in Articles materials databank: lowering the threshold to composition

by Jyrki Lähteenmäki

Composing music is a discipline traditionally veiled in mystery. It is commonly believed that composers are born, not made, or at the very least they must discover a passionate calling for composing at an early age. Composing has also been regarded as the exclusive privilege of highly trained professional composers. Finland’s new National Core Curricula have introduced another perspective on composition. The databank provides teaching materials and support for the new needs of introductory teaching of composition

Traditional composer training includes imitating the musical styles of various eras, reviewing repertoire in various genres, analysing works, studying instrumentation, exploring the new trends of the 20th century and getting to know music technology. In the course of their studies, composition students go through a huge number of exercises tutored by their teachers in order to acquire the highly diverse toolkit required of a professional composer.

The understood purpose of composer training is to train composers who create musical works and make a living, at least in part, by writing music. The focus is on creating works.

In Finland, a different perspective on composing is given in the new curricula introduced for schools and music institutes (see also FMQ article about the new curricula): all students should be encouraged to create their own musical ideas and solutions. Heidi Partti, Professor of Music Education, has noted that in introductory teaching of composition it is not the end result that counts but the process in which students explore the potential of sounds and music. The focus is on doing things, on finding out what composing is like – not on the finished piece of music.

This new approach requires unconventional teaching materials and pedagogical support. It was to respond to this desperate need at schools and music institutes that the materials databank was launched in autumn 2018.

Composition assignments and teaching tips

The materials databank was set up by the Society of Finnish Composers working with Mutes, the association of music theory and solfège teachers. It is a website with composition assignments, practical ideas and articles by experts in the field. Most of the assignments are suitable for group work, and indeed one of the aims here is to leverage the strengths of group work especially in introductory teaching of composition.

Markkuklami C Laurakarlin
Markku Klami
Photo: Laura Karlin

“It is important to consider which topics can feasibly be shared and discussed in a group context and when individual lessons are the safest and most effective. Group teaching works well especially in the early stages of studies; it is comfortable to play around and try out various musical ideas in a group,” says Markku Klami, a member of the working group. He says that composition teaching could easily be divided into two parts: composition coaching and composition teaching.

“Coaching is suited for group sessions, its purpose being to encourage students to exercise their creativity and their musical invention. This introductory teaching of composition can be given by any qualified music educator.”

Although the community aspect is important, it is also important for the students’ own voice to be heard and to be given space to develop. That requires individual composition lessons and a qualified composition teacher.

Content also available in English and Swedish

So what does the field of composition teaching look like at Finland’s music institutes just now, with new curricula having been introduced and the website set up?

“It seems that music institutes differ widely in how they have embraced composition teaching. Because composing is an unfamiliar field for many, people try to avoid it. The greatest challenge lies perhaps in achieving a paradigm shift in thinking and in dispelling prejudices. But we can clearly see that a change is coming,” says Markku Klami.

What are the short-term and long-term goals of the project?

“The purpose of the website is to offer material and tips for low-threshold composition teaching in particular. The assignments are accessible, and the expert articles discuss composition pedagogy and envision what composition teaching could be like in the future. The short-term goal is to involve all education providers in developing composition teaching. The long-term goal is to establish composition teaching as a standard feature at music institutes.”

On the whole, music institutes have been positive about the project and have embraced the tips and ideas. The division into coaching and teaching has been a relief for many instrument teachers, as they have realised that composition coaching does not require the teacher to be a trained composer.

“It has been a positive surprise that we have had inquiries beyond Finland. We will be releasing version of the website in Swedish and English during autumn 2020.”

Hgin Konservatorio Workshop2 C Markkuklami
Composing workshop at Helsinki Conservatory in 2018
Photo: Markku Klami

Interaction and brainstorming

What is the best thing about teaching composition to children and adolescents from the teacher’s point of view?

“Group assignments can be captivating when young people get going and try out new things together. This fosters a good group spirit and also a positive learning environment where students are emboldened to develop their ideas further,” says Markku Klami. “Teaching is all about interaction, and individual sessions are very rewarding for the teacher too. It is interesting to note how students analyse and understand things differently. There’s more than one way to do most things, after all. A composition lesson is very student-centred and involves a lot of verbal dialogue even if musical action is very much in the focus. The teacher’s job is to find out what the student wants, not to impose their aesthetics or value base on the student.

“We should also remember that composition teaching is not just about writing music but also about getting performances. Organising a composition concert is always an effort, but for students it is encouraging and also a good learning experience. We should establish broader-based and continuous cooperation with instrument teachers. Musicianship is expressed in multiple ways, and composition is one aspect of it. Composition can be an aspect of an instrumentalist’s musicianship just as well,” Klami sums up.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Markku Klami

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