When most see impediments, Manhattan School of Music sees opportunities

Anouk Dyussembayeva | September, 22 / 2020

Attending the State High School of Music in Wernigerode, Reiko Fueting went on to study composition and piano at the Conservatory in Dresden, Germany, then pursue a Master's at Rice University in Houston, Texas, attend Manhattan School of Music for his doctoral degree, and travel to South Korea to study at Seoul National University.

He has received numerous prizes, awards, scholarships, and grants in both Europe and the United States, with his publications include compositions, arrangements, and analytical articles. Aside from being a composer, Reiko has also performed at venues and festivals in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, Austria, Latvia, Russia, Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, China, South Korea, Colombia, and the United States, and appeared as a lecturer at universities and conservatories in China (Chungchun, Beijing, Shenyang), Colombia (Bogotá, Medellîn), Germany (Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Rostock), Russia (Moscow), and the United States (Baltimore, Hempstead, New York, Princeton).

Starting this fall, Reiko's music will be exclusively published by Edition Gravis in Berlin, Germany. One of his next compositional projects is an opera on the life of Mechthild von Magdeburg, which will be premiered in Magdeburg in 2022. Reiko is now the Department Chair of Composition, Theory, and Skills at the Manhattan School of Music.


Photo of Reiko Fueting, provided by Reiko Fueting

Manhattan School of Music has seen a lot of change from the time that Reiko has known it. Although the main focus is still on European classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been new additions such as a department specializing in contemporary music performance, a doctorate in jazz, Baroque classes, a department for musical theater, among others. The school has also seen a drastic increase in the amount of international students — according to the professor, about 50% of the student body consists of students coming from other countries.

"We attract students that work in a conventional way, writing concert music for traditionally trained performers, but we also attract students that are interested in exploring alternative ways of performance in terms of how instruments are being played, how technology is being incorporated, and [people who are] questioning the very sense of what music means," Reiko shares.

Being a renowned conservatory, MSM places a huge emphasis on potential when accessing applicants. Academics are taken seriously, but much focus is geared towards musical practice. "We do give an exam when students apply, so we at least want to communicate what we expect somebody to know, but I also understand that people have different access to resources and education," the professor says. Someone who is curious, original, and critical makes a great applicant, because, while things like basic knowledge and experience are what one can always acquire over time, originality, curiosity, and thinking outside of the box are the things that some people have more than others.

Determining whether someone has potential requires meticulous work, and is something that is hard to do when you're only given 10 to 15 minutes for an interview with a student during the audition. One of the ways Reiko finds helpful in the process is looking at scores and asking questions. "How someone responds to a question shows a great deal of what their mode of thinking is," he explains. "If it's really confronting an issue, problem, what kind of solution could be suggested, but also to what extent conventions of music practice, including notation, are being questioned." Of course, it is still not a guarantee and is a sense, in the professor's words, that develops over time.

It is vital to understand whether the school you are applying to is the right choice, which is something that can be done only through extensive research. "In the true sense of the word, [it] means that you search again and again and again," Reiko tells me. "You really have to know what you want, and you want to find a school that provides the things that you're looking for to the highest degree possible." In order to do that, you have to pay attention to the curriculum of the school, the kind of students it attracts, the teachers and what they do within their own practice, and the environment in which the school is located.

"What I like about Manhattan School of Music is that it challenges itself to define itself, which reminds me a little bit of my hometown Berlin," the professor continues. "Berlin always had, after the wall came down, a pretty extensive process of trying to find its identity, especially among larger European cities." This is not a disadvantage — in fact, it creates a possibility of being open. MSM shares that because when searching for composers, the composition faculty don't look for a specific type: "we have students that are looking for a second career, [and] students that come from various parts of the world with different backgrounds, [whether that be a] very traditional education or not. [It] is a space where [various] approaches as to what we do as composers can co-exist."

A general trend that Fueting sees is schools either providing a space of experiment or generally focusing on what is necessary to establish a career, with Manhattan School of Music leaning more towards the latter. "The largest departments that we have are piano and voice, [which] to a large extent focus on traditional repertoire and practice," he mentions. At the same time, the institution also places emphasis on creating flexibility for musicians to create their own path.

