Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kim's Composer's Kitchen Blogs

Kim Codner, who just finished her fourth year here at the School of Music and is heading off to McGill to do a Master's in Composition next year, is participating in a programme in Montreal right now called "Composer's Kitchen," with the Quattor Bozzini and composers Linda Smith and Michael Oesterle. Click on the link if you wish to find out more about this programme, but briefly, their website describes it as follows:
This unique event revolving around the string quartet is a combination workshop, laboratory, playground, and master class. Over the course of a week, the Quatuor Bozzini and two experienced composers will observe the work of six up-and-coming composers. Their compositions will be read, played, assessed, analyzed, worked on, played again, and performed in the closing concert. This gives young composers a unique opportunity to perfect their craft with professional musicians.
Kim has been posting blogs on her experiences there, and they are a great read! They also have a lot of useful information on notation issues, and the kind of feedback she's been getting from both the quartet and the "mentor" composers.

Here are the links to her Composer's Kitchen blogs:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Monday, April 26, 2010
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 (recordings!)

Check 'em out, and say "hi" to her via the comments area if you do!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Talent? Skill? What's the difference?

In my previous blog entry, I posed the question:

What about talent? Where does that fit in the makeup of a good composer?

Here is a definition for "talent," from the online Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

A natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught.

Other definitions often use the word "innate," meaning "something you are born with," which means the same thing in this context as "natural."  Some of the many areas in which people are sometimes said to have talent include:
  • public speaking
  • dance
  • mathematics
  • writing
  • sports
  • being funny
  • chairing meetings
  • music
But how could anyone possibly be born with a talent for chairing meetings? you might ask, indignantly. After all, babies seemingly never actually chair meetings, at least when grownups are around (when grownups aren't around, who knows what they are up to?).

Since we tend not to see babies chairing meetings, writing fiction or non-fiction, composing concertos, etc., how do we know if they are born with these talents?

It would seem very difficult to establish proof of talent in many of these areas in an infant; I would suggest that they generally become evident at later stages of development (e.g., Erickson's stages of psychosocial development), after an individual has had the opportunity to develop skills relating to these areas (talent in composition generally follows the development of skills as a musician, for example).

This leads me to propose the following:

Talent must be developed in order to be manifested.

However, something that has to be developed in order to be manifested sounds very much like a skill; how is talent different from skill?

Here is a definition of Skill in The American Heritage Dictionary:

Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience.

The essential difference, it would seem, is that talent is something we are are born with, while skill may in fact be related to an innate talent, but it must be developed.

But even this does not fully clarify the difference between talent and skill, because if talent is only manifested after at least some development, then how is it any different from skill, which is also manifested after development?

Some might argue that the difference is that a person with a particular talent would require less training to develop proficiency in that area than someone without that talent.

Perhaps this is true, but the speed with which one develops proficiency in an area is also highly dependent on other factors as well, such as motivation, environment, opportunity, and instruction. Someone of average talent might develop skill more quickly than an individual with greater talent, if the first person were more motivated, and/or had better teaching.

All of this leads me to wonder if it is possible to measure innate ability, and, if it cannot be measured, is it possible to prove that it even exists?

Let's explore that.

When we describe an individual as "talented," we often mean that they learn or develop particular skills very quickly, or do them very well, with seemingly less effort than someone else with seemingly less talent.

However, these things do not necessarily mean that an individual is talented; perhaps the so-called "talented" person learns particular things quickly or does them well because they have had more practice doing so.

Or perhaps some of the skills a person has developed in one area (e.g., bicycle racing) can be transferred to another (e.g., speed skating), and it is this that allows them to develop so quickly in the second area.

(Canadian Clara Hughes, who has won multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympic games, is a great example of this kind of skill transference. Another example is Pierre Boulez, who quickly (while still in his twenties) established an international reputation as one of the leading composers of the Modernist era, but he has subsequently also become known as one of the leading conductors in the world.  Most of the "great" composers of classical music were also regarded as among the great performers of their time.)

