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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Ballance

The Dangers of Teaching Composition

It’s well-known that marking original composition is a fraught endeavour. As soon as you’re past simple factual matters — a clarinettist can’t play chords (well, sort of); a cellist can’t play a low Bb (again, usually) — who deserves to say whether one composition is ‘better’ than another? This is particularly true given the plethora of styles available in contemporary composition. On what grounds do we measure value? What is ‘technique’? There are some traditional frames: does the structure make sense? Are the instruments effectively deployed to achieve the intended textures? Is the material used well? (Read: is there traditional, identifiable motivic development?)

The subjectivity of these criteria is obvious. In a University context, marking according to these is difficult enough, but at school the question is even more confusing. Students are unlikely to have developed their own idiom or enough ‘technique’ to write convincingly on their own terms, and even if they did, the underpaid markers hardly have the time (or perhaps even training) to evaluate genuine original, progressive composition.

As such, for many students writing compositions for GCSE or A-Level can be a frustrating, opaque process where they either produce music they have little pride in, or find their mark seemingly uncorrelated with the time and effort they’d put in. This was indeed the case for me: having written for my AS what I thought was a convincing work for an ensemble of oboes (an instrument I played, so with quite idiomatic writing) I received a C. I was so concerned by the prospects of writing in a modernist idiom that for A-Level I opted to forgo original composition altogether, instead taking two ‘techniques’ papers, where I could at least understand what I was being marked on. Quite a sorry state for someone dreaming of becoming a professional composer.

The solution many teachers come up with — presumably encouraged by the marks these works receive — is to encourage their students to write what amounts to pastiche, though passed off as original composition. It’s easy to see why an examiner would give a high mark to a convincing minimalist piece that makes use of the appropriate techniques and is scored for a plausible ensemble. Sure, perhaps it’s rip-off Steve Reich, but it makes sense as a piece of music and does the things that the style requires. If there were a mark for ‘originality’ then it might suffer, but largely it seems that there isn’t, or if there is it’s interpreted rather loosely, on grounds of non-plagiarism rather than stylistic innovation.

You might think my view is therefore that we should be awarding marks for exactly such originality, that a pastiche should be capped, say only able to achieve an A, reserving the A* for those writing genuinely new music. As it happens, I don’t.

As a pedagogical tool, writing pastiche is fantastically helpful. It allows budding composers to experiment in certain domains, whilst leaving other elements of the music pre-conceived. This way, they aren’t faced with the terrifying blank page, seemingly requiring total novelty in all areas of the music. Rather, within a given style, with plenty of models to study and follow, they are able to explore their innate creativity, without having to invent everything immediately. Indeed, it’s a time-honoured technique: jazz musicians are notorious for obsessively listening to and repeating famous solos, so as to develop their own improvisation; classical composers are similarly known for intense study of their forbears.

My proposition is therefore to embrace what we do already and turn the free composition element of the music A Level (and perhaps GCSE) into pastiche. Students would be able to choose whatever style they want, and would declare it in their submission (e.g. Classical period String Quartet movement; Rock song in the style of the early Beatles). This could be accompanied by a short essay detailing some of the influential works they consulted, and explanation of what they drew on from this music. The markers would have a much easier time, with a clear framework to rely on; likewise, the students would (hopefully!) be able to understand better the marks they receive. Whilst this may seem a strategy motivated by marking—rather putting the cart before the horse—it is as much to further the students’ development.

Original composition is often a terrifying experience for budding composers. The blank page confronts them with a plethora of possibilities, but without any framework for gradually filling it in they often find their results to be an oddly patterned quilt of different styles and techniques, drawing on the music they love but without any overall coherence, producing an unsatisfying conclusion. Writing pastiche, by contrast, would establish guide rails for the student. Certain aspects are taken care of: there are probably some clearly defined structures for them to shape their music; the harmonic possibilities will be well organised and ‘learnable’; instrumentation is largely pre-defined through a selection of standard & successful groupings. The conventional push-back to pastiche is that it doesn’t allow students to express themselves; rather than exploring their originality they just copy others. This is misguided. Pastiche allows and demands an enormous amount of creativity, whilst allowing students to choose the style in which they write will encourage them to engage with music they know well and genuinely enjoy. If nothing else, that it is a successful and beneficial strategy is already suggested by the number of teachers who encourage their students to do this already. My suggestion is hardly radical, more an acknowledgement of what we already know and do.

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