One of the most crucial things for a young composer is one's environment and surroundings. "You want to surround yourself with musicians that work on a very high level and … that, to a certain degree, have a similar approach," the professor believes. "I sometimes research classmates from when I went to Rice to see how different their music is that they are writing now, based on what they had been writing in school, [which turns out to be] the result of their specific musical context in which they are working right now." Reiko himself has studied in environments that are very unique compared to each other, all the way from Germany to the US and South Korea.



"They were very different and that is also the reason why I wanted to study at all these schools," he recalls. Perhaps because growing up in East Germany it was almost impossible to travel, the minute the wall came down, Fueting knew that he wanted to experience studying in a different country. "[In the US], the educational approach is so different because it's so rigorous and organized — most of the things that you have to do are laid out in a very specific sequence that you have to follow," the professor elaborates.

In Germany, on the other hand, where your undergraduate education is organized for two years and then "extremely free for the remaining two or three years". This gives a lot more opportunities to experiment, but there is also a lot that you are supposed to do on your own, which includes the possibility of that not being successful at the same time.

In South Korea, Reiko went to study composition with a specific teacher. "I think I have a sense of how this would work, which is even more rigorous [in comparison to] the US: there's a lot of studying going on, [and] a huge emphasis [is placed] on certain technical skills," he shares. "I would never say one is better than the other; those institutional education approaches have developed over time because of the specific circumstances of exposure to music education in those countries and on the general status of what the music means within the culture."

When choosing a school, it is important to remind yourself that no institution can ever provide everything. They have a certain structure that has to be in place for them to function, that can be flexible only to a certain degree, so it is crucial to be aware of what an institution can and cannot offer. "What it cannot offer shouldn't create disappointment — it should create engagement to get access to th[ose] things elsewhere," the professor says. Develop a clear sense of what one can and cannot get, and then proceed to figuring out what to do about the things one cannot get.

A mistake that music majors do when they prepare for the future is that they don't prepare themselves. "[They] don't really think about the practical issues that will arise such as paying bills and will be, at some point, a reality," Reiko mentions. To prevent that, he believes that it is essential to nurture critical thinking and the idea of not accepting everything, but questioning it, which is a challenge in music.

"The conservatory structure as we know it is rooted in the early 19th century, and that's the time when the composer became an independent entity, [and] able to make a living," Fueting elucidates. "That is also the time that elevated the artists to the status of a hero [and] a visionary … [so] there is always a large amount of 'worship' involved when it comes down to how we feel with the various composers and pieces." The professor thinks that musical institutions and musicians should begin to look at these accomplishments from a more critical perspective — that doesn't diminish the achievements, but in turn highlights the complexities around them.

The pandemic has brought about a lot of drastic change all around the world, with the music industry not being an exception. "In an artistic sense, the pandemic is forcing us to be creative: we're simply not able to follow the conditions that were in place, so [we] have to find other avenues of realizing our ideas," the professor says. Most incoming students at all music schools won't have an essential part of their experience, which is to have their music performed at concert halls.

What most would see as an impediment, Reiko sees as opportunity — meeting MSM freshmen via Zoom, he talked to them about how he wants to create virtual realizations of their compositions. "A concert isn't just about the event, it's also about the documentation," he continues. "The downgrade aspect of the event, [which is that] we can't have concerts anymore, could then trigger an upgrade in documentation of our pieces by providing studio recording sessions to all composers."

Heinrich Schütz was primarily active during The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), one of the most disastrous wars that Germany experienced. "Did he stop composing because of that? Never," the professor states.

Reiko says that because the world is so connected via the internet and with everyone realizing how easy it actually is, there's a lot more opportunities out there. Perhaps not of the conventional type, but others. You have to, in the true sense of the word, discover them. "If someone says there are less, then it means that one thinks about this from [a] specific conventional perspective," he concludes. "Every time has a ton to offer but with the kind of connectedness that exists, you can connect to people everywhere. The amazing thing about human imagination is that it's limitless, so if there's a certain possibility, then there's also the imagination of what we can do with it, and I've already seen amazing results … The opportunities always shift and you just have to realize the potential of the time."