The Composers' Studio: An Alternative Model

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In most colleges and universities, composition instruction takes place in a manner similar to that of a private instrumental lesson: the student meets with a teacher for an hour, and he or she spends the next week working on what emerged in that lesson. While this model is entirely appropriate for instrumental performance pedagogy, where the goal is the acquisition of technical and musical skills, I believe that composition pedagogy, where the focus is not only skill acquisition, but also solving design problems, might benefit through the exploration of alternative approaches. When I began to consider this question, I was reminded of my first composition lessons as an undergraduate. As a performance major, I was required to share a lesson with another beginning composition student. Interestingly, many of the insights I had during those lessons came while listening to, and participating in, the discussions and critiques of the other student's work. Being able to be objective about his work allowed me to fully absorb the questions and issues that arose. Today, the compositional decisions that I make are often founded on principles that I learned from that unique, objective vantage point. I believe that this objective insight is one of the key ingredients to a successful pedagogical model.

These ideas were reinforced during my graduate studies in composition at the University of Washington, where I became acquainted with several graduate students in the Department of Architecture. I became intrigued by the structure of the architecture program, the differences that existed between it and the composition program, and in particular by a pedagogical model that seemed to address the questions that I had been struggling with concerning composition instruction. Known as the Architecture Studio curriculum, this model serves as the template for what I call the Composers' Studio; I have appropriated and adapted many of the general principles of the architecture model in a move toward formulating an alternative to the predominant private-lesson format used in composition instruction. I consider this article a first step in a personal re-evaluation of the private-lesson model for teaching music composition. This re-evaluation is not the result of dissatisfaction or disappointment as a former student, but grows more out of a sense of responsibility and accountability as a teacher.

There are several examples of composition programs which use "peer assessment" as a tool, and some electronic composition studios have created dedicated work spaces and cultivated some sense of connectedness among students.1 The Composers' Studio, however, is more than a way to encourage peer assessment or co-locate composition students. It represents a move toward an integrated, interactive composition curriculum.

I will begin with a brief description of the Architecture Studio as it is structured at the University of Washington and elsewhere. Then I hope to show that the general ideas of this model can be adapted to a similar approach in music composition, culminating in a hypothetical sample of a composition studio. Finally, I will lay out a sample curriculum for an undergraduate and graduate composition major and show how the studio model could be implemented into an already existing music program.

 

* * *

The heart of the undergraduate and graduate architecture programs at the University of Washington is the Architecture Studio. Though students are required to study theory, history, and materials and methods, the majority of their time is spent attending studio classes and working on studio projects.

In the studio system, one teacher meets with a class of between 6 and 12 students three days a week for a 4 hour session. The studio space is dedicated to that class for a full quarter, meaning that each student has a personal work space which serves as a kind of home-base for that term. The student is expected to be in studio for the scheduled class meeting times, as well as for a significant portion of their own work time. Class periods might consist of the professor going from desk to desk and working individually or in small groups with students, or the instructor might lead a lecture, class activity or discussion. The professor can program the time in many different ways; it is important to note that it does not entail twelve hours per week of actual lecture time for the instructor. It is generally more in the range of 6-8 hours of formal lecture each quarter. Each student is encouraged to be in the studio many more than the twelve hours that he or she is registered for, working on individual projects or sketches, discussing class issues or collaborating with other students.

The professor designs the "program" for any given studio, within the parameters of the overall architecture curriculum, and leads the students as they research the problem, develop a working style, and complete a final project. The studios offered are generally organized around a certain set of typologies; there may be a "housing studio," a "community center studio," a "museum studio," etc. Generally, the studio's "theme" is determined by building type; however there could be a studio with a focus in collage form, sculptural design, or the use of a certain building material.

Usually the program will be determined as site-specific, wherein one building site will be used by everyone as a point of reference for the project. The typology also comes with specific program requirements. A museum, for example, may need 5000 square feet of exhibit space and 700 square feet of administration space. Various parameters of the project are defined at the beginning of the studio, leaving the students free to explore the many options for design within a given set of constraints. Example 1 shows a theoretical architecture studio syllabus.

 

Example 1: Sample Architecture Studio, A Center for Contemporary Craft (CCC)

Week 1
Develop familiarity with neighborhood and assigned building site.
  Site visits, pictures, slides, lectures.
  Construction of a scale model of site and surrounding area (class project).

Week 2
Thought experiment: Mapping exercise
  Create maps of notable features of the neighborhood.
  Examples: street lighting map, neighborhood amenities, pedestrian path map.
  Discuss design implications of mapping for CCC.

Week 3
  Determine fine points of program for CCC building and site.
  Determine space requirements, adjacencies, critical circulation issues.

