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A New Summer Program in Philly Focuses on Teenage Girls Learning the Art of Classical Composition

Dayne Topkin/Unsplash

A group of high school girls are spending two weeks this July on the Temple University campus, immersing themselves in the world of music composition. They're taking classes in music theory, ear training, and composition of orchestral scores and songs, using electronic as well as acoustic music.

It’s the first Young Women Composers Camp—a concentrated effort to encourage more women composers to enter a field dominated by men.Watch this Facebook performance of their work!

What better way to address a looming inequity?

When it comes to classical music, data compiled by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the 2016-2017season, shows compositions by women accounted for just 1.3% of the performances of the nation’s 85 largest major and regional symphony orchestras.

The numbers don’t vary significantly from previous Baltimore Symphony Orchestra “By the Numbers” reports for the 2015-2016 season covering 89 major and regional orchestras, and the initial 2014-2015 season report, covering 21 major orchestras.

Composer and YWCC Founder Erin Busch

The impetus for the camp stemmed from the experience of Temple graduate Erin Busch, a 27-year-old cellist and composer who has persevered in a field without many role models. This fall she’ll start a doctorate program in composition at the University of Pennsylvania.

Busch’s path.  Busch grew up in Newtown, Pennsylvania.  She started composing short pieces on the piano when she was eight, and continued writing through middle school, high school, college and graduate school.  Although her parents encouraged her, Busch didn’t know any other girls writing music.  “When I would go to camps or festivals that had a composition element, I’d be the only girl there, or maybe there’d be one other. And, you know, ten boys.”  

The lack of female composers was also evident in the music she played throughout middle school and high school. “Playing in orchestra it was Bach, and Beethoven,” says Busch.  “Even new works would be written by men. It was hard to understand that women can be successful in the field when that wasn’t really visible to me.”  

When she applied to Temple, Busch almost didn’t apply to the composition program.  She thought music education might be a better career option. But she really enjoyed composing and went for it.  She was accepted to Temple as a composition student in 2009—one of two women in a department of 13.  She received a dual master’s in music composition and cello in 2015.

That reluctance is not uncommon says Cynthia Folio, who teaches composition, and heads the Music Studies Department at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. Folio, who also composes, started improvising on the flute at age eight. 

But as a teenager in the early ‘70s a career in composition didn’t seem possible. “I had no idea that women could compose,” she says. “There were no camps. There were no role models. There were no women composers in history books.”  

It's getting better, but there's a long way to go. This past spring, of the 24 composition students at Temple, four were women.  The imbalance is typical and likely the topic of discussions at colleges, universities and music schools across the nation.

Why are there so few performances of music written by women?  And why do so few women enter the field?

The reasons may be many, but one is the failure to reach and teach young women at an early age.  “We need to close the gender gap by encouraging and empowering young girls to write music, says Folio. “We need to give them the resources and training they need.”  

A SolutionThe idea of starting a camp to foster women composers hit Busch when she was driving one day. What better way to address a looming inequity?  

With the help of Folio, she’s been organizing the project for over a year. Busch believes the Young Women Composers Camp is the first of its kind in the country.  

Local music organizations worked to get the word out, and both local and non-local musicians and composers shared a Facebook post announcing the camp.  The 18 students will attend for free, or pay $350 for the two-week camp from July 9th though July 20th.

A slew of classical and jazz composers and musicians who are mostly, but not exclusively, women, have signed on to participate. Along with ten Temple-related faculty, 14 musicians will share tips about composing for their instruments. The all-female string quartet ATLYS will serve as the camp’s ensemble-in-residence.

Guest composers Missy Mazzoli and Sarah Kirkland Snider will each spend a day talking with students. (Both women are included in a Washington Post article listing The Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music.)

Mazzoli is passionate about nurturing young composers, particularly young women. “Especially when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen you’re trying to figure out where to go to college, trying to figure out what to do as an artist, and if you want to dedicate your life to this. There’s this false sense you have to figure everything out on your own.”

Knowledge, tools, advice and inspiration can make a huge difference. “It can be one conversation that can change someone’s life,” says Mazzoli.

And that is exactly what Busch envisions: an environment full of encouraging signs, support, and the tools for what it takes to succeed. “It’s really very personal to me.”

On July 20th, at 2 PM, the Young Women Composers Camp culminates in a recital at Presser Hall on Temple’s campus. The students will sing in a chorale. Their miniature compositions will be performed by ATLYS; and, if all goes well, they’ll return home with a renewed belief in own potential, and much more familiarity with what they need to bring it to fruition.