Exploring Art Song: The Composer Focus Project

What is Composer Focus?

A custom-designed, interdisciplinary immersion seminar, examining many works of one particular composer.

student performance

How would Composer Focus enhance our voice students’ experience?

Julia Bentley enjoys a distinguished performing career spanning all classical vocal genres. Much in demand as a soloist in chamber settings and the vibrant new music scene, she has become an advocate for incorporating this challenging repertoire into the collegiate curriculum during her years at the DePaul University School of Music.

Can you bring Composer Focus to my school?

I'd love to! Let's talk it over. Send me an email.

Mission Statement

Initiated in 2008, Composer Focus has become a highlight of the vocal area at the DePaul School of Music in Chicago. It is designed to afford music students an in-depth exposure to the works of one composer, a luxury in the whirl of repertoire covered in the conservatory curriculum.

The young singer is confronted by a multifaceted and demanding learning curve as he launches his musical training: multiple eras, multiple languages, multiple genres—and the clock is ticking, as he attempts to gain a broad exposure within the limitations of the required course work. Something has to give to make way for this procession of revered masters, and that sacrifice will perforce be the opportunity to engage with an extended body of work by any single composer.

messiaen page from score

Likewise, the imperative compilation of a healthy, diverse repertoire makes it impractical to devote the time required by many of the masterpieces of the Art Song canon, namely those song cycles that demonstrate an expansive scope, both in length and in the demands on the performers’ musicianship. Dividing the songs of a cycle among a group of performers keeps the effort required of each singer manageable, fosters a supportive, collaborative atmosphere, and offers the audience a completely unique, fresh perspective on the dramatic trajectory of a work usually performed by a single voice.

Sample programs (PDF)

Finally, building a program with this narrow focus requires a marriage of scholarly and artistic dedication, with a degree of entrepreneurism and targeted marketing, skills of undeniable practical value in the 21st-century musician’s career. Composer Focus is not only of singular pedagogical value to the student, but also an attractive example of the kind of creative programming we are increasingly seeing from concert presenters in the professional arena, as they court audiences for classical music.

britten Composers featured in this project have certain prerequisite traits: a clear dedication to the voice as a medium, a sufficiently extensive catalogue of vocal works, and options for chamber music selections, both with and without voice. In addition, the nature of the project as a supplement to the school’s curriculum invites an examination of works unlikely to be encountered within the parameters of standard vocal repertoire (for example, songs by Hindemith, or Poulenc’s Tel jour, telle nuit rather than the more familiar Fiançailles pour rire).

The inclusion of chamber music is essential to the success of a Composer Focus program, as it reveals new dimensions of the composer’s own voice, offering variety and perspective to both students and audience members. Another consequence of the rigorous demands of the music student’s schedule is that areas of study remain largely isolated, with relatively few opportunities for singers to interact with instrumentalists. Incorporating chamber music, also selections without singers, achieves an interdisciplinary exposure for all. Such easy access to a wealth of talent will never be so readily available to these musicians as during their degree work, and yet it’s a resource that most will leave untapped.

At DePaul, the mid-point of the academic year proved to be a good fit for the Composer Focus concerts, with repertoire having been assigned immediately as the Fall Quarter began, the long break between Fall and Winter Quarters at the students’ disposal for final preparation and coachings, and the opening weeks of January allotted to ensemble rehearsals, leading to brilliant showcase concerts safely completed before the Winter Quarter’s opera rehearsals got underway.

Julia Bentley with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, offering masterworks of the Art Song repertoire including Messiaen's Harawi, Hindmith's Das Marienleben, Poulenc's La Voix Humaine, Britten's Winter Words, Schoenberg's Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Crumb's Apparition.

The project lends itself easily to ancillary programming; other faculty and ensembles were encouraged to consider assigning works of the featured composer; students brought selections to WFMT, Chicago’s classical radio station, broadcast live as publicity for both the concert dates as well as for the high quality of work being done at the music school; interdepartmental efforts created additional performances which enhanced special lecture series presented by the Humanities Department; startled coeds at the main library atrium were treated to a “flash mob” rendition of John Cage’s Litany of the Whale. Each singer received an individual coaching, a master class performance, and at least one formal performance. With efficient scheduling, these events could be encompassed in a two-week residency; this compact profile means the students can have an intensive supplemental unit without adding a full course credit to their already jam-packed schedules.

Diving right into Pierrot Lunaire as my first taste of singing Schoenberg, I could not have been in better hands than with Julia Bentley and her Composer Focus program.  Ms. Bentley guided my experience with extreme dedication, providing coachings at all stages, which helped me learn, tweak, and perform this complicated piece with great familiarity and comfort.  The technique of Sprechstimme is one not typically taught, and her formula for approaching it was 100% successful.  She gave me and the other students ample materials for study during both the Schoenberg and Britten programs, where many students gained the valuable experience of working with chamber musicians as a vocalist.  Ms. Bentley provided us with tools to use in a collaborative setting.  She was always there when we needed her for extra coachings or to answer long, panicky emails.  It was by far my favorite experience at DePaul!

Kaitlin Foley, MM from DePaul

"Tell me more about how we can implement the Composer Focus Project at our school!"


“Julia’s joy and enthusiasm in performing, teaching and coaching is infectious. Her ability to express herself in wonderful idiomatic and imaginative language, that helps the student understand and achieve what they are seeking to project in a piece of music, is truly inspirational. Her successful and inspiring program, Composer Focus, has been a great affirmation not only of the quality of voice student, but also of the standards we try to instill in general in the vocal program at De Paul.”

— Elizabeth Byrne, Instructor of Voice, DePaul University School of Music


"I just learned more about singing than I had ever learned before."

— conductor Michael Lewanski, after a blitz lecture
on the vocal mechanism to instrumentalists in Ensemble 20+


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