As a teacher, it can be tempting to conclude that one student is more talented than another because of a difference in their rates of progress. However, because teachers have limited knowledge of their students prior to meeting them in the classroom or private studio, we do not actually know how much time students have spent developing skills in the areas in which we teach, or in cognate areas. Not only that, but we don't really know how hard students work outside of the classroom on the skills we teach, or how efficiently they are working.

While teachers often get a sense that some students seems to learn more easily or develop skills more quickly than others, the lack of information we have about their background, practice habits, and other impediments to learning (there are many circumstances in a student's personal life than can inhibit learning) gives us no basis on which to conclude that one student is any more talented than another.

A potential danger in drawing conclusions on the relative talent levels of our students when we don't really have a basis for doing so is that we might give in to the temptation of tailoring our teaching in some way to the "talented" students, perhaps because they respond better to our teaching, thereby ensuring that those who struggle continue to do so. Or, more generally, we might encourage the "talented" more than the "untalented."

Are you suggesting that there is no such thing as talent?

I am suggesting that we need to reexamine our assumptions of what talent is, whether there is any way of measuring it, and yes, even of whether there really is such a thing as talent (as opposed to skill, which is something that very clearly exists and that can be both developed and measured).

One way to prove the existence of talent would be to establish a control group of kids who all received identical upbringing, including parenting style and values, education, and training in the arts and sports, and then measure their achievement in the various areas in which they had been trained at regular intervals to see if some were to demonstrate a significant and lasting superiority to their peers in particular areas.

I'm not actually sure this would prove anything (other than being an impossible study to conduct from a practical standpoint, not to mention the ethical/legal impediments to establishing such a control group!), because you would have to factor motivation in there as well; people learn more easily when they are motivated to do so, and there it would seem unlikely that everyone from this hypothetical control group would have a similar level of motivation in all areas.

Another way — and this has the advantages of being both feasible and legal(!) — would be to study identical twins adopted into different families to see if one twin's significant strength in a particular area is matched by the other twin. I would guess studies like this have been done, and if I find any, I will report back on a later blog.

But what about Mozart? He must have been HUGELY talented to compose symphonies when he was only four years old!

Indeed, he would have been, but he wrote no symphonies (or any other type of music) when he was four. After Mozart's death, his sister, Nannerl, wrote: At the age of five he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down. (Deutsch 1965, p. 455)

There are several points to note from this statement:
  1. Nannerl was writing years after the fact, at a point when her late brother was widely acknowledged as a great composer — according to Wikipedia, Mozart's sparse funeral did not reflect his standing with the public as a composer: memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were well attended. Indeed, in the period immediately after his death Mozart's reputation rose substantially: Solomon describes an "unprecedented wave of enthusiasm" (Solomon 1995, p. 499) for his work; biographies were written (first by Schlichtegroll, Niemetschek, and Nissen); and publishers vied to produce complete editions of his works.

    Nannerl also wrote that, upon meeting her brother and becoming familiar with his music in 1781, Joseph Haydn said to Mozart's father: I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute; he has taste, and what is more, the greatest skill in composition (Deutsch 1965, pp. 461–462). It seems likely that Nannerl's goal in writing these statements was to document (and perhaps even add to) her brother's greatness, and, as such, it is difficult to know how historically accurate they are.

    In any event, that Mozart became a great composer as an adult after having been a precociously-skilled child is not in question (at least by most people familiar with his music; Glenn Gould famously felt otherwise, arguing that Mozart died too late rather than too early (Ostwald 1997, p. 249)). What is less certain is the degree to which his youthful compositional efforts were aided by his father.

