Music Composition Pedagogy 101

1. Before anything else (including asking to see what music the student has written that week, monologuing, critiquing, nit-picking, or nose-picking) ask the student if there is anything in particular that they would like to discuss, present, or ask about. Asking simple questions like this can avoid an enormous waste of time for both you and the student. Items brought up by the student can, of course, include the music that they have been working on, but should not be limited to it. If the student has no particular questions or concerns, then one way to proceed is to ask if they have written any new music since the last lesson.  If the answer is “no”, see principle 2. below.

2. If your student shows up without anything new to show, do not make them feel guilty for it. Guilt rarely acts as a catalyst for the creation of honest and engaging art, and ultimately, in order to be productive, the artist needs to feel responsible to themselves, not to you. Simply because there is no music to look at does not mean that your time as a teacher has been wasted or that, in the face of blank measures, there isn’t anything you can teach the student. You ought to know the student well enough that when no new music is shown to you, you have pertinent material and relevant ideas to teach that can benefit the student and yourself.

Encourage, inspire, and discuss why progress was not made. Offer artistic guidance, if necessary. This may include a discussion of the creative process, idea formation, working habits, fears, sensitivities, or personal dilemmas. If, after careful and sensitive prodding, the reason for not making any progress is simply a lack of time, then openly share some of your own artistic insights, interests, or things that have inspired you in the past or in the present. It is sometimes, but not always appropriate to reschedule the lesson. Making art is often a challenging intellectual and emotional endeavor, and students need more from you than mere composition technique that correlates directly with their current musical output. If you can’t think of anything to offer your students in this type of situation, then either find something to offer, or stop teaching composition.

3. If your student has written new music, be certain to ask relevant clarifying questions before you assume that the a) the piece is complete b) the presentation of it has been refined or c) that there has not been any additional work done other than what is right in front of your nose.

Ask whether what you are looking at is a sketch or if it is considered complete. Before assuming that you understand what you are looking at, ask the student to describe it to you, point things out for you, and clarify the ideas for you. Detailed and mostly superfluous and largely unhelpful monologues can be avoided if you ask straightforward questions about the students work before you assume that you fully comprehend what the student is showing you. Do not disregard things on the page that you can’t read, or don’t understand. Scribbles, sketches, or words jotted in the margins can often be more important to the development of the student and their work than the ideas expressed in music notation.

The autonomous artwork has been dead for quite some time (I think the notion that it ever lived is nothing more than a fantasy), so look beyond the pitches, harmonies, and rhythms for a potential discussion of connotation, or “meaning.” “Extra-musical” work should be encouraged, recognized, and discussed regularly as part of the composition lesson (see the latter part of point #2). This can include brainstorming, writing, researching, drawing, filming, reading, etc. The notion of pre-compositional work is generally counterproductive. Any work that contributes to the development of the composer is good work, and should be recognized and lauded as such.

4. Composition consists of much more than the mastery of a craft. It is more than the teaching of harmonic, rhythmic, and musical narrative. It is more than technique. It is art. All the compositional technique in the world will do absolutely nothing to create music that is insightful, intriguing, engaging, and relevant. Interesting art is a reflection (though sometimes an unexpected one!) of the ideas, interests, and intentions of the artist. Many students don’t possess very many ideas—teach them how to obtain and develop them. Many students don’t have any intense interests—show them how to discover and magnify them. Many students don’t have clear artistic intentions—encourage and aid the student in their personal journey so that they can clarify their intentions (to themselves, if not anyone else).

4 thoughts on “Music Composition Pedagogy 101”

  1. Wonderful! Although I’d want you to clarify what you mean by “the notion of pre-compositional work is generally counterproductive.” If you mean that we shouldn’t make a rigid and judgmental distinction between productive composition and the activities that precede productive composition, then I completely agree (and I do believe that’s what you mean). However, many of the activities you mention, including brainstorming, reading, etc., are pre-composition to me insofar as I understand “composition” as being the actual process of construction of the musical structure/piece/artwork. Workers in hard hats with hammers, cranes lifting and placing steel beams, as opposed to an architect with a pencil and a vision…..both lead to the creation of a building, but I think it’s pedagogically helpful to make the distinction on at least SOME level – just not on a “notes and measures are progress, ideas are not progress” level. I think I see what you mean, though.

    Next up, theory pedagogy 101!

  2. I’ve learned that making a conceptual distinction between composition and pre-composition elicits an unnecessary degree of anxiety from me, as by making that very distinction it somehow makes the act of sitting down at a table with manuscript paper and writing notes more of a legitimate part of the process than any other part of the process, which I simply don’t believe. I personally find it helpful (and productive) to consider doodling in notebooks and doing artistic research (reading, listening, etc.) and actually writing out notes to be of equal importance. When I flatten the playing field like that I find that I don’t fear any part of the process more than any other, because none is more legitimate than any other. Is the activity itself different? Yes, but one’s approach to the activities should be identical, otherwise “pitch-‘n’-rhythm” pencil pushing unnecessarily boils to the top as the most significant part of the process, which I not only find to be terribly pretentious, but also counterproductive.

  3. Makes sense. I guess to me the distinction is helpful and needn’t be (and shouldn’t be, as you are saying) one of importance.

    In the perennial words of Mr. Dorsey, “DUDE WORD!”

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