Week 4-9
Design Process: Final Project
  Preliminary drawings, design development, sketching, models, conversation, weekly design reviews.

Week 10
Preparation of presentation drawings
  Focus on layout, graphics and narrative for presentation.

Finals Week
Scheduled Presentations (open to the public)
  Formal reviews from an invited panel of critics and professionals.



As shown in example 1, the quarter is laid out in four major phases: research (week 1), pre-design (weeks 2-3), design (weeks 4-9) and presentation (weeks 10-11). The gradual accumulation of knowledge throughout these phases helps to create the kind of collaborative environment that is crucial to the studio model. As the quarter progresses, the studio becomes more and more individualized. Where the first few weeks of the quarter focus on discussion, lecture, collaboration, and exploring new techniques, the second half focuses on working toward a final project. Each quarter of studio yields drawings and models of the finished project which help the students in compiling design portfolios. The end of the quarter brings the design review, which the architecture students call a "crit." At this point, students present their work. Studio members experience the implications of other design decisions, and receive constructive criticism of their own designs. Crits are attended by invited critics as well as students from other studios.

The value and benefits of the studio system in architecture are multi-faceted. The studio system allows for a strong combination of mentorship and peer cooperation. The professor has a great deal of flexibility: he or she poses a problem (with a greater or lesser degree of specificity), and everyone in the studio goes about trying to solve it. The student not only experiences his or her own solutions, but just as importantly, gets to experience other solutions that may or may not resemble their own. With the right leadership, a non-competitive atmosphere of collaboration and open conversation results. This is the greatest benefit of the studio model. The students are exposed to the processes and methods that are used by other students and by the professor; they witness first-hand other designers' working processes. This results in a more informed development of their own abilities to recognize problems, make decisions, and evaluate their solutions. The studio professor can also require (with varying strictness) that each student do the work in a particular way, which may or may not relate to the way that they would normally work. The studio system does not assume that each student is already set in a particular working style, allowing them to absorb those techniques of their peers which they find most beneficial. This is particularly important in today's college and university environment, as exposure to different skill levels and backgrounds creates an atmosphere of diversity which enhances the student's education.

The architecture studio is just one example of this kind of pedagogy. Art and dance studios often take a similar approach. The architecture studio seems the most comparable to composition pedagogy because of the focus on complex design issues. Music and architecture have received much attention as closely related disciplines, and while most of that attention has been in the areas of theory and criticism, I believe that musical and architectural pedagogy could benefit from a critical comparison as well.

 

* * *

While not all aspects of the architecture studio can be directly transposed to a music composition model, many of the general principles can be adapted to create a distinct alternative to the private-lesson paradigm. Because composition has an auditory component, it is traditionally thought that one needs a certain amount of isolation. With recent technological advances, however, it is fairly easy to imagine a dedicated room for 6-12 students with lap-top computers, midi keyboards and headphones, notation software, recording, mixing, and sound design software: all things that can simulate isolation while maintaining a collaborative educational atmosphere.

Composition is primarily a problem-solving, design-oriented discipline. Theory, history, keyboard harmony, performance, ensembles and seminars are all important parts of skill acquisition and intellectual development, and must be a part of a composer's education. However, in place of the model where these necessities are complemented with private composition lessons, I would like to offer an alternative model which would replace the private composition lesson with the composition studio.2

The hypothetical Composition Studio meets three times a week, in 4 hour sessions. Students sign up for one studio per quarter, worth 6 credits. In the ideal model, there is a dedicated class-room space for each studio with one piano, blackboards, and a desk space for each student. These rooms become activated work spaces, serving as a focal point for the entire composition department. Each student is required to be in the studio for the scheduled class times, during which the professor leads a lecture presentation, an exercise, or a participatory discussion.

Each studio is organized around a typology. Where the architecture studio is often organized by building type, the composition studio may focus on a compositional system. There might be a serial studio, an atonal studio, an aleatoric studio, an improvisation studio, an electronic music studio, and so on. A studio might also be designed around the work of a composer or group of composers, or it could be based on a compositional form. The class could also explore a combination of several of these ideas. While the studio topics offered are coordinated to cover the subjects required in the design of the curriculum, the definition of the term "typology" is broad enough to cover a wide range of instructor goals and interests.

After the topic for the studio is decided, the "siting" of the project remains to be determined by the professor. That is, the instrumentation available to the students in solving the design problem is chosen. Each studio is supported by a resident ensemble consisting of performance majors.3 Performers are required to attend a pre-determined number of readings and perform all the finished projects at the end of the quarter. The experience of working with live performers on a regular basis while a piece is in progress is invaluable for composition students. Performers also gain from the experience of working with living composers.

