blog aboutnewsmusicpoetrytypepurchasecontact


Teaching Composition

Here is an issue which deserves some attention: teaching musical composition. To all the composers who are reading this post, you know the process well. Typical composition lessons go one of two ways:

Method #1: The teacher never listens to your music. He makes comments about the layout of the score, maybe he'll make a comment or two about choices or ranges of the instruments. If it's a vocal work, he might point out a vowel that will be hard to sing in the range in which you've written it. You go away wondering how he was able to hear the piece in his head without playing it, and wonder if you actually lack any aural skills and will end up spending your career hoping no one will ever learn that you use the piano when you compose music.

Method #2: The teacher listens to the music, and then proceeds to make all the same comments in method #1. In this case, since he actually heard the music, he might make a comment or two about how nice the music sounds. Or he might make arbitrary suggestions about things to change. "Oh, maybe add some notes to that chord... it sounds too traditional," or "don't forget to make a piano reduction."

Many composition teachers have told me that they believe that composition isn't something you can teach, and that for a teacher to infringe on the individual voice of the student is somehow morally wrong. But I submit to you that this is nothing more than an excuse for a very serious problem, which is that nobody actually knows how the heck to teach composition.

Let's take a moment and compare this to visual art (which is indeed something you can teach). Say an art student took an unfinished landscape painting to his teacher. In Method #1, the teacher blindfolds himself, and feels the texture of the canvas, making comments about the shape of the painting and the texture of the brushstrokes. In Method #2, the teacher looks at the painting, but talks about options for framing, and suggests that the student paint the trees purple, because green is too predictable.

This is essentially the quality of education that most composers are getting at the collegiate level, and it is inexcusable.

Why are composition teachers not teaching essential technical skills needed by composers to craft well-construction compositions? Counterpoint! Harmony! Melody! Orchestration! Form! Teach these if you can, and your students will flourish! Stop thinking you have to make judgement calls about creative work (especially if this makes you uncomfortable) and start giving your students the skills they need to be successful!

Furthermore, are we so far removed from the reality of music as an auditory phenomenon that we must resort to make comments on the visual appearance of a score? If you do not possess sufficient skill in counterpoint, harmony, melody, orchestration, or form, then at least spare your student's dignity, and spend some time listening to the music, and making constructive and critical comments. But be clear with your student: make sure they know they won't be learning anything they can't teach themselves.