A comment from Scott, a former Bard student, brings to mind ideas about teaching composition that I wonder if anyone else shares. I’ve never heard of anyone being taught how to teach composition, except indirectly and by example. We’re all winging it, aren’t we? I had one composition teacher who never said a word I understood, and seemed to enjoy keeping me confused; another who disliked every piece at first and thought it was lovely as soon as you copied it out neatly; another who was brilliant but considered Cage and minimalism hoaxes; another who merely tinkered with my orchestration (Feldman); one who changed my life simply by telling me about just intonation (Johnston); and another who did me a world of good simply by enthusing about everything I did. Little of that activity seemed like teaching, though by default that’s what we have to call it. I know of teachers who start out, “Here’s how you compose a piece,” and actually show you how to do it, step by step. I think that would have driven me nuts. It always seemed to me that what you mainly absorbed from an older composer was attitude, and you gravitate toward the attitudes that appeal to you.
Subsequent experience has suggested to me that there are two kinds of composition students: those who write too little music because they’re too self-critical and those who write too much because they’re not self-critical enough. (Those who write just the right amount are unheard of.) I feel much more useful with the ones who don’t write enough, because that’s the problem I worked through myself. First of all, I hardly make any suggestions on the first piece or two, because I need to learn what their reflexes and aims are before I can tell what they’re trying to do and figure out where they’re not succeeding. Then, when I see them turn down the same road a third or fourth time, I can say, “Aha! You always do that, don’t you?” Not to prevent them, but just to make them conscious. Sometimes I’ll play them, and analyze a little, pieces that do something similar. In rare cases, if they’re really stuck, I’ll assign specific compositional problems to attack (like, write a trio only using five pitches). I’ve only had one case in which that strategy really lit a fire under the student; more often, they start composing their own pieces faster to induce me to stop.
Typically I try to isolate the essential idea of a piece and write my own little variations on it, to look for ways to continue. Sometimes, like all composers, I’ll pull out a piece of my own, show the original problem I struggled with, and show how I solved it. I almost never write notes on their score, because that drove me nuts when I was a student. But I love taking their Sibelius files, “saving as” something else, and tinkering with changes. Occasionally they like the changes, but it seems to me that most of this activity simply serves to focus them and make them think harder once they leave my office. As an ongoing influence, I harangue them to turn off their superegos, to silence the constant critical carping in the back of their minds that tells them, as soon as they’ve written three notes, that those notes aren’t good enough, that compares every line they write with Bach and finds it wanting. If they can do that, they can do anything. Sometimes, if they’re obsessed with a certain composer they worship, I’ll forbid them to listen to that composer any more. I had to quit listening to Cage in college for that reason.
The students who write too much are much harder for me. They often come in with a new completed piece every week, which suggests a certain success that’s hard to argue with. It’s difficult to convince them that revision is golden, that even when it’s going well you shouldn’t always settle for the first idea that presents itself. And then, there’s little opportunity to direct the course of a piece when it comes in with the final double bar already in place. Of course, like all composition teachers, I pound away at notation, and describe at length how performers respond to, especially, rhythm and articulation markings. That’s the easy part, though they won’t always believe that you can’t start a 4/4 measure with an 8th-note followed by a half-note. My teachers’ generation often taught little besides penmanship and types of manuscript paper. Similarly, I end up teaching the finer points of Sibelius (the software).
I’ve taught mostly undergrads, and am happy with that, because they’re more pliable and need more advice. What I’m not sure is practically helpful is trying to prepare them for the way a composer’s process changes with the years. I think it seems pretty well established – though I don’t know that I’ve ever read this anywhere – that young composers tend to get inspired by a sonic image and then just start out without knowing where they’re going. At some point, in a person’s 20s or 30s, those sonic images become less spontaneous, and it seems to me that a composer has to learn to quit waiting for that inspiration. Typically, I think – and I ask this as a question – college age composers tend to have tremendous bursts of inspiration, and be almost incapable of composing when not inspired. As your psychology changes in your 20s, you start thinking less of individual moments (or melodies, or motives) and more about strategies for entire pieces (like chord progressions or rhythmic structures). Then it becomes easier to just sit down and start writing, inspired or not, and at some point inspiration creeps in and lifts the piece off the ground.
I’ve interviewed dozens of composers for my articles and books, and I’ve heard one process described over and over again. A young composer will find some method to generate his music, and use it strictly. At sometime in his 30s, he or she will have internalized the method enough to quit using it consciously. My favorite example like this was Petr Kotik, who, in his early years (Many, Many Women is the famous example) based all his melodies on graphs he had found discarded in a science department that showed the rates of alcohol-level response in experimental rats. For years all his music went back to those found graphs as a kind of chance process based on “found” contours. Then, he said, at some point he learned to intuitively write melodies that had those characteristics without using the graphs anymore. I think you find the same pattern – overly strict at first, then later freer and more intuitive – in most of the good serialist composers, Boulez and Stockhausen in particular. Then, many composers also go through another tremendous shift during their 40s, in which many of the compositional ideas they studiously avoided in youth begin to appeal to them, and their music finds a whole new level as they start playing with the devices they swore they’d never use. It certainly happened to me, when around 1999 I started allowing myself to borrow stylistic paradigms from jazz and other composers. (Make sure to shy away from some great ideas when you’re young, so you’ll have great new toys to play with in old age. I have an article in Music Downtown. “Mistaken Memories,” quickly tracing this phenomenon through a wide range of composers.)
As I say, I don’t know to what extent it helps a young composer to be aware of the eventuality of these changes coming in later in life. I like to think that they’ll accept the changes more easily if they know it’s a lifelong process of evolution, that they won’t get stuck clinging to the process that always worked in the past. The most important thing of all, I think, is to get them used to the process of trying to extend their technique into some area they’ve never tried before, getting stuck, feeling helpless, and just living with their failure until some imaginative breakthrough suddenly makes them see where their imagination had been too limited. It’s a process that can cause considerable despair when young, and, as you gain experience, you learn more (or I have) to accept that “stuck” feeling as the necessary prelude to a creative breakthrough.
These, off the top of my head, are my thoughts about teaching composition – almost as much, or more, a process of emotional therapy than actual musical instruction. I am curious as to whether other teachers find this same dichotomy between young composers who write too little and those who write too much. I wonder if other composition professors muse as often as I do that training in psychotherapy might have been more helpful for this line of work than musical training has been. And I wonder if the process of “switching gears” in your 20s, relying less on sudden inspiration because it doesn’t come as often and you no longer need it so much, is as universal as I imagine. It seems to me that we composers don’t talk about these processes enough, that we all live in ignorance, blindly feeling our way, having to figure out how it works through self-examination and anecdotal evidence. Perhaps the blogosphere is the arena in which to shed some light on the categories of artistic evolution. I yield the floor.