  2. Nannerl mentions her brother composing "little pieces." Not symphonies. Now, admittedly, composing little minuets at the age of five (or six, some historians maintain) is pretty darn special, but did these little pieces contain the seeds of greatness he would later achieve as a composer? Or, put another way, there have been (and continue to be) many highly-precocious young kids in the world whose impressive early achievements might have been comparable in some way to Mozart's, but very few of them have come anywhere close to achieving what Mozart did as an adult. Mozart's place in music history was achieved on the basis of his compositional work as an adult, not as a child.

  3. "... which he played to his father, who wrote them down." His father, Leopold (1719–1787), was a highly-accomplished musician himself — he was deputy Kapellmeister to the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg, as well as a composer and an experienced teacher. If young Wolfgang played mistakes (parallel fifths, doubled leading tones, etc.) in his childhood compositions, might Leopold have corrected them in the process of transcribing them to music manuscript? Given that he was an experienced teacher (and his son's greatest advocate, AKA a "stage parent"), it seems likely that Leopold would have pointed out mistakes and ways of improving these little pieces.

    It is presumably for these reasons that the symphonies listed as #2 and #3 by Mozart are now listed as "spurious," with #2 thought to have been composed by Leopold.

    In any event, the point here is that it is hard to know the degree to which Mozart's early compositional efforts were aided by his father, and it is therefore at least possible that some of what we attribute to "pure genius" or "natural talent" on the part of Mozart can be attributed to the help received from his father.

  4. And finally, although you and I were probably not composing little pieces for the piano at the age of five, we also did not have Leopold Mozart as our dad. Leopold published a treatise on violin playing the year that Wolfgang was born, and taught both of his children how to play violin and piano at remarkably early ages. He also assembled books of compositions from which to learn piano (and perhaps composition as well) for both of his children (Blom, p.11). Mozart was home-schooled by his father, and this home-schooling included much musical training. Leopold's desire to show off the skills of his children (did I mention he was a stage-dad?) is obvious from the frequent tours to perform for European royalty that began when Wolfgang was six. Given his skills as both a musician and teacher of music, and his evident desire for his children to excel at music and be recognized for it, it seems at least possible that other children growing up in that environment might also have been "composing little pieces" at remarkably early ages.

    To what degree were Wolfgang Mozart's childhood accomplishments the result of the intensive musical training he received, and to what degree were they a product of his musical gift or innate talent?

Postscript: After writing the above, I was reading Outliers — The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (mainly because I wanted to find out about the so-called "10,000 hour rule" discussed in my Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity blog of about a month ago), and found this quote from Genius Explained, by the late British cognitive psychologist Michael Howe:
... by the standards of mature composers, Mozart's early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang's childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other composers. Of those concertos that only contain music original to Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No. 9, K. 271) was not composed until he was twenty-one: by that time Mozart had already been composing concertos for ten years (Howe, p. 3).
The music critic Harold Schonberg goes even further:
It is strange to say of a composer who started writing at six, and lived only thirty-six years, that he developed late, but that is the truth. Few of Mozart's early works, elegant as they are, have the personality , concentration, and richness that entered his music after 1781" [the year he turned 25]. (Lives of the Great Composers, Part 2, p. 103)
We can become so caught up in the mystification of genius that we overlook the fact that any person of significant accomplishment, even those we call geniuses, achieved what they did through protracted hard work.

To conclude by answering the question posed at the outset: Where does talent fit in the makeup of a good composer?

It's hard to say. I'm not sure I'm prepared to say there is no such thing as talent, but what is clear is:
  • If there is such a thing as talent, it needs to be developed in order to be manifested;

  • Skill clearly exists, and is developed through training;

  • Skill is measurable, but if someone has come up with a way of measuring talent as an independent quality from skill, I don't know of it;

  • I see no benefit in concerning yourself with the issue of how talented you are, or whether you possess enough "raw" talent to achieve greatness. If you focus on developing your skills, and, if you work hard enough over a sufficiently long period, you will become highly skilled. And, if you become highly skilled, AND continue to work hard it seems likely to me that you will distinguish yourself in some way in your field.

