My responsibility as a composer is to cultivate my own voice and the story it is trying to tell; as a teacher, my responsibility is to help students understand how they think—to help them cultivate their own voice. Fundamentally, composition from a practitioner’s perspective is about process, more specifically about the creative process. And what is fundamentally at the core of the creative process is a dialogue between one’s conscious and unconscious mind, and through this dialogue one seeks to articulate the resonance of a particular expressive moment framed in time and space.
As a teacher, I try to help my students become more consciously aware of their own creative process. I work to cultivate in them a resonant sense of expressive self and help them find the tools to articulate that understanding. I try to help them distinguish clearly between the different elements of the creative process so that they will be able to reasonably assess their ability to effectively act on their expressive intentions. Timing is critical in the creative process. At different points in the process, different elements need to be brought to the conscious level. This subtly-timed structure is different for everyone and even different for the same person depending on the artistic project at hand and the development of the individual. A creative artist’s relationship with tradition is a complicated and inspired one: sometimes we really do need to “reinvent the wheel” by ourselves, while in other instances we can move more efficiently forward by fully ingesting what has already been done.
How does one create an effective context for active learning? For one thing you have to be patient and very vigilant, observing for the possibility of a teachable moment. Essentially that is the crux of my whole teaching agenda: to create a context and search for teachable moments. What kind of curriculum works best for this? Something that is provocatively asking questions that require—demand—personal reflection and structured thinking. Something that is both specific but also open to the possibility of focusing in on any number of different inspired moments. In other words, something that is clear and immediate while at the same time flexible to change.
What seems to work best for this type of scenario is a sort of “circular curriculum” where the material is revisited again and again allowing for the continued possibility of emotional engagement. It also allows for the curriculum to mirror several different learning styles simultaneously. In specific terms, creating intensive composer-performer collaboration combined with individual and group discussion of creative process have been two fundamental aspects of my teaching for many years now. (in composition seminars, in my studio teaching, and in composition-for-performers classes). I believe the success of this approach is clear from the successes of my students at various conservatories and music schools throughout the country as well as their consistent ability to gain chamber music and orchestral commissions from their musical communities.
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