Teaching composition and the affect of technology

Composer Kenneth Froelich
Composer Kenneth Froelich

At the moment I’m really enjoying reading (and commenting on!) another composer’s blog. The composer in question is Kenneth Froelich and his blog is at http://electricsemiquaver.blogspot.com/.

I think the topic of Froelich’s blog, how to compose with notation software like Sibelius and Finale, and what pitfalls to avoid, is a really important one. It’s also one that we’ve been discussing in the school at which I am composer-in-residence, MLC School in Sydney. Together with Dr Paul Stanhope (director of composition) and Damian Barbeler (composer-in-residence) we’ve been considering that often when some students compose with computer software they don’t first attempt to hear what they are creating in their head.

The discussion becomes deeper. What is composition? Post Cage we think of a composition as organised sound. But more specifically and simply, when working with children, we’re thinking about a sound improvised in the imagination of the student and then recorded in some way. The traditional or ‘old’ way to record our musical thoughts is with musical notation, but nowadays students can use computer software to record their thoughts digitally or often are taught to use graphic notation. As ideas are recorded they can be manipulated, improved, developed and structured, and through these procedures become compositions rather than improvisations.

The problems with using computer software in the creative process are many, and Froelich is going through these in greater detail in his blog which I recommend to you. The principal problem we have noticed is the approach of students in which they click any old notes or an approximation of their idea into the computer, and then through a process of auditioning via the computer’s playback, change and improve what they hear (if at all). Usually the initial idea, not imagined aurally by the student, is weak, and because the student has not considered harmonic, melodic, structural or timbral processes as the music has been created and therefore it lacks direction and possibly suitability to the actual instrument(s) written for.

There are many other problems, but this is the main one blighting our students. Our solution to this has been to ask them to handwrite their music, and to sing it or play it on an instrument as best they can before they write it down. With my year 9 classes I have created an inner ear course where students learn to sing, play, improvise and transcribe ideas as a class.

But handwriting is not the only solution. What I love about Froelich’s approach is that he accepts composing in notation software as a legitimate way to work, and of course for generations to come it will almost definitely become the main way that they work. Just as students learn in different ways they also develop musically in different ways. So I think we have to be prepared to teach students to work with and without technology, and make sure that we’re consistent in the concepts that we teach so that the different approaches have common musical goals.

While many of the generation Ys and Zs that we teach are just as comfortable taking class notes into their laptop as with paper and pen, we note that many of them still enjoy the freedom and tactile experience of sketching on paper. We have noticed the same with the creative diary (a big part of the assessable compositional process in the NSW curriculum and the International Baccalaureate): when we moved to using online Blogs for students to record their process some of them greatly missed being able to sketch out structure, or work on development of ideas in the traditional diary. For some teachers this meant that we should not use the new technology. For others, including me, it meant we should allow students to work the way that best suited them. There are so many advantages to the blog as creative process diary (some of which I listed in this article and which I’ll discuss in this blog in the future) it would be silly to give up on it because it doesn’t suit some students. And now, MLC pioneers sharing the composition process of Australian composers with a new blog/timeline website developed for this year’s Australian Music Day.

We also have to be careful not to force students into working one way just because we do. You might think, knowing what a technophile I am, that I would compose directly into notation software, but you’d be wrong. I sketch everything on paper first. Sometimes if the pace feels right I write the whole composition out by hand first then copy it into Sibelius. Other times I can sketch the material then orchestrate it in Sibelius. The latter can be faster but sometimes I don’t make as good decisions – I make the mistakes, as experienced as I am, that Froelich points out in his blog.

What’s the conclusion arising of all of this? There isn’t any one point to take from the discussion, but boy it’s a valuable discussion to have. The clearer we can be about the concepts we’re teaching and the process which results in good music, the better for everyone. I look forward to speaking to some of you in the comments section of Froelich’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Teaching composition and the affect of technology”

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