It is the end of the semester around here. I have one more day of teaching and then finals are next week. Pedagogy has been on my mind, which it usually is (whether my students believe that or not) and not just because my teaching evaluations have been turned in. When I get to the end of the semester, I look back on what I’ve covered and discussed, what we did as a group, and think about how much better I could have done it. I was searching for some kind of quote saying that “the failings of the teacher create the strengths of the student” but clearly I ain’t gonna find one.

This semester I taught “Contemporary Compositional Techniques” to 8 intrepid students. Most of them were composition majors, a few were performers who were interested in composition or were otherwise roped into the class because I told them it “would be fun.” The hour before my class, one of my colleagues taught a 20th century analytical techniques course. Some students were in both classes and I’m sure I muddied up the waters nicely. We used the same book (the Roig-Francoli anthology, not the text, of his contemporary music book) and I did a lot of supplementing as necessary. Quite a lot of supplementing, actually.

Anyhow, how does one teach a subject like this? You all remember my counterpoint tropes from the past but the issue of “contemporary techniques” is much squishier than species counterpoint (go figure). I stuck with the book for a while, covering post-tonal extended tonality and atonality and then moving into a grab-bag approach of what composers have done and, more importantly, were doing. I glossed over heavy set theory stuff because a) not a theory course and b) who is really doing that anymore anyway? We talked about atonal sets, serialism, etc., but we talked about the Music. Not the Row. Why were composers doing this? What difference did it make? How did different people use serial techniques to make music that sounded radically different from other serial pieces?

Anyhow, looking back, I failed in some respects. All I can think of now are the things we DIDN’T do in class that will seem like unforgivable sins:

We barely mentioned George Crumb.

Why? Well, what techniques can you extrapolate from Crumb? That guy writes his own music so freakin’ well that anything we do is seen as derivative and cliche. Piano harmonics? They sound great! And it sounds like you are ripping off Crumb when you do it. We talked about how composers generate color, sure, but I didn’t spend time on Crumb. Didn’t talk about Schnittke, either. Damn.

We didn’t even mention the Berio Sinfonia.

Or, more specifically, the 3rd movement of the Sinfonia. I love the piece and don’t deny its power. But again, what techniques can you extrapolate? Collage? Sure. We did talk about textural counterpoint (Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter) but didn’t talk about that piece. I spent a whole class on Quartet for the End of Time, though. That has to make amends for something.

I didn’t have them prep enough before classes.

I’ve been teaching so much this semester that a lot of my prep work has been “reactive.” Prep has been, at times, out of the question. I should have made more assignments of my students listening to works and come ready for discussion. They generated a half-dozen pieces using these various techniques. I should have had them write more, of course.

“Always with you what cannot be done.” – Yoda

We did talk about a lot of music, a fair amount of philosophy, and go down some wonderful rabbit holes of thought. Hindsight is 20/20, if I ever teach the class again, I’ll do it differently. I always do that. Then I’ll blog about those failures, too!

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  1. Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Berio spent his life refining a small arsenal of highly idiosyncratic and deceptively simple techniques. The 2nd movement of Sinfonia strikes me as especially ‘teachable’ in the context you describe (with the caveat that I don’t know anything about teaching.)

    If you don’t already know it:

    And apologies if you already do!

  2. Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink


    I love your blog entries about pedagogy, but think you’re harder on yourself than you need to be.

    I prefer to cover fewer pieces well and accept that we can’t cover everything, or sometimes, even everything on the reading list. Courses take digressions based on what the students need to learn.

    And, the pieces you didn’t get to are out there. Send your students an “extra assignment” for their summer “break:” a little YouTube listening list. They’ll thank you for it.


  3. Jay C. Batzner
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Christian. I know that I am too hard on myself and freely admit that such a public airing of my perceived weaknesses. I’m a fairly self-deprecating person, filled with the sort of self-loathing that growing up in the Midwest tends to impart. I have days where I feel really solid about my abilities and such but most of the time I’m constantly questioning what I could have/should have done.

    I’ve also taught so many courses for the first time over the past 3 years that I don’t feel like I’ve developed a groove. On the one hand, it keeps me fresh. On the other, it keeps me underprepared. I know what I’ll do differently next time, if there is a next time. In the fall, though, I’m teaching counterpoint again!

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