Teaching the Composers

Teaching the Composers

In my previous column I presented a few suggestions as to how the role of a composer in higher education could be expanded by integrating composition into the music education curriculum. I should point out, however, that as important as introducing the basic concepts of composing and musical creativity to budding music educators is, the primary goal for a composition faculty should still be the instruction and guidance of student composers. For many students and teachers in composition education, this primary goal can seem at cross-purposes with itself. It is this natural internal conflict that makes the teaching of composition so challenging—and yet there is currently very little focus given to preparing potential composition educators for that challenge.

One of the toughest parts of teaching composition—indeed, teaching any artistic medium—is not only teaching the subject, but guiding the implementation and ultimately the transcendence of the subject material; in other words, not only teaching someone how to compose, but how to be a composer. There are many nuanced reasons for this, but much of it has to do with the indirect nature of how we learn, and subsequently how many educators teach, composition. Regardless of the various processes that are available to composers that allow for the creation of material, at some point each artist is forced to make their own decisions, take risks, and hope that it will work. It is that aspect of risk-taking—to allow oneself or one’s students to make mistakes—that can often hold back both students and educators from doing their best work.

Earlier this week, my new NMBx colleague Isaac Schankler illustrated the strong effect that mentor composers have on their students. His description of how well-meaning instructors inadvertently triggered feelings of self-doubt must sound familiar to many current and former students as well as educators. The same self-doubt can be found in many composition instructors when they first start teaching. Even though they may have just finished numerous years of graduate study, once they start teaching they realize that their coursework never prepared them for one-on-one instruction with student composers with varying degrees of experience.

It is this gap in composition education that can and should to be addressed. A few years ago I decided to begin a graduate course in the pedagogy of composition to compliment the music theory pedagogy course that graduate students were required to take. In my preparation, I was dismayed to find very little current research on the subject (with the exception of music education research on composition in general education) and only one existing course in the subject being taught at the college level. Led by Jim Mobberley at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, it is an extremely well structured course that includes hands-on experiences with teaching in both individual and classroom environments (graduates teaching undergrads, undergrads teaching pre-college students) as well as discussions on assessment, curriculum, and methodologies.

While it may all sound a bit…well, academic…this topic is very important to the future of new music because the large majority of creative artists who will be shaping music will at some point study composition at the collegiate level and, whether or not their work will exist because of or in reaction to their experiences in academia, we as a community need to be aware of the deficiencies that exist and strive to improve them—not only in composition pedagogy, as I’ve mentioned here, but also in educating composers in entrepreneurship, which I will cover in next week’s post.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching the Composers

  1. Greg Robin

    There is very little in terms of Composition pedagogy. What I have been struggling with is the lack of a separation between composing and practicing composition. I was wondering your take or others on the difference. Perhaps, many don’t see a separation. Like playing an instrument, there must be a need for practice material outside of an actual composition. I had made a few exercises for my students. Is this something that a Comp Pedagogy might address? Great Column.

    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Greg, I certainly “practice” composition all the time in the sense of reading scores & listening (and in my case, engraving music for other composers). There’s practice in the associated skills as well — orchestrating, exploring an instrument’s capabilities, working on developing ideas. Some of the “practice material” you wonder about consists of sketches, whether in physical form or mental exploration. Some of the “practice material” includes abandoned or, in the worst case, failed compositions. Sometimes it’s practicing with the performer who suggests improvements. And some of the practice material relates to Rob’s column … challenges made and accepted. It’s how I’ve always worked with students from grade school through adults. See this heap of coins on the table? Make a piece. Hear those annoying lights buzzing and whining? Make a piece. See the beautiful curve of hills offset by that building? Make a piece. Hear those cars resonating as they pass the culvert? Make a piece. A commission itself is a kind of practice challenge with, one hopes, positive results.

      The “make a piece” challenge happened recently on Facebook. I posted: “There’s a railroad track machine outside. Not sure if it’s spreading the riprap or straightening track, but it’s going nonstop |: eighthC#-eighthB-quarterD#-quarterC-quarterrest :| … hellllp!”. 24 comments followed, including one suggesting it sounded like a fugue theme and another suggesting that the second voice arrive at the tritone. Challenge accepted! I inverted the theme (to avoid the B-A-C-H shape), and over the course of three days wrote that fugue.

      Here are the score and demo. All for practice.


  2. Robinson McClellan


    Thanks for a great series of columns and some valuable things to be thinking about.

    Related to composition within music education, there’s a lot of new activity around pre-college composition teaching. I wanted to share three interesting endeavors I’m involved with:

    ComposerCraft, a seminar-style class, for middle-school composers at the Special Music School/Lucy Moses School in NYC (we have a concert with Metropolis Ensemble as part of their Youth Works program on May 19 at Le Poisson Rouge): https://www.facebook.com/ComposerCraft (and video from our March reading session here: http://youtu.be/05N_WzSkPkU)

    YCIW, the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop, at LREI, a school in NYC, led by Matt McLean: http://yciw.lrei.org/ (also on the Youth Works concert)

    COMP (formerly VT Midi), an online composition mentoring program based in VT for students in elementary through high school: http://www.music-comp.org/

  3. Matt

    Thanks for the great article.

    Over the last 2 years I have developed a music composition curriculum for 5th and 6th grades. Anyone is welcome to access the on line lessons. They are coordinated with Noteflight scores but you could certainly use them without Noteflight. Check out the website to hear student work and view the lessons.



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