Frost School of Music and its approach to online concerts
University of Miami Frost School of Music is one of the most highly acclaimed innovative music schools in the United States. Being one of the first to create a music engineering program back in the 70s, it is also one of the schools standing at the forefront of pioneering music technology.
Photos provided by Charles Mason
"[A lot] has changed in the last twenty years: once, you had to go to a university to have access to top-notch synthesizers and computers, but now you have almost all of that on your laptop," Charles Mason, the professor of composition and chair of the Department of Theory and Composition at the Frost School, begins. "Our focus has changed towards providing students with the things that they are not able to afford, such as really good microphones, eight or more channels of speakers, and things like that."

Mason elaborates that this is a part of the bigger goal of providing a well-rounded musical education. "There's no way we can predict, in four or six years, what specific job opportunities are going to be available to the musician, but what we can do is provide an education that is broad enough and deep enough that, regardless of what it is, the newly graduated music student can easily adjust."

The school is renowned for its Frost Method, which is a unique approach that the school takes to teach ear training and theory. Having classes built in an experiential format allows classical musicians to learn by doing. "Several decades ago there was perhaps a similar approach to teaching music called comprehensive musicianship," Dr. Mason shares. "It did not succeed because there has to be support for such a method at the structural level and a commitment to work out the snags that come about."

The experiential method can be implemented well due to the small class size, which usually consists of five to eight students. In the ear training sections, in addition to sight singing, dictation, and keyboard harmony, students are also taught to improvise over chord progressions. "For example, students in one class can be sight reading an assignment, the teacher can, at a certain point, stop the musicians and ask the oboist 'you are playing a C, what note is the bassoonist playing?' It requires a great deal of individual attention to teach students to be able to play extemporaneously," the professor notes.

At the Frost School, the curriculum is informed by its through lines, known collectively as CREATE, so it is not surprising that Composition is one of the priorities at the school. "Learning to compose is a priority, not only for composition majors, but for performers [too]," Mason states. In the core experiential theory courses, students are placed into classes where each small section has at least one student from each instrumental family. This creates small chamber ensembles that perform the composition assignments accompanying each new theory topic.

What really catches young composers' attention, though, is the openness of Frost's performers to explore and play their compositions. "The type of performance students we get are interested in new things. They're not here to simply learn orchestral excerpts, but want to produce recitals that are exciting and engaging for an audience," Charles conveys. "In a lot of schools, the composer has to go begging for performers to play their music, whereas here it's the other way around! Performance majors often send out requests to the composition students asking for new works to be premiered on their degree recitals."
There is a myriad of opportunities for collaboration, both in and out of the classroom. For instance, Dr. Mason has partnered with Professor Levitz, the school's viola professor, to promote teamwork between their students. The composers get a chance to work with violists on new pieces and take those pieces into the viola lesson to see how certain passages work. At the end of the year, a concert is held featuring the violists performing all of the new pieces. Mason also mentioned that their violin professor, Professor Flavin, requires students in his graduate contemporary performance class to commission a composer at Frost for the final project.

At the same time, Frost places an emphasis on enhancing the media presentation of concerts. Among the challenges the pandemic has posed for music schools is the transition from live performances to online streaming. In an effort to provide its audience with the best possible virtual concert experience, the school has installed a multi camera configuration in its main concert hall, and the composition department held its student composers' concert on October 13th using the gear.

"Because of concerns over Covid, we decided not to do a live streaming of the concert because there were going to be too many times when we had to take long breaks to recycle the air, so we used the time to do two or three takes of each piece," Charles explains. "The students were provided with an audio and a video recording featuring five different camera angles of all takes." More importantly, the musicians were tasked with working with Final Cut or Premiere Pro to create an engaging video of their piece, switching between the various camera angles.

While the Covid-19 crisis has made such adaptations inevitable, Mason claims that at Frost, the question of how to create a captivating user experience has been around for years. "We've always been thinking about how the visual experience can be dynamic, but now we can really focus on this," he elucidates. "We've been talking in my department [about] how can we create a way [that would] bring in people who wouldn't normally listen to new music … in and show them why we love it."