  • I would guess that the main reason everyone who sets out to become highly skilled does not succeed in doing so is that many loose their motivation somewhere along the way.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to become a more-skilled composer

I ended my March 25 blog with a statement that I hoped would provoke (inspire?) some responses, saying:
Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration.
Do I believe this? Not exactly... Here is what I do believe (stated in a less-provocative way!):
In order to become a good composer, it is necessary to work very hard at it for an extended period, and one must constantly challenge oneself to improve.  Hard work is not the only factor that leads to becoming a good composer, but it is arguably the most essential ingredient; a person with oodles of talent but a poor work ethic will not become a good composer; a person with average talent and a strong work ethic can become a good composer. 
There is something attractively democratic about this, because it suggests that any musically-skilled person is capable of becoming a good composer if they work hard enough.

If this is true, then the argument could be made that one reason that some composers do not write better music is that they have not put sufficient work into becoming better composers, which is essentially the point that my "provocative statement" attempted to make (but if you state things too reasonably, people tend not to feel provoked into responding!).

Is Bill a lazy composer? If Sarah has invested significantly more hours in compositional training than Bill, and, by virtue of that fact, Sarah is the more skilled composer, this in no way suggests that Bill is lazier than Sarah. However, if Bill wishes to become a better composer but is not interested in committing the time necessary to achieve this improvement, then perhaps Bill can be said to be lazy... or just naive.

But let us stop all this talk of laziness and move on to ask what specific things can one work on in order to become a more skilled composer? Below is a list of some of them; as always, feel free to disagree, agree, or add to the list!
  1. Write more music (or, the 10,000 hour rule) . Try to write every day, if you can, or try to devote at least a couple of hours a day, four to five days a week, to composition. In order to become better performers, all musicians understand that you need to practice on a regular basis — daily, preferably. Well, the same is true for improvement in any skill, such as writing, sports, surgery, acting, etc., and, of course, composition.

    You may have heard of the "10,000 hour rule," a concept mentioned numerous times in "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell, who suggests that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Using this "rule," you would have to practice composition for four hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for ten years in order to become an expert composer!

    Before you throw up your hands in despair (what? You don't have four hours a day for the next ten years to spend on composition???), I will suggest that a lot of the time you have already spent training to be a musician should count in the calculation of the number of hours required to become an expert composer. Your training on an instrument, in aural skills, in music theory, your time spent jamming with friends, your time spent listening actively to music — I would suggest that they all help make you a better composer, so you may be closer to that 10,000 hour goal than you think!

               • The basic principle here is practice makes perfect. Or, if not perfect (is there any such thing in art?), then at least better.

               • Finding the time on a daily basis for anything beyond what we are currently doing is a challenge.
               • Doing something on a daily basis can lead to ruts; it may be necessary to vary one's routine occasionally, and/or to take breaks from the routine.

  2. Find ways to gain perspective on your music. I wrote about this in my 2009-02-05 blog, "Running into a brick wall" (in which I quoted Richard Bach: "Perspective; use it or lose it"), but the basic idea is that we can easily get so wrapped up in our creations that we lose perspective on them, and the numerous ways to gain perspective include taking a break (and possibly engaging in something else for a while, including exercise), which allows us to return to our work with a refreshed mindset, and asking for honest feedback from others (including performers).

    I suspect most composers have had the experience of going to bed feeling quite pleased with the musical idea on which they had been working, only to awaken the next day to discover that they really don't like that idea very much at all! Clearly, when this happens to us, our perspective has changed, but which is right? Is it a great idea, a terrible idea, or somewhere in between? The only way to make a good judgement on the merits of a musical idea is to examine it from different perspectives, and ways of doing this are listed in my above-mentioned blog.

               • Getting different perspectives on your work during the composition process will make it more likely that you will be satisfied with the finished product, no matter what your perspective or frame of mind.
               • Inviting honest feedback from others can lead to improvements you might otherwise not have considered.
               • Feedback from performers can help you to write more idiomatically, and notate your musical ideas more clearly.

