One of my students is in the final stages of working on his Master’s thesis. He’s completed the musical part, an ambitious oratorio on the words of Habbakuk, and he’s now writing the analytical paper. When he handed me the fifteen-page first draft last week, I took it home, got out my red pen and started making corrections. It was a good paper, but by the time I finished, there was red ink all over – I had a lot of comments on grammar, style, organization, etc. that added up.

Amazing how different it is to critique an essay from critiquing a musical composition – I would never touch a student piece with red ink, and I seldom even write with pencil on a student’s manuscript unless I have a comment that I am afraid might be forgotten after the lesson. There are some obvious hard-and-fast rules (eg dynamics go above a vocal part) but some of the most important things we discuss are difficult to quantify and almost impossible to correct right from wrong.

Add to that the vulnerability of a young person sharing half-formed creative ideas — a teacher has to be very cautious about intruding on sensitive territory. There have even been times when I’ve known that a student was not getting the results s/he was after, but I held myself back from the natural inclination to try to help, figuring the lesson would be better learned through a performance that fell short of the student’s expectations.

In fact, some of my best and most important teaching comes after a performance, when we can talk about what worked and what didn’t.

How much easier it is to offer help on an essay! All of my red-pen suggestions found their way into the second draft, the student was appreciative of my feedback, and much farther along in communicating his intentions.

Teaching composition is very challenging – far more challenging than many teachers realize. It’s easy to compare it with other kinds of teaching and say it can’t be done, but great composition teaching is anything but easy. It’s about helping students recognize and realize the potentials, implications and opportunities inherent in their ideas. The level of communication required lies well beyond the margins of any textbook.

And red penners need not apply.

Leave a Reply