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Creating a Composition Course
Patric Standford

Over the years a great many people have involved me in arguments about whether or not any of the creative arts can be taught - and this still goes on around our dining table at home! Of course I have to agree, up to a point, that without being born with a particular kind of creative instinct, nothing of any artistic significance will ever materialise. Teaching the actual creative process is very close to impossible. Being a creative artist is a natural gift, just as a natural healer will take up medicine. But I believe that the craft associated with an art form can be taught. With wise guidance, an artist can be provided with many useful routes to a realisation of those often rather illusive dreams. Composing is perhaps made more difficult to teach than writing or the visual arts because of its essentially abstract nature and the need to bridge the passage from dream to practicality. There are not many performers who will respond effectively to drawings of the composer’s ideas, although thirty years ago such short-cuts were popular among some. The teaching of the technique of composing need not impose on a student’s imagination, but can be a guide through what can easily prove to be a labyrinth of mistakes and misunderstandings, hindering the establishment of a direct route from the imagination to the listener through the essentially practical performer.

Last autumn I was asked by the Open College of the Arts to write a composition course. This was a formidable request, although I have been involved with teaching composers since I was first recruited to the professorial staff of the Guildhall School of Music in 1967 (and what a long time ago that seems now!). The principal of the Guildhall was at that time the remarkable Allen Percival, and he persuaded me that I should become the ‘understudy’ to Edmund Rubbra, a teacher in whose methods and wisdom I could not have had greater respect. He taught me much about teaching composition too. In particular, resisting any temptation to push a student into composing in the teacher’s favoured style or idiom. We taught the technique of composition and applied this to anything from the creators of hymn tunes to post-Boulez ensemble pieces.

The Open College of the Arts wanted courses that would appeal to enthusiasts of any stylistic persuasion, starting at a modest level and working at home with a good computer programme (the course is written on Sibelius) with which tutors respond with recommended revisions that are sent back on disc or by email. In all, a thoroughly up-to-date ‘distance learning’ process which is now available and is already appealing to students in Europe and even Indonesia as well as this country.

It is a course that has taken much thought and preparation, and may still encounter some problems, but I am confident that it will help to enlighten those who are curious about how music works and how it can be made. It is also a product of my own firm belief that although so much is now made so easy, there is still a need for technical mastery and good craftsmanship in musical composition. As time moves on we are losing respect for good craftsmanship and many students are bored by the learning process. Computers can provide quick effortless results - but these are usually deceptive. I have responded to the request to create this unique composition course because I want it known that music should not be composed lightly, thrown together by the chance manipulation of a Midi keyboard input or ‘cut and paste’ facilities. It must be thought about laterally, gently moulded into shape, crafted carefully with a sympathetic and perceptive instinct - and most of this is what can be taught. The computer is used judiciously to serve rather than to control the composer.

[The Open College of the Arts also has courses in Fine Art, Creative Writing, Photography Film and Digital Media and Textile Design.]

Patric Standford  


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