Can You Still Learn the Rules if You Follow Your Muse?

Recently I have been dealing with a very talented young composer whose visions are well beyond his chops. This is a young teen who skips Spanish class so he can study Stravinsky scores. (How can you criticize that? I skipped class to practice and compose.) While he loves every kind of music imaginable, his heart is set on writing symphonic theatre works. Every week he comes to his lesson with a new large-scale piece, complete with a detailed drama and scene layout. Although his text writing skills are remarkable for his age and his musical material imaginative and compelling, he lacks the compositional skills to successfully execute such pieces in terms of form, orchestration, and vocal writing.

How do you give such students the fundamentals without squelching their imagination? Do you rein them in? Do you let them run wild?

In this case, I am trying to do both. Each week we focus in on one large scale work he has written to use it as a canvas from which to get his feet wet in orchestration, form, and the like. At the same time I assign smaller composition assignments in a systematic order to assure he will have no holes in his compositional chops. As for the huge overflow of music he is compiling, he shares with me these pieces and I make general comments. We then file them away for more analysis later.

One may call my pedagogical approach a bit too eclectic. Yes, this teaching style leaves some of my student’s works in an unfinished state, since it leaves sections of them in need of refinement while others are skillfully polished. However, this method at least gives the young composer a taste of what he can eventually do, while at the same time giving him an opportunity to learn some basic techniques. Furthermore, these lessons can easily be transferred to smaller-scale works. The skills may not be at the level needed to harness a large work, but they are stronger than they would have been had we solely directed our lessons to writing music exercises. It’s like dumping language students into the country that speaks the language he or she is learning. They may flail sometimes, but they will learn more effectively through such an immersion technique than through taking a language course in a class.

So, in helping a budding composer compile a toolbox of techniques, I’d rather use whatever motivates him/her and trust that I will be able to use it to achieve my pedagogical goals for that person. For, at this stage, is this not the time for young musicians to try anything, when they are in the safe confines of being students? Otherwise how will they ever really learn how to write music beyond that of a polished, yet derivative nature? In this case, at least this kid has had the opportunity to follow his muse and at the same time learn some of the rules.

2 thoughts on “Can You Still Learn the Rules if You Follow Your Muse?

  1. JKG

    What you’re actually doing is the way music USED to be taught before certain teachers decided they were entirely too insecure around their own students, because of their own lack of real musical ability. Allowing your student to create as reward for staying fixed on the basics is probably the way he will teach himself after his education has been completed anyway – plus, there’s no guarantee his next teacher will be so gracious. You are doing precisely the right thing!

    John Graham

    Reply
  2. Klimowski

    Hi Belinda,

    That’s creative teaching and reminds me of a C. S. Lewis quote:

    “Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad artists bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always ‘breaking fetters’ and ‘bursting bonds’. They have personality, they ‘are themselves’. I do not know whether we often think out the implication of such language into a consistent philosophy; but we certainly have a general picture of bad work flowing from conformity and discipleship, and of good work bursting out from certain centres for explosive force—apparently self-originating force—which we call men of genius.”

    Steven Klimowski
    Director
    Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble

    Reply

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