Wont Somebody Educate That Composer!

In 2013, I had the opportunity as part of a research project to put a series of questions about teaching and learning composition to thirteen of Australia’s finest composers. While they did so anonymously, they were all composers deemed by the AMC ‘Full Representation’ artists; Composers that are not just professionals, but whose work the AMC has ‘identified as representing a significant artistic contribution within their specific field and community of practice.’ In other words, some of Australia’s ‘creme de la creme’ where composers are concerned.

Here’s an excerpt on what a good education for a composer might mean:

Chapter 6 – Creating a Balanced Curriculum


Cultural, Historical and General Knowledge
  • Historical knowledge (C2, C8, C10)
  • Aesthetics (C1, C2)
  • Study of music outside the Western art music tradition (C1, C8)
Technical Mastery
  • Learning to interrogate material (C4, C12)
  • Composition exercises (includes composing set model-piece “in the style of…”) (C2, C5, C7, C10)
  • Counterpoint & Harmony (C5, C6, C9) & Orchestration (C9, C10)
  • Master every other form of musical material organisation that everyone around you practices (C11)
  • Study of musical form.
Learning Interactively
  • Composer-performer Workshopping (C5, C7, C11)
  • Learning on the Job (C11, C13)
Engagement with Technology
  • Analogue and digital electronics / Music technology (C1, C2, C13)
Experiencing Music-Making
  • Developing an instrumental proficiency
  • Performing music in public or semi-public situations
  • Improvising (alone and with other musicians)
  • Playing as much music as possible (C10)
Developing Uniqueness
  • Thinking, “what am I trying to say” / Improvising and experimenting / Sketching broad ideas. (C8)
  • Reading books, watching films, going to contemporary concerts, theatre, dance, art.
  • Develop original ideas, try to be unconventional in generating ideas.
  • Improvising
  • Self-reflection
  • Challenging students to rethink what he or she is doing (6)

Table 3. The categorisation of responses into applicable thematic groups.

Many universities already include various aspects of the above to different extents; in particular cultural, historical and general knowledge is often a compulsory part of tertiary curriculums in Australian universities. Beyond this, however, an ideal education might consist predominately of intense technical training in musical materials and techniques, combined with the ability to learn interactively by doing. For example, a composer might be expected to master counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, form and compositional techniques through exercises, while developing the application of these to their own music through actively writing for ensembles with workshopping opportunities that allow dialogue and performance outcomes. With regards to the latter, an ideal educational program may in fact cater for exactly this by providing the conditions of a professional engagement through the mock commissioning of works for student or staff ensembles, combined with periodic workshopping opportunities, resulting in real concert performance outcomes.

Also of importance in a composition curriculum is the creation of occasions for the student to be involved in the performance of music and to experience music from this perspective, as was identified in the composers’ questionnaire responses. While it may not be essential to attaining eminence as a composer, and some may already find themselves prepossessing an understanding of musical nuance and musical performance, for the purposes of education, it seems best to err on the side of skill-acquisition whenever possible, rather than depending on pre-existing ability.

The composition teacher’s role will of course vary depending on the student and their individual needs, but generally applicable roles may include:

  • Providing direction, stimulating discussion and encouraging imitation and experimentation
  • Encouraging self-reflection
  • Teaching composition techniques (both historical and contemporary)
  • Suggesting listening/score reading examples
  • Providing the student a tangible developmental pathway – for which Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development could serve as a model
  • Assigning or encouraging the use of technical and compositional exercises to develop technical mastery.

Of utmost importance is that the teacher encourages a supportive environment amongst students as is discussed in The International Handbook on Innovation which states “the presence of a supportive social system including appropriate rewards for creative behaviour, and the like are considered to be instrumental for creativity” (Shavinina 638).

The student’s role will likewise vary, however, from the research of Ericsson and Charness, a daily engagement with relevant composition activates of around four hours, broken into hour-long periods, should serve as a platform for composition students seeking to develop eminence in their domain  (741).

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