Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)
Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

In graduate school, I was shocked by the “master” mentality of the composition world. Young composers literally fawned over their professors, and it seemed insincere. I thought the purpose of going to graduate school was to carve my own path, not simply to hob-knob with the “greats.” Since I had come from a relatively non-traditional undergraduate experience, I was eager to gain the technical experience that my peers had already achieved. I took extra independent studies in counterpoint, spending almost a year on perfecting the retrogradable canon. I’m not sure I ever did actually master the skill, but I sure loved the process! I could not get enough of the literature and was fascinated by imitating forms. If I had been forced to do this work sooner, I would surely have recoiled from it. Yet to this day, I refer back to many of the readings and writings by composers about their work that I came across during that time. I also developed a passion for visual art and patterns—Morton Feldman became my hero. The way he wrote about his work, brainstormed, and drew inspiration from painters broadened my aesthetic palette.

Yet, beneath my excitement and fascination with the infinite study of music, fear was brewing; skepticism towards my teachers emerged—particularly the mentality that privileged the “master” over the “apprentice.” Coming from progressive and forward-thinking schools, I had built for myself a certain dreamscape for creativity, and this “guru” approach was confusing and concerning for me. As I got closer to the professional world, I started witnessing overt gender biases as well. I noticed that there were markedly fewer women in my graduate program than men. I distinctly recall dismissing this worry, consciously deciding that I could not give my concern credence, because if I did, it would get in the way of what I wanted and needed to make my music. I remain conflicted when trying to negotiate between the many roles I assume, now as a composer, a teacher, a mother, and an administrator. The survivalist in me still cautions about even considering whether being female makes a difference, but as I become more involved with all aspects of my career, I am not sure how ethical it is for me to ignore the issue. Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher–both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.

There is a deep lineage from composer to student that is rooted in imitation and modeling. Like following the legacy of Feldman in Buffalo, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. Nadia Boulanger’s spirit was alive and well, though I did not have the opportunity to work with her directly. As Leon Botstein explains, she was “less interested in the imposition of an aesthetic, and more invested in the transmission of discipline”—whether through conventional or non-conventional means. Like other modernists, she encouraged the exploration of new forms alongside a reverence for the masterpieces of the past. However, she was unique in that she was the first hugely influential female to train an extraordinary A-list of 20th-century composers. Her pedagogical approach was based in counterpoint—in combining the vertical and horizontal simultaneously. She composed, but we have come to know of her primarily as a pedagogue. And she was strict! Students consistently report that she made them work harder than they had ever worked before.

“Do not take up music unless you would rather die than do so.”
—Nadia Boulanger

Unfortunately, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) did not have the same opportunities to be both a composer and a teacher that we have access to in 2014. While there are many speculations about why she was not equally successful as a composer and teacher, the lesson I take away is that we still have a long way to go in terms of shifting the model of what a composition teacher can provide. First, we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. I will address this in more detail in my final post next week. In the meantime, I continue to admire Nadia, and all of her students, but I would celebrate and welcome the chance to rethink the mold, as a woman and a composer/teacher, simultaneously.

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.

13 thoughts on “Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

  1. Liza

    As a female composer, I am extremely interested in your specific observations regarding gender bias in the music composition world. Looking forward to your next blog.

  2. mer

    Aspiring composers sometimes acquire indispensible concepts that cut to the core quite unexpectedly. When I signed up for a course about the music of Igor Stravinsky during the one semester I spent at Stony Book, my intent was primarily along the lines of music appreciation. Fortuitously, the class was taught by someone who turned out to be fantastically articulate, insightful, and passionate: Sarah Fuller. She illuminated with stunning clarity some essential inner workings of the Russian master’s thought processes using inspired musical examples and terminology.

    1. Mara

      So true! Wonderful post. Betsy Jolas introduced me to Stravinsky (and as a consequence, the American Conservatory in France). I still treasure my first “Rite of Spring” score with notes from that class. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Pingback: 4th of 5 blogs in February and March | Mara Gibson

  4. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

    I have always suspected that Nadia’s influence was partly to do with the fact that she was a woman. She nurtured talent. Her effect upon Piazzolla, for example, was one of liberating him from his (self-imposed?) belief in the need to be her “apprentice” and growing into the composer he became.

    However, all that you say, Mara, about the state of our musical education system rings true. There is a structured dependency culture. This is normally older men in charge of students and, in the UK at least, has led to the exploitation (usually sexual) of female students by unscrupulous so-called teachers. Of course there are many musicians (men and women) who have spoken out against this and this is beginning to be seen in high profile court cases. But that has not altered the structure and it is this, I believe, that you are addressing.

