There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies. —Robert Frost
As young musicians, we may encounter many types of teachers, ranging from the traditional to a Suzuki advocate, and perhaps even some champions of Orff, Dalcroze, or Kodaly for a lucky few. So, what distinguishes a good teacher from a great one? At different career points, both of Frost’s teachers hold value. In my own teaching and composing, I find myself returning to a few basic principles that illustrate these ideas. First and foremost, I build rules/identify parameters, ask questions, and maintain dedication. The most successful atmosphere for the student and teacher exists when both parties are thinking, creating, and being stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions.
The most fundamental goal for a young musician is to find her/his artistic voice. After all, we make music to communicate something beyond words, something transcendental. For composers, creating a form, choosing an instrumentation, and devising an intention in tandem are critical. While modeling forms can be immensely important, beginners seem to excel when presented with an open palette, one that allows them to help build the rules of their craft. Boundaries tend to limit the student, while options inspire. While every student is unique, I have found that encouraging open parameters is helpful; when a student has a hand in determining a form that reflects his/her creative intention, he/she is more prone to remain devoted to the inspiration.
For most of us, teaching students how to ask questions and find solutions is more valuable than articulating history. If a sincere answer is to be discovered, the student must ask the question. For the teacher, this generally requires a lot of patience, listening, and learning. In creative fields, the answer is most always found in the question. Once the student is invested in this process, then historicizing, theorizing, and analyzing will be natural consequences. For example, imagine a student who wants to illuminate the state of mind in-between consciousness and unconsciousness in a composition, like being awakened from a dream. Rather than ask the student to mimic Debussy (a logical connection) without context, I would advocate for the student to first create their own form and instrumentation, requiring them to generate both the content and motivation for formal decision-making. Alongside these tasks, I would encourage several listening assignments—music by historically contrasting composers (with score, if possible); this type of complimentary approach strengthens both expressiveness and craft.
Teaching demands a dedication similar to what’s required when writing music or playing an instrument. For me, there is a natural and beneficial balance to be struck between being a musician and a teacher, as both strengthen knowledge and encourage inquiry (on behalf of the student and teacher alike!). The most successful learning atmosphere exists when both parties are thinking and creating, stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions. When I consider the most memorable “teaching moments,” which are signposts in my own learning, I come up with a few consistent themes:
Listen to and question everything
Hear what you compose and compose what you hear
Organize what you compose (know where/when things belong)
Create a structure/language for what you compose/hear
I tend to think the best teachers operate in both ways Frost describes, depending on where the student needs to go. Our job is to awaken curiosity, both in our students and within ourselves. I had my fair share of both the teachers who filled me with “quail-shot” and many more who gently nudged me into the sky.
Composer Mara Gibson is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated from Bennington College and completed her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. She has received grants and honors from the American Composers Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, ArtsKC, Meet The Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Hendrick Memorial Commission. Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists have performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Gibson teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance while leading the conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as director, where she is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop and co-director/founder of ArtSounds.