One of the most challenging subjects to teach is composition. In fact, one of my teachers when I was an undergraduate once declared that it is impossible to teach it at all!…
In the ensuing years, I have become fully convinced of the wisdom of his statement. If a student is studying oil painting, the instructor can set up a still life and have the student duplicate that model on canvas as an exercise in representative art. In performance study, the correct and expressive execution of the music serves as a metric for evaluating progress and product. There is no parallel “representative” exercise in composition, however. While existing compositions can be used as models for *approach*, the result must be totally original. The mission of a composition teacher is to give each student the *tools* he or she needs, such as an understanding of orchestration, counterpoint, form and analysis and methods of development, and to then guide the student as he or she “builds” something using those tools.
One of the most influential of the teachers with whom I studied was David Van Vactor – a much-beloved and internationally recognized composer and conductor who co-founded the University of Tennessee Music Department, was the long-term conductor of the Knoxville Symphony and was named Composer Laureate of Tennessee by the state legislature. Mr. Van Vactor was an old-school gentleman who taught composition with an infectious joyfulness, and several of his students went on to achieve considerable success and recognition as composers.
Once I was composing a woodwind trio. When I brought the completed piece to my composition lesson, Mr. Van Vactor asked me what I thought of my trio. I replied that I was having trouble making the ending work. He smiled, took the manuscript from me and looked at it for a moment. He then erased two notes from the final measures and penciled in two different notes.
It was perfect! I was both elated and disgusted.
“What’s wrong?” he asked gently.
“I can’t *believe* I didn’t think of those notes!” I answered.
In one of those watershed moments that will remain with me all my life, the great composer leaned toward me with genuine astonishment on his face.
“But, my dear man.” he said. “You thought of all these *other* notes!”
May we all teach with such kindness.