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The Trombone ForumTeaching & LearningComposition, Arranging and Theory(Moderators: zemry, Thomas Matta) Studying composition with or without a teacher
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karelm
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« Reply #40 on: Nov 24, 2008, 02:08PM »

I strongly believe a composition teacher is necessary if you'd like to go above hobbyist.  Especially for orchestration, counterpoint, score analysis, form, etc. 

Alan Belkin, a talented composer and teacher has written a really good letter to young composers that you would get a lot out of.  It discusses what to look for in a teacher and some valuable advice he has based on hard lessons he's learned.

I highly recommend it...
http://www.musique.umontreal.ca/personnel/Belkin/letter.html
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« Reply #41 on: Feb 16, 2009, 09:28AM »

Great Letter

BNow I do not think a teacher is 100% absolutley necessary to be any good at it.  I've been making half of my living from arranging and composing and orchestrating for the better part of 10+ years -I've found networking and persistant hard work to get everything right is just as good as having a teacher.  Will having a teacher help? YES!  I too have to always go through things a little longer since I'm in effect teaching myself as I go.  Teachers can definitely shorten and refine the process.  But most important is finding a Good Teacher.

A teacher will definitely make things a lot easier -

but - like the letter said

nothing can substitute DOING.  those other musicians you're writing for are really the best teachers.  They'll let you know, one way or another, if what you're doing is hip or NOT.  Without them we just have boxes of unplayed material.  And King Brand Score Paper to line the pet cages with...

Whether you have a teacher or not, just STUDY - and more important than studying man, PRACTICE!  Buy Books.  Find bands to write for.  Start a rehearsal band if nothing else... it takes work, but it sure is rewarding.

Z to the Lee
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« Reply #42 on: Feb 05, 2010, 09:51PM »

On a different angle, I'm not sure being a great composer would make you a great teacher. Sometimes the magic is the magic and trying to come up with curriculum to 'educate' the masses on how to weave the magic might lessen the meaning and respect for the magic.

I say this because I have been approached about possibly teaching composition for a summer internship at a Fine Arts Academy...middle school kids.  Not sure I can do it.  I am somewhat self-taught...or rather self-realized (or just plain obedient to my destiny). My approach would end up very non-standard, heavy on the do, less on the think (Yoda might appove). Just not sure...

Ken F.
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« Reply #43 on: Jun 24, 2010, 02:46PM »

Hey folks,

I think every composer, by the sheer necessity of the craft, is somewhat self-taught.  You have to continue to teach yourself new things, otherwise you don't grow or develop as a composer.  It doesn't hurt to have someone to be kind of a guidestone, or sounding board.  In my case, my wife is a great sounding board.  "Nope!  That's too Philip Glass-y!"  (dammit!)  We learn by doing, too, so just do it!

I wouldn't go so far as to say that one route or the other is better.  Having a teacher/mentor isn't a guarantee, and neither is NOT having a teacher/mentor.  There are people who think that just by sheer virtue of the fact that they went to Conservatory ABC automatically makes them a better composer, or whatever.  On the other hand, I've run into just as many people who wear the "I'm TOTALLY self taught, so what I write is better, because it's from my HEART".  Neither is necessarily true, or makes better music.

I've found that the best teachers I've had, or the ones that I got the most out of, asked me questions, or asked me to explain why I did one thing or another.  Having to give an intelligent answer to someone you can't BS, or not being able to give an answer to something made me re-evaluate my method, what I was trying to communicate, etc.  Then if they were feeling generous they'd drop a nugget of wisdom, but you can get those from people who aren't conservatory teachers as well.

What I have little patience for is a composition teacher, or composers in general who say "well, you're some kind of ***** unless you have a tone row/third stream/DSP program, etc."; these are the same folks who look at you like you're nuts when you infer that voice-leading, melody, rhythm and harmony still exist in 12-tone-or-whatever-music.  If you have something to say, just say it how you want to say it.

