Tag: music pedagogy

Vokas Animo (Performing Microtonal Choral Music: The End Product)

A photo montage of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Robert Lopez-Hanshaw's microtonal choral composition Vokas Animo

If you read my Performing Microtonal Choral Music articles earlier this year, you may remember that I threatened to post some video of my most recent choral and orchestral piece after its premiere. I am hereby making good on this threat.

Vokas Animo by Robert Lopez-Hanshaw
Music in 72edo, approximating 11-limit Extended Just Intonation.
Premiere performance at Tucson Music Hall, Sunday, January 26, 2020
Tucson Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Director: José Luis Gomez
Choirmaster: Bruce Chamberlain
Commissioned by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Text in Esperanto by William Auld, published as “Ju alten oni soras” (1951), used with permission of the Auld family.

The piece illustrates the essential parts of my approach to teaching microtonal choral music. I designed it, during composition, to exploit the easiest of those pathways. So, a motive that returns over and over in the piece is a two quarter tones, going the same direction, outlining a semitone. With very slight tuning changes, it generates a good number of different structures—and these tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments, as they are here. Unfamiliar sonorities are anchored on either side by familiar ones, to provide reliable targets. And it was necessary for the choir to learn only a very few new intervals—chiefly the 7:6 subminor third, and (in two melodic instances and one harmonic instance) the 11:8 neutral fourth. Everything else was constructable from things the choir already knew.

Tuning changes are much simpler for a choir to perform when all vocal parts are doubled by instruments.

This approach extends to my view of the audience, by the way. In the words of Eugene Narmour, in The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures: “Gravity does not explain architecture, but architecture is subject to its law; likewise, perceptual laws do not explain music, but music cannot escape their influence.” The “laws” he mentions are not tied to a particular system, or else they’d be merely rules. Instead, they deal with things like our basic ability to track a melody, subconsciously aligning it with internalized sound categories such as scale degrees; and with the pattern of a built expectation followed by either confirmation or denial. You can do all kinds of things with those.

My background is in education. So this was, in a very real sense, a teaching piece. But it was also the highest expression of my artistic ethos that I’ve yet produced, and it tested the limits of my craft as a composer. So it is not “just” a teaching piece; it patronizes neither the orchestra nor the choir.

My next project is a piece for symphonic winds—also comprehensively microtonal—for a consortium of ensembles. There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set. And it so happens that my priorities tend to produce music that could be called a gateway for nonspecialists, a path leading into ever stranger territory. So I embrace this!

There is interest in microtonality among regular musicians, not only the self-consciously modernist set.

And why be stingy? It’s time to spread it around. To that end, I’m also editing a collection of fingerings and playing techniques for all standard orchestral instruments and several auxiliaries, in a fine-grained microtonal system. That system is 72 tones per octave, or a step size of 16.7c. And yes, standard instruments can accommodate that! They did, after all, for vokas animo – as did the choir.

The book is called Practical Microtones, to be published in 2021. The contributors are too many to list here, but each is a lifelong performer on the instrument in question, and well-known in the microtonal and contemporary music world. I hope that it will help in the creation and performance of many more such gateway pieces.

Framing Your Voice, Part 1

Baldessari's "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)"

Baldessari’s “Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear)”

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies. —Robert Frost

As young musicians, we may encounter many types of teachers, ranging from the traditional to a Suzuki advocate, and perhaps even some champions of Orff, Dalcroze, or Kodaly for a lucky few. So, what distinguishes a good teacher from a great one? At different career points, both of Frost’s teachers hold value. In my own teaching and composing, I find myself returning to a few basic principles that illustrate these ideas. First and foremost, I build rules/identify parameters, ask questions, and maintain dedication. The most successful atmosphere for the student and teacher exists when both parties are thinking, creating, and being stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions.

