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The Trombone ForumTeaching & LearningComposition, Arranging and Theory(Moderator: zemry) Studying composition with or without a teacher
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BFW
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« on: Jul 07, 2003, 12:00PM »

I know a number of you have studied composition or are currently studying composition.  I'm considering taking composition lessons, or otherwise making an effort to improve my writing skills, in the not too distant future.  I have some questions and concerns; perhaps some of you could share the benefit of your experiences.

I studied theory and composition as part of my undergraduate music curriculum 20+ years ago, and enjoyed it very much.  I've done some amount of writing over the years since then, mostly choral, nothing longer than about six minutes of music.  I'm not as comfortable as I'd like to be with counterpoint in more than three voices or with chromatic harmonies.  I've tried working out of the Jeppesen counterpoint book or the McHose counterpoint book, but found it really difficult to evaluate what I'd written, and so had trouble learning ways to resolve the problems.

I did find a private composition instructor a while back, but things didn't work out as well as I would have liked.  He was pushing me to write freely, using more modern techniques (I picked up the Persichetti book on 20th century harmony on his recommendation), but I didn't feel my skills were up to that; I think I wanted more theory than he was prepared to teach me.  It was frustrating trying to work on what he asked me to do, and I quit after a few lessons.

OK, enough background.  I'd like to hear about other people's experiences studying composition.  How does it work out trying to study on your own?  Any recommended books?  Any advice?  If an instructor is a necessity, what should I look for, what should I ask?  

Thanks in advance!
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« Reply #1 on: Jul 07, 2003, 06:45PM »

One big plus of studying by yourself is that you have to rely on your ear.  If you like or don't like what you hear, figure out why, basically.  It's very important to be able to do this in order to develop the skills needed to write what you want to.  But studying with a teacher is definitely helpful.  They'll be able to point you in directions that sometimes would have never occured to your brain or your ear that you may like a lot - and some that you probably won't like but are still useful to know so you can practice strategic avidance.      

Of course, it helps to find a GOOD instructor.  Someone who probably teaches or taught at college, not just someone who writes a lot.  More experience = less time figuring out what they need to teach you and more time getting down to business.
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« Reply #2 on: Jul 08, 2003, 08:50AM »

Having my Masters in Music Composition, from what you have written I think you would benefit from an instructor.  But you need to make the instructor aware, BEFORE the lessons even begin, that you are interested in working on 18th and 19th century counterpoint techniques, NOT 20th century.  It is my feeling that you aren't really interested in a "20th century" approach, and prefer the structured tonal and contrapuntal techniques.  I don't have my books handy, but Counterpoint by Walter Piston might be a good choice.  It's an older book, but I believe covers the pre-twentieth century styles and techniques well.
The main reason for having a good instructor is because they SHOULD be able to see the mistakes that you make, especially the "grey" ones (the ones that sound okay but aren't quite right).  They should also be able to better explain some of the techniques that you don't quite understand on your own.
Hope that helps.
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« Reply #3 on: Jul 08, 2003, 09:45AM »

Thanks for the comments, Andrew and Mike.  It really does sound like a teacher is the most reasonable way to go, if I can manage it.

 
quote:
Originally posted by Mike Brebes:
But you need to make the instructor aware, BEFORE the lessons even begin, that you are interested in working on 18th and 19th century counterpoint techniques, NOT 20th century.  It is my feeling that you aren't really interested in a "20th century" approach, and prefer the structured tonal and contrapuntal techniques.

I am interested in modern counterpoint and modern harmony; I guess I've always assumed these things were taught more or less chronologically, since that's how I was taught.  But yes, I definitely want a structured approach.

