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Private Composition Classes: Worth The Hassle?

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Hello there!

I'm very new to this forum, so I apologize in advance if I've posted in the wrong spot.

I'm currently in my senior high-school year. Composing is something I love doing, enough that my band teacher suggested I look for composition classes outside of school, possibly from the local university. If you're lucky, the composing faculty of a university or college will be available for private lessons and you can hire them as such.

However, is it really worth the cost and the hassle?

On one end, I feel that having goals set for me by another person other than myself will motivate me to compose more often, and compose better, too; having a stronger grasp of compositional theory never hurts, either, and the teacher could help me build the much-needed portfolio for when I move on to university. (One of the most prolific (though not necessarily the absolute best) game-score composers out there, Jeremy Soule, took private lessons in composition all the way from middle school, and I've always been impressed at how quickly he can churn out some quite enjoyable orchestral pieces--that fact was what got me interested in taking private lessons in the first place.)

However, I've also heard that the best thing for a composer of my limited age and experience to do is to simply keep composing on my own, and develop a unique style that isn't influenced by a teacher. Some people have also said that "taking a class" is an uncomfortable step and ruins the creative process for them--that's a somewhat unsettling idea. There's been plenty of stories pertaining composers who never took any formal classes, and yet still managed to make beautiful music and a successful living off their art.

Since it's going to be at least a year before I qualify to join a university composition class (assuming I even make it in), is it worth it for me to look and pay for a private compositional tutor to fill the gap? Or is it in my best interest to teach myself?

Thank you for reading!

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... if you're extremely motivated, you could make a lot of progress on your own (given that you are studying the subjects via internet, books, etc.)

That pretty much sums up my own experience. Enjoy the ride.

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If you're going to study independently, you will never go anywhere as a real composer unless you pay careful attention to the fundamentals of composition. There's a reason why composition programs have you start off with basic harmony and counterpoint and you don't even write Mozart esque music until your sophomore year: if you do not understand harmony or counterpoint, you will fail. Your music will continually demonstrate lack of understanding.

However, it might comfort you to know that the vast majority of people won't be able to hear how woefully inadequate your music is. They will hear a C major chord and think, "This piece of music is happy, and reminds me of sun and butterflies.". These are the types of thing to avoid when trying to write art, as art requires perfect control and balance.

Private lessons will allow you to learn the fundamentals at your own pace. They will allow you to master these fundamentals completely, as long as your teacher is a good teacher. For this reason, I would highly recommend them. If your professor is especially good, you will gain an insight into music that you would not have previously gotten if studying independently.

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You heard it from the man himself: the 'vast majority of people' have perfect pitch, listen to music as disjunct blocks of harmony, and would perceive the Appassionata to be 'happy, and [to] remind [one] of sun and butterflies'.

Perhaps you are not a native english speaker, as it appears you have misread what I have written.

When a person hears a major chord, whether it be C or D or Eb, they associate it with "happy" music. That's the socially conditioned response. It has nothing to do with someone actually KNOWING what they are listening to. Rather, the innate auditory perception of such a chord is socially associated with that kind of thinking.

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Composition is ALSO about aesthetics (which can be taught). I would have a VERY hard time being taught by Zimmer (for example). It's simply not my style and I'm not sure he can get away from an academic point of view (though I find his music in the latest films to be simply stunning, don't get me wrong).

So one to one lessons are valuable in music and even more so in composition! It's worth every penny!

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Compare your situation for a moment to someone taking instrumental lessons. Whilst there is still technical development needed, the student is wise to take regular lessons to acquire and re-enforce new skills. At a certain point, the student will have come sufficiently close to mastering technique in order for the focus to be on interpretation and developing an individual voice. This is the point where the student mainly has to evaluate themself rather than simply internalising what they are shown by their teacher, and the amount of contact time can become less intense and regular. When applied to composition, this echoes the comments above about finding somebody to teach you basic technical skills, and then later on seeking advice only when an insurmountable problem arises or a second opinion is needed. If you acquire a good grounding in harmony and counterpoint and immerse yourself in a wide variety of others' music you will gain both a solid technical and an aesthetic grounding.

To answer the question directly: you should seek tuition for technical elements and then apply your own aesthetic ideas to them once mastered. This way you need not fear about becoming 'academic' or 'losing your individual style' (fears which are almost never realised: greater knowledge and technique enable greater individual expression, not lesser). Also, play at least one instrument and piano - this will teach you a lot too.

(If I may, I would also like to point out that the 'self-taught' composer is not somebody who simply sits down and learns everything with no external influence whatsoever. Elgar was very proud of never having taken formal composition lessons, but not so proud that he did not spend many hours studying books, listening and playing to acquire a solid technique, nor did he avoid seeking advice and criticism from his peers).

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No, it is not in your best interest to learn by yourself. All of my best experiences in music learning came from musicians better than me, regardless of their "style." Any piano teacher, or theory teacher worth their salt will teach you things you need to know about composition. And what they don't teach you, the repetoire will. For example, I was in the high school orchestra as a percussionist. But I was already writing crude things on paper with piano. When I graduated, I found a drum teacher who saw that I liked to write and he asked me to write something for his ensemble. Which I did. It is crucial that you learn (but maybe never master) an instrument. The composing will come naturally. If piano is your instrument, you are a step ahead. If you know a comp teacher, go for it.

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From what I am reading, it is unanimous belief that composition classes are not just worth the cost, but an essential part of most successful composers' musical journeys.

(It brings back what a teacher once told me: "Only when you learn the rules can you start breaking them." It looks like in the art of composition, this applies greatly--like Siwi said, greater knowledge facilitates greater individual expression, not lesser [Thanks, Siwi!] )

Well, I've been convinced. It's time to make some calls and get a private tutor--at least until I get to university and take a serious class.

My heartfelt thanks for the awesome assistance and insight you have provided for me! I really do appreciate it!

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