The students are encouraged to spend time in studio beyond the required meeting times. Projects are in progress all quarter, and the studio provides a meeting place for sharing ideas, as well as a consistent work space for the students. Utilizing computers and midi keyboards, mock-ups are created for the projects; a student is able to listen with headphones, improvise at a keyboard, work on notation problems, or have discussions with other students in a collaborative atmosphere. Example 2 shows a theoretical sample composition studio.

 

Example 2: Sample Composition Studio, Atonal Studio for Piano Trio

Week 1
Lecture and discussion: Instrumentation; Atonal Composition (harmonic considerations)
  Presentations from instrumentalists.
  Score study, listening, group analysis, conversation.

Week 2
Lecture and class discussion: Orchestration; Atonal composition (rhythmic considerations)
  Score study, listening, group analysis, conversation.
  Sketches and short exercises for piano trio with readings by the resident ensemble.

Week 3
Lecture and class discussion: Atonal composition (contrapuntal and formal considerations)
  Score study, listening, group analysis, conversation.
  Lay out scope and begin preliminary sketches for final project.
  Discussions and evaluation of readings.

Week 4-9
Composition process for Final Project
  Sketches, formal design studies, computer models, conversations, weekly reviews and read-through sessions.

Week 10
Preparation of final score. Focus on extracting parts and narrative for presentation.
  Writing and editing program notes.
  Rehearsals with the resident ensemble.

Finals Week
Presentation of final projects, during afternoon concerts.
  Final review by an invited panel of faculty, guest composers and students.

 

As shown in example 2, the research and pre-design phase happen concurrently during weeks 1-3. Weeks 4-9 are dedicated to the design process for the final project, and the last two weeks of the quarter are reserved for the presentations. As the quarter progresses, the studio becomes more and more individualized. Where the first few weeks of the quarter focus on discussion, lecture, collaboration, and exploring new techniques, the second half focuses on individual student projects.

I believe the benefits of this model for composition pedagogy would be similar to the benefits gleaned from the same model in architecture pedagogy. The combination of mentorship and collaboration among peers would allow composition students to develop a working style that would grow out of awareness, not out of default. In this model, the students see first-hand other composers' processes, as well as different approaches to solving compositional problems. Each studio results in a finished work; over the course of a four-year undergraduate program or a two- or three-year graduate degree, a varied portfolio emerges. This pedagogical approach also creates a sense of responsibility and accountability on the part of the composition faculty. The studio crits and reviews would be public, highlighting the work of both faculty and students.

From the professor's standpoint, I believe that the studio model has the potential to make good teachers even better. There is significant up-front planning and preparation involved, but the rewards of seeing each student working out similar problems can inspire good teachers to find more creative ways to teach. Furthermore, the studio model can mitigate the effect of mediocre teaching, as collaboration among peers can become as important as the mentoring from the professor. When compared to the performance-based model of private instruction, I believe that the studio model better addresses the main concern of composition pedagogy, that of design-oriented problem solving.

The studio concept is related to other models that are based in the idea of cooperative learning. It's important to note that cooperation does not necessarily mean several students working on the same project together. Several students may be focused on the comprehension and implications of the same topic at the same time, in an atmosphere that allows them to express themselves individually. In Learning Together and Alone, David and Roger Johnson put forth what they believe to be the "hallmarks" of cooperative learning: individual and group accountability; development of interpersonal skills; face-to-face verbal interchange and interaction; positive interdependence within the group; and development of group processing.4 Each of these aspects of cooperative learning is integral to the Studio model. Though most of the literature concerning cooperative learning deals with changing models from large classes to small groups, the Composers' Studio encourages movement in the opposite direction, from individual lessons to small groups, with benefits similar to those described above. This description from The Constructivist Leader could be describing the positive effects of the studio model:

These [cooperative learning] strategies allow students to share knowledge and experience, problem-solve together, and arrive at more complex solutions collectively than they could have individually. Cooperative learning assumes that student interaction results in a richer learning experience.5

Phyllis Kaplan and Sandra Stauffer, in their book Cooperative Learning in Music, build on the work of David and Roger Johnson mentioned above. They point to several facets of music education that already focus on cooperative learning, such as chamber music ensembles.6 Further development of a studio model for a composition program would be grounded on a large body of cooperative learning literature as well as practical studies.

