Teaching Classical Music Composition: Taking Chances but Understanding the Purpose of Music

Where is the line between creating something new and just making noise?

There are probably multiple school of thought on the role education takes in training new classical music composers. To one side of the room are those educators who feel the safety and security of the educational environment is a great place for students to explore/experiment without fear of failure or rejection. Another side are those instructors attempting to teach the long established traditional methods of composition. Perhaps there are still other's who have a personal agenda, to create a series of clones of composers just like themselves. And then there is another corner where instructors haven't any idea what they're doing, and fumble along without really having any sort of plan. I'm sure there are other types as well - but this is enough to muddy the waters.

I'm not sure I really need to discuss the crime of instructors who haven't a plan (or haven't a clue). They are doing a disservice to their students by not really guiding them. IF, by some luck, a student ends up becoming a great composer, it's of no real credit to the instructor. Music composition isn't luck; it's craft. As such it needs a solid set of skills to achieve an end. Just randomly putting notes to paper won't necessarily create anything worthwhile, so just randomly providing instructor has no more chance of producing quality students.

Those instructors who want to make clones of themselves are likely doing so because no one has accepted their "style" of music composition. By creating a series of clones, these instructors hope to create an "army" of composers that history will look back and say, "Ah, he/she was the genesis of this style." Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot more people than just a few students to create a lasting style. So clone wars don't work.

There is some merit to teaching based on the methods of the past. It is how Bach was taught. How Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were taught - and these are masters, without question. However, classical music has moved into new areas that traditional methods can't always replicate. How much more music would Mozart have written if he'd had computer software to make edits and changes? While hand copying music is a great way to really learn the notes, intervals and phrases of a given piece of music, there are thousands of pieces to learn from now. So, which ones should be used as examples and from what styles? If students tried to learn them all they'd be in composition school from the time they're four until their late forties. We also don't start children as early as Bach and Mozart started, which means the process would take even longer.

Perhaps there is a way to incorporate some of this style, to give students the idea of how to learn from the masters, without taking the long road of hand copying everything. That's what analysis classes are for. They do a great job of examining the music of the masters and identifying the elements that make them great. When it comes to 20th century music, there is some question as to what pieces do you opt to study. But even then this process works for really learning how the music works.

Unfortunately, analysis classes aren't composition classes and at some point composers have to translate what they've learned into re-creating the notes on the page. There is some "pastiche" work done - but not near enough (IMHO). Students may learn to write an invention like Bach in a counterpoint class, or four part choral writing like Haydn. They may even work on replicating later romantic music like Mendelssohn or Schubert, but I've not seen any examples of schools that teach using short examples of the hundreds of different techniques available to composers of the early 20th century. Again, theory and analysis classes discuss the techniques, but composition is not just understanding the technique; it is being able to put it into practice.

So we get to the next style of instruction, exploration and experimentation. This is great at allowing students to really use their imagination. Through guided instruction, it can even serve to teach late 20th century techniques through discovery. Students can explore musique concrete, or electronics, 12-tone techniques or pitch class sets, serialism or minimalism and a vast array of other techniques to learn what works for them. With a solid knowledge of classical techniques, this sort of instructor can yield a broad spectrum of styles within a small class of students.

However, where this system falls down is that it also tends to teach students that what they imagine and hear, everyone in their audience will imagine and hear as well - and that simply is not the case. A complex piece like those of Ferneyhough are difficult to grasp by those who have studied him, let alone an audience hearing the music for the first time (which is what composition students are facing). If a piece of music needs time to settle, several hearings for the listener to really begin to appreciate what it is they're hearing, then student works are destined to fail, because they're only going to get one hearing before the student needs to move on to the next project. The students playing these new works aren't going to spend any more time honing a piece either as they have their own agendas.

This problem extends to the performance feedback. "New Music" concerts at the university level are poorly attended. Recitals by the same students performing at the "new music" concerts are much more successful in getting an audience. It can't be because of the performers, because they're the same people. It might be the performance quality as new music concerts don't tend to get the same level of preparation as recitals - but I suspect it's the music. The music is so adventurous that the non-composition students aren't interested in sitting through the program.

When trying to teach a new generation of composers we need to look at teaching them tried methods and established practices for the common practice styles. We also need to provide them guidance in exploring new avenues and techniques for more modern styles of music. But something that isn't happening is teaching composition students the relationship between the audience and music. We need to adequately express that music is nothing if there is no audience and an audience's reaction to music is valid and worthy of consideration. NO, we don't need to just write what the public wants, but there has to be some consideration of the public's response or we've lost the plot. Music is a performance art and for a performance there must be an audience.

Now, if what the educational establishment wants is to create a series of intellectual composers who can then perpetuate the system - continue on their current course. But if they honestly want to create composers who are interested in taking music to new directions, they need to be more aware of the effect of an audience --and translate that awareness to their students.


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