Thursday, July 15, 2010

Can Every Child Be a Composer?

Can you imagine language arts class with no original writing? K-8 art class in which students only copy pictures? K-8 music class without students creating their own pieces of music? Of those three questions, I would dare to guess that most Americans would answer “yes” only to the third. As my career has shifted from performer to music educator, I’ve been thinking about my history as a composer and the tendency of American music education to focus on performance over all other aspects of our art. I’ve spent much of my creative life wanting to become a composer, but only in recent years have I been able to accept that I don’t have to be the next Bach or Stravinsky to be a composer—I in fact have been a composer since the age of 5. My first few years as a pianist resulted in such gems as “I’m Being Eaten By an Alien” and “Pig Dance.” However, the more I learned about music in traditional lessons, the more intimidated I became. My culture’s music seemed to be made up of a million rules, and every piece I learned on the piano, violin or flute was vastly superior to my compositional experiments. I had a passion for music, a desire to express myself through composition, and an attitude supported by much of Western musical culture that composers are born, not made. The latter gave me such an inferiority complex that I rarely composed for years, and even more rarely shared my compositions with others. It wasn’t until college that I began to experience composition in a new way. 

My first official composition class (after many, many music theory classes) was with Prof. Allen Anderson his very first semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. His classes were one revelation after another, but it was the very first assignment that made the biggest impact. We had to write and perform a composition with these rules: the instrument could not be something normally used to make music, and we had to invent our own musical notation specific to our new instrument. To a traditionally trained classical musician, it was the most freeing assignment imaginable. I made music with my three juggling clubs, and never looked at a household object the same way again. More importantly, I started to begin to be able to imagine music without all the rules, just like when I fell in love with the piano as a young child. I began to study composition with a much more open mind, and collaborated with up-and-coming composers as a performer, culminating in a recital in Los Angeles of all new works for the flute. The more I develop as a composer, the more I’m able to personally blur the lines between performer, composer, improviser, and listener.

My journey as a composer was a struggle for many years, yet I felt compelled to continue even when I really didn’t understand why. I think this sentence, by Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith in Minds on Music, sums up my feelings:
Composers work at the vast frontier of music-a place where knowledge and possibility are always twisting and turning in elaborate dance.

Knowledge and possibility. Should these not be the foundation of an arts education curriculum? I hope they apply to everything I do as a teacher, whether it’s the knowledge of a particular musical tradition and the possibilities within it, or the knowledge of one’s own inner world and the possibility of expressing it through original music. For years I was stuck in a downright snobby thought pattern that if music (or art in general) wasn’t completely unique and groundbreaking and wonderful, that it wasn’t worth making. But music belongs to everyone, not just the professional performers. Every child deserves the chance to express themselves through the arts, not just imitate. Music is a natural language of children, especially if they are immersed in it in their early years. Every day my 5-year-old daughter expresses herself through original music—whether making up a silly song or acting out strong feelings through an instrument. All too often, the knowledge children accumulate puts a damper on their formerly limitless sense of possibility. The preschooler is a composer, an improviser, a fabulous singer! The fourth-grader has often already decided they “can’t sing,” they “aren’t musical,” and certainly they “can’t compose.”  The arts are one field where possibilities should only increase with knowledge!

Implementing a composition curriculum is a huge topic and the subject of, well, not enough books—but certainly it should be! I’ll be posting about my journey during the new school year, and have already found some wonderful resources online. Technology is also on my side—despite the disadvantages of living in a culture of music consumption rather than music-making, the modern teacher has a wealth of truly useful technological tools available, from music notation software (e.g. Sibelius) to music production software (e.g. GarageBand), to online collaborative music-making communities (e.g. Indaba). I’ve already discovered many of the joys and pitfalls of teaching composition through GarageBand in the CFS Middle School. In addition to expanding that program, in the upcoming year I plan to implement the most changes in my youngest students’ classes. Those students will potentially be my music students for up to 8 years, so they will be my first test subjects for a progressive composition curriculum. Stay tuned to my blog to track their progress!