How Teaching Composition Has Shaped Me As a Composer

I really love teaching.  Whether it’s rehearsing large ensembles or working one-on-one with young composers, I get a deep feeling of satisfaction knowing I helped someone grow.

Teaching composition, though, has had ramifications not just for my students, but for me.  Indeed, a common issue I had come to notice–and the solution I ultimately came up with–will forever have resonance within my own artistic practice.


One of the things I see in many composition students is a simultaneous enthusiasm and frustrated desperation.  They are so in love with the idea of composing that they literally can’t contain themselves.  One week I might get the beginnings of an aleatoric percussion ensemble. The next week, maybe they’re geeked out about Liszt, so I might see the beginnings of a Romantic-style piano piece (what happened to that composition from last week?).  Another week goes by, we might be back to the avant garde (or maybe we’re trying our hand at plainsong).  And so it goes.  Phew!

I’m all in favor of exploring and experimenting, of course.  It’s one of the staples of a good composition education.  But shifting around too often, with little or no follow-through, contributes to the young composer’s sense of lacking a stable creative voice, aesthetic direction, and a sense of communicating something meaningful.  Indeed, it’s this waffling from project to project, with the initial burst, the struggle to develop it, then the distraction with the new “shiny” composition project which ultimately leads to that frustrated sense of desperation. They might still be in love with composing, but it becomes tinged with a “lost” feeling that, in itself, becomes a struggle to identify.

It was in uncovering this issue that I had an “epiphany moment” on issues I’d been grappling with in my own practice.

I saw that I’d been doing all along what my students were doing.  I’d been so spastic in chasing down what was, at least momentarily, “interesting,” that I failed to develop any secure aesthetic roots.  I had a growing portfolio of compositions, but no distinctive voice coming out of it.  In a sense, it was a relief to have “diagnosed” myself, but it also plunged me into a dark period of  doubt, self-recrimination, and a sense that maybe I had already failed as a composer.  I felt that if I had chosen a clear path, I would have had years to develop a strong, convincing creative voice but that I had blown that opportunity through years of seemingly-pointless musical wandering.  I felt pretty hopeless.

But it was in noticing the beginnings of this pattern in my students’ works that the teacher in me ultimately came to the rescue.  It was in seeing my shortcomings reflected in others that inspired this simple but powerful bit of advice:


Time out from composing!  

Do nothing but absorb recordings, scores, books, and talk with as many composers as you can. Glean what seems to resonate most to you and only then, begin to write again, with that new, clearer sense of direction.

I advise those who need it to take at least a few weeks off.  At lessons, we discuss what they explored that week and what might be explored in the coming weeks.  I emphasize not to “fall in love” too easily with ideas they discover–if it’s truly amazing and “right for you,” it will still be that way after a few weeks of continued exploration.  No sense going down primrose paths only to find ourselves with the same problem again.

I followed my own advice and I feel, for the first time, a stable sense of purpose in music.  It’s not something everyone will need to do, but for those who feel adrift, the effect can be powerful and career-changing.


The broader lesson, made possible through my work with students, is that sometimes we are too scattered in our approach, or we spend time chasing avenues that seem alluring or profitable but with no truth to ourselves, and it waters down what could be a potent creative voice.  In this case, we must take time out to deeply explore ideas and ourselves to uncover that sincere, satisfying aesthetic path to express musically what is in our hearts and minds.



  1. I found your article informative and useful. I indeed discuss similar points on my blog, if I may post here, referring to having a Purpose (both in performance, practice AND composition). I have friended you on FB. Keep up the good work. Dan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s