Composition Lesson #1

Today I had my first ever composition lesson…as a teacher instead of a student.

My taste in music, on some level, was close to hers; if I weren’t getting more and more tired with listening to contemporary classical music, we’d have been very similar to one another. It meant, of course, that I could recommend so many wonderful composers to her, from Louis Andriessen to John Luther Adams, and Arvo Pärt to Julia Wolfe. She is into forms she can grasp and are simple, though still able to convey more complicated textures through layering of different rhythms, etc. There’s simply too much music to offer up…and she has almost no experience in contemporary classical music.

Which scares me a little bit; in showing her music that she would like, I am opening a door into the greater contemporary community and giving her a few footholds to use in exploring on her own. However, it’s important that I get to show her other, unrelated sounds as well so that she doesn’t stay in her comfort zone simply because she hasn’t been exposed to other types of music. I did get to show the Berio Sequenza for Violin and that interested her as well, but that’s hardly an introduction to so much European music of today. And after Nono and Lachenmann, that’s hardly even an introduction to violin technique.

Without discussing her piece (I certainly know I wouldn’t want my works being mentioned by my teachers online!), I felt like it would be a good idea to get her to expand the way she thought about the materials and sections she writes. At the start of our lesson, she’d confessed that she wasn’t very good with transitioning or doing anything different once she’d set up a pattern; so, when I began to discuss what a particularly salient section of her piece might mean in the context of the whole, I hope that I was able to plant a seed of cognition into her composition process that she can cultivate at her own pace.

My hope was that by examining how one section influences sections that aren’t immediately adjacent, she will begin to question how sections overlap and relate, and eventually explore compositional transitions. To promote her experimentation with breaking free from patterns, I suggested looking at varying common threads through the entire piece and deciding which ones could be severed temporarily to bring attention to them upon return. To encourage her to explore large-scale forms she likes, I offered the suggestion of exploring a score of Dream in White on White.Hopefully the contrast of these activities will spur creative thoughts regarding what actually defines simplicity and complexity, without actually demarcating musical styles as simple or not.

I’m very nervous in general about this whole experience. I’ve had great teachers, who suggested things I would like not because I would like them, but because they related perfectly with a concept I was struggling to approach. I’ve had horrible teachers as well, who suggested music they found interesting and hoped I would adapt into my own works, but instead turned me away from music I needed to simply approach more gingerly on my own time.

It’s so strange, being in the position of power to introduce completely foreign sounds and concepts to a student, one-on-one. When I wrote up a sheet of some basics about violin techniques, I felt compelled to mention that things like harmonics, pizzicati, bow position, etc. aren’t things you should use without reason. I don’t want to introduce these things as either natural or artificial (pun intended), but as some of the many different flavors of violin for her to recognize when seen or heard, and then place in the greater scope of her own compositions. There are spectacular violin solos without a single extended technique, and there are others with only extended techniques.

Anyway, today was an eye-opener to the concept of opening (and closing) doors to students. It’s terrifying to think that in one lesson that she thought went very well, I’ve already exerted accidental influence. What do we as teachers need to do to curb this, when students approach us for recommendations and guidance, beyond mentioning that they should keep an open mind and decide on their own?

Sean Hanson