Selected Writings

I recently had one of the most enlightening—and somewhat embarrassing—experiences of my professional career as a composer, which gave me a new understanding of the relationship between the composer and the middle school music teacher. I was commissioned, along with 14 other composers by the American Composers Forum BandQuest project to write a short piece for eighth grade band. As part of the commission, we were asked to pay a couple of visits to a nearby school to work with the children on the piece of music. My school was the Winona Drive Senior School in Toronto. When I had some early sketches for my piece I visited the school. The band director, Louis Papachristos, introduced me to the students and I handed out the parts for them to read through. MORE…


As a professional composer I have recently been visiting schools and working with children on music projects. We composers rarely go into the schools, leaving music education to the teachers. But I have been noticing with concern that schools have fewer and fewer music teachers these days. Music programs are being cut as budget-minded towns are saving money by gradually eliminating the "frills" in education. Math, science, language, civics and history are state-mandated courses-they can't be cut because they are considered vital to a child's education. But many education committees see music as entertainment-it's a nice activity but not basic to educating a child.

Well, then, what is the best way to educate a child? This question has been debated for centuries, but one thing few would argue with: children are motivated to learn when they can be creative, because creativity is the most natural state of mind for a child. When Buckminster Fuller was asked at Harvard the secret to being creative he shocked his academic audience by jumping up and down three times, flapping his arms like a bird, and saying, "Think like a kid! Think like a kid! Think like a kid!" MORE…


“All were quiet and attentive as Michael spoke, briefly explaining that they would create a piece of music right there on the spot using graphics. It piqued everyone’s curiosity and left their minds open for myriad possibilities.”

My journey into the world of creativity for children started in July 2002 at the Art of Wind Band Teaching Symposium, sponsored by Craig Kirchhoff and the University of Minnesota School of Music. The opening presentation featured wind band composer Michael Col grass, a Pulitzer Prize winner who told us about his Winona Drive School project. He explained how he helped groups of Toronto middle school students create soundscapes, music notated with graphic symbols that approximated sounds. In addition, the Winona Drive School Band tested his now famous composition, Old Churches (BandQuest). MORE…


I have always been fascinated at how a composer's value escalates with his death. I can't remember a composer ever saying he felt he was paid adequately for a composition, but even a mediocre composer will easily be paid more than he deserves when he's no longer around.

Take for example a relatively insignificant figure like Russian composer Vassili Kalinnikov, who was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff's. When Rachmaninoff took Kalinnikov's music to a publisher to obtain funds for the deceased composer's widow, the publisher (Jurgenson) said: "Don't imagine that I pay this tremendous sum without a definite reason; I pay it because the death of the composer has multiplied the value of his works by ten." MORE…

The Real Mystery of Salieri

I recently watched the video of Peter Shaffer's 1980's film, Amadeus, about Mozart and his conflict with Antonio Salieri. For those who never saw the movie or the play, here's the premise of the story: Salieri prays to God to make him a great composer, in return for which Salieri promises to lead a life of chastity and self sacrifice. Salieri believes God has answered his prayer when he is appointed Court Composer to Emperor Joseph 11, Austria's most prestigious position for a composer.

The question most people seem to ask after seeing the play or movie is, "Did Salieri really poison Mozart?" And this question has been argued back and forth in the press and by scholars ever since the play first appeared. But to me the more interesting question is, could Salieri's life have been different? Could he have been a better composer? And also, is it possible that Mozart, under different circumstances, might have been a lesser composer? We still don't know all the answers about genetic gifts, but we do know that no genius, so called, ever got that way without very hard work and the development of an enormous amount of skill. MORE…

A Composer Talks Business

I was talking with a businessman recently who told me that goal setting was becoming a major topic in industry. Corporations are paying out huge sums to teach young executives such skills as: How do you set a goal? How do you know when you've achieved it?

I was surprised to hear about this, because most of my friends in the arts have been setting goals for themselves since they were children. They knew at an early age what they wanted to do, and with a clear goal in mind they pursued their training and artistic development to get as far as their talent would carry them. "You were lucky," said the businessinan; "most of us don't know what we want to do until much later in life." MORE…

Letter to a young composer

The composer of so-called serious music is perhaps the most neglected of all artists today. To begin with, his potential audience is minuscule. Then, too, the chances of having his works performed are severely limited. Record sales are most unlikely and public recognition and acclaim are all but out if the question. And so -- not surprisingly -- avant-garde composers often stick together and commiserate.

In the following exchange of letters, a young composer named David Maslanka, an assistant professor of music at the State University College in Genesco, N.Y., and holder of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, sought the counsel of a noted, older colleague, Michael Colgrass, the New York composer and lecturer. MORE…