Making the Most of Your Consultation

Daron Aric Hagen
Submitted: Sat, March 28, 2015 - 5:55pm EDT
Teaching Composition via Skype
Ten tips for making composition lessons and work-shares more effective.

About fifteen years ago, I ceased teaching composition pupils in a traditional academic setting. Of course, I still give private lessons and master classes, but faculty meetings and curriculum arguments didn't have my heart and, in any event, I was too busy writing music to teach it to students that I hadn't personally vetted.

I still believe in institutions, and in the immense value of having fellow students, and of learning skills. But I only teach privately, and I only accept students I think I can help.

I like to teach on Skype. Customarily, I'll ask the person I'm meeting with to send me a copy of the Sibelius file they are working (whether it is a film score, concert piece, operatic project, or incidental music) on so that I can open it and put it on my screen. Then I'll share my screen with them, making alterations to the file as we discuss the piece. At the end of the session, I email the sibelius file to the composer so that they have a record of the encounter.

Here are a couple of tips for optimizing a lesson or work-share experience:

(1.) Notate clearly. I don't know a single world-class teacher who will give you their best if your music is poorly notated. A composition teacher will take your money and spend the time fixing your notation or engraving, and never get to the good stuff, if you don't.

(2.) In other words: Not having a lot of craft is fine, but show the teacher your best craft, and s/he can pull you up to the next level. (You wouldn't bring your easiest piece to your first piano lesson, would you?)

(3.) Don't complain to your teacher about colleagues, the business, or former teachers. It's not cool, and there's nothing to be learned from doing it.

(4.) A composition teacher is not a psychiatrist. They can point you in the right direction for professional opportunities, but it is not their responsibility to do more than push you through the door. If you spend the entire lesson talking about your music instead of sharing it, then it may be time to find a new teacher.

(5.) If you hear yourself explaining that you "just like it that way," then you probably need to relax and go with the flow. Be open to new ideas.

(6.) If your teacher's position is that a career composing music for concert halls, opera houses, live theaters, and film is not possible and you disagree, find a new one.

(7.) Some teachers state their opinions as facts. There is nothing wrong with this. Don't take it the wrong way. It is just an efficient mode of discourse -- the equivalent of leaving out all those "IMHO's."

(8.) Just because a teacher has won a bunch of composition prizes doesn't mean they're a good teacher. Think outside the box. Look for a teacher who wants to help you thrive, creatively and professionally, not one who wants you to be like them.

(9.) Just like a voice student, record your lesson so that you can go back and catch whatever nuances you may have missed the first time around.

(10.) Don't fight your (current or former) teacher's battles. Be yourself. A good teacher will help you to be better at that.

Good luck, and good composing: "Peace. Justice. Good tunes."