Sunday, June 22, 2014

Composing–Isn’t It Just Like Ironing Your Shirt? Part II

My Combined Approach For Training (to getting that shirt really ironed...) 
1) Analyze composers whose works inspire you, regardless of the style 
2) Analyze your own works as in-depth as you would works by any other composer 
3) Create compositional games or projects that focus on your weak area(s) 
4) Compose pieces without any restrictions 
5) Develop any basic skill (instrumental/vocal/theoretical/rhythmic/etc.) that might be holding you back 
6) Listen to new composers, styles, and music from other cultures that challenge your comfort levels and aesthetic assumptions, as well as familiar composers and styles for greater depth 

These half-dozen approaches have always felt very natural to me and have been successful with students who do medium- and long-term work. When I do short-term work with a student for a session or two, I’m usually looking at a specific project or issue that will likely draw upon just one or two approaches. From that, I’ll frequently assign them projects using one or more modalities to address a particular weakness in their writing. 

Yet, over many decades of teaching, I’ve noticed that none of my students have ever been exposed to this range of approaches; one or two, occasionally three, but never more. I began to wonder about why this is the case, and thought it would be fruitful to examine where and how musicians typically get training in composing.

Where To Learn To Compose (other than privately...) 
Here are the most typical scenarios where musicians become trained in composition other than private lessons: 

Conservatory (or University) 
Here you’d enter a composition program and spend most of your time studying and composing in various classical techniques (counterpoint, serialism, orchestration) along with detailed analyses of various classical composers from different eras. Free composing generally happens toward the end of the program. Exposure to student and faculty works, access to various performance ensembles and highly specialized equipment, and of course certification, are key benefits to studying in this setting. Still, others find the personal and musical relationships that come out of this experience to be invaluable. You’ll hear MYTH #6 often circulating here.

Though you will likely be in frequent proximity to them, the majority of time with a mentor will be spent performing logistical and administrative tasks. You will be observing them in a variety of contexts, and eventually you will likely be entrusted with tasks of a more artistic nature. The decision of an artist to take on an apprentice is very individual, i.e. some do it based upon timing, some do it based upon the personality of the applicant, and some never take on an apprentice at all. As a result, you’d be wise not to take their decision to reject (or accept) you personally. The opportunity to work closely with an artist whom you revere can be highly rewarding. MYTH #3 has been known to appear here. 

The focus here is creating a new piece, usually in a specific pr e-existing form, e.g. a 12-bar blues, a call-and-response chant, a verse-chorus song, etc. Following the form and being exposed to significant exemplars of the style or form at hand ar e the primary features. (A smaller number of workshops do not restrict the style and allow your piece to be completely open-ended). The comments on your piece may come solely from the instructor or from the participants, or both. The format of a single day (or time slot) devoted to just one piece can be very attractive, as are the opportunities to network and meet like-minded musicians. You might hear MYTH #5 in this environment. 

In either joining or forming a band, the primary goal is to foster and feature original works. The promise of performing and/or recording original songs is so powerful that many writers are involved with more than one band. Songs are created either as a group, from a pair within the band, or solo, and instruction usually comes more from the mixing of the band members’ strengths rather than teaching per se. Real coaching can happen depending on members’ backgrounds and communication skills. Bands that focus on original compositions tend to be very catalytic because of the immediate feedback opportunity from constant rehearsing. MYTHS #4 & #7 frequently appear here.

Typically you’d enter a liberal arts type of program that centers on Art-As-Expression. High priority is given to authentic self-expression rather than analysis of prominent musical icons. Significant focus is put on examining the motivation of your dec ision-making process, and establishing a clear criteria for making your pieces feel genuine. These programs tend to be interdisciplinary, and encourage you to include other art forms (movement, writing, film, etc.) to complete the piece’s concept and enhance the process. Programs like this can be very personally healing and are excellent preparation for work in any art-related therapy career. You might hear MYTH #7 circulating here. 

Self-Education is ideal for someone who is very motivated and has a history of designing and carrying out projects on their own. The resources may include textbooks, workbooks, and online tutorials. Self-pacing and the ability to design a highly individual program are the main attractions.

Students often use this path in conjunction with modalities that have contact with other people such as periodic sessions with an instructor, attending live concerts and/or open rehearsals, and even composing collaboratively with others either in-person or over the internet. 

It has been my observation that students, regardless of their interests or learning styles, still require a healthy dose of both support and accountability to develop their musicality. Joining or forming a peer-oriented group can generate tangible results without an instructor if the participants are highly motivated. Group support and publicly-declared, time-specific promises to its members are central to that kind o f program. Also, in-group and public performances, along with guest presenters, can greatly strengthen the impact of the experience. Examples of this format would be a Meetup, Mastermind, or Artist Anonymous group. In fact, all of the above venues, include support and accountability as an integral part of their structure. 

At this point I should state that depending upon the needs and timing of the student, any one of the above learning models might be an excellent vehicle for their growth. They can also be used in combination to produce dramatic results, as I have personally experienced.

Let’s recap the six different modalities that I’ve recommended, with abbreviated labels: 
1) Analysis 
2) Self-Analysis 
3) Games 
4) Free Writing 
5) Skill Building 
6) Listening 

In Part III I take a look at what each one has to offer a composer...

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