More is More

There are many people out in the world who are smart. They are smart about how much they can take on professionally, artistically, and personally. They know how much food/music/art/life they should consume at any given time. They don’t over-extend themselves and they don’t overdo it (whatever “it” is). If they write music, they will do their utmost to push aside distractions and only take on a few projects a year. If they teach, they know how much they can or should expect from their students.

I am not that smart.

Brushing aside any comments that my friends and associates may be able to make about my eating habits, I admit that I am not one to do anything incrementally. Ever since I was very young I’ve tended to “jump into the deep end,” so to speak, in so many aspects of my life—even if I had never been taught to “swim.” This, of course, has not only been the cause of much consternation for my family over the years, but it has shaped the way I think about what I do as a teacher and advocate of new music.

When I interviewed for my current position at State University of New York at Fredonia five years ago, they asked me to give a talk about my philosophies of teaching composers. One of the sections of that talk (that I still adhere to) was the idea that “more is more.” I recalled a story I had once heard about a pottery teacher who had half his class spend the entire semester perfecting one single vase while the other half of the class was expected to finish 20 vases over the same time period. According to the story, while the first set of students were able to create a well-crafted vase, the second set not only improved at a faster rate, but had a firmer grasp of both their creative process and the skills that went along with it.

This idea both informs the way I work with students (regardless of age), my concepts about presenting concerts and inviting guest composers, and, to be honest, the way I tend to write my own music these days. It’s pretty common to find methods of composition instruction at the collegiate level in which beginning students spend a long time on one piece, focusing on each detail and parameter, until they have brought that piece to closure; the duration of the process is based less on the length of the piece itself but more on the amount of detail and attention given to each parameter of the composition.

Usually teaching concepts like this tends to gradually speed up the process as the student improves until they find their optimum work speed. In contrast, I prefer to have the students work on many short works at first, gradually shifting their focus as they progress; my beginning composition course this fall will have the students write seven works every two weeks concluding with a second reading of a work they’ve revised. I will then slow and extend their process as they improve until they find that sweet spot that feels comfortable to them. I’ve had quite a few comments from colleagues along the lines of, “Isn’t that overdoing it? How can they learn if they’re going so fast?” I might have thought the same thing years ago, but the concept actually comes from my own studies in film music at the University of Southern California back in the mid-’90s; I realized that by working on many shorter cues in the classes, as well as my own scoring projects with students throughout the one-year program, worked my compositional “muscles” in a way that extended focus on one piece would never allow.

As I mentioned, this concept can also be used when considering how many different composers a student is exposed to, both in private lessons and in lecture/workshop experiences. I used to have to teach almost all of my students throughout their entire four years, but now that we have a few experienced composers here teaching theory, I have the luxury of making sure they have at least two or three different teachers during their studies. Similarly, I’d rather bring in a large number of younger visiting composers whose styles and attitudes run the gamut rather than “shoot the whole wad” on one or two top-tier composers who are probably much older; I teach primarily undergraduate students and assume (rightly, I hope) that they will get a chance to meet the “big dogs” soon enough during their graduate studies.

Some may have noticed over the past year that I’m not adverse to bringing in a list or two to make a point. It always surprises me (I’m a slow learner) how often these lists engender vitriol, since I never think of them as rankings or focus on the composers that are left off. I’m realizing, however, that this may be because of my own mindset. I find myself looking for patterns and clues among a large sampling of composers rather than focusing like a laser-beam on one person. I don’t think I made that connection when I started my interview project and now that I’ve completed 50 of them (with about 10 more to go), it’s all beginning to make a little more sense to me.

What’s been your experience, either teaching or learning? Did you start slow and pick up steam or the opposite? Are you smarter than I am (chances are likely!)?

3 thoughts on “More is More

  1. Mark Winges

    I completely agree, Rob. I found that the best way to learn to shove notes around is to shove a lot of them around: one can refine details later. I’m certainly slower than I was as an undergrad, but I believe that approach when I was starting out really taught me a lot.

    Interestingly, my conductor colleague Bob Geary counsels a similar approach for performers. When asked for advice about how to learn choral conducting, he suggests getting a church job. He feels that the necessity of “getting something up on the stage every week” hardens all kinds of skills: how to get a piece of music to work, to have line etc. It also teaches rehearsal time management in a very dramatic way.

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  2. Nate May

    Thanks for the thoughts Rob.

    This reminds me of an Ira Glass quote that I found pretty inspiring. To paraphrase, he says that in the beginning phases of our careers, our skill hasn’t yet caught up to our taste, so to get through this phase, we just have to put out a huge amount of work. Here’s the link to the full quote: http://tinyurl.com/cz5nfww.

    Last summer I went to India for a month to study Carnatic music, and found myself on a pretty consistent schedule of meditation, yoga, music lessons, practice, food, sleep. Everything that was required of me fell into a rhythm. I was able to focus and progress better than probably any other time in my life. The lesson I came home with was that mind-management can be very useful — just answering the question, “How am I going to partition my mind today?” can help me focus so much better. And part of that is not over-partitioning it, which splinters off my energy and leaves my focus frayed. So I tried that for a semester. I felt very whole and in control of my life.

    And I produced next to nothing.

    The next semester, it was all about the deadlines. Cramming weeks of composing into single weekends, late night cups of coffee, and so on. It was a difficult time, but I was able to get through it because I enforced a rhythm: work for 45 minutes, rest for 15; finish these eight bars this morning, and those five bars this afternoon. Musically, as you may imagine, I made much more progress this way, both in output and in learning.

    So, having tried both less-is-more and more-is-more, I can see the benefits that they both have. I think the key to getting the most out of both, though, is rhythm. You can give yourself the most demanding deadlines and produce nothing, or you can have luxurious goals and be very productive, depending on how you regulate your mental rhythm.

    Of course this is easier said than done, but it’s something I’m going to be exploring more in the coming months.

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  3. Armando Bayolo

    Rob, I am so with you! When I was an undergraduate, I studied with Sam Adler, whose philosophy was similar. While I’ve long since abandoned the musical Style Sam encouraged in me (and a number of his other students), the lessons he taught me on completing pieces quickly have helped me over the years, especially as I’ve gotten busier in the last couple of seasons. The fact that I can complete pieces relatively quickly means that I can take on more projects during the year (which, admittedly, takes another set of skills to maintain the discipline to complete them within deadline) and devote time to planning away from the computer screen or manuscript paper.

    I am incredibly grateful to have been taught these skills EARLY in my student career. Focusing on basic, creative skills early on allowed me to focus on finding my own, original voice later, when I had enough chops to actually make such a quest count.

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