The most fundamental goal for a young musician is to find her/his artistic voice. After all, we make music to communicate something beyond words, something transcendental. For composers, creating a form, choosing an instrumentation, and devising an intention in tandem are critical. While modeling forms can be immensely important, beginners seem to excel when presented with an open palette, one that allows them to help build the rules of their craft. Boundaries tend to limit the student, while options inspire. While every student is unique, I have found that encouraging open parameters is helpful; when a student has a hand in determining a form that reflects his/her creative intention, he/she is more prone to remain devoted to the inspiration.
For most of us, teaching students how to ask questions and find solutions is more valuable than articulating history. If a sincere answer is to be discovered, the student must ask the question. For the teacher, this generally requires a lot of patience, listening, and learning. In creative fields, the answer is most always found in the question. Once the student is invested in this process, then historicizing, theorizing, and analyzing will be natural consequences. For example, imagine a student who wants to illuminate the state of mind in-between consciousness and unconsciousness in a composition, like being awakened from a dream. Rather than ask the student to mimic Debussy (a logical connection) without context, I would advocate for the student to first create their own form and instrumentation, requiring them to generate both the content and motivation for formal decision-making. Alongside these tasks, I would encourage several listening assignments—music by historically contrasting composers (with score, if possible); this type of complimentary approach strengthens both expressiveness and craft.

Teaching demands a dedication similar to what’s required when writing music or playing an instrument. For me, there is a natural and beneficial balance to be struck between being a musician and a teacher, as both strengthen knowledge and encourage inquiry (on behalf of the student and teacher alike!). The most successful learning atmosphere exists when both parties are thinking and creating, stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions. When I consider the most memorable “teaching moments,” which are signposts in my own learning, I come up with a few consistent themes:

Listen to and question everything
Hear what you compose and compose what you hear
Organize what you compose (know where/when things belong)
Create a structure/language for what you compose/hear

I tend to think the best teachers operate in both ways Frost describes, depending on where the student needs to go. Our job is to awaken curiosity, both in our students and within ourselves. I had my fair share of both the teachers who filled me with “quail-shot” and many more who gently nudged me into the sky.


Mara Gibson
Composer Mara Gibson is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated from Bennington College and completed her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. She has received grants and honors from the American Composers Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, ArtsKC, Meet The Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Hendrick Memorial Commission. Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists have performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Gibson teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance while leading the conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as director, where she is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop and co-director/founder of ArtSounds.

Notes From the Other Side of the Desk

University of Michigan Music Building

University of Michigan Music building, by Brian Wolfe on Flickr

The teaching artist faced a serious problem. He had to do what he could to develop the traditional craft that might in the future be important for the young artist, but at the same time not stifle the artist’s struggle to find his own individuality.

—Ross Lee Finney

My first knock on the door of room 2243 in the Earl V. Moore School of Music, Theatre, and Dance building at the University of Michigan (UM) Ann Arbor was in February 1998. I began the day in William Albright’s office, among a group of prospective doctoral composers. Albright spoke about the composition department’s curriculum, its extensive history of educating top-notch composers within an enriching artistic and intellectual environment, and gave an impassioned description of the wide aesthetic variety of current students and alumni.

The second time I entered 2243 Moore was the following September for my first composition lesson with Albright. We listened to some of my music, and in each piece he pointed out specific moments: “That! There! That’s a Kristyness I hear. Embrace it, hone into that!” Four years later in Spring 2002, I expressed concerns about my writing to William Bolcom as I finished up my dissertation. Bill said, “You’ve tried new things for yourself in this piece, and you’ll hear what works and what doesn’t work for you. You are doing a good job being Kristy. Keep writing.” These were the last words I heard as a student in a composition lesson. We were in 2243 Moore, which Bolcom took over after Albright passed away in September 1998.
Office doorway
There is a deep, reverberating echo of history in composer higher education, and a palpable unspoken dialogue between current and past students, faculty, and guest artists. Composer Betsy Jolas gives a lovely introduction at her guest seminars, in which she hands out a sheet tracing her musical lineage. It begins with the first sounds of her mother’s voice singing, and webs wide through those with whom she studied, and those she has taught. While I am saddened to have had only a few lessons with Albright in the weeks before his death, he is present, along with each of my mentors, in every lesson I now teach.
In August 2008, I re-entered the Moore building after nearly a decade away. Its familiar air triggered a memories montage of my time here as a student. I felt a heavy sense of responsibility, an amped charge emanating from this room where I was to begin again, on the other side of the desk in 2243 Moore.

