Category Archives: Nature vs Nurture

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).

Why this blog’s name

Why is this blog called “Musiking By Nurture” you may ask. Well, if you’ve asked yourself enough to come to this article, then I obviously did a reasonable job choosing a name. 😉

The main inspiration for the name, however comes from a trumpet book I perused a few years ago called “Trumpeting by Nature”. Something that has always been quite apparent to me is that nothing I have managed to achieve however big or small seemed to happen ‘by nature’. Every modest achievement has seemed to be something that I had to actively nurture. This isn’t a comment about talent, something which either doesn’t exist, or I have never been fortunate enough to possess. Rather, it’s about the fact that, regardless of the advantages of your natural strengths, they’re not much good without deliberate nurturing.

It’s true that some people do seem to have a lot of natural advantages to pursuing their ambitions. For example, some people love talking to people, schmoozing, and feel quite at  home selling what they have to offer. I’m not one of them. While I do enjoy spending time with people, I am most comfortable on my own. This isn’t that I dislike people, mostly I just find talking is tiring, and strangely, the more ordinary the conversation, the more tiring. [Get me going in some sort of debate though, and I’ll be happy to talk for hours!]

In terms of selling my music, my perfectionistic tendencies mean that I’m never totally satisfied with anything I write, and people don’t want a composer to tell them the truth that something is “pretty great”, they want to believe it will change their life, even if both the salesman and the buyer knows that, in truth, it really wont. People buy apple products because they want to believe how much better it will make their life, and apple is happy to tell you all those ways, even though both know an iphone wont make you a better person, cure aids or feed the starving masses.

I don’t do well at that sort of pretense. I write good music, I just don’t sell it well. I think if you listen to it, you might something that will make you introspective. Something that will make you reflect on your inner world. But I can’t promise you will experience that. However, I do offer a full, 30-day money back guarantee on any recordings that don’t satisfy you. Seeing as I share all my recordings completely free [] I shouldn’t have a hard time honoring that promise.

Some people also find themselves lucky enough to have someone using their own strengths to sell your strengths and vice versa.  Think here of the two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs had the passion for business and the salesmanship but not the technical ability; Wozniak had the technical skills but not the salesmanship. One without the other and Apple would never have gotten off the ground. There would have been either a great computer, but one that never made it to market, or there would have been a great entrepreneur without the right computer to sell.

Something that I have come to consider quite important is not to try and change your nature or become some idealized, but ultimately fictional person, but to nurture what nature gave you by way of strengths and find ways to use your strengths to solve weaknesses.

Consider it this way: Who is most likely to win a fight to the death? A strong 6’6″ man or a comparatively weak one?

The strong man, right? This is the way I think people too often think about strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that we need more information. Is the weak man faster than the strong man? What weapons are they using against each other?

Let’s think of it now as a 6’6″ man, trained to wield an axe like some sort of a prehistoric paper mill. And of the weak man standing 50 feet away with a nice bow, a quiver of arrows, and 20 years of archery practice. Who would you bet on? I know who I would pick.

The point of this analogy is that when we give ourselves the space to bring our personal strengths to bare, we will be much more effective than if we spend all our time trying to turn skinny men into axe-wielding maniacs.

Likewise, no matter how good you are with sharp steel, it’s pretty silly to take on an archer from afar. Or at least, not without some sort of seriously good strategy to minimize your weakness. If you look around at all the really great people in every field, they all, from what I can tell, have achieved their success by using their strengths to their advantage.

Am I talking about talent? Not really.

I associate talent with some sort of natural aptitude for a particular skill. Which quite often simply means they got lucky at the start. Child prodigies, for example, are a great example of ‘talent’. What’s really happening though? Are they superb pianists from the very first notes they play? No. So what makes them different from the many other kids who start playing the piano?

Well, they very luckily get a lot of crucial things right at the start. For example, if you sit enough people down to learn the piano without telling them anything about technique, statistically  some of them will guess more-or-less the right way to play (There is always a spectrum of ‘right ways’). And because the right way to play is generally the best, easiest or least-limited way of playing, they wont have any pressing reasons to deviate from that technique unless someone tells them too. In this case, their average learning curve might look like this:

With the tapering off happening as they approach the human limitations for paying the piano. These are your “naturals” and your “prodigies”.

Unfortunately, most people don’t do this. Their learning curve – if they persist long enough – will likely look like this:

The slow start is due to limitations in how they initially learned to play, and the sudden acceleration is as a result of figuring out the right/better ways to play the piano, and then, like the ‘natural’ or ‘talented’ person, their skill level will also taper off as they approach the limitations of the human body.

In real life, however, even the person who gets everything basically right at the start, will have something more like the following:

Still others never manage to completely overcome the limitations inherent in the way they unfortunately adopted.

So what I’m talking about with analogies of strengths and weakness and working with your strengths hasn’t necessarily got anything to do with natural aptitude for a particular skill. Instead, it has to do with your strengths and weaknesses in terms of how you think, act and approach learning that skill.

The people who achieve success as concert pianists don’t all start out as child prodigies – and not all child prodigies make it as successful concert pianists. Also, they are often quite different in the way they approach learning. This is part of the reason why there are often many different ‘schools of thought’ on learning to play any instrument, or achieve any skill. In basic terms, some say ‘technique comes first’, others say ‘music will create it’s own technique’, and others advocate dividing your focus between music and technique in different ratios. Some believe in analyzing, deconstructing and researching, others find ‘analysis leads to paralysis’; some teachers believe in imitation as a teaching tool, and others believe that imitation can stifle a students own style from developing. S

None of them are inherently right or wrong, although many teachers will argue one way or the other. I think it depends on the student and their way of thinking and experiencing learning. For example, it’s probably true that some students who learn through imitation may, long term, have trouble outgrowing that, but this is not going to be universally true. In fact, it seems possible that one could use this strength to synthesize a new style through the imitation of many different ways of playing.

So what is my idea of the ideal approach to learning? I would probably summarise it as “use your strengths to conquer your weaknesses”. Others have described it as “Approach a weakness from a place of strength” and good old Shakespeare so astutely said “Know thyself” which just about sums it up really.

The important thing is to not confuse your nature with skill aptitude. For example, there is an interesting phenomenon where people from one field sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries in another field. This is, I suspect, the result of finding a way to use your unique strengths to solve a problem that others have already exhausted their strengths on.

Anyway, the point is that this blog will therefore be primarily about nurturing your nature and tackling weaknesses through strengths.

Well, it’ll be about me tackling my weaknesses (of which there are many) through one of my strengths – thinking through a problem by writing about it. But you’re welcome to join me for a laugh along the way.

~ Live long and prosper