A Qualitative Examination of Undergraduate Music Students’ Compositional Identity
The primary purpose of this study was to describe what comprises an undergraduate compositional identity. Building upon recent research investigating musical identities with a social psychological framework (Macdonald, Hargreaves, & Miell, 2002), I examined the confluence of socially based experiences that shaped four undergraduate composers’ lives. Specifically, this study investigated the concept of undergraduate compositional identity by examining the development, experience, and compositional voice of undergraduate composers. This approach parallels the research of Davidson (2002) which examines three primary factors of musical identity development: (1) environmental factors, (2) casual but frequent exposure to music and performance contexts, and (3) role of key others. Students’ compositional voice and style illustrated their compositional development.
To provide a thorough depiction of the composers’ experiences I utilized both case study design and a narrative approach. Participants in the study were traditional-aged undergraduates between 17-24 years, enrolled as full time undergraduate composition majors at a small Northeastern school of music. Semi-structured interviews, correspondence with participants, and observations at the school site were used for data collection. Data analysis included coding as well as storyboard techniques to facilitate organization and presentation of narratives and case studies.
Analysis of within case data revealed that the four undergraduate composition majors were supported throughout their musical development by accommodating home environments, consistent exposure to quality musical experiences, and knowledgeable teachers and mentors. Additionally, the composers’ styles were constantly evolving and fluid, shifting between personally held opinions of musical expressions and the expectations of their composer-teachers. Cross-case analysis revealed eight themes that prominently shaped the participants’ compositional identity: (1) support of family, (2) the piano as a symbol, (3) view of self as performer, (4) pursuit of multiple undergraduate degrees, (5) role of competition, (6) role of sound sources and muses, (7) view of virtuosic writing, and (8) future career goals. In sum, an undergraduate compositional identity was subject to the tides of students’ ever-evolving self-identities as independent and expressive young people, subjugated to the push and pull of the expectations surrounding a composition degree. Suggestions for future research and implications for music education are provided.