"Not My Cup of Tea": Can We Teach Composition Beyond Musical Genre?
Canadian Music Educator Journal - vol 58 no. 2 - Winter 2017
"... I grew up oriented very much toward “classical” music first, before adding jazz and some milder rock to my playlists. This might be a typical trajectory for music teachers, whose schooling has been structured around great composers. With formal education in composition, however, I am a bigger classical music nerd than most: I went from Bach to Stravinsky, then Britten, Adès and Adams before I would even consider to listening to folk, metal or ambient electronica (a new passion of mine). When David Bowie died earlier this year, I had to admit to my friends (with some degree of self-pity) that I hardly knew any of his music. My attention had simply been elsewhere. Rightly chastised, I then plowed through most of his albums, and liked what I liked, and didn’t like what I didn’t like, and can defend my opinions.
It is obvious that I have a different view of music, and I encourage my students to do the same. I really believe in what my composition professor Gary Kulesha used to say, “in every genre, there is good music and there is bad music. Taste may be personal, but there may be some universal truths about what makes music work or not work for an experienced listener”. It all comes down to what Kulesha called the “craft” of the composer or songwriter. Music education should help us learn to defend our opinions. Like June Countryman, “my vision for my music classes is that we perform and listen and think about music, all kinds of music, in an extended, interactive, improvised conversation” (Countryman, 2009, p. 33). Let the students bring in music – in any genre or style – and we should be able to talk about the craft that went into creating it.
Cups of Tea
My atypical background might explain my atypical reaction to something that happened in my Music Honour Specialist class at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education this past July. Instruments in hands, our group of 35 experienced music teachers were plowing through Sydney Hodkinson’s Contemporary Primer, a series of progressive studies in graphical notation with no specified durations or pitches.1 I was not surprised that there were differences of opinion among our classmates in terms of how – and if – they might use graphical scores with their own ensembles. I also was not surprised that some of my colleagues disliked the dissonant sounds that we were producing. However, I was surprised by my strong reaction when one teacher said that these pieces – and graphic notation by implication – were “not his cup of tea”. It led to a productive discussion about teaching beyond our students’ comfort zones. But I got stuck on the phrase he had used. I spoke up to say that I didn’t think these pieces were a “cup of tea” at all! Graphic notation isn’t a genre of music – it’s just a way of writing music down that still allows openness in interpretation. In teaching Hodkinson’s studies, why couldn’t we choose notes in the B-flat blues scale? Why couldn’t we “quantize” all our rhythms on a grid of triplet 16ths? ... "