Teaching Music Composition


[see the bottom of this page for URLs of handouts and complete teaching materials used in Composition Pedagogy classes/workshops]

As of the first iteration of this class, I was in my 34th year as a full-time professor of music composition, with a year at Webster University in St. Louis and 33 at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It was a joy to participate daily in the artistic growth of our Conservatory for over three decades, and to help our music composition program become one of the largest and most prestigious programs in the U.S.

In spite of the fact that over 1700 colleges and universities in the US provide instruction in music composition, there is almost no published literature that describes what takes place in these classrooms and teaching studios, and almost none that attempts to codify a set of teaching methodologies, assessment rubrics, or experiential learning mechanisms in historical or current practice.

In the summer of 2009, Christopher Biggs, a DMA candidate in our program (and now an Associate Professor at Western Michigan University) asked if I would be interested in co-developing a course in Composition Pedagogy for the Spring 2010 semester. It seemed like a very good idea, so while he began a literature search, I checked out some websites and began gathering my own thoughts, experiences, and ideas. The results of Chris’s search were interesting. First, THERE WAS ALMOST NO EXISTING LITERATURE, though there was general research on teaching methodologies and assessment methods (primarily pre-college, non-arts), philosophical writings about teaching in the arts (primarily visual arts), some anecdotal blogging, and some posted syllabi and listening lists on educational sites. There were also some texts about how to compose, but these were descriptions of individual compositional methods, not descriptions of how to teach.  And though it was helpful to me to examine and actually describe my own teaching methods and my other approaches to student learning in some detail, these musings together with the scant material we were able to find didn’t amount to enough grist for a graduate seminar.  So…

After re-considering, we augmented and diversified our approach and organized the class based on four components:

1. Introductory discussion on what constitutes composition pedagogy.  A few seminars on the general readings, with class discussion.
2. Construction of mock syllabi with discussion, critique and end-of-the-semester re-writes.  Construction of individualized evaluation sheets, discussion, comparison and revision; end-of-the-semester assessment of the evaluations.
3. Experiential learning by the students, observed by, evaluated by, and discussed with the pedagogy class members and instructors:  a.) Mentorship (one-on-one meetings with an undergraduate mentee;  b.) Class or Group Lesson Leadership; c.) Masterclass sessions; and d.) Analytical or Informational Presentations
4. Creation (by the entire class and instructors) of a collection of Teaching Methodologies and a collection of Assessment Methodologies, gathered together from the general literature, anecdotal evidence from the web, and from personal experiences as students and teachers. These covered five different types of content that composition teachers commonly pass along to students in classes or private lessons:  a.) suggestions for extension and/or improvement of original musical material; b.) presentation/discussion of model materials from the literature (listening and score analysis); c.) discussion of practical elements, including seeking and creating performance opportunities, the application process for opportunities, awards, grants, jobs, etc.; d.) discussion and facilitation of collaborations with other composers, musicians and artists; e.) Laboratory work, including notation skills, rudimentary orchestration, technical skills (hardware, software, audio, etc.)

In the second iteration of the class, we made several significant changes to the class based on feedback from the students as to what was most valuable.  In particular, we a.) greatly reduced the amount of time spent on general readings; b.) significantly enhanced the time devoted to experiential learning; c.) enhanced the time devoted to presentation and discussion of practical and anecdotal information (particularly from my own experiences), including: 1) building curricula in varied schools & programs  2) job hunting  3) survival skills for academia, including tenure.  We retained the mock syllabus, the evaluation sheets, and the Teaching and Assessment Methodologies component more or less intact. Finally, we created a complete set of handouts on all topics that we covered, plus a set of teaching materials (fleshed-out handouts), including tips on preparing for each of the experiential learning elements in #3, above.

Beginning in 2013, Dr. Mara Gibson and I incorporated much of this content in a special Pedagogy Track that participants in our UMKC Summer Composition Workshop can elect.  We provide the same kinds of mentored/evaluated experiential learning opportunities, and I present the same collection of anecdotal and practical information.  We also discuss teaching methodologies in some detail.

Class Handouts/Synopses and Complete Teaching Materials
What is Composition Pedagogy.complete
Evaluation Criteria for Composition Teaching.handout
Evaluation Template pages.handout
Modes of Teaching.handout
Mobberley Teaching Methodology – Determining Intent.synopsis
Mobberley Teaching Methodology – Determining Intent.complete
Mobberley Teaching Methodology – Teach to the Piece.synopsis
Mobberley Teaching Methodology – Teach to the Piece.complete
Assessment Terms.handout
Mobberley Approach to Assessment.handout
Thoughts on Leading a Listening Session.handout
Thoughts on Leading a Masterclass.handout
Thoughts on Leading Group Composition Lessons.handout
Thoughts on Mentoring Composition Students.handout
Portfolio Assessment for Admission to Composition Programs.handout
Life in Academia.handout


3 thoughts on “Teaching Music Composition

  1. Please explain in detailed about teaching methodologies. It is useful. Thank you so much for the information.

    Posted by damionfrye1 | December 20, 2018, 5:52 am
  2. Are there programs you recommend that follow the same ideology and isolating composition pedagogy? I am finishing my doctorate in music education but have a masters in composition. I have been working in an IB school where teaching composition is necessary and I love doing it! i would love to teach composition full time in fact. Do you know of any post doctorate programs or programs that might benefit me?

    Posted by Matthew Cotton | June 19, 2020, 10:05 pm
    • Hi Matthew — thanks for writing. The first thing we discovered when putting together a class on composition pedagogy was the fact that there was almost no literature on the subject AT ALL, with the exception of a very few posted methodologies and practices used by individual teachers. So instead of a scholarly course, it became a practical course that combined discussion of the instructor’s experiences and knowledge with that of the class members. Another difficulty was the lack of any curriculum-based instruction at the primary-through-secondary levels in the US. I believe that there may be some movement on this in the Music Education field, particularly with a faculty member at the University of Nebraska, but it’s been a while since I looked at this — you will know more than I, to be sure. The only Composition Pedagogy program that I know of is through the Summer Composition Workshop here at UMKC. The primary focus of the workshop is for students from middle school through undergraduate, but for the last several years I’ve overseen a week-long experience for graduate students that takes them through the materials on my website, and provides four experiential learning opportunities (leading an analysis discussion, giving a masterclass, leading a group lesson, and mentorship with individual younger students), with discussion/critique following. Because of the coronavirus we did not offer the workshop this year, but assuming next year will be ‘normal’, I imagine that the workshop will resume, and that I will again offer the Pedagogy experience for graduate (and graduated) students. It’s usually in mid-June. If you’d be interested, let me know in April or so and I’ll connect you to the Workshop staff. I’m retired from UMKC now, but still enjoying working on this aspect of the Workshop.

      Posted by mobberleyj | June 20, 2020, 4:30 pm

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