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Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher
Image: Molly Sheridan

Playing My Hand: How I Learned to Trust My Composition Teacher

Last week, I shared the story of my first year in graduate school as a composition major, and the many transitions I went through during that time, including discovering a new identity as a musician. This post is all about my second year of graduate school, and how I learned to trust my composition teacher and become a better teacher myself. But first: the summer!

I spent most of the summer between my first and second years alone, in the dorms, in my bathrobe, writing a song cycle and a band piece. I was broke, but I slept eight to ten hours a night with regularity. I walked on the beach of Lake Michigan on sunny days, visited family up north and friends in Chicago, took my time learning a lovely and very difficult vibraphone solo in order to premiere it, and watched a ton of movies with my wonderful and hilarious roommate (a fellow grad student in the music school). Overall it was a time of resting, and it went by really fast. I gained confidence in my ability to make it through this degree and graduate, all while still maintaining a professional career and applying to doctoral programs.

Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.

And yet, I wondered if my new composition teacher (my third teacher of the degree) would just try to make me sound like them, as a teacher during my first year had done. Being pushed to completely depart from my own voice had given me existential anxiety, and I was afraid I’d be asked to do that again, for my thesis. A few days before classes started, I happened across the professor who was supposed to be my main composition teacher for the year ahead, and he told me that he wasn’t taking on any new students and that I had been placed in another studio. When he told me who my new teacher would be, I was surprised and excited, and thought, “Great! I don’t really know him personally at all, but I do know based on his work that there are so many things I can learn from this man.” Taking the advice of a composer who had also gone back to school in her 30s, I registered and interviewed with the Accessibility Resources Center, to get time accommodations for the Theory Comprehensive Exams and discuss other possibly needed accommodations. I have a learning disability and mental illness, which is a great cocktail for extreme heartburn and anxiety during tests that determine whether I graduate or not, in subjects that are eye-bleedingly difficult for me. I figured having a history with the ARC would be helpful for my time in a doctoral program as well, where I will certainly be in several high-pressure test situations, and where I will encounter a lot of stress.

Once the school year started, I still played in band and percussion ensemble (but less), and I took conducting lessons on top of my very full class schedule, which included Digital Synthesis, Music History Seminar, a theory class, and lessons. I was busting my butt with college applications, I had a big trip to San Francisco coming up for a world premiere, doctoral applications were all due at the same time, I had a commission due, and I needed to keep knocking out my thesis. Four weeks into the semester, I got sick and disappeared for a week. I had to withdraw from History Seminar (it was the most stressful, busy-work class) for mental health reasons, which included filling out a bunch of papers.  The second semester was a breeze in comparison. My heart stopped cracking like a walnut every time I thought of teaching at my old college or heard from my students. I was ADJUSTING. My grad band staff comrades were lifesavers. We had an office all together: Percussion TA, Band Librarian, Conductor, Tech Guy, etc. We had a blast, partied together, and practiced together.

And I loved composition lessons with my new teacher. I was given some great advice from a mentor, which I kept in mind: “Keep your cards to your chest. Never let them see your whole hand.” I had plenty of practice doing this during my first year, so it was easy this time around.

There I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Right from the beginning, I could tell my teacher and I would get along: he was a drummer too, and had been everywhere and done everything. He was one of these modest people, where you keep opening doors with them and a thousand more doors are behind those. He was very fun and funny, enthusiastic, full of ideas, and our lessons went until somebody had to leave—sometimes two hours. I checked out my hand, laid down a single card…and nothing bad happened. We kept working on music, and I decided to write a percussion trio for my thesis. I laid down another card, and asked if he would write recommendation letters for my college applications. He said yes, so I sent him my C.V. and he read it. Something new clicked; it was like suddenly he “got” the amount and variety of experience I had had in music so far. Finally! Someone took the time to get to know me and my history. So I started to trust the guy. He came up with lists of music for me to listen to and scores to read and pieces to try out or exercises to do. He saw my strengths and weaknesses and helped develop both, pushing me the appropriate amount if I needed pushing, helping me expand my sound universe. My thesis started to come together! He came to some rehearsals of the piece and was incredibly supportive at my graduate composition recital. My lessons were the highlight of the week, all year long. So there I was, age 38, second year of my master’s degree, finding out for the first time what it was like to have weekly lessons with a supportive, enthusiastic, encouraging teacher that I trusted.

Entering my master’s degree, it never crossed my mind that I would learn anything new about teaching. I had a good handle on being a teacher! It turns out there was still a lot to learn. Being back behind a student desk after eight years in front of the classroom was an eye-opener. I observed the hell out of each of my teachers. I understood everything the professors said from both a teacher’s perspective and from my own perspective as a student. The new percussion instructor became a friend, and I watched him handle the percussion studio extremely well, but in a very different way than I did when I was teaching. I had an analysis teacher who transformed material I was disinterested in into something incredibly interesting. Thinking back to when I was a teacher, I felt like this: a student’s enthusiasm is life, and a student’s apathy is death. So I did everything I could to create an atmosphere of challenging, joyful, fun learning. I knew a good teacher when I saw one. There were many here. There were also some who made the material, and the class, all about themselves. I gave unsolicited feedback to professors more than once, when I saw they were talking over the students and not listening to us. Perhaps this ruffled some feathers but I absolutely did not care, because I found out exactly how passionate I was about the joys of learning from a great teacher. It must be an enormous joy to watch a student’s music develop and blossom over time, and I discovered just how much I’d love to become someone’s composition teacher. Being a student made me want to teach again more than anything I’ve ever wanted.


Olivia Kieffer is a composer, percussionist, and educator from the United States. A native of Wisconsin, her music has been described as “immediately attractive”, “like a knife of light”, and “honest, to the point, and joyful!” She presently studies with Lansing McLoskey at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami, where she is pursing a DMA in Music Composition. She is former adjunct music faculty at Reinhardt University (2009 – 2017), where she taught Applied Percussion Lessons and World Music, and directed the Percussion Ensemble. She has degrees in percussion... Read more »


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