I have always taught on the basis of what I hear in a student’s work and not on the basis of a predetermined theory that I wish to impose. It is not an easy way to teach, because it demands an open-minded concentration on what the composer is trying to accomplish and a ruthless attempt to develop a student’s self-criticism, without belittling his effort.

—Ross Lee Finney

A friend once told me having a child is like throwing a giant mirror right up one inch from one’s face—it feels true for me as a parent—and I’m finding that teaching composition has a similar texture. It is hilariously unnerving to hear students repeat the same excitements, concerns, ideas, frustrations, and questions I rattled out during my student days.

The list of composers influenced by Finney both directly as his students, and indirectly as his students’ students, is staggeringly extensive (click here for a comprehensive list of UM composition department alumni, past faculty, guests, and see where they are now). I first came to know the ethos of Ross Lee Finney’s pedagogy while completing my master’s degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I studied primarily with Richard Toensing, who had studied at UM with Finney and Leslie Bassett in the 1960s. Lessons with Toensing were often dappled with endearing Finney impressions and anecdotes; yet more importantly, gems of both his and Finney’s compositional wisdom.

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Throughout my time at CU myriad guest composers visited and gave lessons, held master classes, and had works performed. It was during these residencies that I first met Leslie Bassett, Roger Reynolds, and George Crumb—all of whom studied with Finney at UM—among others. While my time with these composers, like Albright, was brief, specific sentences I heard from them have stayed with me, sentences that left me breathless and invigorated to keep working at bettering my writing. My lessons with them, and all of my teachers, were transformative.

One of my favorite activities to come with this teaching gig is our annual prospective students’ portfolios review. My colleagues—Evan Chambers, Michael Daugherty, Erik Santos, Paul Schoenfield, Bright Sheng—and I pile into a room and go through a mountain of scores. We get a steady groove going and as the day progresses, quotes from former teachers inevitably come out: “so-and-so used to say, about counterpoint…” or “once, I showed so-and-so a piece for this ensemble, and he quipped…” The collective voices of our mentors—among them Albright, Bassett, Bernstein, Bolcom, Boulez, Davidovsky, Druckman, Jolas, Ligeti, Perle, Reynolds, and one another (I studied with both Evan and Michael during my D.M.A.)—are with us in that room.

During the summer of 1960 … there was a special conference of avant-garde composers in Stratford, Ontario, which Robert Ashley, Roger Reynolds, Goerge Cacioppo and Gordon Mumma decided to attend. On returning from the conference, … (they) organized what they called the ONCE Group, which would present annual festivals not only of their own music but also of avant-garde composers such as Cage and Berio, whom they would bring to Ann Arbor.

—Ross Lee Finney

Michael Daugherty has a deep love of history and often speaks of feeling profoundly grateful to his teachers, one of whom was Roger Reynolds. In 2010 Michael spearheaded, in conjunction with the UMSMTD’s Center for Performing Arts Technology and UM’s Institute for the Humanities, the ONCE.MORE. festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor.
Pioneering composers Ashley, Mumma, Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda reunited in Ann Arbor for the first time since the 1960s (Cacioppo passed away in 1984 and was lauded by his comrades throughout the festival). There were concerts of historic and more recent works, an exhibition of artifacts from the initial ONCE Festivals, and a day-long symposium. In a nod to the past, the concerts featured 1961 ticket prices: $2. I popped into the artifacts exhibition early one morning and found Gordon Mumma there, alone. As he described some of the program booklets and pointed out friends in photos he said, “This wall, with these objects, it speaks to how we all came together in this magical place to try something new.”

