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Teaching composition


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Hello fellow (student) composers,
 
I'm currently doing some research on how composition teachers teach composition/evaluate the compositions of their students. Especially considering the idea that a teacher should take into account to allow the student to develop him/herself towards a 'unique' identity.
 
My main question is: how can a teacher bring about the highest level of quality within a student without imposing his/her ideology upon the student? In other words how does a teacher give feedback/improve the student without trying to 'manipulate' the unique identity of the student?
 
Feel free to answer this as an open question.
 
Here is a short survey if you don't feel like writing out a big answer:
 
1. Does my teacher have a big influence on the way i compose?
2.Do i consciously change the way i compose to satisfy my teacher?
3.Does my teacher force his/her musical ideology upon me or am i free to discover my own ideology?
4.Do i see a problem with my teacher adjusting my work and thereby not allowing me to express my own identity as a composer?
5.How does my teacher evaluate my compositions? (open question).
 
I appreciate any comment.
Thanks a lot!
Kind regards,
Lorenzo
 
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Kickstarter Project for Music Jotter begins May 10th. Write music on the web or desktop computer.
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1 hour ago, Lorenzo Lefebre said:

My main question is: how can a teacher bring about the highest level of quality within a student without imposing his/her ideology upon the student? In other words how does a teacher give feedback/improve the student without trying to 'manipulate' the unique identity of the student?

That's a really good question and I think we should address it seriously.

To me, one of the best telltale signs of this happening for the worse is when there's a student concert and the students sound like discount copies of the teacher. I've seen this happen in a few conservatories myself, and it's always kind of sad to see. Granted this can happen for a number of reasons, not all of them necessarily bad. One is that the teacher is famous and people who already want to write like he does gravitate towards him, and two is that they may voluntarily also choose to write in that style because they like it. Those are two benign reasons I think are fine.

However, what you mention about manipulating is clearly got a negative connotation. I've also seen teachers basically throw students' ideas in the trash because "they've been done before," or "they're not interesting enough," or whatever. I've met composition students who were dissatisfied with their teachers often because they clashed on aesthetics, which is not uncommon.

Sadly, since becoming a composition teacher normally has no attached pedagogy study, a lot of people who become professors normally don't have that kind of background. Moreover, they may or may not be heavy on the ideology side of things, specially these days. I think that's also a potential point of friction. So, I always liked the approach my teacher had where he would not tell students what kind of language they should use, but he'd criticize them within their own parameters, if he needed to. For example: If you were writing something more traditional, he'd criticize it from a historical perspective.

He was very adamant that everyone should be free to select the musical language of their music on their own, for their own reasons, and I agree with this.

So, the question is, if it's unavoidable that a composition teacher may influence someone in their music, is this necessarily a bad thing? I'd argue that no. It's not always bad and specially if the relationship between teacher and student is built on respect and understanding. What teacher does isn't so much "corrections" as allow for discussion so the composer can see a different POV on an issue.

1 hour ago, Lorenzo Lefebre said:

Especially considering the idea that a teacher should take into account to allow the student to develop him/herself towards a 'unique' identity.

Well, my teacher's stance was that there focusing on uniqueness or "personal style" is not a worthwhile thing to do when you're studying. The idea is that you should write as much music as possible, hopefully try out all the stuff you're learning while you're at it. If there's such a thing as a style, it will happen to you as a result of your experience, not because you "tried" to do it. That kind of organic development, to him, was a lot more interesting and rewarding than just arbitrarily picking things because you want to stand out or "be different." Your music will represent your tastes and ideas regardless if you want it or not, so just trying to do it artificially seems like a waste of time in my opinion.

Additionally, people change over time, as do their tastes and ideas. It's obvious that this also affects their musical output and this is also why it should be an organic thing. Mind you this is also applicable if the teacher is trying to force their ideas and tastes on their students. This often doesn't work because the student will just write what they want to write anyway and simply not show the teacher, at which point studying composition becomes and exercise in futility and frustration.

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8 hours ago, SSC said:Well, my teacher's stance was that there focusing on uniqueness or "personal style" is not a worthwhile thing to do when you're studying. The idea is that you should write as much music as possible, hopefully try out all the stuff you're learning while you're at it. If there's such a thing as a style, it will happen to you as a result of your experience, not because you "tried" to do it. That kind of organic development, to him, was a lot more interesting and rewarding than just arbitrarily picking things because you want to stand out or "be different." Your music will represent your tastes and ideas regardless if you want it or not, so just trying to do it artificially seems like a waste of time in my opinion.

