My beliefs about teaching are the result of five years of experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students, the application of teaching concepts observed from my mentors and master teachers, and lastly my personal core beliefs. I believe that a student can only be as interested in the material I teach as I am in teaching it. I furthermore know that I, the instructor carry almost the sole responsibility for the creative climate in the classroom. Lastly, I have learned that all my approaches to teaching must be inclusive and flexible, since I am dealing with individuals.
The core goals for my students in every class I teach are the direct consequence of my beliefs. For my theory classes it is a goal that my students have true ownership of all the concepts presented. I find that theoretical concepts are just that, unless they are put into praxis. I want my students to experience the theorems that they are introduced to on as many musical levels as possible. In my composition courses my goal is to empower my students by giving them the tools they need to become better craftsmen. I want to empower my students by inspiring them to experiment without fear, to respect their own and others creative output and to create a portfolio of quality works with which they can succeed beyond the scope of the course. I want my students to experience and exert the same openness and genuine interest that I offer to them.
While the core goals for the courses that I teach are the same, in praxis my approaches vary to cater to the contents and objectives of the course. One approach that I have found received overall the most positive responses is that of constant practical application of the concepts introduced. In my undergraduate theory classes I emphasize that students need to be able to have true ownership of the core concepts that are presented. One recurring activity is the group chorale composition: Students form groups and compose short four part chorales on a given text that are performed in the next class period. This exercise enables the students to experience part-writing and the importance of linear thinking, while the group dynamic reduces some of the anxiety that some students develop because the individual exposure is limited.
The techniques that I use when teaching composition are directly founded in my conviction that every approach to teaching must be as flexible as the artistic spectrum of individuals that I can encounter as a composition teacher. I have found that composition students’ can be blocked, so that the creative process cannot take place at all, or is greatly hindered. After researching the problem I developed a series of approaches that intend to unblock the students so that they can produce strong material and create a portfolio of original work. Since one of the main reasons for creative blockage in composition students is irrational fear of failure, the first step I take is to make it clear to the students that they are in an environment where it is safe to take creative risks, and to experiment. Especially in group-settings for beginning composition classes, I make it a point to have weekly presentations of compositions. Each individual presentation is followed by an assessment by the group. Being very aware that the responsibility for the creative climate in the course rests with me, I critique the works in the most respectful
and constructive way, while giving the student necessary feedback. This behavior is reflected in the students’ assessments of each other’s work and the resulting dialogue is positive and constructive.
A practical approach that I have found successful with composers of all levels, but especially with beginning composers who struggle to generate an abundance of output, is to help them recognize and develop core ideas out of the material that they have already composed. By
giving the students basic developmental tools I enable them to develop longer ideas out of small original segments. I have seen students become empowered and their work flourish after introducing them to these techniques. I believe that there is something interesting to be found in almost everything a student creates. I have found that by truly engaging the work of my students enthusiastically and with genuine interest I can shape their own attitude towards their work. This is very important as it reduces an overly negative and deconstructive attitude towards work in progress in overly perfectionistic students.
The most immediate way of measuring the success of a teaching method is the students’ initial response. Especially in the large theory classes that I teach, I carefully tune into the energy level of the class. Not only do the creative group activities strengthen the group dynamic of the class, but the students approach part-writing more confidently and do better on the quizzes. That the students stay past the class period because they are so immersed in the activity is another indicator of how much they enjoy the creative application of the concepts.
In my composition students I can see the success of my approach in several ways. I always encourage my students to submit their pieces to competitions and concerts and attend these whenever possible. While students have had successful performances of works composed
in my course, I truly measure my success as a composition instructor in how they progress beyond the class and whether they can successfully apply the concepts on compositions created outside of the class room. The most obvious indicator of whether I succeeded as a teacher to me is the output itself. It is very satisfying to see a student that was previously blocked because of creative anxiety or extreme perfectionism produce work that is better in both quantity and quality.
Like many of the great mentors that I was lucky enough to study with, I consider everything I do an ongoing process. To me, teaching means being in touch. It means being in touch with individuals, with new ideas, with progress and with the creative process.
Although I am nearing completion of my final degree, and having had many opportunities to teach, observe and learn, I am well aware that everything I do can always use refinement. And while my methods will improve as I gain experience, the core goals that I have for my students will always stand in the foreground of my teaching. In summary, I believe that all students have creative potential and deserve to express themselves in a creative environment that offers them enough creative freedom to experiment without fear and enough structure to find themselves again when they are lost.