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Composition Pedagogy: How Do We Teach Musical Creativity? PART ONE


A Series of Posts about the Arts and Education


PART ONE: How does composition teaching differ from that in non-arts fields?

College-level teaching paradigms in the arts are often very different from those of general education.
As an opening salvo, let’s consider two examples of diverse educational methodologies.

The first is rather typical of the system that most American baby boomers grew up with in the mid-20th century. A person with a body of knowledge to impart stands in front of a class of 15-200 students. Over several months the students are expected to absorb this knowledge from texts, classroom explanation and discussion, and graded homework. They are then required to demonstrate successful absorption, using methods of the instructor’s design.

Expressed colloquially it might sound something like this:

“As the instructor I know a bunch of stuff that you don’t. By the end of the semester you must
demonstrate to me that you now know this stuff, via mid-term and final exams that cover randomly
selected aspects of the stuff you will be absorbing, so you must learn and study everything.”
[Some elements of this approach may now be considered archaic in current classrooms, but it is pretty much what a lot of us grew up with, and much of the basic process remains in use, in both classroom and on-line instruction.]

The second is one of a broad collection of individual methodologies that has developed in the creative arts. [In music composition there is virtually no discourse among composition faculty regarding teaching methods. Hence the description that follows is unique to me and to UMKC’s program (though it’s likely that some elements are more broadly employed)]. A person with a body of knowledge and a significant record of the creation of uniquely personal musical compositions sits with a group of 5-10 students. Over several months the students are each expected to create a self-selected composition or compositions (with faculty approval) using her/his own choices as to material, medium, and formal structure. Whereas supporting classes (laboratory work in notation and instrumentation, music theory, analysis, history and vocabulary) cover many of the technical details that composers must know, the composition class focuses entirely on the production of original work.

Expressed colloquially it might sound something like this:

“As the instructor I know absolutely nothing about you and what you want to accomplish. So if, by
the end of the semester, you have simply done everything that I say you should do, we have both
failed. Instead you must teach me about the following: music you have created before, what
you wish to accomplish currently, what your models are (if any), how you go about creating your
work, what obstacles hinder your progress, and where you wish your compositional abilities to take
you now and after graduation. My job is to help you learn to best articulate what you want to achieve, and then to suggest techniques and methods that might get the results you are seeking. Ultimately all
decisions are yours, as we are both wanting your work to express your unique artistic voice, not
mine or anyone else’s.”

Where does this dichotomy take us? Follow-up posts will focus on some of the following:

* areas of commonality and cross-fertilization between arts and general education
* pros, cons, obstacles and rewards to education methods in the arts
* options for inter-arts conversations about pedagogy
* options for interdisciplinary
* a case for greater discourse among composition teachers about methodologies

Comments and other postings are welcome!



5 thoughts on “Composition Pedagogy: How Do We Teach Musical Creativity? PART ONE

  1. Intriguing introduction. I look forward to more to follow.

    Posted by Allen | November 8, 2015, 8:33 pm
  2. (I already replied to Allen Shearer’s Facebook post and am reposting here.)

    Good article. At College of Creative Studies at UCSB, the approach was far to the permissive side — so much so that I often wondered why I was there and which in the long run did not serve me well. If I had it to do all over again, I would have studied commercial arranging (which I’m studying currently) or movie scoring or recording technology.

    My best composition lessons were in freshman theory class at Lawrence University. One day a week Marjory Irvin (a student of Nadia Boulanger) taught a chapter out of “20th Century Harmony” by Vincent Persichetti and gave us assignments out of that book. If I taught composition now, I would use an updated version of that method with more hands-on. By the way, Peter Josheff was in another section of freshman theory at the same school with a different instructor.

    Posted by Mark Secosh | November 9, 2015, 12:55 am
  3. Isn’t there a compromise position? Teaching technique, but allowing the students to employ that technique to their own ends?

    Posted by Chris Coleman | November 22, 2015, 5:19 am
  4. It is with great irony that I read your post on “Composition Pedagogy” as my personal experience was almost entirely of “Composition Laissez-faire” with a healthy dose of criticism when writing in a style that I liked and ridicule to the point where I gave up composing almost entirely upon receiving my entirely useless “Composition” degree. Pedagogy is, by definition, the discipline of teaching and as anyone who has actually studied pedagogy should know, laissez-faire most often has disastrous results in that a total freedom of choice and lack of gradated study appropriately assigned has a crushing and disastrous affect on the pupil. That, together with an almost impossible task of being told to avoid sounding like something that has already been written and the sheer disdain for “dead white men” was an almost criminal approach to teaching anything close to creativity, much less composition. Unfortunately, these were things that I did not understand as a composition student at UMKC.

    Posted by Julia | November 16, 2016, 4:30 am

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