The Importance of Knowing How
When’s the last time you saw a theory course in someone’s bio?
At least among students, it’s customary to credit one’s teachers in a professional bio, but we never mention our classroom experiences. Implicit in this distinction, I think, is the idea that private lessons are more capable of molding our doughy compositional identities than are classes, even classes that specifically address compositional techniques. Although I fundamentally agree with that statement, I’d submit that there are exceedingly important areas of compositional development that are often addressed more extensively in the classroom than in the office, studio, bar, or wherever the lesson takes place.
I’d also argue that greater facility when it comes to these technical issues can only help us realize the experimental impulse we value so highly, the same impulse we cultivate in our more abstract compositional training. Unfortunately, because we’re required to take far fewer theory classes than composition lessons, it’s easy for our craft to slip, and sometimes we don’t have the chops we need. (This is probably nobody’s fault but our own—more on that later.)
Strangely, this limitation doesn’t seem to apply to our use of technology. The level of electroacoustic know-how among students here is unbelievable, and its instruction is probably taken as seriously as Zarlino took his counterpoint. I’m sure Illinois is not the only school where this is the case.
It’s also worth noting that the rigid division between lesson and class is by no means a universal; in Europe, my experience has been that the line is much blurrier, and a meeting among students and professor can take on both “lesson-like” and “class-like” characteristics with much greater fluidity than in the U.S. Furthermore, if I may make a sweeping and not entirely fair generalization, the European composers of my generation that I’ve met tend to enjoy greater mastery of the craft of composing—from fugue-writing on down the line—than my American buddies and I.
Ultimately, I guess it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the techniques we’ll need to do our job, whether that means signing up for elective set theory classes or cracking the Forte book. I’m certainly not complaining about the quality of instruction here or suggesting that it might be insufficient anywhere else. It may be that my fellow students and I are just plain incurious. But maybe somebody of an earlier vintage can fill me in: Did your teachers make you do compositional études for your lessons? Did you learn these things in classes? Did you just pick it up on your own? Do you feel that you gained a strong technical foundation in grad school and, if so, whom do you have to thank for it?