures in the field of music composition either through award recognition, extensive publication of their works, or artist-in-residence status within a university or professional performance organization. Moreover, I mandate that all students must interview different composers and confirm approval prior to conducting interviews. Composers may be interviewed face-to-face, via Skype, or via phone; email interviews are not permitted because responses are often too short to result in a successful project. In general, students are encouraged to ask questions associated with three broad themes: 1) the composers’ understanding of their own music; 2) composers’ impressions of contemporary music more broadly, and 3) issues of contemporary music related to students’ fields of study. The topic of appropriate interview questions is discussed at length both during class and as part of an out-of-class workshop, and I offer students feedback at all points during the project regarding clarity of questions and appropriateness of language. Students are also placed into Student Learning Groups, groups of four to six students who provide peer feedback throughout the project; these groups provide support when problems are encountered and offer valuable advice when problems are overcome.

Concerning the first theme, students must inquire about their selected composer’s training, compositional aesthetic, important influences, compositional process, and catalog of works. For composers with a well-developed webpage, some of this information may be available online, which often leads to more nuanced questions about such issues. Additionally, prior to their interview students must get to know at least three works by their composer, at least one of which the composers designate themselves. Often the selected works tend to be pieces that students already know through their ensemble experiences, private study, or some other source (e.g. Contemporary Music Festival exposure, or peer recommendation). Works that composers suggest often represent accomplishments of which they are most proud, works that have won an award, or compositions they believe to be of particular interest to students because of their principal instrument, intended career path, or some other reason. Students most often solicit the list of works to study upon receiving confirmation of their composer’s intent to work with them. In doing so, students have adequate time to obtain from the library or purchase scores as necessary; on many occasions composers have provided students with copies of scores and recordings free of charge. Nevertheless, by putting students in a situation where they must study their selected composer’s music prior to the interview results in more meaningful questioning and discussion during the interview itself. Furthermore, students are less prone to passivity during the interview when they enter the conversation as informed musicians. Consequently, interviews tend to be more dynamic and students are more fully invested in what their composers have to share.

Questions related to the second theme, composers’ impressions of contemporary music more broadly, are often the most difficult to ask and can take composers by surprise. This is particularly true in situations where students do not adequately contextualize their questions or inform composers about the purposes of the project before the interview. Therefore, when I launch the project in the first few days of the semester, I focus particularly on the concept of canon as a way of reinforcing the importance and influence of musical works from the past on the present. In part, this involves reading and discussing passages from composers’ writings that highlight connections with the past, reflecting upon recent concert programs of the professional and university ensembles in the region, and the implications of including specific works in our textbook and anthologies for reinforcing the historical significance of certain composers, works, and styles over others. At this point, it is important to note that the purpose of discussing canonization is not to reinforce “traditional” approaches to teaching music history. Rather by doing so, I simply wish to highlight that such conventions exist and have informed both the study of music and the programming of concerts and recitals alike. Notwithstanding, students are instructed to inquire about their composers’ perspectives on the state of contemporary art music composition and issues of canonization in order to highlight connections between the past and present. It is during this part of the interview that composers share their ideas about such issues as who their composer peers are, who they believe to be making meaningful contributions to contemporary music, what the important works of music are, and who they believe will stand the tests of time. Interestingly, some composers have much to say about such issues, particularly when the composers being interviewed are university professors and teach composition. In contrast, those working as freelance composers tend to share less about such issues focusing rather on aesthetic values.

The third theme, the relationship to the students’ fields of study, is a more recent addition to the project and the one that often yields some of the most memorable and useful of insights for students. For this portion of the assignment, students prepare questions that will inform their future work as composers, conductors, performers, music educators, and music business professionals. These questions reflect students’ interests and are informed by what they perceive their future roles as musicians to be. For example, a music education student who wants to be an elementary and general music teacher may ask their composer about how to expose young students to contemporary music whereas those who want to work as high school band or choir directors may ask for about commissioning new works, programming recent music, or working with composers. In contrast, music business students tend to ask their composers about issues of publishing, experiences with marketing their music, and working with artist management agencies. Likewise, performance students are afforded opportunities to discuss issues of collaboration and challenges associated with realizing notated music. Often such conversations lead to exposure to new music that is programmed by students for their recitals; at least one student-composer interaction has led to the commissioning of a new work for our Contemporary Music Festival. Regardless of a student’s intended path, such lines of questioning provide important opportunities to make their study of music history and the experience of working with a living composer meaningful and relevant to their preparation as future music professionals.

Upon completing interviews, students are required to transcribe their conversations in preparation for the final stage of the project. I will not discuss challenges associated with the transcription process here; rather see Clague (2011) for insights about teaching students to prepare interview transcripts. Ultimately, the project culminates with a poster presentation open to the public during which students share their experiences. This is undoubtedly the highlight of the project since not only do students enjoy sharing what they have learned with each other, but also with applied teachers and other faculty. By offering students opportunities to function as researchers, they take the challenges of conducting research more seriously and delight in the rewards of the project more fully.

Students earn 20% of the project grade by completing the online IRB training (5%), securing an interviewee (5%), and submitting a consistently formatted transcript of the interview (10%). The remaining 80% is calculated using a rubric adapted from VALUE rubrics developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as well as assignment-specific rubrics provided by colleagues (see Appendix A below).

VALUE rubrics are useful resources for measuring student achievement with regard to specific learning outcomes and which Burke 2014 has discussed in conjunction with roleplaying activities in the music history classroom. The rubric is completed during the poster presentation session by the course instructor (40% of the grade), members of Student Learning Groups (including a self-evaluation) (20%), and faculty colleagues (20%). Soliciting feedback from colleagues helps to reduce instructor bias by providing perspectives from individuals not directly involved in the project whereas obtaining feedback from Student Learning Groups makes students accountable to one another by encouraging a course-wide standard of performance that students aim to achieve.

Beyond the immediate objective of providing students with a way of interacting with a host of twenty-first-century composers and pieces, the Composer Interview Project has a number of benefits that make it a valuable option for those teaching as part of the music history survey. First, the project provides students an opportunity to engage meaningfully with music research as junior scholars. In the words of one student, “The Composer Interview Project gave me a chance to act as an independent researcher and work with a professional in the field. It was an amazing opportunity that I will never forget. It allowed me to take the project to a place that would benefit me.” Similarly, another student shared, “Being challenged to engage with a current composer by way of a personal interview provided a great stretch for my research capabilities. Perhaps the greatest benefit was the chance to demystify a composer for whose work I had a great deal of regard.” Additionally, the Composer Interview Project provides students with an opportunity to practice oral presentation skills before entering more high-stakes situations such as student teaching assignments and internships. Lastly, although the project as described above is intended for students in the music history survey, it has potential to be adapted for any number of course contexts by substituting composers with songwriters, performing musicians, or some other contributor to contemporary music making.


Appendix A