Composing on the Sidewalk
Whenever I tell people that I study music composition, I am often met with questions about what happens in my lessons. It's easy to imagine what takes place in a violin, voice, or piano music lesson: the focus is on improving technique, practicing phrasing, and learning repertoire. Composition lessons are harder to imagine. How does a teacher help a student with a creative, often personal, endeavor whose machinations and motivations are possibly mysterious?
I don't think these questions can be answered simply or generally. Still, as I finish my master's degree at the Eastman School of Music, I have taken time to reflect on my education and how my experiences in lessons have impacted me. What follows are two of those experiences which I hope will shed light on the mystery of composition.
During the early pandemic, I studied at Penn State University with composer Baljinder Sekhon. To follow the University's regulations on social distancing, we would often hold composition lessons outside. Since composition lessons are made up mostly of talking, we would walk around the gorgeous central Pennsylvania campus discussing aspects of the pieces I was working on. During one of these lessons, Baljinder described a technical idea that might have been useful to create the musical experience I was after. He tried several times, in vain, to explain a technique to me. I was not getting it. Finally, he picked up several sticks off the ground. He arranged them on the sidewalk in front of me, moving them around to display the technique he was trying to communicate.
His approach at once became understandable. I would later use it in my composition for cello and electronics titled "Falling Paths, Coloring Grounds."
My outdoor lessons with Baljinder Sekhon were unusual, but they offered incredible learning and music-making opportunities. The ideas presented and discussed in composition lessons don't always flow exclusively between students and teachers. Listening to music in a lesson allows the student and the teacher to share and explore ideas from another composer.
Some of the most impactful moments during my education at the Eastman School of Music have been with Bob Morris, a composition faculty member. I studied with Bob my first semester at Eastman in the fall of 2021. Many of our lessons were spent discussing some technical aspects of composition I was interested in--some specific approaches to pitch and rhythm that Bob was very familiar with—and going over progress on the music I was writing. Whenever there was an available time during a lesson, when I ran out of questions or hadn't composed much, we would listen to music together. We heard a lot of music together, and I remember almost all of it: a few symphonies by C.P.E Bach, a chamber work by Arnold Schoenberg, and a few electronic compositions by Trevor Wishart.
The most memorable of these listening sessions was the day we spent listening to keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. We spent almost the whole lesson listening to these short works, discussing Scarlatti's musical decisions, and laughing together at the humor Scarlatti imbued into the music. Listening to these pieces significantly impacted a composition I started later that year: a series of short keyboard pieces titled "Circumnutation."
I will return to Eastman in the Fall of 2023 to begin my Ph.D. studies in composition, and I look forward to more enriching lessons and experiences.
Based in Rochester, New York, Tucker Johnson composes works for soloists, ensembles, and electronic media. Experiences reading, hiking, and amateur botanizing can be found intertwined in his work, alongside a passion for open-source software and teaching.