Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 1

Teaching composition requires a balance between the student and the teacher; between the micro and the macro. The strategy includes the teacher’s understanding of the creative process, the student’s reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks for the student—a set of activities mutually agreed upon. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.

Writing music leads composers to strategies for invention. While teachers can guide students through the creative process, students can also help teachers to reassess core aesthetic values. After all, how can one teach without being willing to learn at the same time? The roles of teacher and student become somewhat blurred in the process of making intuitive knowledge explicit. Similar roles between performers and composers exist, and they are fuzzy.

Like most artists, composers are basically lifelong students. Therefore, the most effective composition teachers are foremost learners and listeners. As a composer and a teacher, I encourage the development of preliminary expectations for a piece, ideally before any notes are composed. What is the composer’s musical and/or non-musical intention, and how does that relate to form, timbre, and any number of parameters? Then, and only then, do we move into design. Graphs work really well for me at this stage! After notes begin to emerge, we review the initial intention. Has it changed? Should it change? Maybe the material is calling for a different architecture than originally planned.

Mirar graph

Graph of Mara Gibson’s mirar (2001) for soprano, flutes, cello and two percussionists.

Map of Rain Hitting Water sketch

Sketch from Map of Rain Hitting Water

For example, I refined the graph of mirar after the music was composed (in preparation for the defense of my dissertation), while my sketch for Map of Rain Hitting Water was a general plan that I used as a guide throughout my process, allowing me to adapt the music as it emerged with Mark Lowry of newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (and later the video collaboration with Caitlin Horsmon). I find both approaches helpful and informative in working with performers.

Of course, questions can be tailored to a specific ability level or project, but the fundamental challenges remain the same. In fact, if pressed, I generally provide my young students more freedom early in their career because that is when it seems most necessary. Initially, I started the UMKC Composition Workshop to engage young composers in the same kind of opportunities that more experienced composers tend to have, such as chances to share their ideas in a group setting and hear those of others. It seemed ludicrous to me that composers needed to get to a graduate school level to join in such a forum. We all must find (and reassess) our voice, to recognize what it is that we want to say before we figure out how to say it. This is certainly not a new idea in creative thought. However, when I reflect back on my music and composition education and my teachers, this paradigm is a bit flipped. Participation in a forum should precede (and/or at least coincide with) creative “work.” The creative process is, after all, one of give and take; a combination of having a vision of what is to come and an understanding of what has proceeded—a kaleidoscopic process.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I was rigidly told how to play. However, it was not until I had an opportunity to shape those ideas that I began writing music and discovering my artistic voice. In retrospect, I think I needed to feel a sense of ownership over the music in order to express myself. Composing and interpreting music are very personal endeavors, ones that vary tremendously from personality to personality. I came to recognize my voice when I was granted the freedom to explore. In part, this was about me giving myself ownership, and in part, I needed my teachers to give me permission, to provide an extra nudge. (Yes, back to the Frost.) How and why should children—who many argue are more in touch with their inherent creativity than adults—be given any less freedom, any less room for spontaneity? As teachers, allowing freedom to explore, especially with children, makes our job more challenging on the front end, but I find the results much more rewarding in the long term.

You might also enjoy…

6 thoughts on “Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 1

  1. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

    Dear Mara
    I am 64 and have spent my life composing using pen and paper: but now use an easily accessible piece of software (not Sibelius). So now has it come down to this … that the actual process of transforming the sounds (in my head, that wake me up so early) into notation the fundamental problem of composition?
    Ray Kohn

    Reply
  2. Michael

    After reading this, my mind drifted to the first composition class of my life in the spring semester of my freshman year of college. Clear as the night sky from Haleakala, I see Elliot del Borgo speaking to an excited class filled with students from different walks of music, including classical, jazz, folk, etc. Del Borgo began his lecture by stating that Mozart was a composer of genius, yet, even so, sometimes one grows bored of that music, and desires something different and new. Then, he proceeded to give an assignment to compose a piece using spoken poetry, percussion, and only one melodic instrument. Several years later, John Cage invited me to his loft where we spent three hours on a bitterly cold winter afternoon in Chelsea perusing my scores and discussing composition. One of the scores was Four Haiku, stemming from Elliot’s class, and for the first time, while silently watching John examine the score, I realized he was probably the person who made this type of composition famous, if not actually inventing it.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: 3rd of (now) 5 blogs in February and March | Mara Gibson

  4. Mara

    Ray,

    For sure, notation is a challenge, but I do not see it as a problem — just a part of the puzzle. I use both notation software, pencil and paper and improvisation as tools, and I enjoy the flexibility each brings to the process. I would love to hear your work sometime. Happy composing!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.