Teaching composition

On route to a one-off composition lesson I thought I’d try and clarify my approach to composition teaching. Why bother? Does it matter that I have a conscious strategy for helping young composers develop? Is there really any right and wrong in “modern” compositional approaches? Are we facilitating the development of unique compositional voices, or are we responsible for exposing our pupils to the canon of works that deserve study due to their innovation and intrigue? Or is it both?

For me there must be content in composition teaching; theoretical concepts – musical literacy – that allow us to communicate our intentions faithfully to others, and an awareness of good practice from a range of sources from the recent musical past. I feel we should seek to connect our students’ work with music history and not always skip to styles and approaches of the 19th century backwards. Perhaps GCSE and A-level syllabi encourage, albeit covertly, such a compositional approach if one examines the markschemes with a keen eye. The content therefore combines a historical awareness coupled with score study, listening and a sufficient level of musical literacy to communicate the ideas to performers.

Composition markschemes emphasise contrast and repetition as am essential means of communicating an effective structure. I’m not always convinced that this is the only way to communicate structure, and it must be having a fascinating impact on the work being produced. I wonder how many pupils feel a sense of ownership for the coursework they produce that meets the remit of the markscheme – do they feel pride or is it just a piece of coursework? I think it is essential we as composition teachers, introduce a variety of structural approaches that enable our pupils to shape their pieces to fit the varying demands of their ideas. A ternary form will not always be the most compelling form.

Plenty of listening should feature in lessons, and this should be a chance to introduce pupils to a wealth of invention from the composers of the last one hundred years. We all have our preferences as composers and it is valuable for us to share our own passions as these will come across most enthusiastically- rather than attempting to deliver repertoire we have little connection with. There needs to be plenty of variety in our choices and as much as possible we should connect with pupils’ interests and passions. By acknowledging their interests we show them respect, which in turn they will show us for the repertoire we encourage they listen to.

Like instrumental study, I believe composition can be practised. Regular use of a sketch book and trying to work out ideas will help develop a keener and more effective inner ear, and aural imagination. We cannot always work on inspiration alone – some compositions will require planning and it is important for us to help pupils recognise times when pieces should be structured and mapped out with care. Every pupil will have preference for a particular element – melody, harmony, rhythm – and we should aid them through their regular practice to explore elements they use less. If a pupil regularly writes pieces that are driven by the harmonic materials then it is worth exploring counterpoint, for example.

I think composition teaching can be incredibly objective – there are a great deal of variables that can be judged beyond subjectivity, and should instil in our pupils that it is not a question of good and bad, but effective and less effective. Conversely, not everything goes in a modern compositional rhetoric, yet the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable are not as clear as one would hope.

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