Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

2. Direct vs. Indirect Advice

GEORGE PERLE: When I came to Queens to teach I had been teaching in Louisville before that…

PAUL LANSKY: Davis. You had been in Davis before that, I think.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, that’s right, I came from Davis and before that I had been teaching at Louisville and when I left Louisville, about a year after I left Louisville, I got a postcard from somebody who was studying composition with me there and this was a year after I’d seen this person and he said, “I finally figured out what you were trying to teach.” It was a year after I’d seen him.

PAUL LANSKY: The thing I liked about studying composition with you was that you didn’t ever say with positive authority that something was bad or something was good, something was wrong. You would stick a fork around the edges and try to be indirect about it…

GEORGE PERLE: Well, I don’t know if I was trying to be indirect.

PAUL LANSKY: And as much as you didn’t know what to say, you didn’t think it was the best piece of music that you’ve every seen and you did sort of imply that there was something else that I should be doing. You didn’t ever tell me what to do which I really liked a lot and that’s still sort of my model for music education which is you can never really tell anyone anything, you have to give them the ability to figure it out by themselves. One of the best educational experiences I ever had was with the French horn. I studied with Joseph Singer who was the hornist at the Philharmonic. I started with him when I was in high school and he never, ever told me what to practice between lessons. He wouldn’t say, you know, practice this exercise or do such and such. All he would do is criticize my playing and so I had to figure out what it was that I needed to do. And I think it was the same with you. You were a little more elliptical about it than he was because when you’re listening to somebody play, there are many more specific things you can do. You can’t say, “Maybe you should play another piece.” But with composition it’s a different matter. I noticed with some of my graduate students at Princeton who’ve written a lot of music that it’s never a question of me telling them that there are specific things wrong as much as trying to get a larger perspective. But I think when I was studying with you I really was in a position of not being very good at putting pieces together. I don’t think, you know, I don’t think I actually started to write pieces that I thought were real until I was well into my thirties and you were always very good at suggesting that there were approaches that I should be using. No, you didn’t suggest that there were specific approaches that I should be using as much as you worried about the consequence of the way I was putting together a passage.

GEORGE PERLE: Maybe I just didn’t know what to say.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, but that was an important fact. I think that was an interesting fact that you didn’t know what to say. And actually I sort of learned more from you directly when we started collaborating. Should we tell the story of our collaboration?

GEORGE PERLE: Well, obviously we have to… The reason he’s hesitating is that it’s a special kind of circumstance, which rarely happens and when it does happen you’re lucky.

PAUL LANSKY: I think it was a very important thing for both of us.

GEORGE PERLE: Yes, it was. Well, it was said that I didn’t talk about my own music and do you think I should have?

PAUL LANSKY: Well, I think the reason that you didn’t talk about your own music is the same reason you didn’t talk about my music. You felt that there were things about it that were either not that interesting to talk about or that were much too difficult to talk about. And it devolved to a kind of discussion that you didn’t want to have.

GEORGE PERLE: Maybe it had something to do with the way it would bring up the question of 12-tone music in my classes, which was to bring a piece in and tell them nothing about that piece before they looked at the music so that they had to approach it as a totally attentive experience. We would’ve looked at the piece a lot and discovered everything we could about it and then we would discover what really happens in the piece and not some formula that somebody’s plastered on top of it… In a way, it’s not unrelated to this other thing I mentioned—refusing to look at anybody’s compositions without the markings on the piece that belong on a piece that’s going to be played.

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