The Outside-One’s-Ism Student

In comments, Ernest asks (and I’d rather address this than the article I’m supposed to be writing today):

I was always
curious about what a student could do if their professors genuinely dislike the
music they create. It seems like a giant imposition on the student to alter his
style just to fit his or her teacher’s expectation of good music. Is this at
least expected of the student in so far as the course is concerned? I don’t
want to seem like I think this is the norm, but there has to have been
overzealous teachers who try to discourage them into writing more traditional
pieces, right?

Others will undoubtedly want to weigh in on this. I want to say I’ve never disliked a work by one of my students, though I have to admit it’s not quite true. I’ve rarely completely liked one, either. When you watch a piece grow from its first inchoate ideas to some sort of performable score, you get, I think, more caught up with the process than the result. This is a strange and mysterious process with two egos involved, and your own is not the important one. I would never, ever tell a student that the overall effect he or she wants to create is of no value. I always feel most satisfied when I can pinpoint localized things in the piece that I think injure the whole shape or progress of the piece, and the student, in response, ignores my proposed solutions but takes the criticism seriously and comes up with his or her own revisions instead. That satisfies my sense of having made a difference, and the student’s sense of having come up with every note. And to this extent, liking or disliking the piece, or its style, is beside the point. It may be a little like asking a gynecologist whether his last patient was pretty. 

That said, in my situation, I’m the number 2 or 3 composition teacher at Bard, and so any sensible student who’s going to write music in a style I don’t care for is much better off studying with Joan Tower, whose tastes are the diametric opposite of mine and who can do much more for him professionally after graduation than I can. Joan seems to send me the students she gets whose music is “too tonal” or too deliberately uneventful. This is why I think it’s so crucial that a music department aim for diversity of viewpoint among its faculty, which many refuse to do. I think to find an idiom that neither Joan, George Tsontakis, nor I would be sympathetic to, you’d pretty much have to be a staunch Ferneyhough acolyte, which is not common among undergrads. It’s rare, in fact, for our undergrad composers to have much sense of style at all – their music is more often made up (as mine was at that age) of bits of this and that: a harmony they liked in Steve Reich, a melodic tic from George Crumb, some glissandos they heard in Penderecki. Now, I’ve never taught graduate composition students, and the few who’ve brought me their music have done so, as you can imagine, because it’s in a style that they think is right up my alley (often coming to me because their own professors weren’t sympathetic). If an accomplished 24-year-old composer brought me music conditioned by her passionate admiration of, say, Chris Rouse or Harrison Birtwistle, I’d have a quandary I haven’t faced yet. I’ve never regretted teaching in an undergrad-only institution.

But when I haven’t much liked hearing a piece by one of my students, it’s usually with a feeling that “This student isn’t much interested in the same things I am” – which is fine, because few of them are. And of course I would never grade them downward for that, because all that interests me grade-wise is how much work they put in – and that work can even be a lot of serious thinking and sketching, with little actual music to show for it. One of the smartest students I ever had used to analyze scores by prize-winning young composers and try to imitate them – certainly not a route I encouraged, but I watched him with amusement and added what suggestions I could. I gather that, in grad school, he eventually found that a dead end, but it wasn’t in his interests for me to predict that. My teaching motto is from Blake: “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.”

There are a lot of composers who feel that a student should try out every composition teacher in the department to get a variety of viewpoints, but I was never very sympathetic to that. Some of our students do it, and if they go back to Joan or George (or our excellent jazz composition teacher Erica Lindsay) I wish them well and continue to take an interest in their progress. I was the type of young composer who would not have benefitted from a stylistically adversarial relationship – and didn’t, the couple of times it happened. (I had one abominable professor who acted so insulted when I suggested trying another teacher that I was afraid to switch. He was a horse’s ass, and should have been fired, but instead made students miserable for several decades.) But I do think that the type of composition teacher who insists on the student writing in his or her own style  – not nearly as common as they used to be in the ’60s and ’70s, apparently – is very much to be regretted, and I think most composers of my generation have realized the harmful effects of that. Anyone disagree?

