Igor_Stravinsky__Nadia_Boulanger_1937

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

We still have a long way to go in terms of shifting the model of what a composition teacher can provide. First, we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition.

Written By

Mara Gibson

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

In graduate school, I was shocked by the “master” mentality of the composition world. Young composers literally fawned over their professors, and it seemed insincere. I thought the purpose of going to graduate school was to carve my own path, not simply to hob-knob with the “greats.” Since I had come from a relatively non-traditional undergraduate experience, I was eager to gain the technical experience that my peers had already achieved. I took extra independent studies in counterpoint, spending almost a year on perfecting the retrogradable canon. I’m not sure I ever did actually master the skill, but I sure loved the process! I could not get enough of the literature and was fascinated by imitating forms. If I had been forced to do this work sooner, I would surely have recoiled from it. Yet to this day, I refer back to many of the readings and writings by composers about their work that I came across during that time. I also developed a passion for visual art and patterns—Morton Feldman became my hero. The way he wrote about his work, brainstormed, and drew inspiration from painters broadened my aesthetic palette.

Yet, beneath my excitement and fascination with the infinite study of music, fear was brewing; skepticism towards my teachers emerged—particularly the mentality that privileged the “master” over the “apprentice.” Coming from progressive and forward-thinking schools, I had built for myself a certain dreamscape for creativity, and this “guru” approach was confusing and concerning for me. As I got closer to the professional world, I started witnessing overt gender biases as well. I noticed that there were markedly fewer women in my graduate program than men. I distinctly recall dismissing this worry, consciously deciding that I could not give my concern credence, because if I did, it would get in the way of what I wanted and needed to make my music. I remain conflicted when trying to negotiate between the many roles I assume, now as a composer, a teacher, a mother, and an administrator. The survivalist in me still cautions about even considering whether being female makes a difference, but as I become more involved with all aspects of my career, I am not sure how ethical it is for me to ignore the issue. Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher–both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.

There is a deep lineage from composer to student that is rooted in imitation and modeling. Like following the legacy of Feldman in Buffalo, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. Nadia Boulanger’s spirit was alive and well, though I did not have the opportunity to work with her directly. As Leon Botstein explains, she was “less interested in the imposition of an aesthetic, and more invested in the transmission of discipline”—whether through conventional or non-conventional means. Like other modernists, she encouraged the exploration of new forms alongside a reverence for the masterpieces of the past. However, she was unique in that she was the first hugely influential female to train an extraordinary A-list of 20th-century composers. Her pedagogical approach was based in counterpoint—in combining the vertical and horizontal simultaneously. She composed, but we have come to know of her primarily as a pedagogue. And she was strict! Students consistently report that she made them work harder than they had ever worked before.



“Do not take up music unless you would rather die than do so.”
—Nadia Boulanger
Unfortunately, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) did not have the same opportunities to be both a composer and a teacher that we have access to in 2014. While there are many speculations about why she was not equally successful as a composer and teacher, the lesson I take away is that we still have a long way to go in terms of shifting the model of what a composition teacher can provide. First, we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. I will address this in more detail in my final post next week. In the meantime, I continue to admire Nadia, and all of her students, but I would celebrate and welcome the chance to rethink the mold, as a woman and a composer/teacher, simultaneously.

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