Balancing Act: Some Thoughts On Teaching Composition

Dan Becker

“…years of bad habits erroneously called tradition.” — Edgard Varèse

Even though I never heard the Varèse quote above until the 1990s, my affinity with its spirit goes way back. In fact, I dropped out of college several times due to my own conviction that I was being “indoctrinated” rather than “educated”, and that learning music in a classroom was simply all wrong. But almost as quickly as I would exit, I would begin to miss the instrumentalists, the numerous performances, my fellow composers, the experienced faculty, and the library with all its resources. And so I would re-enlist, jumping back into the game. It’s this tension between what I’ve now come to see as my dual love of both the “wipe things clean” spirit expressed by Varèse on one hand, and the rich possibilities inherent in the process of musical education on the other, that informs so much of how I approach my work as a composer, organizer, and teacher.

Fast forward many years and one doctorate later, and here I am—quite happily—teaching composition and music history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Even though we have just moved into fancy, ultra-modern new digs, the Conservatory is still a prime example of an institution where the emphasis is on “tradition”. (It’s a conserv-atory, after all.) As far as teaching composition is concerned, the tension outlined above manifests for me in a fascination, almost obsession, with that phase in many a young composer’s evolution when he or she begins to truly confront and question the bulk of received wisdom they’ve been handed over the years. It’s exciting to see students challenge many of their deeply held assumptions about a host of musical issues. And it’s during this time that I often witness these very talented and literate students trying to break out of their self-created cages, and where, if successful, they begin to truly come into their own voice.

In trying to illustrate and clarify the conflict that creates this period of “crisis” for a young composer (to be overtly dramatic about it), I’ve identified two issues for discussion:

  1. An unquestioning devotion to the you must know the rules before you break them theory of education.

  2. Something I’m calling horizontal minds stuck in vertical institutions (a variation of the “new wine in old bottles” syndrome).

Unquestioning Devotion

The strongest argument I have found in favor of honoring tradition is the conventional approach of you must know the rules before you break them. The most persuasive expression of this position that I have encountered comes from W.H. Auden. It’s the favorite quote of one of my friends and colleagues, whose point of view I always find valuable. It was written in the context of discussing “free verse” in poetry:

The trouble today with so many would-be artists is that they see, quite correctly, that many of the greatest works are so extraordinarily free and easy, and think that they can start off writing like that. But that sort of grace is the endpoint of a long process, first of learning technique (every technique is a convention and therefore dangerous), and then unlearning. It is much easier to learn than to unlearn, and most of us will not get further than the learning. But there is no other route to greatness, even if we get stuck halfway.

Although I find this a very elegant and compelling statement, from my vantage point here in California on the Pacific Rim in 21st century America, it raises more issues than it answers. The quote, coming as it does from a western European perspective, seems to presume that there’s one particular “toolbox” of techniques that any “would-be” artist needs to master. But in our world today there are so many choices, so many ways of writing music, and so many traditions which each have their own toolbox of techniques. If a would-be composer tried to learn all of them before he gave himself permission to begin the unlearning, he’d never get anywhere. And to presume that one set of tools is superior to all the others (which a traditional classical music curriculum almost always implies), is a stance that has more than a whiff of cultural arrogance.

Another thing about this quote that I find a little insidious is the presumption that the only two options for a would-be artist are to achieve “greatness” or get “stuck halfway.” I see this position as both a sacrificial offering to the “great man” view of cultural progress as well as a contributor to the “masterpiece syndrome” that plagues so many young composers. Now as always, there are thousands of wonderful, valuable, and even essential artists working in the world who are neither “great masters” nor “stuck halfway”. In fact, it’s my view that to believe that the goal of art is “greatness” is a notion that helps to create the very dynamic that results in the backlash phenomena of getting “stuck”. As a teacher I see this all the time. I believe that at every level an artist can create his or her path, define and reach whatever authentically considered goals they’ve set for themselves, and make a valuable contribution to the culture.

There is, however, one line in Auden’s quote which I love, and that expresses a sentiment that I think Varèse would have agreed with which reads, “[E]very technique is a convention and therefore dangerous.” One reason I had so much trouble in my own musical education is that I always felt I was being “conditioned” more than “taught”. I was an excellent student, and I learned my lessons well. And yet I always felt there was something I wasn’t being told. I sensed that deeper concepts and issues were being swept under the rug. In hindsight, I would criticize my own education for its lack of putting things into context. I agree with the often-cited slogan “context is everything”. I’m convinced that the more music theory and history are looked at from as many angles as possible, and put into as many different contexts as possible, the more the music of the past will be demystified and the better the student will metabolize the many lessons contained within (which are not always the lessons that are promoted in our textbooks).