I infer from your comments that a typical "20th century" approach to teaching composition isn't as structured.  Could you describe this a little more?
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« Reply #4 on: Jul 08, 2003, 05:17PM »

*resists urge to imply 20th Century composition requires no training*

To date, I have been self-taught. I see my compositions as passable, but not necessarily mature all the time. Some spots are kind of empty. They might have 4 part harmony, but the chords are lacking something. And I also don't know the names of a lot of what I'm doing. My friend, a theory buff, looked at my trombone quartet and said something like "Wow, you just did a perfect IV-VI Cadence" or something like that, and my eyes will glaze over, and I'll say, "I don't know what it's called. I just tinkered aroung on the keyboard until I got the sound I wanted."
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« Reply #5 on: Jul 09, 2003, 09:46AM »

quote:
"He was pushing me to write freely, using more modern techniques (I picked up the Persichetti book on 20th century harmony on his recommendation), but I didn't feel my skills were up to that; I think I wanted more theory than he was prepared to teach me."
It has been my experience that in 20th century counterpoint and harmony, things are very free form.  It's more about concepts rather than rules.  There is a structure but it is more abstract.  Writing using 12-tone rows is considered modern counterpoint, and that has probably more rules than any other concept in modern counterpoint.  You might want to do some study in "form and analysis" of modern music.  You should be able to find books that cover a lot of that.  A lot of scores are available in Dover editions, which are fairly inexpensive, and are worthy of use for analysis of style and technique.
If you are looking for the kind of structure that was available in 17th, 18th, and 19th harmony/counterpoint, you aren't going to be able to find it.
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« Reply #6 on: Jul 13, 2003, 04:11PM »

The amount of structure you're going to find in 20th century style depends on who you're studying.  In general, counterpoint rules have definitely changed over the last century; in a lot of rock and jazz, for example, parallel motion is desired.  But there are quite a few composers that have very strict rules of their own: Part, Stravinsky, Reich, etc; sometimes the rules can change from piece to piece.  But the structure is there.  It's just impossible to classify the rules into one large set like it was in earlier centuries because there are several different rules sets just as strict that are for the most part incompatable.  Yet, the vast majority of all classical composers still look to Bach for advice on counterpoint as well.
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« Reply #7 on: Jul 14, 2003, 05:12AM »

Could you describe how modern classical composition is taught?  Surely composers need a command of the basics; they can't be expected to write serial compositions without some understanding of voice leading and imitation and form.  Again, I'm used to a chronological approach, becoming reasonably conversant in 12th century counterpoint before moving on to 16th century, 18th century, etc.  Is that unusual?

By "structured approach" I was referring to the pedagogy, not the writing method; focused exercises, deliberate stylistic imititation, directed analysis, things like that.  I am certainly aware there is no universal set of rules to apply to modern composition.

Perhaps what I'm looking for is more properly termed "theory" than "composition."

 
quote:
Originally posted by Mike Brebes:
You might want to do some study in "form and analysis" of modern music. You should be able to find books that cover a lot of that.

Thanks for the suggestion.  Any recommendations?
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Brian

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« Reply #8 on: Jul 15, 2003, 09:17PM »

Composing, to me, is alot more personal that learning the trombone, or the piano, or whatever.  Most professional instrumentalists have to know the same basic things as any other instrumentalist in order to succeed, and so everyone's taught the same thing (I'm not saying that everyone learns the same method, because we all know that's not true    )  There are alot of basics to composition too, but the professional composer has free reign over the style they compose in, so when they get a commission the person commissioning the piece knows what to expect stylistically.  So basically, you get to compose how you want, so you should find a teacher who will teach what you want to know, when you want to know it, and not take out the most structured program that might not be what you want to aim for.

Personally, I went for quite awhile without stidying composition and did quite well, and this year I was picked for this student composer program with the local symphony orchestra, where I study with the composer in residence and write a piece that the orchestra will play at a few concerts next season.  Studying this way is great because I'm working on one piece with him, so that's the objective I'm working for.  Now that I know how to write for symphony orchestra, I don't know if I'll study composition any more before I go to university... I find that pointers whenever I want them works better for me than weekly lessons...

I talk too much for someone who hasn't logged on for a year and posted only once before...    

