Composers Forum is a daily web log that allows invited contemporary composers to share their thoughts and ideas on any topic that interests them--from the ethereal, like how new music gets created, music history, theory, performance, other composers, alive or dead, to the mundane, like getting works played and recorded and the joys of teaching. If you're a professional composer and would like to participate, send us an e-mail.

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Friday, January 28, 2005
A few words on teaching and being taught.

One of my teachers, Roger Sessions, once said: "it is the teacher who learns." Now, as a teacher myself, I truly understand this comment and I also have gained a greater respect for the limitations of teaching.

A good teacher, I believe, knows how to separate style from technique and a bad teacher confuses the two. Style, in essence, is who you are as a person, or, as it used to be said, "style is the man." If you are lucky in this world you will meet a few teachers who actually have style, that is, who are great human beings. You can learn the craft of music from many competent teachers, but becoming an artist requires, I believe, that you learn style by example from individuals with real character and integrity.

My principal teacher for eight years was Vincent Persichetti. He stands out in my mind now for many reasons, but chiefly because he was passionately involved with music itself and not with ideas about music. When I first started teaching I asked Persichetti how he kept his teaching fresh. He said that from year to year he would change the music he was talking about. It is widely known among his students that Persichetti happened to have photographic recall of virtually every piece of music in the Western canon. That you were in the presence of genius was understood.

A danger of teaching for a composer is that it can have a bad effect on your life as an artist. Being in an academic setting often makes students and teachers alike very self-conscious. Self-consiousness is death to creativity. My own way of dealing with this problem is to make my teaching more like my composing, that is, more improvisational.

One more idea that interests me is the relationship between teacher/composers and the respective culture that they pass along, again by example, to their students. This is especially interesting in the United States where the art of music seems marginalized by mass media and the world of buying and selling that those major media represent. The example of a strong teacher can be a bullwark against the distractions of the mercantile zeitgeist.


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