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On Mentoring

The following is an edited version of a message written [on 09 Sept. 2005] in response to a member of an email list who had remarked, regarding group music composition tutorials, that it was sometimes beneficial for students to be left to ‘crash and burn’ in front of their peers.

Kevin wrote:

Undergraduate composition (perhaps an oxymoron) has become a class(room) activity for many of us, so it is essential to develop tools and techniques that address the situation.

Yes, like you Kevin I’ve had to teach “composition” to large, mixed undergrad groups (127 once, in a heady year at Dartington College of Arts) and — like many on this list, I know — struggled to develop effective tools to offer something relevant and flexible enough for all. But although it may say Composition Teaching on the timetable, surely this is a techniques class by any other name, albeit one with room for some creativity on the part of the students? I agree that tools and techniques are in short supply.

And yet teaching compositional techniques and approaches is different from the one-to-one (or more often now, in universities, group) composition tutorial. More and more I don’t think there’s even a tenuous thread to pull them together. A true tutorial isn’t primarily teaching, I think, but mentoring. A mentor can “encourage” a composer towards what seems a good, fruitful line of endeavour for that composer, doing this within a group or not. That encouragement may include teaching techniques (or suggesting how someone might learn them) or analysis, or skills of critique, but those are in service to a different priority. And the mentor’s whole sensibility and “direction” is going to be bound up with something they can’t articulate, and yet can’t remove from their self: what it is that is the ‘experience of music’ is in relation to them, their self.

Eliot so cogently elucidates this I think. I’ve read his words, below, over and over — I find them very helpful:

You have to be taken or interested in some way to get into a work and what that is isn’t likely to be some “synthetic” element that can be decomposed into more basic categories. The further we get into music, I think, the more particular to ourselves the experience of music is. Rather than moving towards the general — amenable to analysis — through art we might only get towards ourselves.

And actually, at a fundamental level, it’s this — and perhaps only this — that, I think, a mentor can usefully “show” another composer (not necessarily in a conscious way, and not necessarily, but sometimes, by focusing on their own work). That’s not to say that the mentoring composer is or should be in any way teaching the composer to be “like them” — please, no.

A problem as I see it is that institutions can’t offer more than a limited range of mentors — yet composers (or any artists) need to shop around quite a bit to find what and who will serve them best. And I guess this is partly why I left teaching in a department which, I felt, didn’t — and just couldn’t, of course — really allow for this (I’m not saying this department was any worse or better than others.) Yet at Goldsmiths, where I used to teach, the Fine Art department doesn’t “teach” its graduate students as such. Instead, it provides a budget for individual students to “meet with” artists of their choice in a mentoring situation. I was hugely jealous of this, and tried to eke my budget out to allow this sometimes, in addition to having as many visiting composer/musician slots as possible. A stab at a compromise. But it’s not the same.

Yes, someone who is already being an artist (at whatever age or stage, and also my definition of ‘artist’ is broad) may certainly benefit from more technical studies, more exposure to repertoire and more analysis of it, more ability in verbalizing critique.... Or they might not. Or they might not right now. Or they might not be able to right now. It’s an individual matter.

I was once tutored by a composer who took apart Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse before my very eyes, with the aid of Roy Howatt’s analysis. It was like having a marvellous Byzantine ceiling deconstructed, and then put back together again. It took me a while to refocus: I immediately wrote a work heavily indebted to the Debussy, and was thoroughly exhilarated by the experience of ‘understanding something’ about it at a deep level. Three years later I made a work which was, for me, a similar journey of meticulous construction, completely in my own terms — terms I might not have reached without that analysis.

I was once tutored by a composer who barely said anything. He would bring in his tea collection and I would choose and make tea while he looked at my scores, or he would make tea while I listened to his work. He would occasionally say something deeply encouraging, but that was about it. He’d grab a score or CD/record (by someone else) off the library shelf just as I left, offering only “you must listen to this” before scuttling off. He always chose something that appeared irrelevant, and hardly ever was.

I’ve had interesting electroacoustic composition tutorials too, but don’t offer them here — since you guys probably know who they, or you, are.

I increasingly believe that being, or becoming, an artist is not something that any amount of training can initiate, although it may do wonders to make an artist better (in their own terms) at what they are trying to do — whether “better” in a purely technical sense or in a more fundamental “getting my idée out there” sense. But deciding not to continue as an artist can be something, I fear, that an unfortunate teaching or mentoring experience can provoke. Not necessarily a “bad mentor” but a “wrong mentor” perhaps.


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