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Making music: Music composition students face struggles in small program

Making music can be “lonely.”

Mark Phillips, distinguished professor of music composition and electronic music, can get jealous of other artists. Artists can work together in studios with music blaring, he said, but composers can’t sit in coffee shops because Muzak can interrupt the creative process.

“Composition is a very lonely, very isolated occupation when you’re actually doing the composing,” Phillips said. “It’s very solitary at that point.”

And it can be solitary even at a large college.

Since fall 2014 at Ohio University, six to 12 undergraduate and graduate students out of more than 20,000 are studying music composition. At most, one of those students per year is female, according to data from OU’s Office of Institutional Research.

The making of the music

The music composition major is housed in the music department within the College of Fine Arts. At the helm is Phillips.

Phillips has been teaching at OU for more than 30 years and will be retiring from full-time teaching at the end of this academic year. He originally got into music composition in the ’60s when everyone felt like being a songwriter, following the lead of The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Phillips enjoys making works for performers he knows and collaborating on projects, creating new and innovative sounds. For example, his composition for OU’s bicentennial celebration used a large metal wok of coins to illustrate the monetary problems the university faced in its history.

The composition process can include long hours in a lonely studio. A piece he composed for OU musicians going to Carnegie Hall took four to six weeks, during which he worked up to 20 hours a day.

The process for creating a new work can differ between each composer. For example, T.R. Beery, a first-year graduate student studying music composition, works backward.

“Usually when I’m working, I almost always have to have the ending first,” Beery said. “If I start at the beginning, I’ve already ruined the piece. … I have to know what that moment is going to be.”

Bobby Lucas, a second-year graduate student, said he keeps his ideas on a wall of Post-it notes and in two notebooks. But starting a project without being able to complete it immediately can be difficult.

“The hardest part for me is a lot of times when I start a piece, I just finish it,” Lucas said. “And if I don’t do that, I just let it sit there and, for some reason, that can be really difficult to get back in and finish that piece. So, I have a lot of unfinished projects that I would like to finish, but I don’t know if I ever will.”

Composing work for movie scores, which might win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, includes another level of support that Phillips doesn't have.

“There’s a lot of shorthand or composing by committee,” Phillips said. “A composer who does a lot of film music probably has a staff. I don’t have a staff. So, if you have a staff, you write some part of a melody and you write a couple of chords and then give it to someone else and can say, ‘You know what my last movie sounded like. I want that same kind of scoring for this idea.’ There’s a little bit of that that goes on that isn’t a part of my world.”


In the lobby of Reed Hall, Kaitrin McCoy would sit at the piano and play songs to help her relieve stress or process her emotions. As her mother and grandmother were accomplished pianists, she continued the family tradition. In those moments where she was meeting cute boys or dealing with friends who treated her badly, she started creating her own music.

That’s the crux of her music — a connection with herself that only she knows. And when she decided to add a composition major to her collegiate pursuits, which already included a major in journalism, she had a hard time coming to terms with her inspiration and passion.

“There was one thing I struggled with ever since I allowed myself to think of myself as a composer,” McCoy, a 2014 OU graduate, said. She is currently a writer and content marketer with TiER1 Performance Solutions in Cincinnati.

“I have always struggled with the fear that my work isn’t legitimate enough, isn’t serious enough, isn’t whatever word you want to put in there,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s because I have a hard time owning my own personal definition of who I am as a woman.”

McCoy is proud and self-aware of her womanhood and was aware of it during her studies as the only female in her undergraduate composition major. And that’s not an uncommon statistic. Since 1934, there have been 57 composers honored with an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Nine females have won the Award, but only three were won without at least one male counterpart.

Some music composition majors, including Beery, Lucas and Zack Spivey, said they can struggle with composing for the voice, all citing a problem with finding lyrics to connect with in their composition.

That wasn’t a problem for McCoy.

McCoy created a one-act musical — music, script and lyrics — that followed the story of Peter Pan from Wendy’s perspective for her thesis at OU.

“When I was in the program, … I felt like I didn’t really belong because what I was drawn to again and again were songs,” McCoy said. “A lot of it was being with a lot of composers that were really interested in things that didn’t interest me as much, made me feel really insecure. … I’m really proud of myself that I stuck with it.”

Phillips recognizes that it can be easier to recruit women to a collegiate program where women are in the decision-making roles. Phillips is the only department member.

“(Female representation is) worse than computer programming (ratios) in some regards,” Phillips said. “It’s changing. I wish it would have changed more to the point where we would notice it here.”

The final note

In the future, someone in the field of music composition will be able to work in a variety of occupations. Working solely on the craft, or using it as well as its outcomes for teaching, are just two possibilities. No matter the choice, Spivey knows there can be a judgment on a composer’s contribution to the world.

“It’s definitely a challenging argument. … We need engineers that are solving all the big problems of today, and not people just sitting around and writing music,” Spivey, a senior studying music composition, said. “I think that people also need to be happy and need to have outlets. … I think there’s always going to be a need for music just because people need it.”

Although McCoy’s career leans on her journalism education, she still prioritizes music. She balances her career with being in a band called Icky Romantic, with her boyfriend and her brother, and she continues to write and compose songs.

She knows exactly what she wants, and music is a part of that.

“What I don’t want for my life is … a traditional career path,” McCoy said. “Realizing that, I define myself more by ‘hobbies.’ I’m not going to pursue a career path that requires so much of my time and my mind and my abilities that I’m utterly drained when I get home and can’t pursue music.”

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