It's like Igor Stravinsky said, judge a tree by its fruits, not its roots!
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« Reply #44 on: Dec 03, 2010, 02:06PM »

With apologies for the way this is going to sound...

I've wanted to be a composer since perhaps age 9, but did not study composition formally except for a brief stint in college, whereupon I realized that I hadn't a prayer of doing it for a living; even were the music 100 times better than it was, it needed to be flooding from my fingers. Once I discovered Finale, I again attempted to write, and a few of my pieces have been performed.

However, I received some unmistakable object lessons in 2005 about the music and just how good it wasn't. I took weekly lessons over a number of months a year or so ago, but decided to end them even before I left the area. The reason is this: I feel that I lack whatever the thing is called that allows one to write music that makes sense and, for lack of a better expression, is musical. Time and again, my teacher suggested something that made the piece better, but I simply had not thought of. Despite all the music I've heard and performed and studied for decades, such evidences of real musical thought seem to have passed through my brain without leaving any trace of themselves. When it comes to performance, I have nothing to be ashamed of and am as musical as the next guy. But when it comes to composition, my musicality and imagination simply aren't there.

So my question is: can a person learn to be musical/imaginative? Or is it something one either has or doesn't have?
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« Reply #45 on: Dec 03, 2010, 02:52PM »

So my question is: can a person learn to be musical/imaginative? Or is it something one either has or doesn't have?

Well . . . yes, but IMHO the reason has much more to do with the work a person is willing to do than with natural "talent".

On the first question, no, because everyone is already.  What we can learn are lots of tricks and tools of the trade that make it easier to show out musicality and imagination.  Just as we all have to spend many years of practicing and performing before we're decent trombonists, the same applies to composition.
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« Reply #46 on: Dec 03, 2010, 03:52PM »

Well . . . yes, but IMHO the reason has much more to do with the work a person is willing to do than with natural "talent".

On the first question, no, because everyone is already.  What we can learn are lots of tricks and tools of the trade that make it easier to show out musicality and imagination.  Just as we all have to spend many years of practicing and performing before we're decent trombonists, the same applies to composition.

W.r.t. talent, I learned that the hard way.

Not sure I'd agree that everyone is already musical. My father loved music but couldn't carry a tune in a bucket,  :D
so I figure whatever musicality I got came via my mother (who couldn't tell Beethoven from bebop, never cared who the composer was or what genre the piece belonged to, but had sung in women's glee club in college.)

Perhaps I should rephrase my question, or even state it by way of an example: My last piece is a tone poem for brass quintet and the final 4-5 minutes of it are a fugue--one of only a couple that I've ever attempted. I will accept criticism that the piece is too long (approx. 13 minutes) and that's asking too much of brass players; I took up the trombone three years ago and it's the only brass instrument whose technique I know even slightly. Harder to accept was the remark of my composition teacher, something like "You shouldn't write a fugue just to write a fugue." Well, the fugue was an interesting exercise (and is not strictly polyphonic as Bach would have written), but my overriding reason for writing it was that it seemed to go there. Weak, but the only explanation I can come up with. The fact that the teacher, one of the few people actually willing to spend time with my music, felt the fugue was unrelated to the rest of the piece, or even just showing off, made me seriously question my "talent" and/or musicality. What's ironic is that I usually couldn't make head or tail out of the teacher's pieces.  Don't know
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Exzaclee

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« Reply #47 on: Dec 03, 2010, 07:54PM »

are you writing with the intent of adhering to some formal considerations?  how it looks on paper?

or are you putting to paper what you hear in your head?
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« Reply #48 on: Dec 04, 2010, 02:38AM »

The fact that the teacher, one of the few people actually willing to spend time with my music, felt the fugue was unrelated to the rest of the piece, or even just showing off, made me seriously question my "talent" and/or musicality. What's ironic is that I usually couldn't make head or tail out of the teacher's pieces.  Don't know

Sometimes, two people have such a different set of goals for what they want to write that lessons simply don't work.

