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Teaching Composition – The Technical and the Inspired

I have almost exactly the sort of teaching position I want to have. Of course there are always things that could improve, the role I get to play right now is my favorite.

Julius Bahle in a 1930s paper divided composers into work-type composers and inspiration-type composers. Though I’m not sure if I follow that specific dichotomy, I think that there are two styles of composition instruction: the inspired and the technical.

These categories have some baggage that I don’t intend: I don’t mean that technical composers aren’t inspired or vice versa. Rather, it’s about how each type approaches composition pedagogy.

Whatever that is.

In my case, I approach composition from inspiration, and I’ve had students who have clearly had technical instructors previously. They talk about their chord progression, their form, how their 21st-century piece conforms to an 18th-century norm. And then I ask them about energy-line analysis or how their piece evades expectations.

Do I think theory and analysis is important? Very. Do I find it the most interesting part of the creative process? Hardly.

This is the creative side of my truth vs quality talk.

At NDSU, I don’t teach theory—aside from Instrumental Arranging, I don’t do much typical theory teaching. But I try to be active in our theory pedagogy conversations. I get to play devil’s advocate for the curriculum. I get to have a bunch of random ideas and challenge the status quo.

When students come and ask about cadences and say that this chord meets their checklist of what a cadence is, I counter with “does the music breathe here? No? Then it’s not a cadence.”

Technically correct? Maybe not. But the technical isn’t all we teach in music schools.