Last spring, the Winston-Salem Symphony contacted me to ask if any of my students had a five-minute piece that could be performed on the symphony’s educational programs. They needed something upbeat for an audience of fifth graders.

I suggested they sponsor a competition. They liked the idea. It took us until November to work out all the details, then our student composers got to work. They had two months to write the piece, produce the score and print out the parts. The deadline was last week.

Participation in this competition was strictly voluntary. The students who decided to write pieces had a pretty hairy January, finalizing details, proofreading parts, etc. For some of them it was their first time writing for orchestra, so the process was a bit overwhelming.

I’m very impressed with the results, which I’ve passed onto the Symphony this week. We had a surprising variety of styles, all fulfilling the original “five minutes, upbeat” prescription.

One of these pieces will be chosen for a premiere next month. In addition, all of the submissions will be recorded by our student orchestra in a couple of weeks.

Throughout the process, I’ve made a point of focusing my students on the educational purpose of this project. That means 1. the only “losers” in this competition will be the students who don’t learn something from it, and 2. this is a project that emphasizes composition as a discipline, as opposed to projects that emphasize composition as an imaginative flight of fancy.

With the second point, I’ve even followed up the project by counseling students to work on something completely impractical, now that they’ve finished this exercise in practicality.

As with all of my teaching, the emphasis is on tools, not rules. In other words, I’m not about telling them what they should do. Instead, I’m trying to make sure they have the tools to do whatever they wish. Sometimes that means they have to do things that they don’t really want to do at that moment. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that what one wants to do when one is twenty won’t be the same as what one wants to do when one is forty, sixty, eighty or a hundred. Now is the time to learn how, because learning gets tougher with age.

But, truthfully, learning never really stops — I learned something important from this process as well. We have a requirement for our undergrads: as juniors they have to write a piece for orchestra. My students have never had good results with this requirement, by which I mean they’ve almost always been disappointed by the pieces they’ve written. I’ve come to realize that, by requiring one orchestra piece, we were implicitly putting too much emphasis on that piece – in other words, students had a tendency to try to put everything they had learned to that point into the one piece. The results were usually more chaotic than inspired.

This competition, on the other hand, required them to think inside of a very compact box, and they were able to focus on doing a single task as well as they could, instead of trying to do everything they could think of to get an earthshaking result.

Maybe from now on we should require them to write two orchestra pieces – one that is anything they want it to be, and one that has very specific parameters. How much might they learn from that exercise?

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