Critiquing student composers

November 16, 2006

The art and craft of appraising, critiquing, and suggesting improvements to a piece of music in progress by a student composer has become a new experience for me after watching the blunt, insensitive, and sometimes right but sometimes just for entertainment critiques offered up by the panel on American Idol or Tim from Project Runway.

It is difficult to publicly offer criticism to a composer in front of his/her peers. And I say this especially at the undergraduate level. My tendency is to be more tolerant, and encourage them to compose as much as possible. When they are GRADUATE students, then they can get grilled, as do young architects and designers. Criticism of graduate students needs to be blunt, honest, but sensitive. These are human beings who are studying to make a career, and if the teacher fails to do his job by leading them astray in the ivory tower and not making the student aware of the real world, the teacher is not doing his job.

I think about this now because this morning, Channel 5 KTLA had a TV news host competition, where this Val Kilmer look alike guy, who was indeed nervous and everyone said so, stood up and took all of the criticism from three “judges” as well as all of the morning news crew. Two men from the news crew just clobbered the poor kid and you could see him just dying on camera. He then pulled himself together and fired back some upbeat remarks. Michaela healed the moment with her sensitive critique, but WOW, I sure wouldn’t want to have been that guy, standing up there and taking all that public humiliation.

Being a professor at a state university, I have to be extremely careful about avoiding litigious situations. For this reason, I have found the Buddhist principle of non-attachment mixed with a dose of feeling that these students are my younger siblings whom I care about, has helped me strike a happy medium.

The cavalier style of criticism leveled at the American Idol competitors does not work in higher education. It is perhaps more appropriate in a bullfight arena.

[Photograph by Michael Reichman]

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