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More on Belinda Reynolds’s Manifesto: Where Art Thou Composition in Music Ed?

Those who know music education, know that for many years research has indicated that creative music making, meaning composition and improvisation, is taught at a distinctly lower frequency than other types of musical activities not centered in musical creation, but instead interpretation.

So, as a a follow-up to Belinda Reynolds’s Manifesto, I thought it would be interesting to note that of all 2010 grants made by the National Endowment for the Arts for arts education, a total of seven include music composition as an essential activity, with three of the seven focused primarily on music composition. Is it a coincidence that two of the three are taking place in Arizona (Tucson Symphony and Grand Canyon Chamber Orchestra)?? Beats me, but I hope they keep it up no matter what. 
The third of the three music composition focused projects is the Making Score program of the New York Youth Symphony, established by my good friend, the wonderful composer and clarinetist, Derek Bermel.
It is interesting too, that if you look over the NEA grants list for theater education, you will find a much, much larger group devoted to playwriting. Ditto for art education, where the making of art is not an outlier. Dance? I will have to get back to you on that one!
Okay, many of you are probably thinking there’s a good reason for this, and there are more than a few people in music who will say that music composition cannot be taught until a significant skill level has been achieved in the decoding of musical notation as well as technical skills in performance. That position is arguable.
It doesn’t help things that the teaching of composition can be a bit of a black art. I remember reading an interview with Phillip Glass where he said that Nadia Boulanger, with whom he went to study composition with in Paris, never looked at any of his compositions. They spent most of the time at the piano. I read too, that Schoenberg rarely if ever looked at any of his students work, but rather focused on the study of the old masters such like Beethoven.
I guess what I am saying is that few are prepared to teach music composition to kids…
There’s been a ton of attention paid to El Sistema, the youth orchestra project pioneered in Venezuela. But El Sistema follows the same pattern as the above, in that it has historically paid little attention to music composition.
If you want to spend some time reading about what it is like to bring music composition to a mature program like El Sistema, I am happy to point you to a series of ten guest blog entries on Dewey21C by composer, bassist, and teaching artist Jon Deak: Creating Music with El Sistema, Part One. It’s also a good opportunity to read about how music composition can be taught to students with relatively rudimentary technique/skills.
In an age when many want to draw a link between creativity, imagination, 21st century skills, etc., and arts education, it might be worth thinking about the central role that music composition (and improvisation) play in the musical side of arts education, and consider a bit the scarcity of projects focusing on the area of music that keeps the form from becoming nothing but a music museum.


  1. While it is true that many of organizations that applied for NEA funding in arts education may not have included composition or improvisation in their proposals, there are many people working with kids on composition and improv. Mostly you will find them as individuals often song writers who make their living as teaching artists/performers in schools. If you look at their offerings you will see that many of them work with children on song and lyric writing and some work with a whole school to write a song as part of a week long residency (check out )It isn’t orchestral or a new opera but it does reach many many children in their schools and is an opening for them to explore that writing their own music just might be possible!! Keith Torgan runs a creativity through song writing workshop for teens and tweens in schools and libraries that I have attended and I am always amazed by the lyrics and simple usually verse/chorus songs that the attendee’s produce. Most are not serious musicians, sometimes they play guitar. It is important I think to start in the “trenches” so to speak. I wonder if there is a way to support these efforts as most of these artists are for profit, not, not for profit companies and their efforts could be repeated in districts all over the US.

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