The Vertical and the Horizontal

An even stronger argument in opposition to the overvaluing of tradition comes by way of the musicologist Richard Taruskin, who, in a 1997 New York Times article celebrating Steve Reich’s 60th birthday, wrote the following:

To composers imbued with a 19th-century world view, artistic traditions are transmitted ”vertically.” Nineteenth-century music historiography is an epic narrative of texts arranged in single file. It assumes that artists are primarily concerned—whether to emulate or to rebel—with the texts of their immediate precursors. These assumptions have led to an obsession with lines of stylistic influence, with stylistic pedigree, ultimately (and destructively) with stylistic purity or, worse, progress. This is the altogether anachronistic view most classical composers still imbibe in college or conservatory.

[For] Mr. Reich, […] the main medium of musical transmission was not texts but recordings, and his view of the music surrounding him, accordingly, was ”horizontal.” The epiphany that made him a composer, he has said, came at the relatively advanced age of 14, when he heard in close succession recordings of Stravinsky’s ”Rite of Spring,” Bach’s ”Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5 and bebop.

For myself and for many of my colleagues, this vertical/horizontal metaphor has become a very powerful way to frame a discussion that has great relevance today. In 1997 it was clear to me that I was a “horizontal” musical animal. And if it was true for me back then, I’ve found it even more so now with my own students. They almost all live the horizontal lifestyle. When you dig a little and find out about the many ways that they discover music, listen to music, make music, practice music, perform music, and share music, it’s clear to me that this horizontal attitude is completely natural to them. It’s simply the sea in which they swim. Grab a student’s iPod, study the contents carefully, and you’ll learn a lot.

And here’s the final clincher: We have a generation of students out there who, by their very nature, think and live horizontally. But then they enter our institutions of higher education which are almost all still based on a vertical presentation of the musical world in the way that Taruskin describes. The result is a kind of mental collision, often with significant and potentially destructive repercussions.

The solutions? Ultimately all of these issues lead to no less of a discussion than how to completely restructure our musical institutions so that they truly become 21st-century centers of musical education. But that’s a giant conversation. On a more practical and personal level, all I can do here is share my own perspective of how I approach the problem from within a relatively traditional music institution. My greatest goal in my own job is to help the San Francisco Conservatory live up to one particular sentence in its mission statement: “To honor tradition, and encourage innovation.” Sounds simple. But trying to embrace both of these ways of learning about and experiencing the musical world is much more difficult than it might first seem. However I believe it’s the way out of the maze. Schools and teachers usually lean one way or another, and if you can balance the scales a bit wherever you find yourself, much benefit can result.

For those students wrestling with these issues, there’s no better advice I can give than to quote the philosopher Krishnamurti. Always leery of tradition and acquired knowledge, he emphasized the need to discriminate between those times when knowledge is necessary and those times when it is destructive. His stance is the most elegant and profound description I’ve found regarding how to reconcile both the “vertical” and the “horizontal”:

The function of education is to give the student abundant knowledge in the various fields of human endeavor and at the same time to free his mind from all traditions so that he is able to investigate, to find out, to discover. Otherwise the mind becomes mechanical, burdened with the machinery of knowledge.


So knowledge, which is the cultivation of memory, is useful and necessary at a certain level, but at another level it becomes a detriment. To recognize the distinction— to see where knowledge is destruction and has to be put aside, and where it is essential and to be allowed to function with as much amplitude as possible—is the beginning of intelligence.


The philosophies, theories, and beliefs which you acquire from books, and which become your tradition, are really a hindrance to the mind, because the mind uses these things as a means of its own psychological security and is therefore conditioned by them. So it is necessary both to free the mind from all tradition, and at the same time to cultivate knowledge, technique; and this is the function of education.

This approach has become my own touchstone to the art of teaching, and is the best response I could ever give to both Auden and Taruskin. It also gives voice to the crucial idea that this dual embrace is not something that happens after a student’s traditional, “vertical,” education (which is a view I’ve heard from a few colleagues), but rather is the very stuff of what our education could, and should, be made of.


Dan Becker is the founder and artistic director of the Common Sense Composers’ Collective. He received his DMA from Yale University and currently serves on the board of the American Music Center as vice chair.

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