To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

“What are the one or two things that are most important in a collegiate composition program?”

To take the pulse of composition teachers around the nation I posed the above question via email. The respondents represented major universities with doctoral programs, smaller institutions without doctoral programs, conservatories and liberal arts colleges. As is customary, they not only teach private composition, but also courses in music theory, analysis, and music technology; direct new music ensembles; and serve in administrative capacities.

The responses were intriguing and diverse, but seemed to cluster around four major points: curriculum, environment, performance opportunities, and leadership. These categories were not pre-determined; I looked for the recurrence of key words in the statements to identify the categories and then to justify a statement’s inclusion in a particular category. The percentage of comments in each category was then calculated.

I also posed the question to composition majors at Bowling Green State University, graduate and undergraduate students from diverse geographical areas (California, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Texas, Ohio). It is not surprising that the category percentages differ between the two populations.

The results in ranked order are:

Teacher Response

  1. Curriculum (32%)
  2. Performance (30%)
  3. Environment (22%)
  4. Leadership (16%)

Student Response

  1. Environment (33%)
  2. Performance (30%)
  3. Leadership (22%)
  4. Curriculum (15%)

Draw your own conclusions.

The categories, their descriptions, the percentages and selected excerpts from the responses follow:


Curriculum—technical competency; orchestration ability; knowledge of literature and styles; master classes (32%)

provide a complete set of the basic skills necessary for composing—instrumentation, orchestration, notation, ear training, etc.

ingest a great deal of information about music and acquire a tremendous quantity of skills having to do with the art of handling music (some people call it ‘pushing notes around’)

ongoing opportunities to study contemporary works, styles, and aesthetics in depth (i.e., to be responsible for knowing the salient aspects of contemporary music literature)

students need to be active music-makers themselves (in order to develop interpretative skills)

follow through is important, as is a regular work routine as opposed to waiting for the lightning to strike

being aware of all the different movements in the history of composition, including the more popular ones (esp. in the 20th century), including their relationship to visual, literary, theatrical, and political sources

Environment—creating and being in an atmosphere where learning is enhanced (22%)

light a fire (or certainly don’t extinguish one that already exists) for the desire to compose—both by addressing the student’s individual reason for being there and also by exposing them to your own excitement about the music of others and the reasons behind it

freedom to compose whatever one imagines

inspiration and technique cannot be taught separately

learn to think critically about their own music and that of others

flexibility to adjust to the different students’ different needs, with an eye to their development for the future

creating an environment which nurtures imagination and vision

Performance opportunities—getting works played; working with performers (30%)

provide regular performances AND readings of student works as well as an ongoing performance series that exposes the student to the wealth of repertoire that is out there

a performance-oriented environment, where composers interact with performers on a regular basis, and hear quality performances of their compositions soon after completion

performance should cover the gamut, ranging from different media… to different contexts . . . including a range of styles (classical, modernist, minimalist, postmodernist, jazz, rock, and all flavors in between)

Leadership—inspiring, competent, professionally active teachers (16%)

teachers who are active composers with significant careers outside their schools

a composition faculty with diverse approaches to composition who are willing to let the students develop their own musical personalities and not be clones of themselves

instill a curiosity about music

provide students with guidance and encouragement in their acquisition of technique and in the search for the student’s individual voice without imposing any stylistic regimentation

Empathy and Compassion . . . the ability to sense how a student is thinking and feeling, to intuit what their expressive needs are, and gently to urge them toward growth in that direction, all the time staying deeply in touch with the fact that growth can be painful and difficult

maintaining a professional work situation, as they would encounter it in the real world (meeting deadlines, requirement of professional parts, good skills in working with musicians)


Curriculum—technical competency; orchestration ability; knowledge of literature; masterclasses (15%)

critical (analytic) exposure to contemporary genres

required listening and required concert attendance

seminars in which one or two students present work each class period and are subject to questioning and criticism by the group and faculty, a regular masterclass situation

Environment—creating and being in an atmosphere where learning is enhanced (33%)

demystification of compositional process



find a program that exposes you to new ideas but does not stifle your own compositional voice—a delicate balance

Performance Opportunities—getting works played; working with performers (30%)

many opportunities for composers to display their works. The best way to learn how to compose is by doing it, and if there are little to no opportunities to hear one’s works then I feel that the process of learning is impeded

being able to work one on one with performers, and hear your music played (if even just a read-through)

exposure of your works. Students need their works to be heard by themselves and others

Leadership—inspiring, competent, professionally active teachers (22%)

a competent, flexible, and adaptable composition faculty who are comfortable working with a large variety of student interests, who don’t try to reproduce “cookie-cutter” composers who simply emulate the teacher’s style, and who can subtly help and encourage students to improve their craft and technique without making value judgments

finding one or two faculty members that you work with well

if the faculty is not good (known composers) or they are not getting performances outside of campus, then why bother going to that school. Also, the compositional style of the faculty is important

faculty dedicated to their art and teaching

teachers who care

From To What Degree: A HyperHistory of Teaching Musical Composition
By Marilyn Shrude
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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