Going for the Goals: How Teachers and Students Set and Meet Goals in Music Composition

For my dissertation, I performed an ethnography of five composition teachers across the United States, documenting their thoughts about teaching composition and pointing out patterns amongst each of their teaching styles. This dissertation represents a rare look into a variety of pedagogical styles rather than examining the author’s pedagogy and presents a variety of teaching methods which younger teachers may choose to use. To access the dissertation, click here.

Learning to compose might, at first, seem like drinking an entire ocean. There are an
overwhelming number of things to consider when sitting down to compose a piece of music:
what instruments are going to be involved, what notes should I use, do I want to focus on notes
or sounds, or maybe gestures, who’s going to play this piece, what do I want to say? This
especially affects young composers who might have even more philosophical questions about
composing. Even after years, staring down a blank page can continue to intimidate more
experienced composers. Wrapped up in thoughts about what pieces could become, students need
a person whose role consists of unraveling that sticky web of thoughts. This person should
further focus the student’s attention on specific ideas in the student’s music or in their approach
to their music so that they begin to understand how to navigate these questions on their own.

There are as many ways to compose as there are composers, and likewise with
composition teachers, there are several different roads which teachers can set students down.
This dissertation maps five different paths which newer, younger, or differently
experienced teachers might use as trail headings in their own teaching. This study looks for those
landmarks that many teachers can use to choose a particular goal or destination that either the
teacher or the student has chosen and guide the student to it. And by drawing on literature from
the fields of music education and composition, through this dissertation I seek to contribute to
conversation regarding these two fields and the ways in which they might benefit one another.

The Problem With Cultural Legacy: An Ethnographic Student on How We Pass Down Processes through Lesson Structures

Continuing with my dissertation research after graduation, I reached back out to my research associates to write this paper for Teaching Composition: A Symposium on Music Composition Pedagogy. This research focuses on how teachers may implicitly pass on their cultural legacy and supplies a method for critical self-examination based on Argyris and Schön’s Theory in Practice. To access this paper, email me at

Time and attention are the two major resources that any composition teacher can use to
communicate the importance of part of a compositional process. By not only explicitly discussing what
practices we would like our students to engage with, but considering which practices we implicitly elevate
in our pedagogy, we can more thoroughly teach practices vital to the compositional process. For instance,
if a teacher takes thirty seconds out of a thirty-minute lesson to analyze their student’s piece, they
demonstrate that analysis is a minor component of composition. On the other hand, if a teacher spends ten minutes both reading through a student’s reflection and encouraging them to elaborate on it, the student will begin to understand that reflection is a meaningful component of composition. Therefore, if we as teachers want students to build meaningful and productive compositional processes, then we should examine which practices we already emphasize through the ways in which we respond to students’ works.

In this paper, I present findings from a recent ethnographic study with composition teachers
across the U.S. Through the analysis of interview and observational data, it became apparent that the
teachers both explicitly discussed various compositional processes and implicitly promoted specific
processes by modeling them. Considering the contexts of these teachers’ own educations and the ethos of the schools in which they taught, readers may develop an understanding of the legacy of practices
passed down from these teachers. With this context, readers may further engage in an examination
and discussion of examples of practices and the reasoning that led teachers to pursue these practices.
Lastly, using a framework of theory-in-use, I explore the typical difficulties of self-analysis to supply the reader with questions that they can ask themselves to critically examine their explicit and implicit instruction and bring these two halves of their instruction into alignment with one another.