And to return the original question to its original context in connection with the minimalism conference: if the musicologists at Bard wanted to hold a serialism or Spectralism conference, or one on the New Romanticism or New Complexity, I would find that interesting rather than threatening, and would probably attend some of it with a curious attitude. My compositional motto comes from Satie: “Show me something new, and I’ll start all over again.”


  1. says

    Nice point of discussion, Kyle…and it’s great to hear your views on teaching undergraduate composition (we’ve got loads more undergrads here at SUNY Fredonia than graduate students).
    I’m curious about the idea of different teachers – I used to think that it made a huge difference as to what style this teacher wrote in or that teacher was a specialist of, but now as I’m trying to come to terms with my own teaching philosophies and techniques, I’m wondering if it makes more of a difference as to the personality and pedagogical methods (organized or not) that a comp teacher uses that would make more of a difference.
    Obviously you’ve got a different musical style than both George & Joan, but what differences are you aware of as far as how each of you goes about working with students in their weekly lessons? Do you find that personality and work ethic of the individual students also play a part in how well they work with you/you work with them?
    KG replies: You know, I’m pretty scrupulous about not asking my students about the other faculty’s methods, so I really can’t tell you. I don’t want to put the student in a position of putting another professor down or having to compliment me. (I do know, from Joan, that she thinks I’m too lenient with them and that I give the “untalented” ones too much encouragement.)
    My students don’t seem to vary much in work ethic. And it seems like the older I get, the less personality has to do with it. The age differences start to outweigh the personality differences.

  2. says

    “When you watch a piece grow from its first inchoate ideas to some sort of performable score, you get, I think, more caught up with the process than the result.”
    This is a great observation, so similar to how a composer has to judge his/her own work, a tremendously difficult task. Usually the composer, knowing every detail of the process, eventually falls blindly in love with a work to do away with the endless self-criticism process. This should not be the case for a teacher or a composer, in my opinion at least.

  3. george Mattingly says

    The distinction you make between simply being an artist pushing one’s own style and truly being a teacher is one unfortunately missed by many.
    When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I encountered both sorts of teachers. My favorites at the time were those whose writing style was closest to mine. In retrospect, some of the teachers who taught me the most were NOT close to me in style. (It’s taken many years to appreciate this.)
    But as you say, the very best teacher will be one whose work really does speak to the student — AND whose teaching style gets the student to best develop whatever the student is trying to say — & not on simply converting the student to the teacher’s esthetic.
    KG replies: I always envy writers. In the ’70s, music was so polarized that the teachers who were on the other side stylistically couldn’t give me any more meaningful advice than “Cage is a charlatan” and “20th-century composers should only use dissonant intervals” – which even back then I realized wasn’t advice at all, just agitprop. Language being what it is, I don’t think political disputes in literature can ever get as stupid as they do in music. At least, every week I skim through the Times music section and then read their Book Review, and I always admire how much more cultured and thoughtful the writers have to be than the musicians.

  4. Ernest Ambrus says

    Thank you for clarifying these issues. I’ve always wondered about them.
    “…At least, every week I skim through the Times music section and then read their Book Review, and I always admire how much more cultured and thoughtful the writers have to be than the musicians.”
    Beside the music itself, what originally drew me to modern classical and experimental music is the thoughtfulness that composers put into their craft; above and beyond, it seems, than the popular music world. I always thought that writing, and composing, in this respect, mirror each other.
    Instead of simply writing a piece and calling it a day like in most other music, the theoretical aspect gave me something more substantial to reflect on, whether it’s theory itself, or philosophical issues like the role of silence, altering perceptions of time, or everyday sounds.
    KG replies: Your point, which I appreciate, makes me wonder why we don’t have more thoughtful, cultured writing *about* new music.

  5. Zeke says

    You sound like a wonderful teacher. As I read the original question, I had in my mind a sentence I read earlier today in Hugo’s Les Miserables. “The just man frowns, but never sneers.”

  6. Bruce Brubaker says

    We’re all different. Some teachers seem to be amazingly flexible in their usefulness to differing students. (Mr. Babbitt offered a remarkable example.) From other teachers, we might seek something less widely applicable. Some students need to develop “style.” Yet, I have the impression that if a younger artist produces something you entirely understand or admire — THAT might be a real cause for concern!