               • If one is in a highly-stressed or depressed frame of mind, finding ways to alter our perspective can be extremely challenging. Also, this frame of mind can cloud one's judgement to the point where one is unable to make good decisions about the merit of our musical ideas.
               • Soliciting honest feedback from others can result in suggestions that do not actually help your music in any way (and they may even make it worse); you have to be able to sort out the good suggestions from the less good ones.

  3. Develop good musical judgment (i.e., good musical instincts). This relates to the previous point, the basic idea being that while all composers probably experience times when their judgement about their own music is clouded, good composers find ways to work through these periods and end up making decisions that lead to good compositions. Or, put another way, even great composers can have terrible musical ideas (e.g., Late at night: This is GREAT! — Next day: Oof! What was I thinking???), but they somehow manage to sort out the bad ideas from the good ones, which helps lead to good music.

               • Good judgement leads to good music.

               • It's easy to say, "develop good judgement" (yeah, thanks Yoda!), but how do you do this? And what does this word, "good" mean in this context, anyway? Keep reading to find out...

  4. Analyze music. It would be good if at least some of this were in a formal sense, involving comprehensive structural analyses of compositions, but it could also occur in a less-structured way, involving active listening to music while taking note of anything at all that interests you, such as the structure, process, colours, orchestration, the way the composer writes for particular instruments, mood, and how it is achieved, etc. What aspects of the music would you like to try in your own compositions?

               • Analysis helps us to find out how music works, and the knowledge we have on that subject, the better able we are to create the kind of music we would like to hear.

               • Finding time to engage in analysis can be a challenge, but beyond that, the only potential pitfall might be that a person enjoys analysis so much that they become less interested in composing music than they are in analyzing it. As pitfalls go, that's not such a bad one, however...

  5. Be curious. This is basically an extension or reinforcement of the previous point; when you play music, or hear it, or look at scores, ask yourself questions: What makes this work, or not work? How does it work? What makes audiences respond (positively or negatively) to this music? How do you respond to the music, and what is it about the music that elicits that response? How is a particular sonic colour created? How detailed is the score? What notation conventions are used, and are there any there that you could use, or even be inspired by?

               • Perhaps the most famous adage about curiosity, sadly, is that it "killed the cat," but nothing could be farther from the truth, at least for composers (and I'm pretty sure for cats too). The benefits are, I think, self-evident, so rather than pedantically listing them all, I thought I would provide a few quotes on the topic that you might find interesting:

               • It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. (Albert Einstein)
               • The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards. (Anatole France)
               • It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)
               • The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. (Ellen Parr, also attributed to Dorothy Parker)
               • Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly. (Arnold Edinborough)
               • Seize the moment of excited curiosity on any subject to solve your doubts; for if you let it pass, the desire may never return, and you may remain in ignorance. (William Wirt)
               • Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul. (Mark Twain)

               • It's easy to fall into ruts where we don't question things very much, so the challenge is to avoid doing so.
               • I suppose that the reason the adage about curiosity and the cat came about is that there can be such a thing as too much curiosity (although perhaps it is more a case of too much foolishness), and this may lead a person or beloved house pet (for I am a cat lover) to do nutty things, such as, Hmm... What would happen if I put my finger in that electrical socket? or They say it is not wise to stroll in a leisurely fashion across eight lanes of the Trans-Canada Highway during rush hour close to a major urban center, but is it really true? I am going to find out for myself, thank you very much! But for the most part, curiosity, combined with a dash of common sense, is a good thing.

  6. Be open. This is related to curiosity, but being open isn't quite the same as being curious. Being willing to try new approaches to writing music, even when you're pretty sure you're not going to like them, is a bit like trying on new clothes that you're pretty sure you won't like; sometimes you will be surprised to discover that you do like them! Ditto for food, which is the basis for "Green Eggs and Ham," by Dr. Seuss, Sam-I-Am.

