There have been a number of posting in different places lately about teaching composition. On Dec. 21 on the New Music Box, Randy Nordschow asked what was it that teachers taught. Kyle Gann recently, but regularly, more or less says that they can only be nasty brainwashers (that maybe is an exageration which might be considered a completely distortion of what he really had said, of course), only trying to produce Kleinmasters. David Toub, in about every one of those cases, regularly makes his point that you can’t teach people to write music. I’ve thought about this some over the years, anyway, reflecting on my own history, but since I do a fair amount of teaching composition, mostly to pre-college students, I’m often thinking about it. And finally I’ve been moved to put in my two cents, in a rambling sort of way.
First of all, I have to say, that I, as a teacher, have no interest in teaching people to write music that’s like what I write, or in any particularly styel, and I have to say that, judging from my own experience, good teachers don’t. I’d go so far to say that the sign of a good teacher is that his/her students’ music isn’t like his/hers. For one thing it would seem to be self evident that there’s nothing to be gained for anybody in trying to make people write music that they don’t like or want to hear.
I guess it’s true that you can’t teach people to write music. However, I think you can teach people a lot about how to think about writing music, by which I mean considering what it is they’re trying to do, coming up with as clear an idea of it as possible, and then seeing how they can most clearly and convincingly do whatever it is they’re trying to do. I find that the question I most often ask students is “What does this piece do?” (When Birtwistle was teaching at Harvard recently, I gather that he would often ask students a variant of that question: “What is the piece?”) With new students there’s a more or less standard dialog which happens almost without fail—the student then says, “What do you mean?” and I say, “What do you think I mean?,” and we move on from there. I usually say I mean anything they have in mind: how many sections are there, which are the most important places, why does it end the way it does, or for that matter when it does, how did they decide when the piece was over, etc. Basically I’m trying to get them to be as conscious as they can be about what they’re doing. I don’t often tell them that such and such a note or a chord is “bad,” although if they’re trying to write a certainly kind of music, then certain kind of things which I’d consider grammatical or maybe syntactical come up for discussion. Often times something that a student is doing brings to mind some piece, and we’ll look at that to see how someone else has dealt with a similar situation.
Generally it I think anything goes with what a student wants to do. I try to get students to listen to a lot of music and lots of different kinds of music. I remember a while ago, when Cage was at Harvard, he did an interview with Richard Dyer in The Globe, in which he said, “Most composers write what they hear, but what they hear is just what they’ve heard.” (He then went on to say, “I don’t hear anything.”). I think the first part of his statement is true. So I think if a student thinks he doesn’t like, say, Schoenberg or Babbitt, he should know what what he thinks he doesn’t like sounds like, at least. (And maybe what it is he doesn’t like about it.) With pre-college students it’s not surprising that they haven’t heard a lot of music, but in my experience not just undergraduates, but graduate students, don’t have any idea about a number of composers who’ve meant a lot to me: the list would include not only the usual suspects, but also Virgil Thomson, Percy Grainger, Ruth Crawford, Arthur Berger, Feldman, Machaut, Purcell, Monteverdi, Duke Ellington, or Captain Beefheart. Often times the music they know by composers whose music they think they like (like Copland–how many know Music for the Theater, the Short Symphony, the Piano Variations, the Piano Sonata, or the Violin Sonata, for instance) is just a little slice of what that composer wrote. Students generally start by doing something that’s imitative of something they’ve heard and liked anyway, so it would seem that the more they’ve heard, the more things they’re likely to have something strike their fancy and get them started on something.
I also think a teacher should lead a student through the whole process, writing a piece, producing it in a way that clearly conveys their intentions (and that means that if they’ve got some reason for not writing many or any dynamics–if it really doesn’t change or for some reason it really doesn’t matter–not putting them in, but knowing that that’s the case, and that they’ll be asked about it anyway) (I have to say that, once again, in my experience, usually it’s a matter of their not really thinking about it or not knowing how to go about deciding about it–not that it’s intentional–same goes for articulations.), getting a piece rehearsed and played, and then thinking about how what they wrote compares with what they meant to write or thought they were writing, and then going on to the next piece, where the whole process starts again, but with more and more control (for lack of a better word) over things. A teacher might be useful for either keeping a student going, trying to keep them from being discouraged at it, or, in some cases, for slowing them down. Writing a lot of music is generally, I think a good thing, but it is possible for a student to write too much.
Whereas any style seems fine, I usually try to discourage certain things–usually when a student say he wants to write a fugue, he/she doesn’t have any idea of what that really means, and getting into it usually leads to just getting bogged down. It doesn’t often happen, but I have had kids show up telling me that they want to write twelve-tone music. It doesn’t seem to me to be a good idea unless one has a really good idea of what you’re trying to do and why that’s the best way of doing it, and usually they don’t.
I suppose if the process is successfull, a student might well not quite realize that it was going on.