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Teaching Composition: Method


When a student first comes to me to study composition, I ask, "What is it you want to do?"

Sometimes the student is unsure how to answer and wants to figure out what it is I want to hear.

If I have other students around, I say, "well, why don't you watch how we work for a while so you can get an idea." And I turn to the one of the more experienced students and we start to work on whatever they have brought in. Inevitably, the work raises questions and discussion.

I turn back to the new student and ask again. This time I usually get an answer.

Sometimes the answer from the new student is negative or fearful. More probing may reveal that the new student wants to write r & b pop songs whereas the older student has just played a Sousa-inspired march, for example.

I stop all my students from fidgeting on the piano or teasing each other and make them listen once more:

There is no unworthy style or genre. All genres have tremendous depth and intricacy, pop or "classical" (I dispell the word "serious"). Capacity for expressive integrity is universal and its underestimation in any particular genre is usually due to ignorance on the part of the estimator;

the work of every student is to find and clarify the musical language in which she or he wants to speak; and to try as hard as possible to refrain from "speaking" in languages which belong to others, which he feels are expected of him by others, or which are inauthentic in any way to that student—

and say something worth listening to—the content, not the language, will determine the value of the composition

That's the basis of my method of teaching composition.



Towards the development of content and an understanding of its unilateral expression, I try to get my students to draw musical gestures or sound them out with unpitched mouth sounds. I often start a round robin of short improvised phrases made with the mouth. After each we discuss memorability, the roles of repetition and contrast. Or else we conduct a game of theme and variations without comment. To help a student divorce harmony from content, I may ask her to write a short exercise for percussion (indefinite pitch).

How do I evaluate content? I use my own reactions. If the student loses me or confuses me, I tell him so. If she holds my attention and draws me in, I compliment her. With every statement of criticism or praise, though, I temper it by saying that it is only my opinion—and it could be that I am ignorant—so he or she should then convince me—I am happy to be taught.

Notation Methods, Rhythms & the Development of Ideas

Sometimes my beginning students cannot transcribe their imaginings with much fluency. I teach those students to notate their thoughts in stages. First define a gesture with a drawing or diagram and annotate it with words, attempting to capture every finite detail conceived without confining the idea to a structure which may hamper its development.

Then slowly we unfold the idea, first in pitch notation—as dots on a stave—then in rhythmic notation, by marking units of time as uniform graphic divisions, comparing ratios of events—learning to tap a beat steadily while repeating the freshly conceived rhythm. All the while the intuitive sketch remains as reminder of the original shape of the conception.

I ask my more groove-oriented and/or studio-wise students to improvise keyboard renditions into MIDI sequencer software and then clean up the computer transcription, so that they can become accustomed to their own rhythmic idiosyncrasies and learn better how to express complicated ideas in simplified gestural notation.

I ask my students, when they have arrived at the stage of a fully notated piece, to be very complete and direct in their directions to the musician. I urge them to use American English if they are comfortable with it. I absolutely require that the student name his or her piece as descriptively as possible. Not naming one's piece is an acknowledgement of a lack of content, in my opinion. To shock them into confronting this issue of specificity, I occasionally show them my own scores.


And what about improvisation? If a student is interested in writing jazz or in another genre where all musical detail is not necessarily transmitted in the written medium, how does composition apply? The way I talk about composition in these arenas is to first separate it from the written medium. If there is shared language between players, there are already some compositional elements, maybe analogous to the law, like precedents. One of my colleagues says: "contracting is composing." I try to bring to light and conscsciousness some of the decisions students have already made by choosing their ensembles.

We also discuss how to introduce a tune to a group, how to be clear about what you want to hear—whether in words or on paper—and let go of what you don't need to control. And then we just talk about building the core musical ingredients—how to make them memorable and pungent so that they produce clear improvisational reactions. I emphasize that memory and how the listener's experience unfolds is of no less importance to the improviser than it is to the most classical of composers in any era. Jesse Dulman's Attitudes and Adverbs demonstrates a composer tackling some of these ideas in a small jazz quartet.

Pop and/or Songwriting

When a student is interested in songwriting, we focus on the phenomenon of memory. What makes a melody memorable? How long is too long a melody for the hook? What about ornamentation styles in jazz, hip-hop or any genre, versus clear melodic shape? What roles do the lyrics play in the listener's memory? How does one write lyrics? [Think about something that matters enough to make it worth singing about. Again, don't write what you think someone else wants to hear. Write what you have to say.] And finally what about production—ear candy—or arrangements that attract the listener and refresh attention. For an example click to description of songwriting during The Earth School Residency.


For harmony, I ask students analyze their own pieces, to learn what choices they have been making. Once that clarity has been achieved, we can look at what they're not doing and why. I ask all my tonal students to write at least one exercise dealing with twelve-tone rows and their permutations. I ask many students to examine polytonality and modality in short exercises if I feel it is appropriate to what they're doing.

I strongly encourage all my students to listen to composers who are active and prominent in their field of interest, to attend concerts of living composers, and to acquaint themselves with 20th-century repertoire so they don't re-invent the wheel. I try to get them to understand that while they may not have heard this music firsthand, their entire awareness as a consumer of TV and movie soundtracks has been influenced by these heretofore unheard composers and the trends in modern music.


Only half of composing is writing the piece. Half is making the piece happen. Dealing with the musicians. Leading rehearsals. Writing a score and parts which make a successful interface. A piece for an imaginary collection of musicians is only half a piece until realized.

It doesn't matter if I write a piece for orchestra, if I have no orchestra.

These statements are harsh but they are important for young idealistic students to hear. I still need to hear them.

I push my students to concertize their work as often as possible. I push them to involve themselves in the rehearsal process and listen to the feedback they receive from their musicians no matter what it is. A musician not showing up to your rehearsal is a message. Hear it and do better next time.

Over the years,my musicians have taught me how to write, how to run an effective rehearsal, even how to conduct. I owe the musicians I've worked with, everything I know. I only hope my students will be as fortunate as I have been.


Unfortunately, politics are very important to making music happen in the 21st century. Actually I think they always were—read Weiss & Taruskin for their primary source accounts of how it was.

I discuss the pop music business, to the extent that I am able, with my songwriting and hip- hop students. I discuss club gigging strategies with my jazz students. I try to help my classical students figure out how to prepare for grants, contests and conservatory applications, by thinking out who might be on a panel of judges.

For instance, many of my younger classical students are strictly tonal. For several years I felt strongly that this was their choice and I should not violate it. Having myself started composing in a time when serialism was the one right way to write music, I felt an urgency not to contest what I thought was definitely a genuine reaction to their environment, albeit subtractive and intuitive. But after several rejections which I felt were unjustified and careless on the part of the rejecting music school, I realized I must at least expose them to some level of modernistic practice through the brain's front door.

Finally I emphasize the importance of developing a portfolio—severally clean, digitally recorded pieces, if possible on CD, clean-looking scores or lead sheets, a bio and photo of some kind—so that they are ready for anyl situation which arises where they might be called upon to demonstrate their work.