Learn How To Learn How To Learn: On Being a Self-Taught and a Non-Self-Taught Composer

I have had a somewhat ambiguous relationship to music education throughout my life. Early guitar lessons were more of a straitjacket than a path to musical creativity, and I ran away from the teacher during my sole piano lesson. I only studied composition formally for one semester and never did anything I was assigned to do. Yet I no longer brag about being self-taught, because many teachers have influenced me.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Last week, NewMusicBox published an unprecedented breadth of content under the rubric “How We Learn Now.” Each of the contributing writers, and especially “education week” mastermind Molly Sheridan who tied it all together, is well-deserving of kudos, as is every reader who managed to get through it all—it was a lot to read. I know, I read it all! However, I decided to remain on the sidelines rather than contribute an essay to the mix. This was principally because I was madly working away at next month’s NewMusicBox cover. (To experience that, come back tomorrow.) But my decision not to write anything last week was also, I must confess, because of a somewhat ambiguous relationship to music education throughout my life.

There were no musicians in my family, but I was exposed to music at a very early age. Admittedly most of what I heard in the first decade of my life was mainstream popular music or worse—my mother owned and kept in heavy rotation the complete discography of Engelbert Humperdinck (not the composer of Hänsel und Gretel). But more interesting sounds managed to seep through on an unconscious level. I grew up, for the most part, in New York City, and there were many opportunities to hear a wide variety of music involuntarily just walking down the street. The music that was happening around me during the era I was growing up—the late 1960s and early 1970s—was chock full of experimentation in almost every genre and the lines between those genres were extraordinarily porous. Long before I ever heard the name Karlheinz Stockhausen, his face was among those assembled for the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released a month after my third birthday. While I did not own a copy of that record until my friend Charles Passy gave me one during my senior year in high school (by which time I was obsessed with Stockhausen), the first movie I was taken to see was Yellow Submarine when I was four (although I’ve been told that I cried through the whole thing). But more importantly, upright pianos were in the homes of most of my relatives and tinkering around on them, without really knowing what I was doing (or, more importantly, what I “should” be doing), started me off on a lifelong path. If only I had been exposed to other instruments in a similar way…
I began writing my own songs when I was nine and my family noticed my interest in music, although it would be several years before I actually had any kind of music lesson. I apparently briefly played a viola I borrowed from an elementary school teacher, though I have no memories of it. When I was in fifth grade, I took guitar lessons in a mall which was a mile away from the Miami trailer park I lived in for two otherwise musically lackluster years. Ironically, those guitar lessons were more of a straitjacket for me than a path to musical creativity—the teacher never deviated from the books he was teaching me from. To this day, I play the guitar somewhat awkwardly since I never found a way around the instrument on my own. I also have vague memories of a music teacher at the Miami elementary school I attended. On weekends he played in a retro rock and roll band; all I remember him talking about was the early history of rock and roll, which effectively turned me off to that music until decades later.
Once I moved back to New York City, I continued to tinker on pianos and by that point was notating the songs and short instrumental solos I came up with, so my family sent me to Greenwich House Music School for piano lessons. When the teacher asked me to play for her and I did, she exclaimed that my fingering was all wrong and I’d have to start all over again from the very beginning. I had fingered a major triad with my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I was supposed to have fingered it with my thumb, middle finger, and pinky. She said that unless I learned to finger it the right way, I would never be able to develop proper technique; I said if I fingered it her way, I wouldn’t be able to add sevenths and ninths to that triad. She would not relent. I ran out from her class and never returned.

Despite my wayward musical ways, I was accepted to the High School of Music and Art where I played the piano and sang Broadway material as well as my own music for my audition. Music and Art did not offer piano or composition lessons, so I was assigned to the vocal department. I had one champion among the music teachers at that school, a man named Lionel Chernoff who taught music theory and had a Medieval and Renaissance music performance class, an elective I gave up my lunch period to be in for two years. Chernoff, it turned out, was not only an aficionado of early music but an omnivorous listener who had a passion for Brazilian music. He was also the first person to mention the names Harry Partch and Philip Glass to me. For decades after my graduation, he came to performances of my music whenever he saw my name in newspaper concert listings.

