I taught, or presided over, an interesting class on my compositions at Seisen International School yesterday. The class was comprised of students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program – in this case, a roomful of 11th graders who have chosen to focus their studies on music. Prior to the class, I was given a list of topics they had covered in music theory, which appeared to be roughly a year-and-a-half’s worth of college curriculum.

The class got off to a rough start, since the first disk I had brought to play turned out to be blank – I found out later that the version of iTunes I had been using was flawed – so I had to improvise my way through a revised class plan.

No problem – I’ve taught thousands of classes by now, so there are a number of topics I can expound on at a moment’s notice.

I found a disk that worked and slipped it into the stereo. Then I asked the question I often use to get started with an unfamiliar group of people: “How would you describe this piece to someone who had never heard it?” This question immediately puts me in touch with the students’ vocabulary and the ways in which they relate to music – do they describe it with technical terms, or emotionally, or in terms of surface features? From there I can refine their responses, help them find the vocabulary to articulate their ideas.

The class was supposed to be about me and my music, but I feel a responsibility with such young listeners to address larger topics, so I turned to the topic of form. The piece I had played was Devotion, so I began discussing Variation form. I showed them how various motifs and gestures in the music were related to one another. We later moved on to binary and ternary forms, for which I was able to play samples from my work.

At that point, I learned something interesting: the students enrolled in this International Baccalaureate are required, by the time they graduate, to compose twenty minutes of music. In a concluding Q&A; session, they asked me great questions about composing – how do I write endings, how do I come up with titles, etc. The questions were fun, illuminating and spirited.

I’m actually indebted to the fact that my wife was there to give a flute demonstration immediately following my presentation: she was better at drawing questions out of the students than I was. She got them to talk about the problems they face in their composing, and grill me for possible solutions.

In any case, the whole experience enhanced my curiosity about the International Baccalaureate program. There are interesting advantages and disadvantages to having teenagers declare their professional focus at such an early age. It certainly seems like a great head start to the more ambitious ones.

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