Erin
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« Reply #9 on: Jul 16, 2003, 12:46AM »

I read two recent ones Erin and I hope you stick around. Very interesting viewpoints.  
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« Reply #10 on: Jul 16, 2003, 03:13AM »

I must admit that this discussion has not gone the way I anticipated.  I figured that people would be saying, "Oh, yes, you really should pick up 'The Tao of Counterpoint' and 'The Te of Harmony,' it's very important to do your compositional calisthenics every day, get your basics down so you can be flexible, Brahms wrote fugues every morning before breakfast," and things like that.

I've looked up the curriculum for undergraduate curricula in composition to see what they contained, but they still don't tell me what people DO in them, just the names of the subjects.

People who study writing (in English) sometimes just "write what they know," and discuss effectiveness and get pointers from peers and things like that.  Others analyze essay structure and write to specific formats for practice, reading about style and technique, emulating various writers to get a facility with the mechanism, planning and crafting all the way.  I think music writing has similar parallels.  I am interested in the second set of composers, and how they learn what they do.

I can be personal, but I'd also like to be able to write a four-voice fugue in diminution, use 19th century harmonic techniques, write a serial piano sonata, or write something that sounds vaguely like Mendelssohn or Hindemith or Palestrina if I choose.  I have music in my head, I can't get it to work on paper, and I want to learn how.

I know, I know, get a teacher.  I'll look into that.  Any other recommendations?
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« Reply #11 on: Jul 16, 2003, 06:09AM »

Um, Dover scores are excellent.  Very accurate, readable, sturdy (i.e., don't fall apart) and cheap.  If you are going to do some score study, which I recommend, get some.  They have catalogues and you can find them at some Border's and Border's Outlet bookstores.  Want to go and compare what your Bach counterpoint books say to how Bach actually writes?  Go get the Dover edition of the complete Brandenburg Concertos.

This is in fact a lot of what people do in those college composition classes.  They learn the technique from a book then look and see how a composer uses those tools in music via score reading and (woah!    )

And they practice cranking out exercises using those techniques.  Even if you know that you're not going to be generating the next Pulitzer Prize award, just the repetition of excreting those things is part of practice to really get to know what you're doing - just like banging long tones to death.    

Is that more what you're looking for?
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« Reply #12 on: Jul 16, 2003, 07:56AM »

I agree with Andrew regarding using the Dover scores.  All of my upper division and graduate courses that dealt with analysis of musical form involved taking a score and tearing it apart to see what the composer did.  Orchestral scores are harder to analyze because of the complexity, but one that I used in one of my classes was the Beethoven String Quartets.  You've only got 4 parts to deal with, but they can give you months of work just analyzing them.

I can't think of any class, studying modern compositional techniques, that actually had a book for the class.  The class materials usually consisted of a synopsis of the semester, the needed scores or excerpts for evaluation, and whatever scores or excerpts were handed out by the teacher.  The various techniques (dual tonality, quartal harmony, 12 tone rows, etc.) were explained to the class, then we went to the written music to see how the composer used it in his compositions.  
When I get a chance, I will pull out my documentation for my previous classes and see if there are any other recommendations I can make for you.

One thing I want to clarify, especially because of some of the remarks in the replies:  20th Century or Modern Compositional techniques, by college and university standards, usually DOES NOT include jazz, pop, or rock.  It usually includes composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Webern, Berg, Reich, Stockhausen, etc.

Another thing you might want to try, if you live close to a college or university, is go to the bookstore and see what books they are using for specific composition classes.  You can also use their library to find the books that might cover the musical forms that you would like to better understand.
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« Reply #13 on: Jul 16, 2003, 08:17AM »

quote:
Is that more what you're looking for?
Yes, thanks muchly.

 
quote:
When I get a chance, I will pull out my documentation for my previous classes and see if there are any other recommendations I can make for you.
Thank you, too!  Much appreciated.
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« Reply #14 on: Jul 16, 2003, 12:49PM »

Yeah, Mike is right.  I just had an errant thought:

One thing that happens in classes ir via private instructors is that they have sections of music picked out to demonstrate whatever techniques they're teaching at the moment.  Yeah, common sense - but for someone who is trying to figure out that stuff by themselves, they often can't just go and look in a score to review composer's examples because they don't know where to look sometimes.  For example, if I wanted to review some Stravinsky set technique writing, I'd have to know first which pieces he uses those specific techniques in.  Just picking some at random and trying to figure out what he did is much harder than at least knowing what I'm looking for.

