Do As I Say, Do As I Do (If It Helps)

Teaching is one of the most challenging things I do. Teaching responsibly seems to require constant soul searching and occasional upheavals in approach, methodology, and perspective as I encounter new students, new times, new pedagogical philosophies, and new music. When approaching the teacher/student relationship, what is the best way to provide what each student needs to develop as a composer?

There is no question that teachers have the potential to wield a lot of power over their students. I remember as an undergraduate asking a theory teacher (who is still a great teacher in my mind, as he was then) about John Cage, and I still can hear his derisive laughter followed by a comment about Cage’s music not being worthy of study. His response was enough to keep me away from this music for a long while, but not forever. This early encounter lead me, when I became a teacher, to resist expressing my own opinions about certain kinds of music and ideas to my students, for fear they would simply take on my attitudes as their own and stop the questions that are such an important part of learning. But I am also keenly aware that students very much want to hear their teachers’ opinions—perhaps because “trying on” someone else’s point of view for a while can be an important part of developing your own.

Learning to compose can be akin to this—taking on the style of your teacher as a way of progressing into your own. Or is it better to avoid this approach, and take the students from whatever style they bring in and encourage them to branch out from there? The latter has been my approach, but recently I have wondered if some of them don’t simply get “stuck” in old ways of doing things, impeding their progress as a result, and if they would do better if I had simply assigned them to work outside of their comfort zones more.

I’d appreciate hearing from people about pedagogical methods or points of view that work or worked well for them, as students and as teachers.

3 thoughts on “Do As I Say, Do As I Do (If It Helps)

  1. barakperelman

    If I was a composition teacher I would do 3 things:

    1. Never ever tell the student what to do in their composition, not even a suggestion, not an idea, etc…

    2. Whatever the “student” is doing, only advice to give them is “keep doing it!” and “never stop!”

    3. The only thing I would be teaching is about my own composition, having them listen to my own work, explaining to them what I mean in my work, how I think in my work, how I compose, etc… And also teach the student about great and important figures and their works like Schoneberg, Bach, Gould, etc…
    and what I know about them.

    In short, the idea of a composer is a person who wants to think for themselves, and try to compose their thoughts about whatever in a “musical” context. In simple terms, you and I are composers specifically because we do not like anyone telling us what to think.

    Reply
  2. lawrence

    I think it is possible, and helpful, after getting to know a student over the course of time, to give him/her an assessment of what things s/he does well and what things s/he doesn’t do, either from lack of interest or lack of awareness. If it’s lack of awareness, then a teacher can help the student to expand his/her repertoire. Students have the option of keeping or discarding anything or everything the teacher shows them. But teachers should be more than just back-patting pals, they should be willing to go out on a limb, with the possibility of being disliked, in an effort to help the student be everything s/he can be.

    Reply
  3. toddtarantino

    It seems to me that the role of the composition teacher is to help the student realize the full expressive power of their material by asking open-ended questions and making concrete suggestions based on the work at hand.

    Reply

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