Saturday, February 7, 2009

Group Composition Lessons - Pros and Cons

Learning composition in a class format has its plusses and minuses. I've been thinking about this for a while, so I thought I would try to list a few, and ask for your thoughts on the issue.

  • Students get to hear each other's work on a weekly basis, which can create a sense of shared mission, and can foster a supportive and positive learning environment.
  • Hearing others' works in progress can give us ideas we can use in our own compositions.
  • Commenting on the works of others can help develop critiquing skills, and the more developed these are, the better we can critique our own music.
  • Students can draw upon classmates' performance skills to arrange readings of works in progress, and to get tips on how to write idiomatically or use extended performance techniques for the instruments they play.
  • Feedback given to any particular student is often relevant to other students.
  • It gives students multiple perspectives on their compositions, which, since perspective about one's own creations is easy to lose, is particularly valuable.
  • There is less time for individual feedback.
  • It makes it harder to deal with details, and, as I think everyone understands by now, details are of tremendous importance in composing music.
  • The peer feedback process works really well when you get useful feedback, but it works less well when people either don't comment, or don't feel comfortable saying anything 'critical' about others' work.

Any other plusses and minuses you can think of?

What do you think of the the group composition class format?


Jill A. said...

I definitely enjoy a group setting for composition because it gives you a chance to see how every one else is progressing, and it is definitley great to have a chance for performances. At the same time I think it would be great if along with the group classes, the course could offer a one on one session. Then we could get the best of both worlds.
I think its great that Dr. Ross offers so much of his time outside of class to help as well, which offers everyone the opportunity for guidance whenever needed.

Melissa B. said...

At first I was a little hesitant about being in a class like this because I was really insecure about composing.
The first and only time I truly composed was when I was six! (Music For Young Children competition)

Once you get past the fact that people are judging your music you realize that they're trying to help and trying to make it better for you!

I really enjoy feedback from my classmates but I also enjoy the feedback I get from my instructor.
If there was anyway to mix the both I think it would be a perfect course. Like Jill said above me, Dr. Ross is always available and that's great, but I certainly think some alloted time per week would be great because my schedule doesn't allow me to go visit and ask questions very often.

On that note I also think that if you are doing a composition/theory degree that you should have regular meetings with a teacher to work on compositions just as you would your lessons with your applied teacher. My friend have talked about that quite a bit and I definitely share his opinion.

Kim Codner said...

I'm all for group composition lessons. Hearing other's works and hearing their points of improvement can help ourselves too (to know what not to do in the future, to hear the way other's think about composing, and etc..)
I like private lessons too because there is more time to work on your own piece specifically... but I mean then there is only one person giving feedback (well... in our group classes that is the case anyways...but you know.. its different!)

Sharing your music with others is a surefire way to stay on top of your game and stay ahead and get things done on time.

Thats all!


Kate Bevan-Baker said...

I also enjoy a group setting. We all learn from each other, and it's great to hear what everyone else is up to and how you can relate to their pieces. I agree with what everyone else has said - that incorporating individual *and* group settings would be ideal, but perhaps that is not possible.

I've gotten some good feedback outside of class from other classmates, which is also another pro to the group setting. Yes, we are very shy in class and don't like criticizing each others' work, but I've heard some honest and helpful stuff outside of class, which I really value! I don't think I would enjoy composing as much if it were only private lessons. Just like in our studios, we have masterclasses so that we can hear each other play. If all I got was a private composition lesson once a week, I think I would be much less motivated to get stuff done and try my hardest. Also, I wouldn't know what the rest of the class was doing and therefore couldn't relate to anything.

So...I think that the group setting is much better, but we should really take advantage of Dr. Ross's office hours and get some one-on-one help with our pieces so that we can get a more detailed opinion.

Jenn Vail said...

I think the format of the class allows for a successful learning environment - we learn through listening to others. I know for me, when listening to different compositions, I have given different thoughts to my OWN composition and further understood aspects of atonality. For example, when we heard Saird's piece a few weeks ago, it reinforced the fact that atonal music can sound attractive, beautiful, but not just chaotic (like my initial impression.) I then started to think about this type of music in different ways.

