Why Take Lessons?

Composition is just like every other music studio. The younger and less experienced student comes to the Wise and Learned Master. The Master listens to the pupil and then imparts some kind of Wisdom from our Grand Amounts of Experience and the pupils are then to scamper off and contemplate how they can improve themselves based on the Parables and Mysteries we have espoused.

Supposedly, that is how it works. I find that composition students, more so than any other studio, actively question and outright reject things that the faculty say. I don’t really have much of a problem with that. A lot of studying composition is about learning what makes you sound like You. In other studios, your interpretive license is, I imagine, much more limited. There are artistic freedoms to be taken in just about any piece of music but, at some point, the flexibility is gone. There are tempi that are too slow, staccatos which are too long, dynamic contrasts which are inappropriate, etc.

The independence of the composition student is a wonderful and irritating thing. As a teacher, I try not to paint a Single Solution to what I perceive as a compositional problem. This probably frustrates the hell out of some of my students but at some level they need to be able to solve their own problems their own way.

On the other hand, there are times that I have valid opinions and there are students who reject ANY notion that their music could/should/ought to be different than what they brought in. These students, which are rare, really frustrate me. Not because I think I’m right and they are wrong (but sometimes I am right) but because they leave me asking the following question:

“If you aren’t interested in questioning and changing your music, why are you taking lessons?”

THAT is what bugs me. If you don’t want your ideas challenged, if you don’t want input on changes you could make, don’t bring it in to a lesson. Just go write your music. There is no harm, no foul, no hard feelings. Lots of people are happily writing the music they want to hear and aren’t taking lessons. They are not better or worse composers than those who take lessons, they aren’t less of a composer because they didn’t participate in formal study. They want their music the way they want their music and they write it as such.

I think we’ve somehow culturally damaged ourselves by thinking that Composers Must Be Professionals. We make music students think that they have to participate in some secretive and exclusionary club in order to write music. That notion is bullshit and should be called such. You want to write music? Go write it! Do you like what you wrote? Great! It doesn’t need approval from anyone other than yourself. Write it. Find players. Publish your stuff and sell it. It really is that simple.

Meeting with others is a great way to learn. You can get a lot, sometimes more, from your peers than your faculty. I’m happy to cite my friends as influences and teachers, almost moreso than the faculty with which I’ve studied.

Lessons allow for a dialog, a discussion, about what your music is and what it could be. If only one person in that dialog is interested in other possibilities, it doesn’t benefit anyone. Both must be open minded and curious.

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  1. Joseph Eidson
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    “If you aren’t interested in questioning and changing your music, why are you taking lessons?” — I have this exact same thought during some weeks of lessons. Most of my comments are prefaced with “Here’s a suggestion” or usually contain multiple solutions to a passage. However, if something is going to sound straight up bad (and not the good kind of bad) why be stubborn? Very challenging to make it a teaching moment rather than simply saying “I told you to do this, so do it.”

  2. Posted March 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Jay!

  3. Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    One of my most frustrating experiences in taking jazz piano lessons was with a teacher that couldn’t offer any sort of nudge towards new sounds. You’re absolutely right: as a composer, arranger, reharmonizer, whatever, the aspiring writer needs to be able to figure out some stuff on his own.
    But he just seemed so disappointed that I hadn’t come up with all these Lydian and altered 7th sounds that I hadn’t even come across before.

    Surely there’s a blend between “You gotta fix this one yourself” and “hey have you listened to anything like this before? This may give you some ideas to draw from.”

  4. Jay C. Batzner
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely, Josh. My comp lessons are usually a blend of getting the student to talk about their musical intent at any given time and talking about musical examples to check out. You could probably make a drinking game out of the number of times I reach for my iTunes library, the Naxos Music Library, and Spotify.
    I share as many resources as I can to connect students with music that is similar (and different) from what they are doing. I can’t make them engage in it, though. Either they will take up the Mantle of Curiosity themselves or they won’t. And it is easy to tell which students do any real listening and which don’t.

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