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Composition Pedagogy: Short Survey

We’ve lost a fair number of important composer-teachers in the last year, and some of the postings and comments by former students have been wonderful and poignant tributes.  It seems appropriate to send this REQUEST to any current or former composition student who studied with any teacher(s), living or gone:


Please send me 1-2 things that were of greatest value to you in your composition studies.


Thanks to everyone.  I’ll compile these and post the results.  Composition teaching is not well understood, even by the students and teachers themselves.  Together, perhaps we can shine some light on the most inspirational methods.


About mobberleyj

Composer and Professor Emeritus.


18 thoughts on “Composition Pedagogy: Short Survey

  1. “Write music that looks easy and sounds hard, not the other way around” Thea Musgrave

    Me (as first time composer): “Whenever I go to the piano, I can’t get my ideas out onto the page.”

    Dave Holland: “Don’t go to the piano.”

    Posted by David Lipten | February 22, 2016, 10:43 pm
  2. #1) Undergrad freshman Mike Moreland: “I didn’t feel like writing anything this week.” My composition teacher, Joseph Ott: “If you are going to wait for golden sunshine to flow through the window for inspiration, you’ll be waiting your whole life. Go write something. This lesson is over.”

    Posted by Mike Moreland | February 22, 2016, 11:06 pm
  3. “You’re too young to be so conservative” Gerard Grisey

    Posted by efjcomposer | February 23, 2016, 12:05 am
  4. I did not study with him, but our dear Gerald Kemner once said “It doesn’t have to be good–it just has to be on paper.”

    Posted by Robert Debbaut | February 23, 2016, 1:57 am
  5. I heard Pierre Boulez once said education should be short and painful. Louis Andriessen said add wrong notes and kill your darlings. I’d say write as much as you can and learn from what you hear of yourself.

    Posted by rob manthey | February 23, 2016, 2:06 pm
  6. Jim Mobberley to me in grad school: “I can’t really teach you anything about composition. I can only point out your unconscious assumptions.” – this line has stuck with me for years.

    Posted by Mike Moreland | February 23, 2016, 2:37 pm
  7. “There’s a time for input and a time for output” — Claude Baker. (Implication being — if you find yourself stuck at any stage of a composition, it’s time to do some listening.)
    “Studying composition in college is a time to jump off cliffs and take a lot of risks. Better to fail here than on the great American stage where the critics are watching.” — possibly Don Freund, although it could have been any of my teachers.

    Posted by Eric Knechtges | February 23, 2016, 3:25 pm
  8. From Ezra Laderman: compose music that has strong internal logic but that sounds SPONTANEOUS.

    Posted by Adam Silverman | February 23, 2016, 3:37 pm
  9. First. My greatest teacher, Gerald Kemner, wasn’t just my teacher. He was my mentor who taught me the craft of music composition while also teaching me how to interact with life, performers and conductors. When I mention this to other former students of Kemner they all respond the same way: “No. He was MY mentor.” Studying composing is unlike any other system of education in that it is the last remnant of a Master/apprentice mode of learning. You can go to a Biology lecture with 100 other students and hide, never to be observed or taught. When you sit at a piano alone with your Master there is nowhere to hide. This is good and the most challenging and creative learning environment possible. My 2nd comment is that music composition students must acknowledge and appreciate that, when they are in college, they can walk down the hall and find a string quartet, orchestra, harpist, or woodwind/brass player with no effort. That luxury ends as soon as you graduate.

    Posted by Allen | February 23, 2016, 4:46 pm
  10. “If you ask yourself the question, you know the answer.” – Fred Fox

    Posted by Keith Fitch | February 24, 2016, 3:32 pm
  11. Me: “I’m really scared and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
    Jim Mobberley: “Good.”

    Posted by Mike McFerron | February 24, 2016, 7:35 pm
  12. Things from my main composition teachers, which forever changed me as a composer —
    Bernard Rands: “This can become that.”
    Stephen Hartke: “Can you just leave the Bible out of your music for once?”
    Peter Lieuwen: “Coming up with a ‘good’ musical idea is easy. That’s something you just take for granted. The difference between a ‘good piece’ and a ‘great piece’ often has nothing to do with the quality of the musical ideas, but how you animate them.”
    Allyson Brown Applebaum (my first composition teacher) taught me the value — nay, the necessity — of making your scores *look* great. You can be the next Stravinsky or Beethoven, but if you’re music doesn’t look absolutely professional and publisher-ready, nobody is going to play it.

    Mario Davidovsky: To much to distill down to a blurb. We spent the first 45 minutes of every lesson talking about politics, theology/religion, philosophy, culture, and literature. But that was EXACTLY what I needed when I studied with him. It was all *composition*. It was all directly relevant to being not just a “composer,” but a creative artist, and — more importantly — a good human being.

    Posted by Lansing McLoskey | February 24, 2016, 10:14 pm
  13. I studied with jazz composers, who tend to strictly teach craft and give very little creative guidance (assuming, I suppose, you’d get that as a jazz improviser). But I did get some good quotes.
    Hank Levy: “You have to stick your neck out every time you write a note on paper.” “The only things you have to work with are lights and darks.”
    Bill Dobbins: (pointing to one particular dot on an oversized page containing thousands of dots) “Why is this note here? Where did it come from?” – i.e. stressing unity in all compositional materials. Often my answer, in my first year or so, was basically “nowhere I can point to”. I don’t necessarily hold to that kind of rigor now, but I am very conscious of exactly how I’m using all the elements I’m working with at a given time.

    Posted by Russell Scarbrough | March 3, 2016, 12:52 am
  14. My composition teacher, the Argentinian/Italian Eduardo Bértola always adviced me: “Treat very well the musicians playing your compositions, and above all give them clean and accurate manuscripts of your music!

    Posted by Antonio Celso Ribeiro | March 3, 2016, 2:29 am
  15. I don’t remember much of my school days. But life’s too fucking short and life has too much sorrow – write music, paint, write stories, make movies – help make this world a better place!!

    Posted by Walt | March 29, 2020, 11:37 pm

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