I agree that sometimes our feedback mostly consists of supportive comments and not so much of "how about you change this section and foreshadow the motif in the violin", or "why did you write this here?". Maybe if we introduced a "checklist" for various elements to look for, I think that may guide our thinking a little more closely. Of course we know what we are evaluating, but maybe this would help us just a little.

It's a great class though - very well constructed. A workshop setting is definitely the best setup for the composition courses.

meg293 said...

I really enjoy learning a in a group setting. As we discussed on Friday, hearing different composers is one of the best tools for learning about music and how it's constructed. One of the biggest things I've seen in a group setting (that I doubt you'd see as much of in an individual setting) is that you learn a lot more about extended techniques for instruments. We've had class discussions about these, and because there are so many different instruments being played by people in the class, everyone has different and creative ideas. I've learned more about different string instruments and especially in the class with Dr. Bendzsa, different woodwinds. I don't think you would get the opportunity to go into such detail with these instruments if you were being taught individually.

Bus said...

Like many of my peers I too enjoy the group setting in learning composition. Granted the feedback can be minimal sometimes but that's when Dr. Ross steps in and gives you lots to think about so that you don't go away empty handed. Regular lessons would also be cool, I know myself and a few others had a chance at a short private lesson with Larysa Kuzmenko (sorry if I spelled it wrong) and I found I got a lot of really great feedback from that on some details that I wasn't getting from class.

Michael Bramble said...

There are definitely pros and cons for both.
To get the best of both worlds, group vs. private lessons, I think both would have to exist.
Group lessons are great for getting feedback about general ideas, like overall effectiveness, feeling of the piece, use of form, or audience impact. But to get detailed feedback on things more technical such as harmonic language, orchestration, or developing of ideas, I think personal lessons would be needed.
What we do now is very effective, but that doesn't mean that in the future the programme can't become more effective.
Just my 2 cents.

squinlan said...

I think that group composition lessons are awesome. It's interesting to hear about other's compositional approaches and what they come up with. It can so greatly effect your own compositional thinking, and there's so much to learn from others; through their compositions and comments.

The whole seminar format creates a real sense of group comradery! Like a little compositional fam fam!

A. Rideout said...

Having composition as a class is great and works really well for all of the reasons Dr. Ross has posted. I love hearing other people's work, I like getting good feedback from class mates and I think it makes learning that much more fun. But I do have to say that one on one lessons would be just as beneficial as a class. I am not saying we should replace the class time with a one on one lesson but maybe add a one on one lesson a couple times a semester. After running out of time to present my work one day in class I spent about a half hour with Dr. Ross discussing my piece. That was probably 20 more minutes then what I would normally get in class. The one on one session was great we got to look at the details of my piece and we could take our time working through some things I had. I am not saying that the one on one lesson is better but I definitly think it would be a good thing to pursue.

Adam Batstone said...

Yeah, having a group hear your music is a great unbiased way to get feedback. The disscusions are great especially when there are multiple people arguing over certain details of your music. Some like certain things, others are not quite so sure.

Also its great to get a prespective where you are compositionally. I mean I thought it was extremely interesting to hear what other people were writing. You really do get ot know someone really well by the music they write. Everyone has their own "sound" and style that comes through in the group very well.

SarahClement said...

I definately enjoyed the class setting for composition but was frustrated with the sheer size of the class. It didn't leave us with enough time to discuss each individual work in progress in an indepth manner. It might have worked better if the classe had been supplemented by individual composition lessons,but that would have been waaaay to time consuming and way to hard for one man to orchestrate by himself. So I dunno, I guess they just need to enforce the class cap. Or maybe offer more composition! That'd be awesome. I think everyone should have to do at least one composition course.

Aiden Hartery said...

I think having a group setting is great! Sharing our music with our peers can be a little nerve racking for some people, but it really is the best way to get so many great comments and suggestions from different perspectives and opinions. Hearing so many different styles and ideas can also help people think of new ways to thinking as well.
Going to see Dr. Ross during his office hours is also VERY helpful. It is great to have a more in depth discussion about your music. Having longer than the usual 2 minutes of discussion after the presentation is very useful. Dr Ross offers a lot of time to talk and gives great advice.
I agree that theory/comp majors should have weekly or bi-weekly lessons and meetings.