So, if you opt to go look for composition books, be sure the books include plenty of documentation on further score study at the end of chapters.  I haven't actually looked in any of my old texts, but if I find any that do a good job of this, I'll let you know.
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« Reply #15 on: Jul 20, 2003, 08:39PM »

Being just a performance major at a Canadian school of music, I've not gotten to have any kind of training in composition (composition was my first choice to major in, but they kind of decided that they wanted me to major in performance instead...). Anyway, I still do a lot of composition on my own time, and I'm totally self taught (I just finished a set of orchestral variations on The Battle Hymn of the Republic...kind of like Ives Variations on America).
I would recommend two books that helped me out. First would be an old book on counterpoint called Gradis ad Parnassus (you should probably get the english translation called Steps to Parnassus) written by Johann Joseph Fux in 1725. It's the same book that several great composers used in their youth to learn counterpoint (ie Beethoven, Mozart; it was also used by several other composers like Haydn and Albrechtsberger to teach their students.
The other book that I would recommend is on for instrumentation. After all...you can't write good instrumental music, unless you know what the instrument is capable of doing. For this I recommend the Treatise on Instrumentation by Hector Berlioz (later revised and edited by Richard Strauss). It's a really good book, and gives a lot of examples of music (mostly Wagnerian Opera) that shows what type of effect you can get with the different abilities of the instrument.
Hope this helps you out a little bit.
   
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« Reply #16 on: Aug 03, 2003, 07:25PM »

Brian,

I couldn't believe it when I read your initial posting!!!  I could have said many of the same words myself!  I took two years of theory, an orchestration class, and a jazz arranging class back in '79 - '81 when I was at college.  Now, some 20 years later, I have a great desire to begin writing.  The type of writing I want to do is more for marching bands, drum corps, and brass ensemble with various instruments accompanying, such as piano, organ, and/or percussion.

My situation is thus:  I'm 42, and currently enrolled full time to obtain my teaching certificate in secondary education (history/social studies).  While taking theory / composition classes at the local university might be the most logical way to go, that would mean that I would have to become a music major, and frankly, I just don't have time for that right now.  My primary goal (and my wife's    )is to get my teaching certificate so I can get my butt back to work.  Writing / composition would purely be a hobby for me.  So, like you, I've been looking for information on books that I can delve into that explain theory and composition in a way that I can pick it up on my own.  Or, if there were someone I could get in touch with who could coach me on a "as needed" basis, that would be cool too.  I thought of contacting the person at Western Michigan University (where I'm a student) who is the chairman of that area to see if they had any recommendations.  If I get up enough nerve to do it, and if I get a reply, I'll pass along what I get from him/her.

Best of luck!!!
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« Reply #17 on: Aug 15, 2003, 02:06PM »

When it comes to college libraries do you have to be a student to use them or are they public but owned by the school?  To be more specific I'm talking about Colorado Universities Music Library
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« Reply #18 on: Aug 15, 2003, 03:47PM »

I believe most college libraries allow you to use material in the library, but you need privileges to check things out of the library.
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« Reply #19 on: Aug 18, 2003, 06:42AM »

I appreciate all the commentary, thanks.  I've come to the realization that I don't think I'll be able to commit to regular composition lessons, though, so I'm going to try to do more of this on my own.  I've ordered a copy of Modal and Tonal Counterpoint: from Josquin to Stravinsky (here's an Amazon link); it looks like a good choice for someone in my situation.  I like the fact that it goes through a broad range of contrapuntal styles; I think that will be very helpful.  I decided against the Fux for now in favor of this other book, perhaps supplemented by the Jeppesen (16th century counterpoint) and McHose (18th century counterpoint) books that I already have.

I'm not sure how much home time I'll be ready and willing to devote to music this year, unfortunately.  I haven't figured out if I'll be doing any performance work outside of my lunchtime chorus.  We'll see.

Again, thanks for all your suggestions and comments.
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