 

 

Agreed, SSC.  Good teachers don't just let their students bring in some random thing they've been working on for evaluation once a week.  They put together a cohesive set of assignments that work different parts of the composer toolkit, so that by the time you graduate, you may gravitate to a certain style, but you have learned everything you need to know to continue down any path you choose.  You may like or be known for a certain style, but also have some paid work available doing something rather different.  Graduates need to have the choice of taking the paycheck when it's offered, whether that means teaching composition students of their own in everything from counterpoint to minimalism, or turning their famous string piece into a wind arrangement, or writing something very basic for an amateur group that wants to commission them.  

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30 minutes ago, pateceramics said:

Good teachers don't just let their students bring in some random thing they've been working on for evaluation once a week.  They put together a cohesive set of assignments that work different parts of the composer toolkit, so that by the time you graduate, you may gravitate to a certain style, but you have learned everything you need to know to continue down any path you choose.

100% agree. My teacher used to say: Education isn't up to taste and you don't get to just skip things because you don't like them. I'm glad I was able to cover so much stuff in my studies, because, like you said, it prepares you for being a professional regardless of what you end up doing. Specially true with the logistics and rehearsals and so on. That part was very important for me.

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14 hours ago, Lorenzo Lefebre said:
I'm currently doing some research on how composition teachers teach composition/evaluate the compositions of their students. Especially considering the idea that a teacher should take into account to allow the student to develop him/herself towards a 'unique' identity.
 
My main question is: how can a teacher bring about the highest level of quality within a student without imposing his/her ideology upon the student? In other words how does a teacher give feedback/improve the student without trying to 'manipulate' the unique identity of the student?

I seriously question that anyone can teach creativity to anyone else - the spark has to come from the wannabe creator. The tools can be taught, examples shown, hints and tips given. You can show someone how to write a traditional fugue or follow species counterpoint but when the student wants to strike out on their own, what can be 'taught'? A sensitive, experienced teacher could ask the right questions of students to affirm what they're aiming for; could point out technical mistakes and impracticalities. Today with digital audio, experiments can be encouraged to aim for given solutions.

One feature so obviously missing is self-criticism. When you're working to achieve marks and pass exams how much licence are you allowed to develop your style, and then step back and ponder on whether it's truly what you want? And have the courage to be truthful when it isn't and go through the frustration of changing the thing?

But as for teaching to compose: if the teacher tries to inculcate a particular style or trend it can end in acrimony or produce a fairly sterile result. I speak from experience of having to ditch a college education because of being forced down routes I had no wish to take. It did damage that still hasn't been fully repaired.

So I developed a cynical view of college education and degrees in composition. The courses exist to produce graduates who in turn become teachers to perpetuate the cycle or mere critics or something further down the food chain.

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On 4/13/2022 at 11:49 PM, Quinn said:

But as for teaching to compose: if the teacher tries to inculcate a particular style or trend it can end in acrimony or produce a fairly sterile result. I speak from experience of having to ditch a college education because of being forced down routes I had no wish to take. It did damage that still hasn't been fully repaired.

So I developed a cynical view of college education and degrees in composition. The courses exist to produce graduates who in turn become teachers to perpetuate the cycle or mere critics or something further down the food chain.

So everyone with a degree is either a teacher or a "mere" critic or whatever "something down the food chain" means. I mean, it's too bad you're a college drop-out with clearly a bunch of resentment, but that's not fair to people who had good experiences with their educations.

