What is the biggest selling point of the Shepherd School of Music?
Photo of Anthony Brandt, provided by Anthony Brandt
Traditionally, there are two choices of music schools. The first one is a music department, which is a good fit if you are excited about composition but not sure that that is what you want to major in. You are interested in a variety of things and would like to be able to switch easily in case you change your mind.

The second choice is a more conservatory atmosphere, which is the place to go if you have decided that composition is really what you want to do and you are willing to give it your all for the four years of college.

"Both solutions are good," says Anthony Brandt, the Chair of Composition and Theory at Rice Shepherd School of Music. "You can end up a professional composer at the highest level following either track." The decision has nothing to do with anything more than where you are at in your development and how convinced you are that composition is really what you want to do.

The first step in deciding is getting a personal sense of where you are and how sure you are that composition is what you want to study, because different schools have different expectations. If you want to get a liberal arts education, schools are looking for someone who has a lot of interests in various fields, whereas if you are applying to a conservatory, you are expected to demonstrate a high level of musicianship and skills.

The Shepherd School of Music is a combination of the two: it is a conservatory within one of the top research universities in the United States. "You have a conservatory atmosphere with a building filled with people who want to make music their life work, … but then you step outside and you have a major research university with all sorts of wonderfully intelligent peers and colleagues and faculty," Anthony explains. For composers, it can be very stimulating and motivational to be in an environment with a diverse and creative community that thinks about climate change, politics, and other issues faced by humanity.
While in some music schools you get accepted into a certain teacher's studio, at Shepherd all students are rotated among the faculty every year, which really brings the whole community together. "Everybody is our student," the professor elucidates. "We really treat it like a family and … this leads to a very wholesome team spirit in our school."

Another important factor for a young composer is being surrounded by musicians who are passionate about performing their works. "Students started an ensemble called Here and Now, and typically, out of a school with about 300 students, over 100 will volunteer to perform in that ensemble," Anthony mentions. "They get no course credit for it and they're doing it in their free time — it just shows the excitement they feel about performing new music." Once a year, they will also hold a student composer concert, and last year, there was so much demand for it that they had to schedule two concerts!

Shepherd's biggest selling point, the professor relates, is the quality of your peers. "When any young composer visits our campus, I just send them to go listen to our orchestra," he tells me. "They walk out with eyes glazed! Just the opportunity to work with such talented colleagues … is the best selling point that we have."

Rice itself has over 4,000 undergraduates and a low student to teacher ratio, which allows students to access their professors easily. "Our department has usually somewhere between 17 to 20 composers, and we have seven composition faculty, so each of us will have two or three students at a given year," Anthony states. "You get a lot of personal attention."

Located in a major American city, the students are always immersed in culture. "I don't think we could say we have the glamour of New York City, or even Boston and San Francisco, in terms of just in the sense of being a cultural mecca", the professor notes. "On the other hand, Houston is one of the only cities in the United States with a major theatre company (The Alley Theatre), as well as major ballet and opera companies, and a symphony orchestra." The city is bustling with culture, and it's much more affordable than other populous cities.

Discussing how the music school prepares its students for the future, Anthony talks about how important agility is for a 21st century musician. Although the school is built on a 19th century model, is very Eurocentric in the music that is taught, and doesn't currently have the ability to expand into areas such as jazz and world music, the professors are focused on training their students to be versatile. At the same time, a lot of attention is put into developing entrepreneurship and building an online presence. "How anyone is going to know your music is largely online", Anthony continues, sharing a story about how he didn't have a website himself for some time. "A musician cannot survive without a proper website."

What makes concert music of the 20th and 21st centuries different is that it has no common practice. "If you were to step into a particular time and place at any point in history and listen to someone's music, it will share the same features as everyone else's music in that culture", the professor elaborates. "In the 20th and 21st centuries that all broke down." Pieces written several years apart in the 20th century may have less in common than works written decades apart in the 19th. It can be very disorienting, yet all the diversity of the past and current two centuries wouldn't have flowered if it wasn't for this loss of common practice. As a composer, it is essential to take in the world around you and all of the rich diversity of what is possible in music, which is something the professors at Shepherd try to inspire their students to do. "That balance between taking risk and experimenting and also mastering the things that help make you articulate, convincing, and impactful … is what, to me, the perfect composition education is about," he states.

The amount of applications the Shepherd School of Music receives varies from year to year, although in general it's trending upwards. "We're still in an economically challenged, out-of-the-way profession," Anthony smiles. However, he finds it incredible and inspiring that we now have wonderful music schools that didn't exist in these kinds of numbers and geographic spread in the 19th century. "As a result, there are more and more incredibly trained, very imaginative, incredibly gifted, and promising composers all over the place," the professor exclaims. "In fact, there are more professional composers in Houston, Texas than there were in Beethoven's Vienna — and that's just Houston, Texas! "

Concluding our conversation, Anthony advises to do what you love. "Every line of work has its ups and downs," he says. "If you're doing what you love, even when you hit the tough times, you're still committed and passionate and happy. In a way, it's a lot like being married: you pick the person that you care about the most and you live together long enough, you're going to have to live through all sorts of challenging circumstances; but when you're with the person you care most about it doesn't matter. I'm grateful to be with the person I care about more than anything in the world, and it's the same thing with what you do with your life. Yes, composition is a difficult field, it's challenging, it isn't always rewarded or honored in the way that it should be even within the music profession, but if it's something that you love to do, I would say at least start with that and give it every try that you can."
Made on