News, Thoughts, Soapboxes, and/or Essays

Smoke Bombs

One of the things that I like about my job (and I mentioned this earlier) is that I get to have ideas that other people don’t, by virtue of being a composer in a music department. Since most of my job is creating things, I get to think about things in a different way. Often I refer to this as throwing “smoke bombs.”

You think you know how things work, and then someone makes a suggestion and it reframes your idea of how things work. That’s a smoke bomb.

I got to try this out recently in a committee meeting. We were discussing general education requirements and how we could rework an undergraduate certificate. The idea came up of how we structure the program, and how to get faculty buy-in for keeping track of another list of classes, and different hoops to jump through.

After sitting for a while, I suggested the idea that we make the certificate student directed. What if the students put together their curriculum and we approved it on an individual basis, rather than doing all of the work to create a unified standardized curriculum. This was not a terrific idea, but the conversation that happened after I made the suggestion was substantially different. The smoke bomb that I threw changed the nature of how we thought about the problem and how we might find a solution.

This isn’t all that different from the work that I do in composition. Students bring in different ideas, and by and large it is my job to give them other ideas that might interact with the ideas they have. Often the ideas that I suggest are painfully obvious to the student once I say them.

It’s not that they would not would not have come up with the idea on their own, but they needed a second set of eyes, a second pair of ears, or a second brain to make that obviousness known to them.

Better Composing through…paperwork?

As I’ve been teaching composition and refining my own creative process, I’ve found that I think of composition gigs as projects: Write a tape piece, compose a tuba sonata, record an album, plan a recital, and so on.

This works pretty well for my own process, but some of my other students don’t have such a process. Instead, they have multiple works going on at the same time, and while there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it’s often paired with a lack of focus. To make matters worse, the works don’t often get played. Their composing is for the sake of composing.

This is related to three other issues with composition and with how we teach music in general. The first issue deals with delusions of grandeur and transformative change: The idea that “this is the best piece ever and it will make me famous”. Honestly, being delusional is an important part of my creative process, it goes along with the maniacal laughter part of my process. But the idea that one piece will change everything is a bit of a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, starting out as composers, our plan to become famous is by hope: The hope that someone will notice how brilliant we are.

The second point this touches on is project-based music making, which is something our music major curriculum doesn’t always address. I think composers have it better off than most musicians, since compositions are more project-formatted than education or performing, but we don’t really frame our curriculum around projects. There’s a lot more to say on that subject and how it interfaces with entrepreneurship at a later time.

Finally, there’s the idea of compositional intent. Intent is another big topic that will receive attention soon. For now, we’ll leave the discussion as “we need to know where we’re going if we’re going to get there.”

How do we do this with composition? And also, how do I get my students to do it?

In my process, I’ve introduced a form. a Music Creative Brief.

The Music Creative Brief forces me to address some of the big questions that come up at the beginning of a new music project. First and foremost, the deadline. It asks for which performance forces, what the piece should be about, how long it should be, what it can or can’t do, other similar pieces, and what inspires it. There’s also a section for marketing, which addresses the competition, how to sell it, and who might be interested.

Music Creative Brief Page 1
Music Creative Brief page 2

For example, for my next piece, a clarinet choir piece, I have a physical copy of the form that lists what the scoring is, the other pieces on the program (so I know what to do/what not to do), who some of the major clarinet choir groups are, and so on. It’s been incredibly helpful since I started using it about a year and a half ago, and my plan is to start having my students do the same this spring.

A PDF copy of the form is available at

Late Work and Creativity

I spend a lot of time in my teaching trying to find the happy medium between mercy and justice.

This especially manifested itself this past semester in terms of late work. With an expanded number of classes and students, I instituted a new late work policy, which is basically that everything turned in by the end of the week (11:59 Saturday night) would be graded without penalty. Everything turned in after that would not be graded. In my immediate experience, students who needed some extra time to complete an assignment only needed an extra day or two.

This worked well for my freshman intro to college class. For my entrepreneurship and arranging classes, less so, probably because I’d make an exception once early in the beginning of the semester, and after that it was unfair to enforce it.

Also, the work we do in my non-freshman class is largely project-based, and when working creatively, sometimes writer’s block happens.

So, what I need is an easy-to-administer, easy to understand late work policy that gives students the flexibility to navigate their busy schedule (and promote self-time-management) and affords students the ability to spend some extra time on a project to bring it to its full potential.

This semester, I’m instituting the Late Work Pass.


The Late Work Pass (LWP) is a physical business card-sized piece of card stock which each student gets at the beginning of the semester. If they have an assignment to turn in after the grace period, they can turn it in with their LWP.

Even though each student gets one LWP per class, there’s nothing governing whether they keep it, barter it, sell it, or stockpile it for future classes. It can only be used for one assignment (no turning everything in during the last week of classes, unless you have enough LWPs to cover it), and you can’t use it outside of a semester (no turning in things after grades are due).

As an added benefit, it opens the discussion for supply and demand in Music Entrepreneurship.

And it lets me spend less mental energy on late work. And probably less on grading, too.

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.

Fall 2019 Teaching Recap

Fall 2019 was a challenging semester.

I think I taught alright—none of my classes were new preps. There was just a bunch of it. To recap:

NDSU: MUSC 189: Skills for Academic success, or “how to be a music major”. 1 credit.

NDSU: MUSC 331: Instrumental Arranging. 2 credits.

NDSU: MUSC 385: Music Entrepreneurship. 3 credits.

NDSU: Composition lessons: this semester I had a studio of 6.

NDSU: NICE (NDSU Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship) Faculty Fellowship.

NDSU: Freshmen composition projects.

VCSU: MUS 120: Comp 1: 15 students. (Online lectures)

VCSU: MUS 220: Comp 2: 10 students. (Masterclass format, new this semester.)

VCSU: MUS 320: Comp 3: 3 students (including one doing a composition capstone project.)

VCSU: MUS 302: Advanced Scoring and Arranging: 5 students, for a total comp studio at VCSU of 33.

Again, no new preps, but just A LOT of moving parts. And that’s not including my composition or technology work.

A couple of things became very clear through this process: the first is that there are some things I need to tighten up in my syllabus if I have any hope of giving timely feedback, and the second is that my teaching philosophy and my assignments don’t always match up.

Luckily Spring 2020 is going to be lighter, which is great because next fall likely won’t.