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Context for my answers: I have been having composition lessons in the pre-college department of a conservatoire from a professional composer who is also a tutor at that conservatoire's senior college composition department.
1. Does my teacher have a big influence on the way i compose?
Yes. They were the one who encouraged me to start my pieces on paper at an instrument (I first used viola for this but now I mainly use piano as harmony has become much more important for me than it used to be). They have also encouraged me to think more about form and overall structure which I do to some extent but not much.
2.Do i consciously change the way i compose to satisfy my teacher?
Sort of? My music has become much more chromatic since starting lessons and I think that could be due to my teacher's influence but I think it is more from how I have developed in my understanding of harmony with them exposing me to things like Riemannian theory and us discussing pieces of music that both they and I have chosen. My rhythms have started to change and become more complex, likely from their influence as that is the area they typically identify as most lacking in my pieces.
3.Does my teacher force his/her musical ideology upon me or am i free to discover my own ideology?
Not at all, they guide me in discovering what I like and applying that to my own ideas.
4.Do i see a problem with my teacher adjusting my work and thereby not allowing me to express my own identity as a composer?
My teacher has never really done that aside from when we were doing orchestration and my orchestration was horrifically unbalanced.
5.How does my teacher evaluate my compositions? (open question).
They have to grade me for the pre-college so they do it using that which looks at understanding and use of: melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, form, & musical style, notation skill, originality, and musical sense. In terms of feedback they mostly comment on what they think worked well in my work, what they think hasn't gone well, and how that can be addressed. 
I think my composition lessons are quite good and my teacher is excellent for me but other teachers may not be so good if, for example, students are forced into particular styles or techniques of composition and discouraged from exploring outside of that. I have 3 separate composition classes in the pre-college, my principal study lessons where I bring in a project that I am working on (what I have mainly discussed above), a seminar which is mainly on techniques, methods, and peer criticism, and a workshop class which is a project over 1 or 2 terms - the last one has been a piece for SSA and harp trio where each of us in the class (3 of us) wrote a movement and one before that was based around serialism. The principal study lessons and seminar are with a the same tutor and the workshop has a different tutor depending on the project but the same can apply to the tutors for that.
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20 hours ago, ConfusedFlourBeetle said:
I have been having composition lessons in the pre-college department of a conservatoire from a professional composer who is also a tutor at that conservatoire's senior college composition department...
I think my composition lessons are quite good and my teacher is excellent for me but other teachers may not be so good if, for example, students are forced into particular styles or techniques of composition and discouraged from exploring outside of that. I have 3 separate composition classes in the pre-college, my principal study lessons where I bring in a project that I am working on (what I have mainly discussed above), a seminar which is mainly on techniques, methods, and peer criticism, and a workshop class which is a project over 1 or 2 terms - the last one has been a piece for SSA and harp trio where each of us in the class (3 of us) wrote a movement and one before that was based around serialism. The principal study lessons and seminar are with a the same tutor and the workshop has a different tutor depending on the project but the same can apply to the tutors for that.
 

You are so lucky to be getting this level of instruction before the college level.  It sounds like a wonderful program, congrats!

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On 4/13/2022 at 10:49 PM, SSC said:

100% agree. My teacher used to say: Education isn't up to taste and you don't get to just skip things because you don't like them. I'm glad I was able to cover so much stuff in my studies, because, like you said, it prepares you for being a professional regardless of what you end up doing. Specially true with the logistics and rehearsals and so on. That part was very important for me.

 

Your teacher was one of the diamonds you were lucky to meet in your lifetime. I had a problem, stuck to correcting my essay on the music theory; I found here https://edubirdie.com/correct-my-essay several options as examples that were fine for me. What I have learned, sometimes life itself could be a great teacher.

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On 4/15/2022 at 7:01 PM, Quinn said:

I unignored this post merely to screen-print it for evidence in case you edit it to remove the insult. Yes, another ad hominem attack rather than attacking my view. I happened to spot it in the topics list. Lucky that, wasn't it? So much for your warning point.

 

So you said:

On 4/13/2022 at 11:49 PM, Quinn said:

I speak from experience of having to ditch a college education

That sounds to me like you dropped out of college. So, if what I said is not wrong factually, are you just getting insulted because of the way I worded your same statement back at you?

Also, "ad hominem" is when a personal insult is used instead of an argument. As in: "Your argument is invalid because you're fat" or something. In this case, I made the case that your bad experience is not indicative of the experience of other people. So, nope, no "ad hominem" at all, specially not if I'm not saying anything you didn't say yourself. As for the resentment part, well, that's just my interpretation considering how you basically threw everyone with a degree under the bus due to your bad personal experience.

 

You got some cynical opinions and you got called out for it. Nothing more, nothing less.

On 4/15/2022 at 7:33 PM, Tom Statler said:

This is a disappointing remark. Frankly, I would hope a moderator would exercise better self-restraint.

