Meditation on teaching composition

It occurred to me today that I've been teaching private composition for just about 10 years. Been teaching college for closer to 15. It is with some trepidation that I commence setting some of my accrued thoughts on the matter on cyber-paper, seeing as a) the readership of this blog is, well, largely current and former students so far (mostly former, I think), and b) it is probably foolish to give away too many might need them. And yet, on I go.

I know some colleagues find teaching composition (well, teaching anything, for that matter) particularly taxing, and there have been times when I counted myself among their lot. In some ways, teaching composition requires the teacher to expend very similar energy as when composing - and in an even more compressed and intense way. You make aesthetic judgments and distinctions, you propose alternatives and solutions, you endeavor to understand quickly where the piece-in-progress is coming from, where it is going, and, by the way, what its mission is. These are the very machinations of composition, and to spend a day embarking on one such adventure after another, with nary an ounce of personal product of which to boast at day's end (when composing one's own music is generally impossible), can be deflating.

Similarly, if one is blessed with bright, talented, and most importantly, productive students, as I have been through much of my private composition teaching career, it can also be deflating in a way. We artists are fundamentally selfish, I'm sorry to say. As long as we still call ourselves artists, our burning concerns are a) how and when can I make more art and b) how can I make the world love (and buy) my art? But when teaching is at full peak - say the last two months of any semester - it becomes nearly impossible to produce one's own work with any consistency. I am not talking of the profs at cushy schools with 2-2 loads and sabbaticals every couple of years. But nor the poor blokes with 5-4 loads and endless administrative headaches. No. Just us working Joes teaching reasonable but certainly not cushy loads, who get pretty drastically overloaded when a semester approaches its end, what with all the concerts, projects, and occasional meltdowns we must juggle.

So, potentially deflating to have bright-eyed and bushy-tailed makers of music wandering in each week excitedly navigating their way toward completed compositions while I know I'm going home to a pile yay high of George Crumb essays. (mark my words, there are MUCH worse things that could await one, and I know it!)

And of course, there's that attendant fear of - what if I don't know what to say? Will we be left staring at each other blankly when the music has stopped, and me left meekly uttering "let's listen to it again." (I generally do a lot of that anyway, as I like to hear a piece a good several times before speaking of it from on high).

Somehow, though, over the years - perhaps not gradually, but more suddenly over the past several - teaching composition has begun to have a profoundly positive effect on my own writing. How to describe exactly what it is? I think it has to do with what's starting to seem like the theme of this blog, which is (say it with me) accepting and embracing your own (er, MY own) limitations. Through years of teaching, I've come to understand that I have certain strengths, certain perceptive insights into particular domains of music, and that I can offer what I can offer, and not really much more. Over time, this has helped me codify the list I presented earlier here, the list of items that are important to me in music, my compositional credo, as it were. Things like don't murder the downbeat (hi Josh), counterpoint and voice leading trump all, and long phrases are to be cherished. (yes, not all of these were in that list - it's always evolving). And perhaps most of all questions of form - not in terms of established pre-ordained formulae, but assessing a piece's energy along its path.

Once I could identify and articulate just what these specialties - if you will - were, it became much easier to turn that composition teacher's gaze inward. For the longest time I found myself thinking, during composition lessons, gee, why is it so easy to tell this other person how to fix his or her piece, but always so difficult to do that for myself. I don't know if it's just from repeated exposure to that hot seat (opine, be smart, or fail!), but of late I find I can almost stand out of my body and look in on my works as the benevolent teacher. I can hear what I'd say to someone else if they brought in my sketch. This needs to go on longer. Why so square? Can you take a risk here somewhere, anywhere? That stuff.

Most of the composition teachers I had, I had for a long time, and I knew it was time to move on when I could anticipate just what they were going to say when I showed them my work. I understand now, and perhaps always did, that this was not a shortcoming on their part. This was just evidence that a kind of transference had taken place - I now carried their aesthetic evaluative systems within myself, at least to a degree. They had given me what they were meant to give me, and I had somehow ingested it and kept their voice within me. I hope the students who study with me leave at least with some of that - "if I showed this to Dan, I know just what he'd say." It's surprising though, that I'm the one feeling that. That is, if I showed it to me, I know just what I'd say.

The realization that teaching composition has honed my own compositional craft - perhaps more gradually than I realize - has made teaching fresh and new, and really a joy. I do not get deflated by productive students! (only unproductive ones) - and the inspiration carried into my office is just that, inspiring. In talking about those pieces, I'm learning ever more what's important in mine. Put like that, it feels rather least to me. But it took me quite some time to figure this out. It's cool. Makes me want to do this thing for another twenty or thirty years. Make it so.