I’d guess I’ve had over a thousand students in my classrooms and studios over the 21 years I’ve been teaching. There are stereotypes for each instrument, with which anyone who has taught musicians is more than familiar.

But there is a subtle difference between performers and composers (meaning composers who don’t perform) that has become more and more apparent to me.

Performers have a healthy respect for and a clear understanding of the value of practice. If I tell a class that we are going to practice cadences until we are good at them, they will understand what I am saying and get to work with a clear objective and expectation of progress in mind.

If, however, I tell a composer that s/he needs to practice writing endings, the response is often incredulity. Occasionally the student will be mildly hostile to the idea, but more often s/he will just find the notion that one could improve by doing something over and over completely novel.

Many composition students are burdened with the mindset that great composers are born great. They believe that every composition they write has to measure up to the greatest masterpieces in history. It can be hard for them to accept the idea of writing a piece simply in order to become better at composing. The masterpiece syndrome will lead them to complete two to three pieces a year, which, to someone who respects the value of practice means they are making almost no progress.

I have astounded students by telling them I want them to write ten brief works in the coming week, so we can compare the endings and see if there is something to be learned. Students who are burdened with the need to write masterpieces will find it challenging to finish ten pieces in their entire time of study.

Everything that students learn, everything they hear about this art form tells them that they have to produce great music effortlessly, or else they are worthless.

My favorite composer for battling this effortless masterpiece syndrome is Mozart, simply because he is often held up as the most natural composer, the composer who just wrote what God told him to write without the slightest effort.

In fact, Mozart completed almost 300 pieces before he started writing anything that would put him in the history books. If that doesn’t show the benefit of practice, I don’t know what does.

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