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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Teaching composers


The painter David Hockney continues to stress his disappointment that our schools of art (notably excepting the great Ruskin School in Oxford) no longer seem to value the teaching of drawing. A small and vitally fundamental point, for without an ability to draw, and all the looking it entails, an artist cannot be made. How well this is reflected in our musical education too! At higher levels, in universities and conservatories, the teaching -- and more important -- the learning, of fundamental techniques of melodic and harmonic control and manipulation, of the craft of variation and an appreciation of architectural balance, seems, like listening, to be of minor importance. Universities assume it to have been studied at secondary level. In school, it is assumed it will be dealt with later. In any case, few teachers in schools understand these matters anyway.

And so we have many students, electing to major in composition, who have little if any experience of the way lines, harmonies, developments and structures work to communicate in composed music, and often only the slightest familiarity of the ways these aspects of the craft have been applied by composers of the past. In fact, they know very little music of the past. Once in their main undergraduate training ground, they are given a study programme which reflects no particular respect for these former fundamental skills, preferring to encourage those spurious qualities 'individuality' and 'originality' that should strictly be the result of a disciplined training which is now believed by many to be their positive destruction.

Tutors, in support of this doctrine as theory, are unable to find a realistic basis with which to assess the work produced by these students, and give final praise to undisciplined experiment weighed down by a broad musical ignorance that is excused as liberated creativity. A sketchbook of ideas is accepted as a finished work, and grammatical errors in notation are excused as irrelevant, just as they were in primary school writing thirty years ago. These ill-equipped graduates emerge semi-illiterate. But out there too exists a similar widespread unfamiliarity with the value of technique, which is helpful for the young graduates of the system. Where few know the difference between a horse and a donkey, it is easy to sell a donkey to one who wants a horse. But not uncommonly do neither the vendor nor the purchaser know the difference!


Copyright © 21 March 2002 Patric Standford, West Yorkshire, UK


From: Don Pilarz, Italy

Your points are quite true. An interesting aspect to our perception of a work's details is that partisan interests in listeners may choose to highlight different foibles. Indeed some of the points described by Standford may irritate everyone, but I suspect it is more likely that a broad analysis of listening tastes and experience might come up with widely varying results. Perhaps as in life, the microcosm of a valuable musical experience dwells in a structure of banality infused with the sublime.

From: Robert Jordahl, USA

My first composition teacher, an elderly composer in the tradition of Richard Strauss, made comments that were directed solely at what he considered notational imperfections in my manuscript. Teacher no 2 was even less helpful. His only words at the first class were 'to go out and compose something for him to evaluate'. It gets worse. Only years later at the Eastman School did I finally have competent instruction -- from Wayne Barlow (now deceased).

From: David Arditti, UK

What Patric Standford says in 'Teaching composers' I totally agree with, as I have been saying much the same for years. Unfortunately, the state of affairs he lambasts is not a new or recent development. There are now two or three generations of composers who by and large have not been adequately taught, and some of those now have responsible positions in colleges. Clearly, they cannot tell their students the difference between a horse and a donkey, so there will soon be none left who know -- unless they can teach themselves in the library and concert room, as there have always been a few with the dilligence and persistence to do this, though there will be little incentive for them to do so, as their understanding and knowlege will be little valued by their peers. It is a sad state we have got into.

It's an obvious point, but worth making: that teachers of subjects like science, engineering or medicine would never have been allowed to commit such culpable neglect as those in the arts have been permitted. Who would like to be operated on by a surgeon who had not been taught the basics of anatomy, or fly in a plane desgined by an engineer with the sketchiest knowlege of dynamics? Why have such abysmally low standards been tolerated from teachers in the arts?

From: Paul Sarcich, UK

Mostly quite true -- and as someone who has been a composition teacher I have often lamented many of these things. The situation will not improve for a long long time though. We live in an age where style (that great inessential!) rules over content, where the quick thrill is all. Until craftsmanship is valued again, forget it. The brave, lone individuals who wish to seek it out will have to do it with no help from the program planners, who are too concerned with being 'cutting edge'. Never mind that the cutting edge went blunt three decades ago -- the undergraduates certainly haven't noticed any more than the festival makers. You're on your own folks -- there are some craftsmen left, but they're awful hard to find in the jungle now.




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