Can You Still Learn the Rules if You Follow Your Muse?

Can You Still Learn the Rules if You Follow Your Muse?


Recently I have been dealing with a very talented young composer whose visions are well beyond his chops. This is a young teen who skips Spanish class so he can study Stravinsky scores. (How can you criticize that? I skipped class to practice and compose.) While he loves every kind of music imaginable, his heart is set on writing symphonic theatre works. Every week he comes to his lesson with a new large-scale piece, complete with a detailed drama and scene layout. Although his text writing skills are remarkable for his age and his musical material imaginative and compelling, he lacks the compositional skills to successfully execute such pieces in terms of form, orchestration, and vocal writing.

How do you give such students the fundamentals without squelching their imagination? Do you rein them in? Do you let them run wild?

In this case, I am trying to do both. Each week we focus in on one large scale work he has written to use it as a canvas from which to get his feet wet in orchestration, form, and the like. At the same time I assign smaller composition assignments in a systematic order to assure he will have no holes in his compositional chops. As for the huge overflow of music he is compiling, he shares with me these pieces and I make general comments. We then file them away for more analysis later.

One may call my pedagogical approach a bit too eclectic. Yes, this teaching style leaves some of my student’s works in an unfinished state, since it leaves sections of them in need of refinement while others are skillfully polished. However, this method at least gives the young composer a taste of what he can eventually do, while at the same time giving him an opportunity to learn some basic techniques. Furthermore, these lessons can easily be transferred to smaller-scale works. The skills may not be at the level needed to harness a large work, but they are stronger than they would have been had we solely directed our lessons to writing music exercises. It’s like dumping language students into the country that speaks the language he or she is learning. They may flail sometimes, but they will learn more effectively through such an immersion technique than through taking a language course in a class.

So, in helping a budding composer compile a toolbox of techniques, I’d rather use whatever motivates him/her and trust that I will be able to use it to achieve my pedagogical goals for that person. For, at this stage, is this not the time for young musicians to try anything, when they are in the safe confines of being students? Otherwise how will they ever really learn how to write music beyond that of a polished, yet derivative nature? In this case, at least this kid has had the opportunity to follow his muse and at the same time learn some of the rules.


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