One of the most challenging subjects to teach is composition. In fact, one of my teachers when I was an undergraduate once declared that it is impossible to teach it at all!

In the ensuing years, I have become fully convinced of the wisdom of his statement. If a student is studying oil painting, the instructor can set up a still life and have the student duplicate that model on canvas as an exercise in representative art. In performance study, the correct and expressive execution of the music serves as a metric for evaluating progress and product. There is no parallel “representative” exercise in composition, however. While existing compositions can be used as models for *approach*, the result must be totally original. The mission of a composition teacher is to give each student the *tools* he or she needs, such as an understanding of orchestration, counterpoint, form and analysis and methods of development, and to then guide the student as he or she “builds” something using those tools.

One of the most influential of the teachers with whom I studied was David Van Vactor – a much-beloved and internationally recognized composer and conductor who co-founded the University of Tennessee Music Department, was the long-term conductor of the Knoxville Symphony and was named Composer Laureate of Tennessee by the state legislature. Mr. Van Vactor was an old-school gentleman who taught composition with an infectious joyfulness, and several of his students went on to achieve considerable success and recognition as composers.

Once I was composing a woodwind trio. When I brought the completed piece to my composition lesson, Mr. Van Vactor asked me what I thought of my trio. I replied that I was having trouble making the ending work. He smiled, took the manuscript from me and looked at it for a moment. He then erased two notes from the final measures and penciled in two different notes.

It was perfect! I was both elated and disgusted.

“What’s wrong?” he asked gently.

“I can’t *believe* I didn’t think of those notes!” I answered.

In one of those watershed moments that will remain with me all my life, the great composer leaned toward me with genuine astonishment on his face.

“But, my dear man.” he said. “You thought of all these *other* notes!”

May we all teach with such kindness.


THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Familiarity can breed admiration as well as contempt, but a lack of familiarity usually breeds nothing.

A few weeks ago, I heard a recording of Vittorio Giannini’s Dedication Overture for band for the first time.

My initial reaction was that the piece, which was composed in the 1960s, represented the ponderous and tired ramblings of a composer who was desperately trying to recapture the magic of his Symphony #3 from 1958. However, in the midst of my disappointment, I found myself drawn to the glorious second theme of the work, a broad sweeping melody with Elgarian gestures throughout.

So, based solely on my admiration for this one component of the composition, I listened again. And again. In the recording I had, it seemed that I could hear possible moments of brilliance just below the surface in other passages of the overture. The work continued to grow on me to the point that I sought a second recording. What a difference that made! Inner voices pulsed with life, and better choices of tempi moved the overture through time with effortless sonic elegance. Soon, I became aware that through repeated hearings and an improved performance, I had become a great fan of Dedication Overture. Not just the second theme – the whole enchilada!

I wonder how many people take the time these days to subject a new piece to repeated hearings – either by performing it or listening to it. So many works seem to premiere and then drop out of sight, and so often the single recording that remains is – shall we say – not the definitive rendition of the work! Are many great compositions of our time doomed to obscurity simply because of a lack of repetition and the familiarity that results?

Here’s to that elusive second performance and/or second recording!


NOTE: This is a repost of an entry from my now-defunct 2007 blog. This subject came up today on Facebook, and the republication seems timely.

A while back, I was commenting on the blog of Kelly Corcoran, an incredibly insightful and talented conductor who was recently named as Assistant Conductor of the Nashville Symphony. Kelly’s blog dealt with the role of the symphony orchestra in the 21st century, and included the question:

“Why shouldn’t one listen to the New York Phil play Mozart next to cutting edge rock bands like Muse or U2, or listen to Renee Fleming followed by Sting?”

My response is below:

Good start, but I would revise the question to read “Why shouldn’t one listen to the New York Phil play PAULUS (or Zwilich, or Asia…) next to cutting edge rock bands like Muse…” The cutting edge bands almost always feature cutting-edge material cut from today’s societal cloth that speaks to today’s audiences. If their repertoire consisted of “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and the like, they would not be cutting-edge, good as those old songs are. While pop artists like Madonna and Christina Aguilera may tip their hat to the classics of the past by recording the occasional “tribute” album to Ella Fitzgerald and the like, their bread and butter depends on being, as you so aptly state, “cutting-edge.”

At one time, before the recording industry came into maturity, the only way to keep the historical repertoire alive was to perform it repeatedly, in large towns and small. This is no longer the case, yet far too many orchestras see themselves primarily as keepers of that historical flame. In fact, a successful conductor once said that in a 40+ year career he had not yet been faced with conducting any work that was not already old when he began his college studies! This smacks more of preservation than it does of a growing and vibrant art. Another conductor stated that he would be delighted to play music by living composers if he ever encountered any as good as Mozart. Aside from the ignorance and prejudice this statement displays, the standard is hardly fair. Can you imagine if every conducting candidate had to convince the board that he or she was a better conductor than Solti or Bernstein? Good as those guys were, they died and someone quite rightly had to replace them. However, in the world of orchestral repertoire the pieces never die. They enjoy almost a holy status – even some really bad ones – and too many decision-makers don’t feel the need to replace them.

