To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

The path to becoming a creative artist is complicated, laborious, and filled with a fair amount of twists and turns. Several months ago I enjoyed a residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This idyllic haven for creative artists has been a temporary home to many of the most accomplished poets, writers, visual artists, and composers of the 20th century. I was especially thrilled to find the signature of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach (Amy) on one of the “tombstones” (wooden plaques the artists sign at the end of their stay). Our particular group of residents, a very talkative cohort, enjoyed the opportunity to be together at mealtime. One evening I asked, “What was one of the most important experiences which set you on your course to becoming an artist?” The responses were interesting and more varied than I could ever imagine:

I was allowed to spend time in the art room as a child, because I didn’t get along with the other children (visual artist)

being told by a teacher that I’d be a better critic than writer (poet)

studying ‘sumi-e’ (traditional Japanese brush painting) (composer)

My mother made me watch the Leonard Bernstein ‘Young Peoples Concerts’ (writer)

being advised to give up the bass, because I would never enjoy the political hassles of being an orchestral musician (visual artist)

A former teacher told me not to go to graduate school, because it would mess me up. I went anyway and was mentored by a wonderful individual (writer)

These accomplished people—all published, performed, and exhibited—had certain experiences that contributed to their eventual career choice. There is no single factor, of course, but many incidents and circumstances that bring an artist to fruition. My MacDowell “question” led me to further exploration.

Recently I read Creating Minds. An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi (Basic Books, 1993). In this work, Howard Gardner profiles these individuals and identifies commonalities that bring about such stunning originality. It is by understanding his or her particular creative breakthrough that we begin to see patterns that illuminate our understanding of the creative process. At the risk of over-simplification, these factors include: “unusual combinations of intelligence and personality,” “indispensable role of circumstances in which an individual works,” “crucial reaction of informed peers,” and “support of caring individuals.” A final observation is unsettling, but not surprising: “extraordinary creativity almost always carries with it extraordinary costs in human terms.”

I am also aware of exciting research in composition and creativity that is taking place in the field of music education. Drs. Margaret Barrett and Joyce Gromko, ongoing collaborators, specifically probed teacher/student interaction via a series of videotaped composition lessons. Their paper, Scaffolding the creative process: Provoking the ‘muse that sings’, was presented at the Ninth International Conference on Thinking in Auckland, New Zealand, January 14-20, 2001, and is grounded in the theory of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

My alma mater, Northwestern University, has always been willing to take the creative risk. In the 1960s they were active participants in the Contemporary Music Project (CMP), the multi-faceted Ford Foundation initiative that studied the place of the arts in the U.S. Northwestern redesigned its undergraduate curriculum under the principles of “comprehensive musicianship,” so that the required core courses were taught in a collaborative manner with composition and performance as the integrating factor. Currently, Northwestern’s Department of Music Education is focusing many research initiatives on the subject of creativity and has established a “think tank,” the Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience.

I recently invited the Bowling Green State University composition majors to respond via email to this open-ended question: “Why do you compose?” I never asked this question of our collective composition student population before, and I was eager to see what the response would be. I wanted the responder to be free to go in any direction. The question might be too personal for most people, but students who are at critical stages in their career development may be thinking about this more than those in the profession for some time.

The students’ words were enlightening, gratifying, humorous, thoughtful, and seem to be motivated by a combination of curiosity, the need for emotional catharsis, and a fascination with the process:

I compose because I like creating things. I like the process too, but the product is the most fulfilling part for me

to leave my mark on the world

It has always been my nature to create as a means of thoroughly getting to know the nature of a thing in general. The thing in question is music, and I’ve been interested in exploring composition since I started trumpet at the age of 10. Another analogy that applies to me is cooking. Making things from scratch has been the way I learn more about food (I’m very interested in food). I would also like to learn how to brew beer—hiccup!

I love music…

Composition is one of the best ways for me to express myself . . . if I were looking to make a lot of money I would not be doing what I am doing

to clarify meaning

I have a need to create music that comes from deep within. I love all stages of the compositional process…

I compose my deepest feelings and emotions, probably because I have a hard time expressing them verbally

I compose because I can’t sleep at night if I don’t

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

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.