BTW, there is nothing wrong with *either* approach that Exzaclee asks about.  :)

IMHO, it can be very useful to take lessons from as many different people as possible.
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Exzaclee

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« Reply #49 on: Dec 04, 2010, 07:18AM »

Usually, not always, but usually, when i have a student who's compositions are making little musical sense, it's because they are focused more on how the score should "look" (formal considerations) than how it sounds (what's in their head.)  My personal approach is to get them to rely on their head, and above all, if they don't hear it, don't wrote it.  Similar to the approach my jazz profs took with me about only playing what you hear - the rest is BS. 

I'm not saying it can't be fun to experiment with forms, rows, etc... it's just that it never works out until one has developed a good sense of what a melody is.  music is as natural as breathing if you let it be.
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« Reply #50 on: Dec 04, 2010, 01:07PM »

"Are you writing with the intent of adhering to some formal considerations?  how it looks on paper?
or are you putting to paper what you hear in your head?"

Definitely the latter. Many times, I've wished for some way to attach electrodes to my forehead and think the music onto paper, rather than try to type it into Finale and have it evaporate in mid-phrase.

I never considered myself as having a problem melodically, although mine tend to be slow-moving rather than sprightly and I'm plagued by the urge to keep constant motion; it's difficult for me to write rests, as I desire a continuous flow. Everything seems to be quarters and eighths, too, as sixteenths somehow rarely seem appropriate. Perhaps that's the influence of my many years as a choral singer.

As for multiple teachers, that's usually not an option. Up here in ROME, NY, I wonder if there are any composers at all.  Yeah, RIGHT.

No, it's eluding me how others manage to write exciting, engaging music that people want to perform. With me, audiences mostly seem to like my stuff, but conductors and performers roll their eyes and ask, "Have you any IDEA how long this would take to rehearse?" Then they program something that sounds like cats in heat, only not as good. Let's just say the feedback from most of the composition teachers I've tried has not been encouraging, which is why I asked in the first place if one either "has it" or doesn't. To be sure, not everybody is a musical genius, but every time I try to think outside the Bachs, I wonder whether the effort is showing.
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« Reply #51 on: Dec 04, 2010, 02:06PM »

Aside from finding composition teachers, your next best option is to put up charts and recordings (if you can get them) online and ask for frank feedback.

It eludes a lot of people how some manage to write exciting, engaging music that people want to perform.  Me included, and I'm trying to figure out how to solve that problem.   :/ I can write pretty good melodies and interesting harmonies; my problem is large-scale structure: how to have a piece of music have an understandable emotional message with good transitions between sections and effective climaxes.

You just gotta hammer away at your weaknesses and find ways of solving them.

BTW, some people have success by recording themselves playing or singing before writing down their melodies.  Others can write melodies without that step but have a hard time coming up with background structure, so they sketch out the entire form of the piece with melodies and generalized comments before fleshing pieces out.  Try lots of different approaches.

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« Reply #52 on: Dec 04, 2010, 03:55PM »

>>them) online and ask for frank feedback.

Here, you mean? Dunno if I want to do that. The embarrassment factor is quite high.

>>interesting harmonies; my problem is large-scale structure: how to have a piece of music have an understandable >>emotional message with good transitions between sections and effective climaxes.

That's the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, isn't it? Someone years ago told me, "Your pieces always fall apart in the middle," which unfortunately was not followed up with any kind of specific example and remains difficult for me to accept. I've heard any number of pieces that seem to have the same problem, e.g. the Bartok viola concerto. I heard it the other day for the first time in decades, and while it was an old friend, the extremely fragmented nature of the piece struck me as never before. I realize that it was assembled from sketches Bartok had made before his death, but it seemed to lurch from one idea to another in short order and I could not perceive much rhyme or reason for it. Yet there must be some underlying structure to the piece, even if I can't perceive one. Compare and contrast with my brass piece, of which the teacher said, "At the end of the piece, I didn't know how I'd gotten there." He's a successful composer, so if anyone could have detected the structure of my piece, he could have...especially as it's a tone poem and I gave him the program beforehand. Or another piece, hacked nearly to death by the pianist at a composer's group concert. Someone told me afterwards "That was GORGEOUS!" A friend from back home, quoting one of his innumerable relatives, was less kind: "It sounds like scribbles." One man's meat is another man's poison, but I'd have thought the laws of physics would not permit something to be both GORGEOUS and scribbles. Such extremes of perception leave me scratching my bald head.
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« Reply #53 on: Feb 08, 2011, 06:34AM »

Heh.  Criticism.  Here's a book you should read:

"Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time" by Nicolas Slonimsky.

