When I told people I was going to take some random composition lessons at Thames Valley University to get ready to apply for a Masters degree in composition, I was amazed how many people said “but why?”. While some of them were nice enough to tell me that I was entirely ready to apply for a Masters, some seemed to be mystified by the thought that I’d just book myself in for some lessons without any real masterplan or qualifications at the end of it.
The ‘why’ is simple: composition, like many endeavours worth endeavouring, is at its heart a commitment to continuous learning – even if we don’t take actual lessons, we are continually learning from what we’ve written before, the music we play and listen to. We learn from what works and what doesn’t work. But sometimes we also need to be shaken up a bit – pushed out of our comfort zones and introduced to new sounds and new ideas.
For me, I’d been feeling I was getting into a bit of a rut. Having got back on track after my almost-a-decade of near-silence, I felt that what I was writing for the most part wasn’t really breaking new ground. Thickets was a bit of an adventure – I tried out some new stuff and really enjoyed trying to stretch my ideas a bit. Then at the CoMA Midwinter Composers Workshop in Durham, Tansy Davies was encouraging us to work with non-standard notation, and while I wasn’t hugely comfortable with the idea, it was really quite a liberating experience to let go of some control and think in new ways.
I also felt that my listening was starting to go in circles. I’d listen to the same composers, the same styles, over and over. I wanted to explore some different sounds but I wasn’t entirely sure how to find them. I’d enjoy my listening time, but I’d stopped discovering anything new to startle my ideas and get me inspired to try something different.
So my aim with signing up for lessons was to see things from someone else’s perspective, possibly discover music and approaches that I hadn’t encountered or really explored before and – most importantly – get some proper feedback on my work, week after week, to push me forward and get back into the swing of studying in preparation for the Next Degree.
And it’s been brilliant. The course has been super-flexible (mostly because the university forgot they even had it and then nobody knew what it was supposed to be) so my tutor, Simon Lambros, and I have been able to really tailor it to my needs. He’s introduced me to music I’d never encountered before – Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies and Gordon Crosse’s Thel, in particular – which we’ve listened to, read the scores of and talked in detail about the techniques used and how they could be put into practice in the music I’m writing now.
He suggests small tweaks and adjustments which improve the work I’ve done and show me new ways of thinking and I can see my writing improving with every lesson. I’m being more ambitious with the scope of what I’m writing and the techniques I’m using. Just knowing I’ll get feedback on my work makes it easier to push myself to experiment more and be more daring. I can now feel when I’m slipping back into my rut and falling back on my old techniques, so I can control more whether I want to do that, and every few weeks I seem to make a bit of a leap forward.
So many leaps that now I’m writing my first real orchestral piece – and loving the experience. I’ve tried writing for orchestra in the past, but it’s never really been terribly successful. I was very uncomfortable with having to deal with so many instruments, but now I can feel in an almost solid way how I want the different groups to interact with each other and the whole thing is coming together in a way I’m really very pleased with.
Signing up for these lessons is one of the best things I’ve done for my composition in years and I’d recommend it as a useful step for any composer who feels they might be getting a little stale in their techniques or just wants to be exposed to some new stuff. After all, there’s precedent: Satie enrolled at the Schola Cantorum at the age of 40 to study counterpoint; Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel for 3 months when he was 35.
So there may not be a degree at the end of it, but I think I’m going to emerge a better and more confident composer, much more capable of standing toe-to-toe with a Masters degree and emerging the victor!