Make no mistake – I’m a huge fan of the past masters. It’s been my pleasure to perform and sometimes conduct their music for much of my career. I firmly believe historical music still has the power to enthrall and uplift audiences, but this power is greatly leveraged when they are performed alongside an equal number of contemporary and vital works by today’s concert music composers. Failing this approach, today’s audiences soon learn that despite the big screen monitors, clever pre-concert events and flashy four-color brochures, what they being offered is in its essence a purely historical product. And, forced to choose between repackaged Dickens and even a moderately good contemporary suspense novel, most will pick the modern novel every time.

So, my question is – why not give them both? A 50-50 split is a good start. I’m not suggesting that pop elements or pop songs or even jazz become part of symphony concerts – these genres are valid on their own and don’t feel the need to incorporate concert works into their shows – but how about finding a local or regional composer of concert music with a good track record and program that composer, along with an established historical work? Play the composer up as being “one of our own” and capitalize on that civic pride, just like you do with the orchestra. Become a one-stop shop for concert music, providing something old and something new with every concert, and maybe those seats will start to fill!


One of the joys of my life is to drive in the country with my lovely wife Nancy. In our travels, we invariably pass an abandoned or vacant building that still bears the signs and marks of the business it once housed. When this happens, I am always struck by the realization that each one of these was once someone’s dream. Whether a restaurant, or a Laundromat, or an auto repair shop, each was launched with great enthusiasm by someone filled with hope who imagined success and a comfortable income for his/her family.

Sometimes the business simply failed. Other times, it was perhaps passed down to a son or daughter who had no interest in maintaining the effort required to run it. Whatever the root cause for its demise, I salute the enterprising spirit of the individual and the dream that led to the effort.

We concert music composers are kindred spirits of these entrepreneurs. With each piece, we dream of creating a work so compelling that it nudges aside just a single one of the plethora of works by Dead White European Males (DWEMs) that fill the programs of symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles – a composition so enthralling that enraptured audience members call for – nay, DEMAND its immediate repetition! We dare to entertain the idea that, through publication, far-flung distribution and numerous performances, OUR work will someday enter the rarified air of the pantheon of “standard literature.”

For some composers, the dream becomes a reality. Others die surrounded by a lifetime’s accumulation of unpublished scores of unperformed works. But, like the abandoned buildings and fading signs, each carefully prepared score stands as a testament to the heartfelt dream of its composer.


In 1987 I won the American Bandmasters Association/Ostwald Award for my band piece “Synergistic Parable.”

I received this welcome news via a phone call from Dr. Charles A. “Pete” Wiley, head of the Ostwald judging committee.  After some discussion about the piece and the resultant upcoming performance by the US Marine Corps Band at the ABA National Convention, Pete posed a thought-provoking question:

“So, why haven’t I heard of you?”

I had no answer.  While the piece was not a commissioned work, it had received a superb premiere by the Northwestern University Wind Ensemble under the direction of the legendary John Paynter.  Additionally, I spent hours each week writing letters, sending sample scores and recordings of my handful of works to musicians across the country, and following up with phone calls.  I knew at the tender age of 30 that I was not exactly a household word in the music field.  But the question was a stumper for two reasons – first, that Pete thought he should have heard of me and second that, because he had not, I was probably doing something wrong.

Concert music composition (or “classical,” or “nonpop” – pick your term) is a curious discipline.  There is no logical path to success.  Glorious Achievement A rarely leads to Opportunity B; the ladder to success is very tall, uniquely personal, and is missing a number of rungs.  Career development is influenced by numerous external  factors, including being at the right place at the right time – as evidenced by an orchestral commission I secured purely by happening to contact a Music Director one day after another composer they had commissioned had backed out of the agreement!

But back then, basking in the glow of my Ostwald Award and newly published work I was sure that, like actors who win Oscars, my phone would now be ringing off the wall with commissions and opportunities.  However, I soon noticed that even though I had won perhaps the most prestigious composition honor in the band world and the piece was published and available, the phone did not ring, sales of the publication were only modest, and most band directors I contacted still had no idea who I was or that I had won the award.

In a blinding epiphany, I learned the Great Truth: You make your own opportunities.  No one will make your composition career for you, nor will any single award, honor or performance.  Stay humble, and sell yourself every time.  Spend two hours doing PR for every hour you spend composing.  The recipe for success is…to market and network as if you have had no success!

As if no one had ever heard of you!