Ljova portrait by Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster

Professors discouraged me against grad school – and it worked

Ljova portrait by Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster

Fun fact — I did not go to grad school — my only degree is a bachelor’s in viola performance. Everything else I do — composing, arranging, film scoring, improvisation, fadolín, recording — are things I’ve gained experience in outside of an academic setting, on the job, in the act of doing.

This was not the original plan — I intended to go to college and major in music composition, but my dad, composer Alexander Zhurbin, insisted that I complete a bachelor’s degree in an instrument — just as he had in his youth, completing a degree on the cello at the conservatory in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, before studying composition with Shostakovich, Khachaturian and Peiko at the conservatory in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) — and only then, after completing an undergraduate degree with a firm grasp on performance, focus on composition studies. During my high school years, I took some composition lessons with Bruce Adolphe, Alex Yagupsky, and Christopher Vassiliades, and would often show works-in-progress to my dad.

In my junior year of Juilliard as a future Bachelor of Viola, I had an email exchange with a composition professor about studying with them and applying for graduate school.

Their response surprised me — here’s an attempt to paraphrase (from memory) what they said:

“Lev, you seem to be doing well in the real world — writing pieces, getting them performed…. Doing a master’s in composition is beneficial for people who need a safe place to write for a few years. You don’t seem to have that problem — stay in the real world, it’s the only place where you can make a difference.”

The professor’s email response had a profound effect on me — I did not apply to grad school that year or next, and continued to write music, perform, record albums, collaborate with filmmakers and choreographers, and getting pieces performed.

When I finally applied to grad school, nearly 20 years later, as a young dad of two kids with an extensive discography and catalogue, I was rejected. Asking for comments from a professor on the faculty, they replied (again, somewhat in paraphrase)..

“the biggest single issue is that your music isn’t very weird — which is totally fine, not a criticism –– but we tend to take people who are deforming or warping or doing something overtly odd with musical materials …. When we look at the applications with the whole faculty, someone might say — “Ljova is doing great, seems to be writing the music he wants, what does he need us for?” Meanwhile we have some weird person living out in the woods writing crazy music that has a bright sparkle of crazy originality –– without us they’re doomed …”

The core sentiment is the same as before — “you seem to be doing well in the real world…. what do you need us for?”

So I have remained, all these years, a composer embedded in the community of performers, someone who has thousands of hours of experience observing and interacting with musicians and audiences, studying and practicing works new and old, and being inside a performer’s head. I used to think of myself as a “self-taught” composer, but the reality is that I’ve had many mentors — filmmakers, choreographers, stand partners, mix and mastering engineers, musicians from so many diverse musical backgrounds, mentors in music preparation, and of course composers living and otherwise — everyone has taught me something. The totality of this experience has been and continues to be my education.

My lack of a graduate degree has given me a very welcome sense of insecurity — I have no formal validation of what I have learned in these years, I have not had a community of professors or students to receive feedback from, and I still feel like that kid in high school writing pieces for their classmates. I have no composing table — I prefer to write at cafes, in transit, recording ideas into my phone while walking, improvising on my instrument —- every new work is a mystery puzzle and no amount of formal validation should make this less fraught.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me whether they should do a graduate degree in music composition. I returned the favor and asked — “do you need a safe place to write for a few years”? I have not had the safety of that space — I have stayed in the real world, just as my intended composition professor had suggested, and that has made a lot of difference in how I approach composing. Perhaps that was their best lesson…

…. this makes for a nice “button” to a post, but that’s not where I want to leave it…

I don’t want you to think I’m against grad school — of course, you should always seek out opportunities to learn, to be exposed to other perspectives and to explore artistically. I’m very lucky to have grown up in a musical family, in a city filled with musicians and opportunities to hear and create new music of all kinds. You certainly don’t need a degree in music to be a musician — but you do need a degree of exposure and curiosity.

At the same time, I’m grateful to my dad for the suggestion of doing undergraduate work as a performer — to be engaged as a performer/composer, having a fadolín in my hands and playing for audiences feels particularly healing in this time.

See you out there!


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