The wrong teacher, or just the wrong time?

Learning how to make the most of the learning experience

I found out yesterday that my very first composition teacher, Professor Eric Gross, has died. For all my my later-acquired appreciation of both him and his work, I can’t say that I really learned very much in my year with him and for a long time I’ve felt that the only thing I learned was what I didn’t want to do as a composer.

That in itself was a valuable experience, but thinking back now, 20 years later (OMG!), I wonder whether it wasn’t that he was the wrong teacher for me like I’ve always thought, but rather that I wasn’t ready for him to be the right teacher for me. I feel that I’m only just reaching a point in my musical education where I could have both enjoyed and benefited from his teaching.

So what was wrong then? And how could I have got more out of the experience?

Lost in the woods

In first-year uni, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Unlike a number of my peers, I hadn’t dreamed of being a composer. I didn’t yet have a burning desire to follow it as a career path. It just turned up: 3 boxes on the Sydney Uni application form: audition, submit scores, or both. I had some scores I’d written for the HSC that I was quite pleased with, so – more or less on a whim – I ticked ‘both’ and when composition was what was offered, I figured I’d follow it through and see what happened.

Add in that I was super-shy and a little intimidated by the whole glorious tertiary-education experience, and a bit confused, and that I had a ridiculous notion that ‘real’ composers were supposed to write very serious music that didn’t sound nice, and the scene is set.

Gross’s teaching style, I suspect, depended to a certain extent on the composer being taught having a sense of path. When you feel a path to where you want your work to go, I think it helps you to identify questions you want to ask and to be aware of where there are gaps in your own knowledge: if you want to write symphonies but don’t know how you should handle the percussion section to give the maximum impact, then you know this; if you want to write choral music but aren’t sure how to approach selecting or setting a text, again, you’ll be aware of this. But when you don’t know what you want to do or where to begin to find out what you want to do, then the only thing you’re aware of is that you know pretty much nothing, and that’s a hard thing to ‘fess up to.

What I should have done

Hindsight, as we all know, has 20/20 vision.

I can see quite clearly now – several teachers and a whole lot of composing, reading and listening later – that what I needed to do was to ask questions. It could have completely transformed that experience even if all I’d done was to ask for some suggestions about whether there was anything I should be listening to or reading outside of what was in the curriculum. I didn’t understand then that the harmony and counterpoint and all that stuff is really just a base for ‘real’ composition, and not the full sum of technique that’s needed to do the thing.

Heck, I think it probably would have improved things if I’d even pretended to have a problem and just asked how I could improve something that I didn’t think was wrong! I think the real key here was to start some communication. My memory of those lessons is a little dim, but basically they went something like this:

EG: ‘Did you have any problems this week?’
me: *squeaks* ‘No, not really’

Probably he should have been trying to coax me more out of my shell, maybe asking me about my working method or something, but also I really should have taken a leap of faith and admitted that I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how to find out what I wanted to do. The following year I was switched over to Peter Sculthorpe as my teacher. He was very good at the coaxing and in contrast to the 5-minute lessons I’d had the year before, often we outstayed our allotted time chatting about whatever we were working on or just random topics of interest. I studied with him for the rest of my time at Sydney Uni and in my Honours year he also supervised my thesis. I suspect my view of Prof Gross’s lessons was coloured by my experience with Sculthorpe, but in all fairness their styles were just completely different and I think as a beginning composer I just wasn’t confident enough to understand what was needed of me on the student side of the learning equation.

The lessons I’m taking now with Simon Lambros are very much based around expanding my listening and how to use what I’m hearing, and it’s fantastic – I’m being encouraged to venture beyond my comfort zone and wow there’s some great stuff out here! Listening and reading and pulling things apart to see what makes them tick is bringing on my ideas in leaps and bounds, I think, and making me braver to experiment with new strategies in my music.

I wonder what I’d have learned if I’d been a little braver and just asked some questions 20 years ago. Rest in peace, Eric. I’m looking forward to exploring your music properly soon and seeing what I can learn from you that I wasn’t ready for back then.