    1. Mara

      Ray, I believe Nadia did nurture talent and she inspired many to fully realize their artistry and potential. She was certainly a role model for me! Look forward to more conversation after my next post. Thanks for reading, and engaging.

  5. Dr Peter Lim

    I rely on my intuition rather than on technique.
    I look for unity and coherence–when a piece has been done-
    I would ask myself–can it stand on its feet?
    If so, I am happy.
    Being essentially a melodies-writer, I am able to avoid a lot of complexities
    and it makes me happy that 20 of my pieces (in collaboration with a friend) will be published in
    Melbourne this year under an album entitled PIANO HOBBY BOOK.
    Irving Berlin is my inspiration–he could not read music but produced the best songs ever.
    I am a self-taught.

      1. Peter Lim

        Thanks. Mara,
        Confucius (600 BC) wrote–San-ren shing, yu-wor sher-yeh-
        in a company of three, one is my teacher.
        I love to learn from others—there are millions out there who are so well-trained and have so much to offer. Music has a million voices and each voice is different–after all, no composer is the same-even on the same theme, there are myriad approaches. I enjoy all good music–after a while I began to feel the true pulse of the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg–Stravinsky, Scriabin, the minimalist composers —each affects me in their own way.
        But being a conservative, I return to the periods from baroque to late 19th century but I am comfortable with all that came after these eras.
        Being a melodies-writer, I of course focus on romantic music.
        I draw inspiration from this letter that Mozart wrote to his father-
        Music, even at its worst, must not offend. If it does, it is no longer music.
        My wife and I live in Melb–what is your personal address?
        I would like to benefit from talking to you.
        With my esteem and warm wishes

  6. william osborne

    There are many possible correlations between the two topics you raise: the master/student relationship, and the effect of gender roles on composers. The word “roles” is interesting because gender is to a large degree, of course, a social construct we portray, like an actor playing a role.

    Why did Western culture, in contrast to most others, create such a strong role of the composer as a patriarchal master ruling performers? How did the composer become an icon of patriarchal, cultural nationalism? How did composers become the recipients of divine inspiration from a patriarchal God, and thus become his Pope-like messengers on earth? The vestiges of all this remain with us to this day, hence masters and students.

    In fact, there are probably quite a few Master’s Degrees around here, even if most of us are short on willing subjects for our mastery…

    These ideas seem related to Leon Botstein’s statement that Boulanger was “less interested in the imposition of an aesthetic, and more invested in the transmission of discipline.” Many ironies there, but to slightly rephrase the idea, what happens when we move beyond the mere conscious imposition of new concepts of gender, and instead develop inherently new ways of seeing the world that creates forms of equality we no longer even think about? What happens when we move beyond ideology to new ways of being?

    I think of the way Title IX was put into law in 1972 and changed American society. When I was in public school, which was before Title IX, there were virtually no sports programs for girls. The only exception in my school was a yearly “Powder Puff” touch football game, and a “Powder Puff” softball game hosted by the cheerleaders (all pretty girls) to raise funds. No one gave the demeaning term Powder Puff a second thought, much less the lack of sports for women.

    Over the last 40 years new generations of women developed much stronger, and even fierce, senses of competition through sports just like boys long had. We moved beyond a rule like Title IX to new ways of being. We moved beyond ideology to a new worldview.

    Or so I thought. It seems the results or more mixed.

    A little searching on the web quickly revealed to me that Powder Puff games are still common. There’s even a Blondes vs. Brunettes Powder Puff football franchise played in cities across the United States used to raise funds for Alzheimer’s research. See:


    Classical music is in the same mixed world. Women conductors, women brass players, and women composers are more common, they play the game competitively and with high quality, but they are often seen through gender goggles that consciously or unconsciously define them as a Powder Puff League. Take away the image and things change, of course. Sociological studies show how greatly results are altered through the use of blind auditions. So how do women best navigate this netherworld divided between ideals, perceptions, and reality? And of course, the same question applies just as much to men who are just as trapped.

    1. william osborne

      There’s yet another layer to all these ironies, because the Title IX generation(s) sometimes take their “fierceness” to the Powder Puff field. See this article in the Washington Post about bad-ass-powder-puffers:


      There might be correlations with how a young generation of classical musicians formulate their gender identity through a mix of images and philosophies.

  7. Mara

    Absolutely! I believe the “powder puff” is one, among many of the images and philosophies we are taught to engender. Thanks for chiming in William. Look forward to more conversation after my next post. While this one came as part of a two part series on teaching composition, I delve deeper into some of the gender topics in my final NMBx extravaganza running Thursday.


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