July 2002

"He just does education work..."

by an anonymous compoer



Does working as a composer in education, the community or with amateurs affect your professional standing?

Versatility is one of the main skills required by a composer working in education: a thorough under-standing of craft and technique; an ability to communicate; an ability to perform, to manage, to work quickly, to understand many ways of doing things (not just your own) and a certain lack of insecurity.

Ironically these abilities can be seen as negative - "jack of all trades" - by those wishing to dismiss composers working in this arena. However if we go back a few centuries, all of the above attributes are what were the "everyday" for the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Bach and to be celebrated as all-embracing genius rather than a suspicious plethora of skills.

Some of this negativity comes from within the composing world itself and an insecurity born of the absence of some of these skills. Many composers don’t have a good grasp of craft; they do what they do and can't do anything else; they may not be able to work with other musicians as performers; they may need years to write a piece. All these shortcomings are turned into virtues that, in turn, dismiss the versatile composer. On a more simple note, the ego has to be left behind in many situations, and encounters with young people who don't know who you are or recognise the "extraordinary depths of your talent" can be sobering, humbling and further raise the insecurity.

What happens in the music world to seal this view of composers in education? Ensembles, orchestras etc ask someone to work as a "composer" on their education programmes, but then don't actually commission said composer. Instead they are more likely to go for a usual, more high-profile suspect who probably wouldn’t go near a school or amateurs. This gives an all round bad impression as kids are often taken to concerts and are given no evidence that the person they are working with is able to do the job. It also means that, if you are good at education work, you are pigeon-holed into writing works for this arena, doing workshops etc but not really of the calibre to write for the grown-up situation. On recent occasions orchestras have appointed a composer in residence with demands in the job description of being able to do outreach work and in the end have had to appoint a second composer to do this because the person they appointed, though published and high-profile, can't.

Work in this area has become a way of supplementing income and, therefore, on all sides has often become cynical. The world of performers and composers has taken the attitude "I'd rather not be teaching I'm only doing it until my career takes off". Gone are the days of assuredness of craft and career that allows someone actually to enjoy the idea of passing their skills on without it seeming like they have failed. With this thought, therefore, goes the idea that education work is for losers, no hopers or not-quite-good enough types. The profession has been guilty of using terms like "Composer in Education or Community" which suggests that there is a difference.

Because of "easy" funding situations organisations have been guilty of commissioning works for the education/ community repertoire knowing it will get financial support. This has led to composers' only opportunities being to accept a commission for this kind of thing to get any work commissioned and then being saddled with the reputation that this is the only kind of composition of which they are capable. Ironically, although pieces for amateurs, children or the community are often regarded as low-grade work, it is often more of an art to tailor one's work than to "do what you fancy" for skilled players. The work of a well-known composer who decides to write a piece for children or amateurs is regarded with approval, interest and taken seriously within the context of their other work. Is this the best way round to do this kind of work?


1. The quality of work in education can vary – true of all composition.

2. The attitude has been liberal and woolly and left people feeling that it is just "playing at it", entertain-ment and has no relevance: this has often been true.

3. The pressure has been there to give work to young composers but to keep it out of sight in case it all goes wrong. Education has been seen as a good place for this.Perhaps more composers should be given the opportunity anyway: the chance to fail. Not the chance to fail because it’s only kids and amateurs.

What do you think?

We would welcome any responses to the articles featured in new notes. Click here to read what other people have thought about recent cover articles.

The monthly listings magazine new notes is essential reading for composers, performers, and everyone interested in what's new in new music. In its printed version new notes reaches over 5,000 contemporary music enthusiasts in the UK and around the world.

If you promote new music events you should advertise them in new notes. Single concert listings are just £50+VAT. The magazine also features ads for festivals, composer competitions, recordings and more.

new notes
also features
monthly articles on issues at the forefront of new music
special offers on CDs, tickets, scores and books for spnm members
information about forthcoming spnm events
a free classified section for spnm members' non-trade ads.

For full details on advertising or inserting leaflets in new notes please contact
the Editor: John Fosbrook

Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

June 2002
New for Old

April 2002
In Search of Kurtag

March 2002
Back to School

January 2002
spnm in 2002

December 2001
There's no word in Finnish for workshop

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
from start to finish - composing for dance

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
The end of the season

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
The ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
Into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor

July 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano

June 1999
Hoxton New Music Days

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!