The composition students at Western Michigan University don’t write music like mine. And that seems like a good thing…for all involved. They have widely varying skills and aesthetics, each seeking a slightly different career in the arts. But music positions in industry and academia are increasingly competitive. And without sustainable careers, they most likely won’t make enough work or get enough feedback to ever realize their artistic potential. If I care about their success (and I probably should, since I moved my unsuspecting husband from Brooklyn to sunny southwest Michigan to teach these young artists), then I need to nurture their careers as well as their art, no matter how far removed from my own aesthetics and experiences.
There is growing interest in – and debate surrounding – entrepreneurship and arts education. In Artivate - A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, Vikki Pollard and Emily Wilson simultaneously accept the importance of “developing curricula to address an employability agenda in higher education” and the pitfalls of applying generic business paradigms to careers in the arts. There are some important concerns associated with teaching professional development in academic music programs: How does one simultaneously encourage thoughtful artistic growth and professional development? What kind of artists are we empowering to shape our discipline? How does one provide diverse groups of young artists with the beginnings of sustainable careers in the arts? These questions drove my development of a course called Entrepreneurship for Composers.
Eleven students enrolled in the new class last fall – seven undergraduates and four master’s students. In EfC, we took the first steps toward building their careers; we built websites and wrote resumes, cover letters, and grant applications. We worked on public speaking skills through presentations of analysis projects. They organized off-campus concerts of their work (great experience that also looked good on their resumes). Each student also applied to ten external opportunities over the semester. These were discrete assignments with clear rubrics. And the students did well - almost everyone in the class had a new opportunity by the end of the semester.
But here is what made it work for the actual students in the class – the individuals: I used a flexible approach. I didn’t tell them what kind of careers they should have or what kind of opportunities they should pursue. But they did need to express their goals – both short and long term – at the beginning of the semester. The remaining assignments would serve those ambitions.
We started the semester with hard questions about their artistic identities and personal objectives (with an understanding that these would always be evolving). They had to describe their work, analyzing their artistic strengths and weaknesses. They started defining what kind of artists they aspired to be, and what they needed to do to realize those ideals. They were challenged to define their long-term goals, and then I helped them break those down into short-term ones.
Everything from there on out was intended to help them reach those objectives. Some wanted gigs for the band they’d be focusing on after graduation, some wanted admission to a competitive graduate program, some focused on securing arranging or church gigs. They designed off-campus performances and their research topics. And they also found their own opportunities (though I gave them tools, resources, and ideas of where to start). I couldn’t have designed a fixed course that would have met their diverse set of needs. And unlike in many aspects of their education, in this class they weren’t sitting back passively waiting for someone to tell them how to become professional musicians. Instead, they were active and invested participants in their education.
While every student described a slightly different set of goals, they each had to fulfill the requirements of the class. I didn’t care where the off-campus gig was, but they were still graded on adherence to their timeline for preparation, how smoothly the concert ran (including preparation of pieces and set/technical changes), rehearsals, and promotion (they had to get people in the door!). It didn’t matter if they wrote a cover letter for a job, graduate school, or a grant, but they were all graded on clarity, organization, the flow of ideas, and proofreading. I graded their websites on aesthetic consistency, audiovisual clips, editing, and a minimum number of working pages and links. All of these assignments were applicable to the professional world – students received much-needed feedback on writing and the letters they sent to potential opportunities and employers. And they were invested because these weren’t just assignments; they were shaping their public identities.
We looked at the websites and music of young artists as well as established composers; the students made surprising and insightful observations, because it was all now applicable. They weren’t allowed to simply claim to “like” or “dislike” a website, someone’s writing, or a work of art; they had to employ critical thinking skills and communicate about aesthetics, form, and effectiveness. They assessed what they heard and saw, and then put those observations to work for their own goals. And in evaluating so many letters, websites, and performances, I learned as well. We discussed what we had done and where we needed to improve.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but it is also important who teaches professional development and how institutions weights the topic. I made it clear from the beginning that the class was about building sustainable careers, not quick, easy tricks to jobs. The students know me as an active composer who teaches composition and theory, so they trusted me to prioritize the music above all else. And this wasn’t a weekend workshop taught by a business consultant; it was a university course taught by a full-time faculty member. The School of Music showed investment in the students’ futures by awarding credit (not even elective credit, EfC fulfilled a degree requirement) for an entire semester of professional development.
For our discipline to flourish, we need a variety of active artists in each generation. These students can’t learn all they need by just writing or playing music and learning the theory/history sequence – they need to be taught how to participate in their communities, how to share their ideas and get their work performed, so they can continue to grow. And (thankfully) they can’t all be arts educators. I can’t teach them my path and they can’t follow it. So I’m willing to trust them to sort out their voices and what they need to be doing, as long as they keep asking themselves the hard questions along the way.