Don't put too much stock in what teachers say.  Listen to what they say, then take it or leave it.  Their word isn't the gospel truth.  Listen to your gut.

If you're serious about it, just do it.  Trial and error.  It's going to be tough when things don't go well, but when they go right, it'll be great.  Get over the embarrassment factor; I know guys who have been doing it professionally for years, and it's still nerve-wracking hearing something read for the first time, it is for me too.  It's a learning process, and it may take your whole life.

Don't over-think it, just get out there and do it.
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« Reply #54 on: Feb 08, 2011, 08:46AM »

It's easy to say "that stinks".  It's easy to say "I don't like it".

When those comments come with some backup arguments it forms a way to deal with it.

There is the old joke: "What do you do with a drummer who can't keep the beat?  Take away one stick and make him a conductor.  Still can't keep a beat?  Take away the other stick and make him a critic."

Anybody who asks to have something critiqued deserves more than just "great" or "awful".  They deserve an analysis of why you think it's great or awful.

The problem with trying to learn arranging or composing on your own is frequently that lack of constructive feedback.

And don't assume that the feedback is automatically correct.  Wagner parodied some of the critics of his day in the person of Sixtus Beckmesser in his opera "Die Meistersinger".  Beckmesser is so busy applying rules he can't hear the genius.
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« Reply #55 on: Feb 12, 2011, 05:34PM »

Hmm...Since you're being so kind, I've decided to post a piece, but it's one I don't esteem and feel cannot be fixed. It was intended to be part of a suite for brass quintet.
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« Reply #56 on: Feb 12, 2011, 09:50PM »

 I hear the Muse.  I listen to the Muse.  I trust the Muse. 'Nuff said.

Your mileage may vary...

Ken F.
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« Reply #57 on: Feb 13, 2011, 06:17PM »

I hear the Muse.  I listen to the Muse.  I trust the Muse. 'Nuff said.

Your mileage may vary...

Ken F.

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« Reply #58 on: Mar 20, 2011, 06:18PM »

Hi  Idea!
I read through the postings of this long discussion and found that something is missing about composing.  I know it is hard to believe as long as this posting is.  I did not see anything about transcribing music.  I started as a copiest for my brother when he was writing.  There were no computers then so it was all by hand.  He would give me his scores and I would transcribe the parts out.  This showed me a lot about theory, form, and note distribution.  I then started to transcribe recorded music.  This then trained my ear and it taught me the ways of the composer.  I think this is more of concept that jazz musicians used most but it will work for anyone.  If you want to write like Bach then transcribe Bach's music.  If you want to write like Stravinsky then transcribe it out.  I think just analyzing their music is not enough although that is important.  Coming up with the chord progression is the easy part.  Making it sound great by using the right note distribution is the hard part.  Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst both wrote for bands and orchestras but they sound different because of how they distributed the notes of the chords to each instrument.  Chords are chords but who plays the notes creates the unique timbre of each composer.  I would think that whether you have a teacher or not transcribing music from recordings is a must to learn to be a good composer.

Keep on Playing!
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« Reply #59 on: Mar 22, 2011, 01:55AM »

Has transcribing not been mentioned?

Perhaps not.

I do know that it has been mentioned in other threads. And, yes, I completely agree that transcribing is much more valuable than the normal score analysis.

I remember a Quincy Jones interview in which he described his first lesson with the famous composition instructor Nadia Boulanger. His first project was to transcribe and transpose the first page of the score of "Daphnis and Chloe" into all 12 keys.
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