Alexander Goehr on teaching composition

I don’t know how you teach composition

– Alexander Goehr

Last week’s Composer of the Week on Radio 3 was Alexander Goehr – someone I was initially not that familiar with. As an introduction to his work, you may like to read The Guardian’s piece about his music, and have a listen to his third String Quartet:

Goehr had a long academic career, most notably over 20 years at Cambridge’s music department, teaching a number of leading composers. But it was his comments on composition that really stood out.

If you’re in the UK, you can listen to the full episode in which he discusses his teaching here (until 13th October). Outside the UK and probably for longer, you can hear just the discussions in this episode of the Composer of the Week podcast.

I was interested in his comments because recently I had set the Camberley training band some exercises, among them some initial compositional exercises of inventing a melody to accompany some chords. Goehr’s initial comments on teaching composition really stood out; when asked how to teach a composer, he simply said, “I don’t know how you teach composition; there’s no systematic way. Some people say it can’t be taught” – this from a Cambridge professor of music! But I think his insight is very useful and accurate, when trying to encourage musical people to compose.

He goes on:

I think that teaching composition is a very short-term procedure; it’s very immediate. Somebody comes, and you either make a communication with them, or not. And I don’t think composition teaching, in my experience, should last longer than about three months; that’s enough. You either get the point immediately, or you’ll never get the point.

While it reads bluntly, here he has an excellent point. I love composing but nobody has ever taught me how to do it; nor do I think it would be possible. Certainly, you need to know certain musical fundamentals; chords, progressions, some elements of structure, history, and so forth. But the actual act of divining a new piece is something that escapes communication through inter-human mechanisms. On that background or fundamental education, his opinion is clear:

The systematic aspects of composition teaching: Richard Hall used to say “Keeping the front of the brain busy while the back of the brain is doing it’s stuff”, it’s not discussable; it’s either more traditional or less traditional or according to the individual teacher.

But how do you develop a composer when they are just starting? Certainly if your work is often performed, then you have a barometer for the success of an individual piece. Paintings are sold or they are not; how do you judge the reception to a piece commissioned by a band and only ever played by them? Goehr indicates that he has no better knowledge of whether a specific composition is good or not than his students, but he tries to make productive comments – and they are either useful, or they are not.

After that it’s a question of drinking coffee together and encouraging people, and being nice – you know. But the actual business – they bring a piece, or you set them a piece, suggest something they might write; and then when they bring it, you don’t know any more than they do what’s good or bad. But you say something, and it’s like throwing a ball in the air: and they either respond to that and they get something from it, or they don’t. And there’s no way of guaranteeing it.

He finishes with a sentiment that you will find expressed by any great educator:

I often felt my pupils were better than I was.