Teaching Composing in the Classroom

My own composing efforts began during my middle-school band classes in the early 1960s. Along with many other youngsters, I was given classes with a young composer named R. Murray Schafer, who documented our experiences and conversations in The composer in the classroom (1965). Here is a follow-up documentary of a similar program that Schafer offered in 1969 in a 7th grade classroom in Canada.

Although I was not aware of “democratic teaching-learning principles” then, this is what Schafer modeled (see, too, Schafer’s thoughts from 2006).

But he was not unique, by any means. Composing and arranging projects, with mutual teacher-learner respect, and dialogues, were also regular parts of my secondary school curricula (1963-1967), punctuated with occasional visits by professional composers.

What I valued then, and what I advocate and teach now, is that to learn composing effectively, intelligently, and joyfully, students need continuous opportunities to interact with their peers as fellow music makers and listeners, and to hear their efforts interpreted and performed musically (not merely “produced”).

In addition, Music Matters emphasizes opportunity-finding and formulating, rather than just carrying out musical assignments. By this I mean encouraging students to research and generate their own innovative pieces to perform on their own, or in peer ensembles; generate multiple approaches to interpretive, improvisational, and/or compositional problems; plan innovative interpretations; generate plans and sketches of musical arrangements; edit given compositions or arrangements—all of these in continuous relation to music listening so that students gain understandings of the style frameworks in which they are creating or “crossing over.” All of this can be done in relation to composing pieces about important moral, political, and ethical problems in students’ lives and in our contemporary world. Doing so is common in visual art and English literature classes where students create paintings, poems, and stories for these same reasons. I suggest that all these strategies align with James Mursell’s concept of democratic teaching and teaching for democratic citizenship.

Music education for musical creativity requires sustained periods for students to generate, select ideas, rework, and edit their interpretations and arrangements. During these processes, I state that we need to avoid undermining our students’ motivation, thinking, and enjoyment by gushing-over, hovering-over, or taking-over while students work at producing creative musical results. I state that guiding students toward creative achievements calls for a music teacher-as-coach, advisor, and informed critic; not teacher-as-proud-mother, stern father, or “know-it-all big brother.”

Teaching musical composition and creativity is worth doing for the sake of the self and others. As we say in Music Matters:

The internal goods and values of musicing are not abstractions. Through the progressive development of musical understanding with musical and educative teachers and facilitators, all students can achieve human flourishing, communal well-being, an empathetic sense of self-and-other, as well as a sense of meaningfulness, enjoyment, and a creative way of life.

So, Did Bach Really Compose That?

Doubts about the authenticity of some of J.S. Bach’s compositions have risen again.  Alex Ross writes: “the attribution of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor … has been repeatedly questioned, with many scholars detecting features that are atypical of Bach’s style. Nowhere else in his organ music does Bach make prominent use of octave doubling, as in the opening measures of the Toccata: it’s a showy, brazen gesture that suggests a quite different creative personality from the one who produced the St. Matthew Passion.” Additionally, the musical community has long known about J.S. Bach’s compositional and musical collaborations with some of his sons (e.g., J.C. Bach and C.P.E Bach), not to mention his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach. Christoph Wolff, former Dean of Harvard’s Music Department and one of the most celebrated Bach historians, has already explained Anna Magdalena’s musical abilities and her likely musical partnership with J.S. Bach. Wolff writes that Anna Magdalena “came from a family of musicians and brought to the marriage the background and orientation of a professional singer. Indeed, she regularly performed with her husband in Cöthen and elsewhere until 1725, and from the time public singing engagements are no longer recorded, her collaboration as a copyist is well documented. Until the early 1740s, her hand shows up in a variety of manuscripts containing Bach’s music…Anna Magdalena fulfilled many roles over the years: companion, professional partner, assistant, keyboard student, and maybe also critic…” (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 2000, pp. 395-396).

Later, in an interview, Wolff states that we just don’t know everything we might like to about Bach’s family life. However, Wolff is hopeful that researchers will continue to investigate the legacy and compositional processes of J.S. Bach.

Very recently, the authenticity of Bach’s compositions have hit the headlines again. Primarily through forensic research (published first in 2006 and again in 2011), Martin Jarvis claims that some of J.S. Bach’s famous compositions were not composed by Bach himself, but rather by his second wife, Anna Magdalena This latest research advances Wolff’s conclusions and moves us towards a new understanding of Anna Magdalena’s collaborative, if not individual, role in Bach’s compositions.

Other musicians and scholars are less convinced. Acclaimed cellist Julian Lloyd Weber has stated that Anna Magdalena was “too busy” watching after the children: “Would Anna really have time to copy something out when she had a huge number of children to deal with? There would be far more crossings out [in the scores themselves] and mistakes.”

Historical-gendered politics aside, though these are extremely important considerations, the larger and perhaps most interesting aspect of this latest examination of Anna Magdalena’s musicianship, and possible compositional collaboration with her husband, is explained by composer Sally Beamish: “What I found fascinating is the questions it raises about the assumptions we make: that music is always written by one person…” In fact, and as we examine in detail in MM2 (e.g., pp. 250-253; pp. 333-360), composing happens in complex personal, social, cultural, political, and other contexts. As such compositional processes are complex social processes, not purely individual, “solo” actions.

Whenever individuals begin to compose, they are never acting “alone,” although it may seem so on the surface. In fact, their composing is always situated and social in a number of ways. First, the musical understanding required to compose particular kinds of music develops in relation to the musical products of other composers (performers and so on) past and present, who have learned and immersed themselves in the music making of particular musical praxes. Composers—including children, young people, amateur adults, and professionals—like all music makers, begin learning composing at a certain point in the past or recent history of the musical praxis contexts in which they’re composing. We learn to compose by growing into (usually with the guidance of others, whether teachers or in relation to instructional videos on YouTube, etc.) the praxis-specific ways of musical composing that musicers maintain, change, embody, and pass on directly or indirectly in and through their composing.

So composing, like all forms of musicing, is highly contextual in that composers don’t generate and select musical ideas in abstraction. Composers don’t simply “compose.” They compose particular forms of music or create new or hybrid forms: styles of songs, film scores, fanfares, preludes, laments, dance suites, string quartets, symphonies, marches, overtures, operas, requiems, sonatas, concertos, cantatas, and so on. In doing so, composers become entwined with past and present models of compositional praxes that they decide to follow, adjust, redevelop, or overturn.