               • Some times, when we try something (food, clothes, a musical technique) that we do not expect to like, we surprise ourselves by discovering that we do like it! If we remain closed to these possibilities, we never make these new and often rewarding discoveries.

               • Again, as with the unfortunate cat who met his/her untimely demise, some judgement must be shown. There are many more things to try than there is time in one's lifetime to try them, so at a certain point you have to move forward with the task at hand, which in our case, is composing.

  7. Be decisive. Being curious and open are great attributes, but when it comes to actually composing your piece, you need to be able to make decisions. Is this idea/section too short, or too long? Does this idea need more development? Should I have an introduction? Should the music have a climax? Something about this is not working; what is it? etc. Clearly, some decisions are better than others, but just as clearly, the inability to make decisions will lead to an inability to complete the composition; sometimes, even a bad decision is better than no decision at all, if it helps complete the the work. Besides, you can always go back later and change it. It's not like being a surgeon or an air traffic controller, where bad decisions can lead to loss of life!

               • Being decisive helps the composition process go more smoothly.

               • Being decisive doesn't necessarily mean you make good decisions, but even here hard work helps; the more experienced you are as a composer, the more likely you are to make better decisions.

  8. Have the courage of your convictions. Again related to the previous point: Remember that nothing catastrophic can happen if you try something new as a composer and it proves to be unsuccessful. Schoenberg was reviled and ridiculed by many for coming up with his "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another," but if he had lost his confidence in the method and decided to scrap it before it was published, or decided against writing any music using this method, it seems unlikely that he would have achieved his position in history as arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century.

               • Having the courage of your convictions can lead to greatness.

               • Having the courage of your convictions can also lead to being ostracized, if your convictions are radically out of step with prevailing norms.
               • Belief in one's own convictions may actually be a case of hubris, and I'm not sure hubris actually helps make you a better composer...

  9. Strive to improve. The opposite to a desire to improve is complacency, and complacency is never to be a good thing for an artist.

               • Striving to improve generally leads to improvement (another statement of Yoda-like profundity, I know), and while we must reach a point of satisfaction with whatever piece we are working on in order to feel it is finished, in order for it to be good we must constantly seek ways to make it better.

               • Constantly striving to improve can become an unhealthy obsession. As mentioned above, you can only finish a composition if you reach a point of relative satisfaction with it, but no art is ever perfect, so you could theoretically spend your entire life trying to perfect a single composition because you know it could always be better. That's a pretty extreme example, but a more common example is one kind of writer's block, where a person recognizes (or at least believes) that their work needs to be better, but experiences creative paralysis when they cannot find a way to make it so.

  10. Develop your people/networking skills. Composers mostly depend on others to perform and programme their music. Some composers perform their own music, and some composers compose electronic music that is not dependent on performers for its realization, but even in both these cases, composers often depend on others to programme their works. Good people skills can help create performance opportunities for your music, and the more opportunities you have, the more you improve as a composer

               • You mean, besides untold wealth? The better your people/networking skills, the easier it is for people who can help your career (performers, music programmers) to think of you when they make decisions about the music they want to programme. I believe that all successful composers are good composers, but not all good composers are successful, where "success" is measured by the number and kinds of commissions, performances, and public exposure a composer has. I suspect that the main reason for this difference is the disparity in people/networking skills among good composers.

               • One of the things that attracted me to composition was that you could practice it in private, without anyone knowing what you are up to until you actually finish a piece and get it performed. If you are shy by nature, the privacy and solitary nature of composition may be comforting. It is a challenge for naturally shy people develop better social skills (and yes, I speak from my own experience). However, it is possible, with concerted effort.

    But even so, I still hate having to make a "cold call" (telephone someone I don't know); it makes me so profoundly uncomfortable that, for the most part, I avoid it altogether.

