On Composers and Teaching…

November 8th, 2016

With another academic year just around the corner with all the highs and lows that it entails, I thought it was a good time to think about the notion of composers as teachers, not necessarily an in-depth analysis of the educational aesthetic behind this, but a look at how composers fair as teachers and what (other than some money, of varying amounts) we get out of this.

Firstly I should say, all the composers I know (and I mean really know, not just on Facebook or something) teach in one capacity or another – whether in full time academic jobs, part-time positions, composer-in-residence positions, pool-teaching positions, peripatetic work etc. It is at its most basic level a verifiable way of supplementing a living as a composer, or perhaps to be blunter – it actually funds the possibility of being a composer. But is it the best way to fund being a composer? Sure, a cushy position with little actual teaching and preparation time, free from copious departmental/faculty meetings with four fully paid months off in the summer is an excellent way of supplementing whatever income comes from composing – but how prevalent are these positions? In my experience, not that prevalent. Many composers are on short-term contracts or in hourly paid positions with very little job security and little professional respect – yet it does pay the bills. And it is using skills learned over years of study and individual research, something that many music graduates will never actually do. But is it the best thing for a composer to do?

I guess the question should maybe be ‘what are the other options open to provide a decent living?’ Well, one could just become a more successful composer – that shouldn’t be too difficult then, just con more people into playing my pieces and commission me, give me twenty years and that will work fine. But we aren’t all a James MacMillan or a John Rutter. What else? Work as a copyist or typesetter – that could work. Work as an amanuensis? It worked for Colin Matthews and he’s quite successful. Become a hugely successful conductor and conduct my own pieces? It’s been a nice career path for Oliver Knussen. What else? Have a wealthy family? History (including recent history) is littered with composers from independently wealthy families – however this isn’t something that is necessarily easy to ‘acquire’ – though I suppose I could marry into money? I’ll have a think about that…

So, teaching it is then.

Composers who teach can be divided into two equal groups – those who enjoy teaching and those who don’t – for every composer who comes away from a tutorial/lecture feeling invigorated and all warm inside from the imparting of knowledge there are plenty who are watching the clock and counting the pennies – I can empathise with both. Much of it depends on the individual student or the academic establishment; sometimes I have really learnt something or rediscovered something I had long forgotten – other times I want to murder someone – nothing unusual there then. Composers can also be divided into those who are actually ‘good’ at teaching and those who aren’t – some of those that taught me definitely come into the latter category…but that’s a different story.

What I do think is that it is really good for composers to teach in some form, in some way on a regular basis – the ability to discuss ideas and techniques in a coherent, intelligible way is a supremely useful skill, and to perhaps be challenged on this ability and belief set is even more useful. Composers should always have their beliefs challenged – shouldn’t they? Or marry into money.


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