When I entered grad school, I was asked to choose who I wanted to have for a composition teacher. My options were Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions. I opted not to choose, figuring that I wasn’t worth much if I couldn’t learn something from any one of those guys.

As it worked out, I was able to learn quite a bit from each of them, just by paying close attention to every encounter, every opportunity for dialogue. Thanks to them, I finished my degree with several lifetimes worth of awareness and experience, some of which has taken me years, and even decades, to sort through.

But none of that makes me a good composer.

Good composers learn from good teachers, they learn from bad teachers, and they learn from no teachers at all. Don’t ever let anyone imply that s/he’s a better composer than someone else because of who hisorher teacher was. The important thing is how good a learner the student was, and continues to be.

The best situation is to have good teachers who help you find your own way. One of the challenges I have in my teaching is knowing when to tell a student that something won’t work, and when to let the lesson teach itself. There’s always the temptation to want to save a young composer the time and trouble of barreling down a dead end, but that’s not always the best approach. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a student of composition have come from not being afraid to make brutal mistakes.

At times like those, it’s great to have a sensitive teacher who can help you focus on what you have gained through experience, someone who can reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going, someone who knows that mistakes are a beginning and not an end, and someone who will take sincere joy in celebrating each step in your growth as an artist.

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