5 Questions to Erin Busch (Founder and Artistic Director, Young Women Composers Camp)

Leia Sofia Mendez, a 2018 alumna of the Young Women Composers Camp (YWCC), remarked that the camp, “taught me what it means to be bold, creative, and a risk taker. I am so grateful I was able to take that leap of courage with the support of the women that taught me and were with me at this camp.” It is clear that bold, creative, risk takers abound in both the leadership and the participants of YWCC. In 2018, composer and cellist Erin Busch founded the YWCC, which provides a two week experience at Temple University for female and non-binary students between the ages of 14-19 focused on building composition skills. It’s clear that Busch understands the need behind amplifying the voices of young womxn and allowing them access to a high level of musical training. The program aims to close the gender gap in the music composition field and create a more equitable music sector by focusing on young female, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers in the Philadelphia area.

The online application for the 2020 camp opens today, and this year’s faculty and guest artists include Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Angélica Negrón. As the Young Women Composers Camp enters its second year, Busch agreed to dive into the how and why behind the program.

What is particularly important about offering a summer composition camp for female and non-binary students between the ages of 14-19? Why is that age group important to your work?

The age group of 14–19 is critical to the mission of the Young Women Composers Camp, but I believe that it is also an important age group to keep in mind when considering the future of contemporary music. It is during our high school years when we begin to think about our career options, and some perhaps begin to consider pursuing a life dedicated to the arts. For these students, it is critical that there are sufficient opportunities for them to explore these creative sides of themselves so they might have the chance to see if this is really what they want to do. YWCC aims to give interested students a college-like experience, including private lessons, coursework, and a world premiere performance so that they might consider pursuing a composition degree or continue to compose with more guidance going forward. There are so many performing organizations out there that are looking to program works by a more diverse group of composers, but if our applicant pools at the entry level are already skewed white and male, it makes it much more difficult to diversify at the professional level. In order to build a more diverse future for classical music, we need to address issues of inclusion as pertained to all populations, and that begins with our youth.

Additionally, our young musicians are simply not playing enough/any works by women and people of color, and many youth ensembles don’t program a single work by a living composer (aside from perhaps a film score arrangement) on an average yearlong season. This is a problem, and sends the message to our young artists that we don’t value music that is being written now, nor do we value the unique identities of our students. YWCC aims to give voice to this population, to give them the tools they need to achieve their artistic potential, and to call attention to this systemic issue in the hope that other organizations will begin to pay attention to our young voices (as many now are).

Participants of the 2019 Young Women Composers Camp--Photo by Ryan Brandenberg

Participants of the 2019 Young Women Composers Camp–Photo by Ryan Brandenberg

What work have you done as a festival to make sure that young female and non-binary students feel comfortable and welcomed into your working environment?

We aim to make all aspects of our program welcoming and accessible, starting with our application. We don’t ask for an application fee and don’t require our students to have any prior composition experience to apply. In doing so, we do our best to make sure that students who come from low-income households or live in areas where quality music education is less accessible are not barred from applying. This means that each year, our students bring a wide breath of experiences and skill sets with them, making for a rich and meaningful camp experience for everyone involved. Several of our students each year compose their first piece with us, while others have previously composed works for orchestra, and their mutual support and encouragement of each other is a truly beautiful thing to see.

Our faculty is entirely female and non-binary (aside from one male faculty member, Adam Vidiksis, who runs the music technology department at Temple). By providing students with female/non-binary mentors and peers, we hope to create an environment where our students feel comfortable and at ease with one another from the very first day of camp. I remember the first time I worked with a female composition teacher when I was working on my masters; I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was just something easier about our relationship, almost like I could bring my whole self to the lessons. I hope that we are able to give our students that same feeling by hiring solely female/non-binary faculty and staff members.

We also ask our students to complete several anonymous evaluations throughout the camp, and we are able to make some changes in course content and camp structure while the camp is still going on based on student feedback. I personally read each evaluation closely and take all input seriously, and have made several adjustments in both years of our camp because of suggestions from students. This lets our students know that we are listening to them and value their input, and students are therefore more likely to be honest with us. Each year, the camp gets better and better, in large part because of feedback from our students. We can’t create a universally perfect camp experience, but we can ensure that we put every effort into making it the best it can be for our students by listening to them.

2019 Young Women Composers Camp--Photo by Dylan Principi

2019 Young Women Composers Camp–Photo by Dylan Principi

Can you give us an example of something that really stuck with you that one of the Young Women Composers Camp mentors—which have included Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield, Elainie Lillios, Missy Mazzoli, the members of ATLYS, and more—imparted to the YWCC participants?

One of the most memorable moments for me was this past summer, during Jennifer Higdon’s presentation. Jennifer is one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met in my life, and our students connected with her right away. During her talk, one student asked her about starting a new composition, explaining that they felt overwhelmed by the blank page. Without missing a beat, Jennifer replied that she was terrified of starting new pieces and always thought that she would never come up with another good idea after she finished a piece. She told our students that starting a new piece can be scary and vulnerable, but you need to have faith in yourself and check in with your music every day so it will get easier as you go along. The students were fascinated to learn that this incredibly famous and successful composer had the same problems and insecurities that they had. It was a wonderful teaching moment, and I hope it offered our students some perspective for the next time they are struggling to start a new piece.

How did your commitment to the Philadelphia area come about, and what does it mean to you personally to offer the Young Women Composers Camp in Philadelphia?

Philadelphia is my home and has been for my entire adult life. I moved here in 2009 to start my undergrad in composition at Temple, stayed to do my masters and adjunct there for a bit, and recently started my Ph.D at Penn, just a few miles away in West Philly. I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well over the last ten years as a student, teacher, and citizen, and I can say honestly that this is a city that has an incredible amount of talent but still suffers from extreme social stratification and a multitude of barriers to access. This program is one way that I can give back to a community that means so much to me. 

I also have tremendous love for Temple, where I completed two degrees and taught as an adjunct for several years. The music faculty and staff were on board with the camp right away, and they’ve been supportive in helping me to create something new with this program.

Participants in the 2019 Young Women Composers Camp--Photo by Dylan Principi

Participants in the 2019 Young Women Composers Camp–Photo by Dylan Principi

Underrepresented voices are not in need of another training program that is still unavailable to them because of financial barriers to access. How are you tackling that issue and/or what advice would you give to others who are working to provide accessible programs in their region?

Financial accessibility is certainly a big problem among music programs in general, especially composition programs. My main priority is to make sure that the only students paying for YWCC are the ones who can afford to do so. Each year, we offer several tuition and housing scholarships to our students who need financial assistance. I am proud to say that we have been able to offer at least partial financial assistance to every student who has applied and been eligible for it, and we aim to continue to do so in future years. We also don’t charge an application fee, which is certainly something that I would recommend to other programs out there who are interested in making their programs more inclusive. (Even a $10 application fee can add up pretty quickly when you are applying to multiple opportunities.) We are lucky to have some generous funders who donate to scholarship funds for our students, enabling us to keep our general tuition low ($700 total for both weeks) and to offer financial aid scholarships each year.

We also frequently consider how various accessibility barriers may have affected our applicants outside of the transactional. For example, asking students to submit scores or recordings of their compositions implies that a certain level of existing privilege is required in order to apply. Instead, we ask our applicants to submit whatever they believe best displays their musical potential–perhaps that is in fact a score of a composition, but it could also be a recording of them playing their instrument or improvising with their school jazz band. Our students are also invited to submit drafts or sketches of pieces at any stage of completion. By taking some of the pressure off of the submitted materials, we hope to encourage aspiring composers of all experience levels to apply.