Composing is Not a Distraction

Composing is Not a Distraction

How many of us have encountered resistance to our initial forays into making music of our own? Recently I was part of a pre-concert discussion during which the subject came up as to how those of us on the panel began composing. As each participant described how only after years of instrumental training did he or she even try to compose, I began to feel a bit odd, as I do not remember a time in which I was not composing. From the beginning of my musical life I was encouraged to make up my own stuff. In fact, that was the main way my mother kept an eye on me in church—she would have me pick out the piano’s bass notes to play against her harmonies of the gospel tunes she accompanied for services.

This is not the case for a lot of musicians. In fact, I have heard countless stories of performers who were discouraged by their instrumental teachers when they would improvise or compose, as it took away from valuable practice time and was a “distraction.” To me, this seems insane. What better way to learn an instrument than to explore it with one’s own music, instead of solely relying on other’s interpretations of what that instrument should and can do?

In my own teaching studio, I make it a point to have every student explore composing for themselves, for I have found it to be an invaluable learning tool in areas of ear training, technique, and theory, to name a few. What better way to learn how to read music than to have to transcribe something of your own? What better way to test your chops than to make up a piece using a certain trick on your instrument? As for the development of a student’s ear, I promise you students can grow by leaps and bounds when being put to the challenge of hearing someone play wrong notes in their piece.

By the way, a teacher does not need to compose in order to help a student compose. One need only provide encouragement and a little guidance, as it goes a long way here. Likewise, composing can be part of a lesson plan for even general elementary music classes where instrumental training is not part of the curriculum.

Joan Tower, who is a very accomplished pianist in addition to being a composer, strongly feels that every performer should try some composing. I could not agree more. It will help not only in obtaining skills but will also help them feel connected to both their instrument and to the music they learn. In the process, it will help them become more open and interested in other music being created by living composers like us. And isn’t that what we are trying do?

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4 thoughts on “Composing is Not a Distraction

  1. JKG

    Composer genesis…
    Interesting topic, Belinda – I was very discouraged by my mother, who insisted, “why can’t you just listen to Hank Williams like everbody else?” I started writing at twelve, drawing upon a pretty decent ability for visual drawing. The moment I realized at a piano that piano music was in fact “drawn” or “written,” I was hooked. It was after that experience that I joined band in junior high, and then years later my awesome high school band director gave me just the barest principles of music theory. Being a composer is all I’ve ever wanted to be my entire (thinking) life.

  2. JJeffers

    Conversely, I would also submit that every composer should try some performing…or a lot of performing.

    Isn’t it fair to say that excluding composition practices from learning an instrument’s language is to be a bit close-minded? Then again, I have never taught anyone an instrument so what do I know?

    I have not seen evidence that even if someone is really comfortable with their instrument, they will be able to compose with it or even improvise. How many composers have worked with excellent players who can’t or won’t improvise? Improvisation and composition are like the seed and the resultant crop respectively, so if performers never write, how will they truly feel freedom with their instrument? Or how will they cope when asked to play a modern piece with imprecise notation? I don’t know, because I have not worked with a lot of very comfortable performers, nor have I written a lot of music with improvisational elements. I would imagine though, that being exposed to composition would be a great tool for any instrumentalist, even if they hate it, they could still use it when they need to. Again, not an instrumental instructor so I don’t have the battlefield experience that many do, and I can imagine that composing can seem trivial if a student is not practicing their technique enough.

  3. ottodafaye


    I agree; this is a worthwhile subject for discussion, not often addressed, insightfully presented here, and thoughtfully commented upon by the above writers.

    I began by composing my own little drum exercises as soon as I took my first lessons – in 8th grade – using the Rubank materials I was working on as models. I have always closely associated these two areas of music making, and still learn to play instruments by writing things for myself to play on them (fretless banjo being the latest).

    In these articles you are usually addressing matters of educating younger musicians, but your current post prompts me to respond because of an experience I had in college. A professor (not actually a teacher I ever studied anything with), once “advised” me that sooner or later I would have to choose between percussion and composition, because “you know, you can’t really do both”.

    Fortunately, I discounted his advice categorically.

    Arthur Jarvinen

  4. doering

    Wow, was that professor high? Most of the composers I know have had significant experience performing. Most who do one or the other choose to do so, not that they couldn’t.

    I wonder if part of the hate towards composition in pre-college music programs has more to do with teachers who, while good at what they do, are uneducated about composers. It takes a lot of life experience and musical experience to compose music well, and composers don’t win band and orchestra competitions. A lack of competitions means a lack of attention and funding in the days when music programs are being cut.


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