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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).

No Practice More Damning

There is no practice more damning to the reputation and cultural presence of concert music than the insistence that the future must still be dominated by the long-held looming and illusory belief in the precedents of a supposed tradition so thinly contrived to be composed of a long-standing aesthetic line of evolving conventions from the ancients to the present day; through the dry mouths of musical pharisees, principles are propagated as unquestionable givens—motive, idea, development—as if the now perverted propositions of supposed musical prophets are to be taken as truths unchanging that we are to bear the mantle of upholding. And all this merely veiling the all-too-pervasive fear of history’s cerebral bite and the scarce lack of vibrance and artistic creativity endemic to the academic discipline of composition.

Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium 2009

Robert Kyr coaching ensembles in The Cube
Robert Kyr coaching ensembles in The Cube

From June 29th through July 10th I had the opportunity to both participate in and act as the Assistant to the Director at the 2009 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium. I have been part of the outreach, planning, and preparation for over a year, and now that it is over I’m both proud to say that I was involved as both a participant and administrative assistant.

More than 80 participants with a wide variety of skills and interests were accepted to this year’s symposium. Composers were, of course, encouraged to apply to have their works performed and read, but composer/performers, performers, and composers were also strongly encouraged to participate in the process as members of ACE, the American Creators Ensemble. A paragraph from the symposium’s website by the Director, Robert Kyr, is copied below:

In these challenging economic times, the future of the new music field is uncertain. Now more than ever, we must work together as a community of composers and performers in order to further develop and strengthen our common artistic values and aspirations, even in the face of financial hardship. We have the power to ensure that the arts survive, and for participants in the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium, our efforts in 2009 are focused on the creation, performance, and recording of new music.

This is the inaugural year of the symposium’s American Creators Ensemble (ACE) which is the first national composers/performers ensemble. The membership of the ensemble is all symposium participants who are accepted in categories II (Composer/Performers and Performer/Composers), III (Performers), and IV (Conductors). Robert Kyr is the founder and director of the ensemble.

2009 OBFCS Participants
2009 OBFCS Participants

The symposium was an enormous success. ACE provided both readings and performances of over 60 new musical works in a wide variety of genres and styles, giving participants a taste of the enormous range of music being created by contemporary composers from around the country. One of the final opportunities given to all participants was that of attending the premiere of Sven-David Sandström’s Messiah, commissioned specifically for the 2009 Oregon Bach Festival and performed by an enormous force of instrumentalists and vocalists.

One of the participants hailing from the University of Pittsburgh, Jonghee Kang, has written about her own experience at this year’s symposium on the official blog of the University’s Department of Music.

The positive feedback that we received from the participants was extraordinary, and we hope to further improve the enjoyable and educational experiences that we can provide to participants in the future.

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