Every fall since I began teaching at SUNY Fredonia, I’ve been asked to come speak to the School of Music’s Freshman Seminar class in order to let them know about our composition program. In addition to the real advantage of connecting with students who are interested in composition but either did not make it into the program or hadn’t considered studying it full-time, it also allows me to speak to the many performance and music education majors. Not only do I encourage these students to collaborate with composition majors as instrumentalists, singers, and conductors, but I always take the opportunity to encourage them to try composing themselves, especially if they’ve never done it before. “One does not need to be a poet in order to enjoy writing poetry,” is something I always tell them.
These yearly talks I have with 18-year-old students propelled me to take the opportunity to speak in a similar manner to professional music educators, first at the NYSSMA Winter Conference (New York State’s “all-state” convention) and now at regional and national conferences like the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME) Eastern Division Conference. The main gist of my presentation has been to encourage music teachers to begin to compose, something most of them have never tried outside of an occasional theory homework assignment. I explain that there are many reasons why composing can be helpful to educators, from giving them a much stronger context through which they can interpret the works of others to improving their skills in sight-reading and rhythmic comprehension. And with such a foundation, they can better work with their own students who want to try their hand at writing music.
But I also tell them that they should do it because it’s fun.
Having fun, or composing simply for the intrinsic enjoyment of creation, isn’t something that’s discussed much in education or composition circles, but I think it should be. Teachers tend to think that composing is something that is a mystery, an alchemical process in which they are, by default, not worthy to participate. Composers tend not to think in quite such esoteric terms, but I would wager that most would subscribe to the notion that there are too many aspiring composers out there already and they might question the notion of encouraging a large population of professional educators to dive into the composing pool.
To consider it another way, most of us look at professional composers in the same way that the sports world looks at specialists such as fencers: we can understand the basic concept of the sport (once it’s explained to us every four years during the Olympics), but very few of us ever get the chance to try such an activity. Most of us don’t meet fencers at parties or in the grocery store, and while there are fencing clubs around the country, the sport does not have the popularity of golf or tennis or even chess. I suppose what I am doing is asking why composing can’t be more like golf or chess. Very few will ever hope to reach the level of true masters, but the activity itself is still seen as an enjoyable pastime.
I guess the question at the heart of the matter is what is more important: the act of musical creation or the final product. For those of us whose livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our creative work, then the final product is, of course, a very high priority. But one might suggest that allowing and encouraging others to partake in the act of creation–whether or not the final product is performed publicly, used as an exercise in a classroom, or simply listened to in private–is both worthwhile and important for the future of our art.