Joshua White said...

I think a big positive aspect of the group setting is that you are able to see the way your work is received on a smaller level which creates less pressure.
You are given a smaller gauge as to what way your work may be received. I would much rather have my work presented in a group of 10 people for the first time, rather than an audience of 100. This gives us the opportunity to change it to make it more favorable for audiences, (or in some cases less).

However I find with private composition lessons, one is more accountable for what they did in the time period they had to compose. Having more time to present your work forces you to go into greater depth with things (ultimately more detail I guess).

Vanessa Carroll said...

Look at this! Sounds like a lot of what you're outlining here is exactly what Composition Seminar is!

I have to say, for me, the pros here definitely out weigh the cons!

Funny how much things have changed in 3 years! This is now part of the curriculum!

Michelle said...

I definitely agree with the points listed in this entry! I enjoy hearing my classmates' work, and it does foster a sense of camaraderie between students. How many times has a non-pianist presented something written for piano and myself, Tim, and Aislinn have given each other a significant look when we see something impossible, difficult, or improperly-notated. Although, while our class wasn't overly large, if there had been a few more people I think it would have been difficult to get through everyone's pieces in every class. Overall, for an introductory course, I think that the pros far outweigh the cons. I think that fewer people would be encouraged to take 3100 if it were all individual instruction; to me at least, it would be much more intimidating, as I would feel like I needed to have some previous experience composing.

André McEvenue said...

It seems to me that there is much to be learned in this kind of a group environment. I think that developing critical skills is very important for all musicians, and encouraging people to provide honest feedback is certainly a challenge.

Although there is less time for individual feedback, I feel that this is made up for by observing the problems that are addressed in class in other's compositions as well as my own. This provided me a much broader exposure to common compositional problems in a shorter time. I would likely have encountered many of these issues in the future regardless, and now I am prepared with tools and ideas to face these challenges.

Colin Bonner said...

I personally think group lessons, especially for Intro to Composition, are for the most part effective. What I found is that towards the beginning we all had similar sorts of problems and concerns depending on what we were trying to create in our compositions. We also got a sense the different compositional processes each individual experimented with. Sometimes I thought "great idea! I'll try it myself" while other times I thought the complete opposite. Although the majority of our class was new to composing, everyone still had very different tastes and styles making the feedback I received really helpful as it was often outside my sphere of thinking.
A huge problem for myself is showing anyone my work (whether compositions, performances, essays) but the classroom environment ripped me from my comfort zone. I eventually did start look foreword to showing the class my work, especially whenever I hit road-blocks or when I had a sense the composition was complete.
Learning in the class setting seemed comparable to learning from siblings, where you watch each other make mistakes and rather than naïvely making the same mistakes, you can choose to learn from someone else's experience.
This all being said, I've yet to have a 1-on-1 composition lesson but I'm sure they are also hugely positive experiences.

Hannah Wadman-Scanlan said...

I am of the belief that group work/ the sharing of music in composition class is very useful and helpful. I agree with all of your plusses. Firstly, I really like the feeling it creates of “we’re all in this together”. I’ve had moments where I’ve really struggled to finish or even begin projects as it feels too daunting, but I often feel much better after hearing that my classmates are in the same boat and we’re all there to help and encourage each other. It can also be a great source of inspiration, as you mentioned, perhaps in moments when we feel stuck and out of ideas. Hearing the compositions of others can give us ideas, such as a different texture or rhythm to try out. For me, hearing other people’s compositions also gives me an idea of what makes a “good composition” in my mind. For example, elements such as dynamics can make such a huge difference in a piece, however sometimes I won’t even realize it until I hear two students’ work, one with and one without dynamics. Perhaps one of the only other disadvantages that I can think of is the risk of comparing your work too closely to others. I think it’s important to have your own musical voice, and its important to recognize that your classmates work might not necessarily be better than yours, just different, and thats ok.