On Being a Composer – Part III: On Musical Mentors…

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comFor the third and final of my trilogy of blogs on being a composer, I thought I’d discuss something that has begun to be an issue in my professional life and will no doubt continue to do so in the coming years – the tricky relationship between student and teacher and the role of mentors in the musical world. Now, this isn’t going to be an in-depth look at pedagogy or teaching methods or a swipe at any higher education establishment and the relative merits of the students it produces, but rather a brief look at what this relationship actually entails, what should I expect to do as a teacher and what should I be expected to give any students that work with me?

I think this subject has become more pertinent to me as I grow older and have been working in an educational context for more and more years, it also becomes more apparent as I move further away in age (generally) from the students I teach – whereas at one time the similarities in age between those I taught and me was an issue (though of a different complexity…) it has now moved into different territory – one where I am in a position of experience and opportunity. I also have students working exclusively with me (well, in the creative aspects of their studies) who for one reason or another have ended up with me as the supervisor. The dynamic has changed and will continue to change in the future – the problem is not going to go away quickly.

It’s always a strangely sobering feeling to hear very audible thumbprints of your music in someone else’s output – there is nothing unusual about that, that’s how the vast majority of artists learn their trade – but the feeling it engenders is one of equal parts pride and shame – surely I should have tried harder to hid my musical mannerisms? But then why should I be ashamed? I quite like the music I write, so why shouldn’t I take pride if someone wants to emulate those sounds? I guess much of it boils down to the mantra that you shouldn’t use your own music to illustrate good practice (I’m not sure where I learnt that, but I’ve always tried to follow it…), but then the university is always harping on about ‘research led teaching’, so I’m ultimately left confused and conflicted. One thing I’ve always found is that it is much easier to work with a student whose music is somewhat aesthetically similar to your own – it’s not a deal-breaker, but it certainly is easier. But then when does your aesthetic end and the student’s begin – how much of your music do you leave behind? It’s all very troubling…

A few weeks ago a student of mine (I hate saying ‘mine’ as well – what ownership do I have over this student?) asked my opinion on something, then qualified it by saying ‘it matters, because you’re my mentor’ – I nearly recoiled in horror! When did we agree to this relationship? When did we move from teacher/student to mentor/mentee (if that is indeed a word)? Did we sign a contract? What are your expectations of me in this relationship? I don’t think it was meant with any great thought, but it did suggest a change in the relationship and that what was expected of me had altered. Some composer-teachers I know actively encourage this distinction and are happy to be known as a mentor, to multiple students, but it’s something that I’ve only recently encountered and not fully come to terms with.

I guess the issue I have is what expectations does this raise in the mentee (I’m going with that word…) – it suggests a level of personal engagement that is perhaps missing in the usual student/teacher relationship. Do I have to provide more than just compositional advice? Should I be providing professional contacts or even paid work? A composer friend of mine had a paid gig with a German radio orchestra during his PhD (set up by his tutor…or mentor…) – I can’t hope to do that for my students, nor should I be expected to. I can certainly give professional advice and suggest avenues of enquiry, but then I would do that for any student, whether I was their mentor or not. Should I be looking out for their personal well-being? Again, in one way or another I would do that instinctively. Should I actively be favouring them over other students? Well, no.

I guess many of my issues with the mentor relationship is because I no longer have any such relationship with my PhD supervisor – for reasons out of my control I haven’t spoken to him since 2008 (the year after I finished my PhD). Any ongoing mentor/mentee relationship was cut off and in many ways I find that increasingly sad. It’s not that I would have expected him to provide me with opportunities or to promote my works in important places or introduce me to prominent people (he didn’t do any of those things when I studied with him) but it would have been nice to have someone who was aware of my work with whom to discuss problems, issues and even successes. Yes, it would have also been nice to have a pat on the back every so often – we all crave a little respect when we’ve done well – but often it is just to have a chat with someone when things aren’t going so well – maybe that is the true mark of a mentor.

Anyhow, I guess it is a problem that maybe only I have, maybe I should be honoured that someone wanted me as their mentor? Maybe it is all a social construct? Maybe I’m thinking about things too deeply? So many questions, but no answers – if only I had a mentor to discuss it with…


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