Teaching to the Interest not the Known
The music industry is evolving. What composers can do now to earn a living is vastly different than even 20 years ago. The styles of music composers can draw on are also different, as are composers backgrounds and musical interests.
Music Educators, more than ever, need to teach to the students' interests and break out of their comfort zone of known musical styles and options.
The statement "every student is unique" has been said ad nauseum to the point one wonders how: can every student be unique and yet teachers still follow some sort of curriculum? In terms of music students, particularly composition students, the key is to discover the unique qualities of the student and highlight what they learn with an eye on what makes them unique. While there are certainly general "skills" every student needs to learn, as the student progresses into Masters studies, their individuality needs to be encouraged.
For students to succeed, they will need to enhance their unique qualities. This is particularly true for composers, more so than with other musicians. Violinists can play like other violinists and still find work, even excel in their field if they play well. But composers need to find a unique voice if their music is going to be performed. We can't write like Mozart, even if we could write better than Mozart. Because an ensemble is not going to play music that sounds like Mozart, when they can just play Mozart. The same is true of sounding like John Adams or Phillip Glass. Why would an ensemble play "Chip Michael" sounding like Phillip Glass when they will get more audience to their performances simply by playing the music of Phillip Glass? - they wouldn't. As a composer I need to find my sense of individuality.
Using myself as an example: my music is filmic, perhaps somewhat like John Williams or James Newton Howard. Yet, it is also rhythmic and gritty, like that of John Adams. I have an interest in writing orchestral music. Therefore, my personal focus is learning to compose for film and/or working with large forces in music. Writing atonal music or electro-acoustic music isn't an interest for me. As such, my focus and training should be toward styles that work in the industry most similar to my interests --film music.
Students be aware: your instructors can't know everything. Therefore what I'm suggesting for composition instructors is a pretty tall order. Because my own interests are in film music, I will not be as good at bringing out the interesting and unique aspects of atonal or electro-acoustic music as I am for a student studying orchestra/film music. What I can do is know enough about the field to guild the student in the right direction.
As instructors, we should be well versed in how to research a topic. So, if you end up with a student whose interests are in a field you're not familiar, research it. Work with the student and research the topic together. Masters student will particularly relish this because it will highlight their individuality by realizing they are venturing into uncharted territory (at least in terms of the staff on hand).
The internet (particularly social media) is a great way to connect with others in the music industry. Reach out with Twitter and Facebook to find other instructors, composers and musicians who are interested in the same things as your student(s). Connect the student with these people. If these connections lead to success, you'll get residual glory on having made the introduction.
The key to this article is for music/composition instructors to branch out. You don't need to become an expert in styles that aren't something you want to incorporate into your own music. But, you should be connected with people who are experts, know where expert resources are and be able to guide your students to areas and people who will give them the most related education.