Composing Pedagogy

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Composition features so much in music teaching. We seem to want to respond to everything musical by creating new music. I think it was Berio that said the best critique of a work was to write another so perhaps a learning through doing approach makes sense. What interests me is that all music teachers are expected to prepare candidates to cope with the requirements of the coursework for GCSE and A-level yet how many are active composers themselves? Is it essential that pupils be taught composing by composers, as performing is taught by performers? Why is there an assumption that anything goes in composition?

When I teach composition I strive to model for the pupil the kinds of questions I ask myself when I compose. Markschemes – of course important to be understood and used for summative assessment – do not figure so much in my approach. I strive for the piece to be effective and my measures for effectiveness lie well beyond the limits of marking criteria. I want the pupil to have complete ownership for their creation and not feel any part of it has been written or coerced into existence by me. I hope I offer them lots of questions that keep them pondering. I wonder if a teacher has rarely composed are they able to model at an appropriate level of detail so pupils can create effective pieces?

Composing with computers has enabled a broad range of people to create music with immediate feedback through virtual software instruments and often with little engagement with the notational practices one cherishes. I have no problems with such a digital approach but what I do think should be a priority in all creation is the development of an aural imagination. I want pupils to discover the sounds they hear in their head and see the process of composing as one where this imaginary sonic landscape materialises through clear instructions that enable faithful realisation of their piece – however that realisation might be affected. Composing isn’t about dots and lines. It should be about carving out sounds. Shaping and combining them. In fact composing is the art of time – sculpting time through sonic transformation. The only issue, for me, with computer-composing is how much this degrades an aural imagination. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps I’m clinging to composing for corporeal musicians in an age where digital media is so rampant.

Is everyone a composer? I would say everyone should have a chance to experience it. Perhaps there is a celebration of the amateur in the arts -X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent – yet this should not undermine the skilled craftsmanship of professional composers. Such skilled workmanship rarely goes unnoticed and it is through a study of such work that composition students can learn to develop their practice beyond the ceilings imposed by examination markschemes. Yet I wonder if a culture of anything goes in terms of new music means there is little differentiation between a trained composer and a self-taught or instinctive one. Maybe such a distinction is irrelevant and all should be free to order sounds into pieces of music as they see fit.

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