As an example, Mason described his opera Entanglements written in 2013, which was performed by the Frost Opera Theater Program under the direction of Dr. Alan Johnson and featured multiple scenes performed simultaneously in separate gallery rooms in the Lowe Art Museum. The audience was encouraged to walk in and out of the various galleries so that each person would have a unique understanding of the narrative.

Adjusting to unexpected situations in the industry and being able to invent creative solutions for them is what Frost aims to foster in its students. "The way we teach composition is, you come in and we try to figure out what makes you unique, what you're trying to do, and then help you with it," Mason adds. "While we provide students with many different composition tools, the ultimate goal is that each person develops in a way that is unique to each of their backgrounds, and makes use of the tools we have provided to realize those visions."
Photo of Charles Mason
The first two years of composition consist of exposing musicians to different musical techniques, and, in the professor's words, can change people's lives. They are then followed by two years of one-on-one lessons with one of the composition professors (Dr. Hindman, Dr. McLoskey, and Dr. Mason). Charles states that students are required to have lessons with all three of the professors "because each has something to offer."

Additionally, students are required to take entrepreneurship, music technology, orchestration, conducting, performance classes, and counterpoint — which, the professor states that while it can be a rather dry subject, often has the biggest impact on a composer.
"[Counterpoint] is this abstract thing [where] all of a sudden they're learning to hear four different voices It's like they've gone from throwing a ball and now they can juggle five balls at the same time," Charles laughs.
After majoring in composition, Frost alumni work not only in this field but in different parts of the music industry. "We've got a number that are teaching at other academic institutions. Matt Taylor, [who] is at Middlebury, [has] created this whole performance improvisation festival; we have others that have gone into music publishing, some that are writing music for high schools; another has moved into video graphic novel[s], we have some that are in the film music industry," Charles recalls off the top of his head.

Even when one decides to change paths, they still generally remain in the entertainment and media industries, becoming entertainment lawyers, among others. "We also get a lot of international students [that] go back to their countries where they are running composition programs at their universities," he adds.

While you don't have access to composer internships when studying composition at Frost, Mason mentions that some of the other departments offer them. At the same time, the professor talks about receiving requests from musicians around the area who will either need original music for their lyrics, or a student to compose a piece. "We also have a student chapter of Society of Composers, Inc., who produce up to six concerts a year," he continues.

One of those concerts consists of the student organizers teaming up with film students, who create short films, where composers score the projects and an orchestra plays live with the screening of the finished works in a large movie theatre. Mason tells me it's very special, with awards given out at the end.
"Generally, if you're getting an undergraduate degree in composition, your next step is to get into graduate school because there's just so much to learn," the professor points out. "We have great success with our undergraduates: they always manage to get into top graduate schools, and they also usually get assistantships [there]."

When stepping out into the real world, however, a lot of the time young composers try to guess what will be popular or useful. What is detrimental about this is that your focus abruptly shifts from getting fulfilment from composition to gaining awards. Receiving a grant from 3M to study creative leadership, Mason explored various studies on creativity and found two things that impeded it: being punished for being creative and being rewarded for it. "You realize, in both cases, the attention has changed from focusing on the joy of doing it to either avoid[ing] the punishment or get[ting] a reward."

Another mistake that Mason discusses is letting rejections affect you personally. "I often will pull out a folder of rejections and say: 'okay, you see this? This is how many rejections you better have before you can even feel sad!' Because you're not trying hard enough if you don't have tons of rejections," Mason laughs.

"You wish it was like track and field where there's a clear winner: whoever gets to the finish line first wins. There's no 'well, I don't like the way that one was running so I am going to choose someone else as the winner.' Music isn't like that. You need to get your joy of composing from composing. If you like what you created, that should be enough. Of course, that is an ideal, but as long as you keep reminding yourself of that, you will live a much happier life."
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