The Rackham Graduate School furnished funds to equip an electronic music studio … I appointed George Wilson to head the studio but also persuaded the dean to appoint Mario Davidovsky as visiting professor for a semester to teach the faculty. Mario made a great contribution … and (gave) great encouragement to both Wilson and Bassett … It was our conviction that emphasis should first be put on the student’s being a composer, treating the electronic medium as one of many devices he could use in producing music.

—Ross Lee Finney

When I met Mario Davidovsky at the Wellesley Composers Conference in summer 2003, he immediately spoke with excitement and fondness of his time at UM. I asked if he would give me a lesson and he said, “You don’t need my opinions on your music now. How can I be useful to you in thinking about your future as a composer?” My time with Mario was a mere two weeks, yet I think of his advice often. “How can I be useful to you?” is my most frequently repeated sentence in 2243 Moore.

Mario also said, “Ah, that magical town Ann Arbor! Always so much happening there!” Indeed, in the years since Finney set up the composition department in 1949, along with the growth of the University Musical Society into the longest-running performing arts series in the country, much has happened and continues to happen here. In a brief interview for UM American Music Institute’s “Living Music” collection of first-person commentaries on music today, George Wilson recalls calling on Motown for help with the first-ever presentation in the U.S. of the four-track version of Stockhausen’s Kontakte. From the original ONCE Festivals, to the legendary 1984 premiere of the third scene from Stockhausen’s Samstag, Lucifer’s Dance—commissioned and premiered by the UM Symphony Band and H. Robert Reynolds—in Hill Auditorium, to Bolcom’s epic Songs of Innocence and Experience on the same stage in 2004, the list of Ann Arbor’s happenings is massive and continues to grow.

Students have often made remarks about me as a teacher which are apocryphal. No teacher should be a psychiatrist, but there are times when it is hard to know what is the best critical approach to take.

—Ross Lee Finney

Tacked onto a cork board on the wall in 2243 Moore is a note that reads: Albright, Chichester Mass. Upon hearing this piece for the first time, I knew Albright was a composer with whom I wanted to study. The note is a warm reminder for me, of how I initially got here, and am back again. It is stunning for me to consider how much talent has, and continues to, pass through this office—Moore legend has it Ligeti wrote some of his piano etudes in this room during his 1993 residency. In a recent semester, as I showed a student a cool-sounding way to voice a chord in the brass, I remembered Bill Bolcom showing me that exact voicing, at this very Steinway, in this very room. Not so long ago I was on the student side of this desk. Today I continue to look for new ways to engage with our students, all the while drawing upon the words and wisdom of those who laid the foundation for my own pedagogy.

A composer doesn’t retire. I knew the Composition Department would continue to grow with Leslie Bassett as the new head and with William Bolcom recently appointed to the faculty.

—Ross Lee Finney

In a tribute to Albright’s music on NewMusicBox in 2004, Evan Chambers wrote: “We fall so often into the trap of listing awards and commissions as the primary evidence of our accomplishment and relative worth that we can easily forget what really matters once a person, an artist, a teacher, has left us.” Even when I feel grumpy about our economy and the state of the arts in this country, the admissions season at UM jolts me into a state of optimism. The music we receive in applications is interesting, thought-provoking, and viscerally exciting to see and hear. These young composers are just getting going, and I sleep better at night knowing they will be making music in the years to come. When the academic year winds down, I am tempted to send a mass email to all composers who teach; a note congratulating them, giving them a virtual high-five, for the work they are doing nurturing young composers. There is another note I would like to send, to a composer I never met in person:

Dear Mr. Finney,
Thank you. Thank you for establishing this magical place and guiding those who have guided me. It is an honor and a privilege to teach for you, with you, in room 2243 of the Earl V. Moore building in Ann Arbor.