How many of us have encountered resistance to our initial forays into making music of our own? Recently I was part of a pre-concert discussion during which the subject came up as to how those of us on the panel began composing. As each participant described how only after years of instrumental training did he or she even try to compose, I began to feel a bit odd, as I do not remember a time in which I was not composing. From the beginning of my musical life I was encouraged to make up my own stuff. In fact, that was the main way my mother kept an eye on me in church—she would have me pick out the piano’s bass notes to play against her harmonies of the gospel tunes she accompanied for services.
This is not the case for a lot of musicians. In fact, I have heard countless stories of performers who were discouraged by their instrumental teachers when they would improvise or compose, as it took away from valuable practice time and was a “distraction.” To me, this seems insane. What better way to learn an instrument than to explore it with one’s own music, instead of solely relying on other’s interpretations of what that instrument should and can do?
In my own teaching studio, I make it a point to have every student explore composing for themselves, for I have found it to be an invaluable learning tool in areas of ear training, technique, and theory, to name a few. What better way to learn how to read music than to have to transcribe something of your own? What better way to test your chops than to make up a piece using a certain trick on your instrument? As for the development of a student’s ear, I promise you students can grow by leaps and bounds when being put to the challenge of hearing someone play wrong notes in their piece.
By the way, a teacher does not need to compose in order to help a student compose. One need only provide encouragement and a little guidance, as it goes a long way here. Likewise, composing can be part of a lesson plan for even general elementary music classes where instrumental training is not part of the curriculum.
Joan Tower, who is a very accomplished pianist in addition to being a composer, strongly feels that every performer should try some composing. I could not agree more. It will help not only in obtaining skills but will also help them feel connected to both their instrument and to the music they learn. In the process, it will help them become more open and interested in other music being created by living composers like us. And isn’t that what we are trying do?