Teaching Composition

September 21, 2012

By Ezra Weiss

When I was a student at the Oberlin Conservatory, I had the privilege of studying composition with the now late Dr. Wendell Logan.  Even though Dr. Logan was a great composer, he did not try to make me (or any of his students) into a clone of himself.  Rather, he helped me find my own voice as a composer.  To me, that means having a personal and recognizable compositional sound, and having the skills necessary to craft the desired composition.  This guidance from Dr. Logan was one of the greatest gifts I received from any teacher, providing the foundation for my musical career.  As I teach composition students today, I strive to help them find their own voices, much as Dr. Logan helped me find mine.

My students generally spend their first year writing lead sheets before moving on to writing for jazz combo, then big band, and then studio orchestra and traditional chamber ensembles. This initial emphasis on lead sheets allows us to focus on melody, harmonic motion, and form. These elements provide the foundation of a composition, so they must be strong before we build an arrangement on top of them. Otherwise, we are likely to end up hiding behind big-sounding arrangements that don’t “say” anything.

The lead sheets also allow us to write many different types of tunes very quickly. I suggest students attempt to write a tune every day. While actually doing this for an entire year is nearly impossible, the goal is still worthwhile. It helps us develop the habit of always thinking about writing music. It also helps us learn to write without creative inhibitions, as composing becomes not some special event requiring perfection, but rather a simple daily practice like brushing our teeth. Further, it helps us get used to throwing away the 90 percent of our music that is not good (which in turn helps us feel grateful for the 10 percent that is).

Most importantly, writing a lead sheet every day allows us to experiment with writing many different types of tunes. Students often find it helpful to keep a list of ways to write tunes. While this list initially may seem creatively limiting, our most creative ideas are often born out of these limitations. Here is a sample list:

Some Ways to Write Tunes:

  1. Sing a melody
  2. Feel a groove
  3. Come up with the rhythm first, then hear the pitches
  4. Based on a musical concept: polytonality, set theory, mixed meter, etc.
  5. Inspired by a mood
  6. Inspired by a place
  7. Inspired by an emotion
  8. Programmatic music
  9. Use words: text-painting, lyrics
  10. Traditional forms: AABA, ABAC, Blues
  11. Come up with the chord changes first
  12. Bass Line
  13. Use a phrase from the “stream of consciousness” exercise (see below)
  14. Use elements of music from a different culture
  15. Write for a specific performance space (concert hall, night club, football game, Broadway show, circus, recording studio, etc.)
  16. Write with someone else’s band in mind
  17. Imitate someone else’s style
  18. Ask yourself, “What do I want to hear?”
  19. Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?”
  20. Ask yourself, “What do I want to play?”

As students seek inspiration for new tunes, they may also find it useful to keep a notebook filled with other lists:

  1. Musical ideas: melodic phrases, rhythms, chord progressions, etc.
  2. List of words to look at while composing: melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, space, range, color, timbre, structure, form, etc.
  3. Listening log: include title, composer, performers, year, personal observations about the piece.
  4. List of “Moving Musical Moments”: specific points in a piece of music that the student finds personally moving. These are powerful moments that strike a nerve, give chills, or cause a sudden smile. For me, an example would be “The Beatles – ‘Golden Slumbers’ (0:32) – drums enter going into the chorus.”
  5. List of titles for pieces to write someday

In addition to writing tunes, other daily activities can help students find their compositional voice. Taking a few minutes each day for free improvisation can help us to find new sounds for our creations. Similarly, we can also practice a “stream of consciousness” composition exercise, where we write spontaneous musical phrase after phrase for about 10 minutes, filling several pages of staff paper. This exercise both leads us to new musical ideas and helps us to hear which direction the music wants to go.

Studying the works of other composers also plays an important role in a student’s development. Listening to music will likely occupy several hours each day, probably the equivalent of time spent practicing an instrument. That said, this is not about the quantity of pieces heard. Rather, we are listening to find pieces that move us, and then to get to know those pieces as intimately as possible. (For instance, I listened to Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue every day for a year.) We will probably end up listening to a single piece multiple times, taking notes on the compositional elements: structure and form, melodic and rhythmic development, harmonic motion, counterpoint, and orchestration.

Students may also choose to study musical scores and fake books (available at most music libraries). When examining music, students ideally will first make discoveries for themselves before seeking analysis by others. This initial individual thoughtfulness will help foster the student’s unique compositional voice. Of course, reading books about music is also essential to obtaining necessary compositional skills. For example, Rayburn Wright’s Inside the Score and Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration make excellent reading for any composer.

As we help students to find their compositional voice, certain practical tips will prove invaluable:

  1. Go for walks. Get out of the practice room and walk around somewhere that inspires the music in your head. Once you hear it in your head, then you can go back to the practice room, figure out what it is, and write it down. As Wendell Logan often said, “Music is not about music.”
  2. Don’t push the music around. Rather than trying to force the music to fit our preconceptions, we will find much more success in trying to hear what direction the music wants to go.
  3. Take risks. You will either discover a new musical possibility, or you will learn of something to avoid in the future. Either way, trial and error is a valid approach to composition and learning.
  4. Set specific goals with deadlines. Composition requires time, and time management skills will help give you that.
  5. Have lots of staff paper handy. As you throw away 90 percent of your writing, you do not want to be worrying about running out of paper. Think bulk quantities.

Finally, we as teachers can directly help students find their own compositional voice by asking what they think about their music. Ideally, we want our questions to help students steer themselves towards stronger writing. This means that we must pinpoint the specific aspects of a composition that need more attention, and focus our questions on those aspects. As we listen to their responses, we generally want to follow up with objective questions, such as:

  • “What effect does this have?”
  • “Is that the effect you were hoping to create?”
  • “How could we create more tension/surprise/continuity/etc.?”

We want to avoid telling the student what we personally like or dislike about their piece, as the focus for the student should not be in gaining our approval. Instead, we can talk about a student’s piece in terms of “effectiveness.” (Similarly, we want to avoid the temptation to write the student’s pieces for them, although the occasional compositional example can prove useful.) By seeking students’ thoughts, we directly help them find their compositional voice.

As I look back to my time as a music student, I am filled with gratitude for the help Dr. Logan gave me in finding my voice as a composer. My voice has evolved and changed in the years since that time, but the foundation for my approach to composition was laid then. In fact, I often still hear Dr. Logan’s voice in my head, asking me questions while I compose, and reminding me that “music is not about music.” Thinking of him, I feel honored and inspired to continue this tradition, and to help my own students in the search for their voices.

Composer/pianist Ezra Weiss holds a Bachelors in Jazz Composition from the Oberlin Conservatory and a Masters in Jazz Piano from Queens College. His recordings include The Five A.M. Strut, Persephone, Get Happy, The Shirley Horn Suite, and most recently Our Path To This Moment featuring Greg Gisbert and the Rob Scheps Big Band. He has won the ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award three times, and currently teaches at Portland State University. www.ezraweiss.com

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