Lucky for you I decided to quit that as it seemed way more trouble than it was worth. Now I get to say whatever I want, which is frankly a lot more important to me than being an unpaid janitor.

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Pertinent to this topic, I happened to pick up one of AngelCityOutlaw's comments on a different topic (Elitism in music, about which I choose to read only a limited number of posts and didn't watch a video apparently embedded in the root post).

I think he has much relevant to say.

"The growing majority of people who come out of music education today wind up writing inane, abstract conceptualism like he did because this is praised by the professors. Maybe not always literal serialism, but abstract conceptualism all the same. It's the exact same, and actually worse, in the visual arts. Look at how fast JJayBerthume's music went to hell after he graduated. He was a better composer when he was 16 and self-taught!"

Seems to echo my thoughts about college and "degrees in composition."

Edit: There's a possible case for an artist to produce work just for their personal consumption - those, maybe, who enjoy the process as much as or more than the result but with no intention of revealing anything to anyone else. But much is about attempting to communicate something to others. There are kind of 'sense data' rules about communication, aside from it being a science anyway involving semiotics and information theory, however loosely. One rule is that for a communication to succeed there must be enough common language between transmitter and receiver. Neurophysiology enters the equation too. Much contemporary music falls flat because that common link isn't there.

Gets more complex when there are 'receivers' able just to listen without comprehension but stimulated to some kind of acceptable experience. I haven't a clue what they're saying to each other but the blackbird song on a warm May evening I find most pleasurable. Some listeners perhaps are happy at that, the sound of traffic or a building site are as edifying as a piece of serial music. 

'

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1 hour ago, Quinn said:

Pertinent to this topic, I happened to pick up one of AngelCityOutlaw's comments on a different topic (Elitism in music, about which I choose to read only a limited number of posts and didn't watch a video apparently embedded in the root post).

I think he has much relevant to say.

"The growing majority of people who come out of music education today wind up writing inane, abstract conceptualism like he did because this is praised by the professors. Maybe not always literal serialism, but abstract conceptualism all the same. It's the exact same, and actually worse, in the visual arts. Look at how fast JJayBerthume's music went to hell after he graduated. He was a better composer when he was 16 and self-taught!"

Seems to echo my thoughts about college and "degrees in composition."

 

Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

Speaking from my own (sometimes professional) experience spanning now decades, but unfortunately a segment of the forum feels that really doesn't count for anything, I could not in good faith recommend people pursue academic study of music or any of the arts. Perhaps it may be that there still are some good schools still out there, but I have not encountered them and any recent alumni I've met of what were once considered prestigious academies haven't done much to change my mind.

Especially when they seem to have turned some once-fantastic composers such as JJay into middling ones at best. I know I'm old-fashioned, and increasingly getting to be just "old" — but I'm fairly certain that's the opposite of the results schools are supposed to produce.

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14 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

... 'I could not in good faith recommend people pursue academic study of music or any of the arts...'

Hopefully no one relies on a man on the internet for their life choices tho and hopefully you have the ability to put things into perspective that you shouldn't even possibly consider that role. Just saying before some teen who considers studying composition at the conservatory starts valuing a mans opinion on the internet too much, which happens too often sadly.

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5 hours ago, Jan-Peter said:

Hopefully no one relies on a man on the internet for their life choices tho and hopefully you have the ability to put things into perspective that you shouldn't even possibly consider that role. Just saying before some teen who considers studying composition at the conservatory starts valuing a mans opinion on the internet too much, which happens too often sadly.

Before some teen decides to put themselves 10s of thousands of dollars in debt with interest because other teens on the internet think that's a good idea, I invite them to compare the kinds of music coming out of these schools, proponents of them and their alumni against rando "men on the internet" who paid their dues and utilized the dragon's horde goldmine of learning materials, resources, scores and collaboration opportunities that exist today and often at no cost, both on and offline, and which our ancestors could only dream of.

But I understand of course that it takes much less effort, risk of failure, and the opinions of the unwashed peasantry is of no mind if one instead accrues a dragon's horde of debt than it is knowledge and the resultant skill, and instead get a piece of paper and pat on the back from a teacher because the student had the right opinions about things often totally-unrelated to music or completed some exercises, which happens too often, sadly.

So yes, I encourage them to decide for themselves

 

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