However, the teacher during high school who wound up having the deepest impact on my musical development was, ironically, my math teacher Jim Murphy, who has remained a lifelong friend and mentor. Though initially he did not offer anything to me that could be construed as musical training per se, Murphy made me mindful of always being open to otherness. He also instilled in me a disciplined approach to exploring patterns as well as exploiting formal possibilities. After all, he was a math teacher. At the same time, he was extremely unconventional. He often exclaimed that he was not primarily concerned with teaching us math, but rather teaching us to “learn how to learn how to learn”—a mantra worthy of Gertrude Stein. A prolific poet, Murphy, in one math class, taught us all haiku and traditional Chinese five character, four line lyric poems which were the ancestor to haiku. An inveterate contrarian, he also set an extremely impactful example of how to interact with the world. The Rubik’s Cube was all the rage at that time and in one class he showed us how to always solve the puzzle—by ripping the pieces of it apart and then putting them back together again! At one point he decided to give me a ton of books, volumes of poetry and hardcore mathematics, but he purposefully made it difficult for me. He gave me nothing to carry the huge stack in and I lugged them in both my hands from room to room as I went to each of my classes and then back home on the subway at the end of the school day. I credit him not only for my lifetime obsession with acquiring books and recordings, but also my ability to not be deterred by the impracticality of schlepping them back from all over the world, frequently in less that optimal circumstances. More importantly, Murphy’s own poetry and his daily writing regimen became an important model for my writing of both music and words. Eventually he played recordings for me that introduced me to the musical traditions of East Asians and Native Americans, as well as old blues and country music. I began to try to find a way to incorporate those other musical systems into the personal musical language I was trying to develop. A series of 14 of his sonnets became the text for a lengthy musical composition of mine which I began during my senior year of high school and which is the oldest music I still acknowledge some 32 years later. By the time I wrote that piece, I had already identified myself with the moniker “composer” even though I had yet to have a formal composition lesson.

Celebrating Murphy

To celebrate his 75th birthday earlier this year, his son Jonathan Murphy (far left), Charles Passy (center), and I took Jim Murphy (right) out for an elaborate meal in Chinatown. As per usual, Murphy was teaching somebody something. (If you look closely you can see that he’s demonstrating a string figure to a member of the wait staff.)

In the middle of the first semester of my freshman year at Columbia University, Max Lifchitz, then an adjunct professor in the music department, had learned of my compositional activity and suggested I attend his composition class. I already had a full schedule and it was too late to enroll for the class, but the following semester I studied privately with him. Although he attempted to give me specific assignments (one was to write a solo flute piece), I was in the middle of several large-scale works that I wanted to write and I just continued working on them. He was fine with my rebelliousness and even offered some valuable pointers on that aforementioned song cycle which I revised accordingly at that time. One of those revisions was a brief piano intro before one of the songs, which he suggested I write in order to give the piece more variety, and it is my favorite passage in that piece to this day.

Despite this positive experience, that one semester marked the beginning and end of my formal training as a composer. At the time, I believed that the aesthetics of the people teaching composition at Columbia were completely antithetical to my own and so I refused to interact with them. In my senior year there, I stopped taking music classes altogether and took enough credits in English for it to count as a second “concentration”—not quite a “major” but having the two “concentrations” was enough for me, in 1985, to be the first member of my family ever to receive a bachelor’s degree. At that point in my life I thought I was done with school altogether, but after graduation I could not figure out what to do with my life and, on Murphy’s advice, I became a public high school teacher. Though I managed to secure licenses to teach both music and English, I wound up teaching English as a second language in East New York, Brooklyn, which was then an extremely tough inner city neighborhood. After four years in the teaching system (years during which my compositional activity at one point completely stopped since I zealously felt it was a useless pursuit that gave nothing back to the world), I reached a dead end.

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So I applied to the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Columbia and they accepted me with a full tuition fellowship. I refused to study composition there, and I never considered applying to schools anywhere outside New York City to study composition. (Believe it or not, my two less-than-happy childhood years in Miami convinced me that I should never attempt to leave New York City again; I did not start travelling until I was in my mid-20s.) I believed that ethnomusicology would be the ideal subject for me since it would give me more exposure to a greater variety of the world’s musical traditions (which I could then incorporate into my own music). I quickly learned, however, that that was not what ethnomusicology was, at least not how it was practiced at Columbia at that time. I should have known better. I lasted a year in the program. I managed to get a master’s degree, but that was the end. However, I was actively composing music again.

But I had to get a job to support myself. I landed a four-day-a-week job for a music PR firm and wound up going to a lot of free concerts. Through it all, with whatever spare money I had, I bought records, tons of them, and was listening to music constantly. In 1998, I joined the staff of the American Music Center. You know the rest of the story. Well, not quite. Though I never took another formal composition lesson after my freshman year at Columbia, every time I prepare to talk with a composer for NewMusicBox I completely immerse myself in the related recordings and scores. Many times, after the conversations are recorded, I feel like I have learned some extremely valuable things that have found their way back into my own music by and by.
Though once upon a time I used to downplay that single semester of composition study at Columbia and brag about being a self-taught composer, I now realize that the truth of my education is much different. I have tons of teachers to thank, though most were not people I formally studied with. And the most valuable lesson I learned and which I have devoted my entire life to continuing to learn—thank you Jim Murphy—is to learn how to learn how to learn.