Can we teach composition?

After another batch of coursework is complete for GCSE and A-level music I like to look back and reflect on the year. I firmly believe in composition being an integral part of these examinations as it is the natural culmination of the study of musical rhetoric, in terms if its theoretical and stylistic constructs, and it allows young musicians to experience what it is to communicate through music that is personal. Younger players often assume the role of messenger, performing repertoire of composers whom they shall never meet. Composing gives that ownership that in other aspects of their musical lives they may never have experienced.

I vividly remember the first time hearing my own music performed by other musicians. Not to be too frank, but it was rather emotional! Hearing the sounds of the music that up until that point had only existed in my imagination was overwhelming. How young composers receive their first live performance today must be very different to how I and many others did. I certainly lacked software that would play back my writing for much of my early childhood. I think being forced to contend with using an aural imagination, and developing it to try and imagine the sounds on the page is an important part of the development of a composer. The symbols represent a method – albeit one method – of communicating our sonic constructions to those that create them in performance, and the more we can become fluent with this language as a composer the greater chance we can communicate the music we hear in our heads.

Young composers might not have developed the fluency to capture what they truly hear in their imaginations on the manuscript paper with accuracy. Does software help? I’m convinced it hinders more than it helps, in that it encourages a ‘make-do’ mentality, where pupils can struggle to notate what they really want and accept the antiseptic sound of Sibelius as a compromise. They adjust the interesting rhythms they hear to a stream of generic sounding crotchets and quavers as they cannot manipulate the rhythm in Sibelius with ease unless they know what they want. How can we develop the necessary fluency with notation so we can communicate what we hear? Much of my childhood was spent looking at notation, comparing it with recordings and performances. I believe this remains an exciting way of improving notational fluency by looking at how others have used it. Components of teaching composition therefore must include approaches and developing notational practices, if we ever have the hope of communicating with accuracy the music we hear in our heads with the performers who are charged with creating it for listeners.

Composing should never just be a paper exercise. Professional composers might be able to write without recourse to an instrument, as they have developed an aural imagination that can draw on the experience of working with live musicians and listening that allows them to imagine with increasing accuracy what they notate. Young composers should be encouraged to experiment with the use of instruments. After all they are painting with sound, and should be experiment with sounds. The score is the instructions on how to create the piece, not the piece. I can’t imagine Ikea writes the instructions for a wardrobe before they design and build one. Composition should be a similar experience. Pupils should be encouraged to play with sounds, explore their combination and try and consider what they want their piece to sound like. Considering how to capture the instructions that allow players to recreate the piece faithfully should always be a secondary concern, and not the starting point.

Not all pupils instinctively hear music in their aural imaginations. Some pupils need a starting point. A starting point need not be a few bars of a piece, but it could be a process they could try. If we are to give pupils real ownership of their musical creations we need to avoid giving them musical starting points where the parameters are too defined from the outset. Giving a pupil a chord progression, and perhaps the instrumentation, and an accompaniment pattern sets too much of the character of a piece before they even begin to be creative themselves. Of course, composition in particularly styles/genres is important to help understand music of the past but it is not always the best place to start for a beginning composer. Encouraging pupils to to activities that generate material of their own choosing, free of stylistic preferences, might yield a more personal response from a pupil that might in term lead to increased motivation from them to continue composing.

Marking criteria might encourage the view that compositions for GCSE and A-level need to tick boxes to be successful. I have already blogged about such marking criteria so won’t repeat here, but do consider it to be something not to compose to but to use as a helpful guide for evaluation during and at the end of the composing process. Indeed, such criteria will always remain contentious yet it is a fitting compromise for the marking of something that will always be a challenge to standardise. Teachers could use marking schemes to encourage pupils to ask questions of their pieces, and a helpful tool in encouraging them to keep developing and refining their compositions.

I’m convinced composition can be taught but I remain unconvinced of the best way. Perhaps each pupil does need a unique approach. I believe it always should start with sound and its manipulation. From their the path can vary from person to person.

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