For the last three years, I have been developing a composition workbook (below), using my composition students at the University of Glasgow as guinea pigs. This is the 2016-2017 version, although I am currently working on a new one to be published here hopefully before October 2017. Really, this is only about half of what I envisage as the final.
In the workbook, I include a letter to the students, part of which is included below. This text outlines what is for me the hardest part of teaching composition in higher education: how do you teach something that has no ultimate ethical boundaries? The question of what is right or wrong, materially, well, that cuts to the nature of my concerns for most of my young undergraduates. That is, that they think for themselves, and are uncompromising, but not in a way that is reactionary or ignorant, but in a way that stems from a need, as Cage put it, for poetry?
Dear Composition Student,
Welcome to composition at the University of Glasgow. This course is not a “how to” manual; it does not acknowledge any fixed sense of what a composer, in the personal or vocational sense, ultimately is. I will never tell anyone that there is a right way, full stop, to compose, simply because the personal process of composition is deeply idiosyncratic, and has always been, whether you’re talking about Palestrina, Ligeti, Mozart or Jane Stanley. The course is rather designed to help you begin to chisel out your own route with regard to established practices and idioms of the 20th and 21st centuries, with some looks further afield. That is to say, you must ultimately be yourself, to do what you as an individual are best at doing, and yet at the same time, you will need to open yourself up to the possibility of further enlightenment. This includes trying new things, adopting new perspectives, and taking on approaches that may not make total sense at the beginning, all in an effort to engage in our ultimate goal in higher education: to transform who we are through practice, knowledge and understanding.
A word on taste. You will not be assessed on how happy the music you have written makes you, but on how well you fulfil the intended learning outcomes of the course. Ultimately, your evolving personal aesthetic preferences are key to you and the kind of musician you are always becoming. More important in this context, however, is your spirit of adventure, your inquisitiveness, your hard work, your flexibility and your dynamism. Remember that the musical universe is a large one, and one that we want to know as much about as possible. But let’s remember that we are not (merely) here to entertain ourselves, but rather to learn about and explore something that is very important about music and about ourselves.