"[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."