  7. says

    My composition teacher in college never played us his music or talked about his style. This was in the computer music department and he was more involved in research, but he also composed and was a great teacher with regard to helping students find what they wanted to say, never putting much emphasis on style or actual sound.
    I had another professor that had similar intentions, helping students find their own voice (as long as it was expressed following the rules of counterpoint), but made it known to the class how much he disliked minimalism and always enjoyed laughter with his Phillip Glass jokes.

  8. says

    “Language being what it is, I don’t think political disputes in literature can ever get as stupid as they do in music.”
    As Erma Bombeck noted, the grass is always greener over the septic tank. Literary disputes can be waaay stupid, as can the Times’s literary coverage, such as when, a few months ago, they paid someone to wax on and on about how great all the poems John Updike never wrote would have been. Sort of like devoting music-coverage space to lament all the chamber music never written by . . . John Williams. If you want truly cultured daily journalism, you pretty much have to turn to the sports page. And that’s always been the case.
    In Dawn Powell’s novel “The Wicked Pavilion,” from 1954, a WW2 vet tries to get into the writing game, approaches a newspaper editor for a job, asks if he can write about sports, and is answered (paraphrased from memory): “You lack the requisite education and culture to be a sportswriter. How would you like to be our arts reviewer?”
    KG replies: Dawn Powell is wonderfully wicked, and I’ve been meaning to get to the rest of her books.

  9. says

    The writing world was just as polarized as the new music world in the 1970s, and even meaner, because there is a long tradition of using words as weapons while musicians just tend to be nicer, in my experience.
    By the way, that was one of your best essays I’ve ever read.

  10. Herb Levy says

    “At least, every week I skim through the Times music section and then read their Book Review, and I always admire how much more cultured and thoughtful the writers have to be than the musicians.”
    A couple of points about why this isn’t such a great analogy:
    While most music critics for the Times may have had some kind of musical education, I don’t think any of them are working musicians in the same sense that most (though not all) of the literary reviewers are working novelists, poets, etc.
    & while the NYTBR always includes reviews of some fiction works as well as some non-fiction works, there are many areas of literature that are hardly covered at all.
    For instance, weeks can go by without a review of any literary work in translation, any book of poetry, or any literary work of any genre published by a small press.
    KG replies: There are also areas of music the NYT never covers, and weeks and weeks can go by without a mention of any musical phenomenon I give a damn about.

  11. peter says

    Nice essay, Kyle.
    There is a Zen aphorism that applies here, I think:
    When the student is ready, the guru will appear.
    I think this applies as much to the guru as to the student.

  12. says

    I think the best lessons I had were the ones where the teachers spent time figuring out what my intensions were, and seeing if it matched the result. So it’s not so much that they’re suggesting to me what to write, but that they might give suggestions on how to achieve what I want. One teacher I had wrote mainly computer music in kind of a high-modernist style, but he was open-minded enough to let me persue my minimalisty-improv thing that I was working on at the time. Sometimes I would slip into a kind of dissonant, Schoenbergian counterpoint and he would ask me why I was paying homage to that type of thing when I could be pushing the former style further. So I did, and it made all the difference in the world, while giving me the confidence to get away from the angular, atonal styles that I was writing in earlier.

    Most undergrads (including myself when I was at that point) don’t really know what they’re doing, so it helps to have an outside perspective clarifying the things we’re doing in our own writing. Hopefully over time they’ll get a grasp on how the notes and gestures on page relates to their personal philosophy and expression. I think all it really takes is a teacher who’s comfortable enough with themselves that they’re not threatened by their students taking a different direction as them, while putting their interests over their own. Seems like something one could reasonably expect from a professor working at a prestigious instituion, but then again, this is the music world we’re talking about here…