    E-mail is a bit safer, though. Every now and then I will E-mail someone about the possibility of performing my music, and, while I don't enjoy doing this at all, it pains me considerably less than making phone calls, and it actually leads to positive results at times. Sometimes it doesn't result in a performance, but the person is nice enough to respond with complementary comments about my music, and, since we composers often do not receive very much positive feedback about our music (but this is why having the courage of your convictions is important; you have to believe in what you do, and not rely on others to validate our music for us), occasional encouragement is a good thing.
What about talent? Where does that fit in the makeup of a good composer?

"Talent" is an interesting and difficult-to-pinpoint concept, and, since this is already very possibly my longest blog entry ever, I will answer that question at greater length in a separate blog entry.

But briefly, I never speculate as to the relative talent levels of my students; I think every student I have had has sufficient talent to become a good composer if they are willing to work at it, hence my emphasis on the value of the work ethic.

Finally, in their comments to the deliberately-provocative concluding statement from my Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity blog post, Kim and Kate both suggested that the subjectivity of the term "good" in connection to composition makes it problematic to label a composer as lazy.

I agree. There are many compositions that some people consider to be "good" and others don't, and given the inherent subjectivity in the evaluation of artistic quality, it is unfair and harsh to classify composers as "lazy" just because they write music you don't like.

But, that said, it strikes me that the best student composers I have taught — and by "best," I mean those that composed works that I thought best demonstrated the values I stress when I teach (cohesiveness, development, imagination, finding the right balance between the expected and unexpected, and many, many more!), AND whose work seemed most highly regarded by classmates (deduced from comments class members make when critiquing each other's work every week), tend, almost without exception, to be the students who are the least complacent about their compositions. Simply put, some students seem to be more easily satisfied with their music than others, but students who strive the most diligently to improve their music generally succeed in doing so.

So, while I agree that it is a unnecessarily harsh to classify anyone as lazy, I will say that complacency stands in the way of our development as artists (point 9 above).

Also — on the point of subjectivity when it comes to evaluating art — I don't believe the evaluation process for art is completely (or even mostly) subjective. The degree to which there is consensus on what constitutes "greatness" in works of art over many centuries would suggest that there is something objective about it too, although it is culture-specific as well (another interesting topic, but for a different day!).

There is indisputably some subjectivity involved in evaluating art; many knowledgeable people agree that Beethoven wrote numerous masterpieces, but some may feel otherwise. I consider the Beatles to be the greatest pop artists ever (and Rolling Stone agrees with me), but some people can't stand them. Greatness in art, like beauty, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Some have even suggested that The Emperor's New Clothes effect — in which disreputable artistic "authorities" attempt to fleece the public into believing that crap is actually art —is in play. A Google search for "emperor's new clothes in art" generated 4.76 million hits for me.

I don't doubt that this effect exists, and I have had this reaction several times in my life while listening to music or looking at art.

However, it seems to me that the evaluation process for musical art is actually more objective than subjective, at least within cultures; this explains the degree to which there is agreement on the "greatness" of particular artworks. It also may explain why, when students perform their compositions-in-progress for one another in our classes, it is common for several people to pick up on the same thing in critiquing each other's work.

Odds and Ends

Wrapping things up...

1. All blog comments and student journal entries must be made by Monday, April 19, in order to be credited for them.

2. Final scores and recordings were due yesterday, although I have told some people that they could get me their recordings today. If you have not submitted your score/recording yet, let me know asap.

3. Most of you have picked up your scores/comments from the first project, although I still have a few. I also still have a few from last term that were never picked up (!). Please drop by to pick yours up asap.

4. Tuesday evening's composition seminar went well — we had a great listening session and discussion, and Andrew Staniland and I were joined by composer Rob Teehan, in town this week for the Junos (check out his website: and Shawn Bostick, Regional Director of the CMC Atlantic Region. Some of you have expressed interest in continuing these meetings in the summer; if you think you'd like to do this, please leave a comment to that effect below, and I will follow up on this in a later blog.