  13. mclaren says

    Let’s a take a look at what really happens when a student composes music in a style the professors don’t like:
    [Bart Kosko] was already interested in Bach and now committed himself to classical music. “I was really into it,” he remembers. He quickly mastered the mandolin and other string instruments. A friend of his had an upright piano in his basement, and in September 1974, he learned to play it. By the end of that month, he was composing his first violin concerto. He was 14.
    Soon he had written a quartet, an orchestral suite and other works.. (..)
    By next fall, when he was a junior, musicians at St. Mary’s College were rehearsing his first quartet, and soon the Kansas City Philharmonic played his first trio. over the following summer he wrote 100 pieces, including his Overture for the Count of Monte Cristo, which he completed in two weeks. He then won a young composer’s context, which led to scholarships and placed his name in the paper. (..)
    In December, he began applying to college. He was determined to go West and write, score, and direct movies, and USC gave him a full music scholarship. He arrived at USC and discovered that atonalists — who based their art on the 12-tone scale of Arnold Schoenberg — controlled the department. He hated atonal music. He didn’t even want to listen to it, much less write about it, and he created an uproar. Ultimately, the faculty told him he could keep his music scholarship for one year if he left the department, and he switched to a dual-degree program in economics and philosophy. [Fuzzy Logic, Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger, Simon & Schuster, new York: 1993, pp. 194-195]

  14. Rodney Lister says

    How is Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale different from other people’s?
    KG replies: One presumes “row” was meant, but we know that “reihe” has always been difficult to translate.

  15. Gavin Borchert says

    well. . . why did USC give him a music scholarship, since they presumably had seen his work and knew what sort of music he wrote? And why did he choose USC without finding out who was on the faculty and what their music was like? Of course, it would have been hard to say no to a free ride, but didn’t he have any kind of interview with any of the composition faculty? (“I showed up on the first day and discovered. . . everyone was an atonalist!!!” I don’t buy it.) Did he keep on composing, even if he wasn’t a music major? If not, why not? And why did he want to go to college anyway, if he balked at being exposed to anything more than what he already knew? There are 18-year-olds out there who arrive at a conservatory with their minds nailed shut because they’re already geniuses; I’ve seen it. (If you compose a hundred pieces in a summer, maybe self-criticism isn’t your long suit.) I’m curious to know the whole story here.

  16. Greg says

    Any undergraduate who won’t even listen to a particular style of music probably doesn’t have the right attitude towards education. I think the switch in major was probably a good idea. He seems to have been more open minded in the other departments.
    Of course, the story may not be quite accurate – although the idea of a whole Philharmonic getting together to play a trio seems kinda awesome.

  17. mclaren says

    As always, evidence of oppression by composition teachers against students who dare to dissent from the prevailing musiKKKal orthodoxy gets met with hysterical denial.
    No surprise. American history shows that the first and most urgent task of the oppressor remains denial of the oppression. Consider the premier example, the 1921 Tulsa City Oklahoma race riot. All newspaper accounts of that riot, in which the bodies of lynched blacks were described as “stacked like cordwood in the streets,” have systematically been removed from all surviving newspapers.
    The same thing happens in music history, most recently courtesy of the now-infamous exercise in dumping 50 years of documented modern history into the Orwellian memory hole: “The Myth of Serial Tyranny in the 1950s and 1960s” by Joseph N. Straus, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 3, 1999, pp. 301-343, a virtuoso display of casuistic sophistry expertly debunked in the article “Serialism and Revisionism: A Response to Straus,” by John Halle of Yale.
    And so, time to amass yet more evidence that the watchword in university music departments throughout the length and breadth of America remains “Conform or be cast out!”
    I have observed a great number of professional composing colleagues who had great frustration in their student years. …[A] mismatch between their own interests and those of their teachers created the frustration. A good example of this was during the early 1980’s, when young composers at Juilliard and other conservatories complained about not being `allowed’ to write the minimal and tonal music they wanted to write, while their instructors (I heard it from Elliot Carter) were complaining that their students only wanted to write minimal or tonal music. — Daniel J. Wolf
    Source: listserv smttalk, March 2009.
    Keep those denials coming. I’ll just keep piling up more evidence and more evidence and yet more evidence that any music student who dares dissent from the reigning musiKKKal orthodoxy at hi/r institution of higher learning gets shunned like a leper and invited (in the politest of terms) to choose another major.
    KG replies: John Halle’s at Bard Conservatory now. I’ve linked before to several debunkings of that Straus article, but John’s is the most complete.

  18. gkb says

    Shutting down dissent is a pretty vicious thing to do in any context–whether by forcing composition students to write in your style, or by evoking the Tulsa race riots and the KKK when someone raises questions about your blog post.