 

* * *

The final piece of this consideration of an alternative pedagogical model is curriculum planning. Specifically, what effect would the studio method have on a given curriculum, and can it be implemented without drastic changes to teacher and student work loads? If a department has 1 or 2 dedicated classrooms (which is, admittedly, a big if), and if they have an average of 15-25 composition majors with 2 or 3 composition faculty, I believe that the model could be implemented quite easily. Example 3 illustrates a hypothetical composition curriculum for an undergraduate composition major, as well as for a two-year masters student and a three year DMA student.7

 

Example 3: Hypothetical Composition Major Curriculum (Quarter System)

 

Undergraduate

Composition credits per quarter Total Composition credits
Year 1 Core Theory, Ear-training, History, Piano 0 cr. 0 cr.
Year 2 Composition Class I Notation, Analysis, Idioms, Counterpoint, Rhythm, Tonality 3 cr. 9 cr.
Year 3 Composition Class II Improvisation, Computer Notation, Midi, Counterpoint, Rhythm, Atonality 3 cr. 9 cr.
Year 4 Senior Studio 2 Studio Classes (can be integrated with graduate students) 5 cr. 10 cr.
  Senior Project   5 cr. 5 cr.
  Total     33 cr.
Masters        
Year 1 Graduate Studio 3 Studio Classes 6 cr. 18 cr.
Year 2 Graduate Studio 2 Studio Classes 6 cr. 12 cr.
  Thesis   8 cr. 8 cr.
  Total     38 cr.
Doctorate        
Year 1 Graduate Studio 3 Studio Classes 6 cr. 18 cr.
Year 2 Graduate Studio 3 Studio Classes 6 cr. 18 cr.
Year 3 Graduate Studio 1 Studio Class 6 cr. 6 cr.
  Dissertation   10 cr. 10 cr.
  Total     52 cr.

 

As seen in Example 3, the first year of undergraduate study consists of core theory and history classes, piano classes, and instrumental study. In the second and third year, while these core classes continue, the composition students attend Composition Class I and II, which would differ from the studio setting in several ways. First, there may be non-composition majors in the class at this level. It meets only 3 hours per week, and covers a variety of topics each quarter. There is no large-scale final project, but instead students work through several exercises and smaller projects during the quarter.

In the fourth year, the undergraduate student takes Senior Studio for 2 quarters, and works on a final Senior Project for one quarter. The typology and program for the final project are determined by the student and his or her advisor.8 This puts the total number of credit hours in composition study at 33, comparable to the 36 hours of private composition lessons currently required in the University of Washington's program.

The master's level Composition Studio replaces the 40 credits of private study with 38 credits of studio + thesis. The DMA requires 52 credit hours for the Composition Studio coursework and the dissertation. The thesis and dissertation credits occur in an independent study format, with advising from a faculty member, as they generally are structured now. The thesis and dissertation are comprised of larger-scale pieces, with the dissertation requiring perhaps an analysis, theoretical discussion of the piece, or a performance of the student's work.

The proposed Composition Classes and Studios would not replace the theory core, nor would they take the place of analysis and theory seminars. Instead, they would simply replace the private lesson format. A given composition faculty member, whose private lesson load might be 5-10 hours per week, would instead be responsible for 9-12 hours per week of studio time. Not every faculty member would teach a studio every quarter, leaving a rotation of faculty to teach in other areas, including the composition classes.

Although the hypothetical studio model presented here is designed for a large department, such as at the University of Washington, I believe the model could work as well (if not better) for a small composition program, perhaps at a liberal arts college. With smaller class sizes, the studio topics could be more diverse and comprehensive, allowing the professor(s) to have a greater flexibility in planning the curriculum. The determination of credit loads would be similar to the process mentioned above, with adjustments being made depending on the departmental requirements for the major.

 

* * *

This paper is not meant to be an indictment of the current state of compositional pedagogy. It is simply a first step toward envisioning an alternative approach to teaching composition at the college and university level. I believe that this approach has several benefits. First and foremost is the combination of mentorship and collaboration. Second is the opportunity to have objective insight through observation of the working styles, design decisions and methods of peers. Third, with central workspaces and dedicated studio rooms, a sense of cohesion and community can evolve within the composition department as a whole. And fourth, I believe that this approach would help to make the teaching of composition more rewarding, and also create an atmosphere of responsibility and accountability both for students and faculty. I look forward to exploring these issues further, and eventually implementing this program in a college or university music department near you.


1Kingston University is an example of a successful composition program using "peer assessment" as a pedagogical tool (www.ulst.ac.uk/faculty/humanities/mpa/html/plm.Kingstcomp.htm%20). Another successful program involving peer learning is called the Peer Learning in Music (PLIM) at the University of Ulster (www.lancs.ac.uk/users/music/research/ctimusicnews6/ulster.html).

2The model presented here is based on the "quarter" system; a semester system will have logistical differences, but may be organized in a similar manner.

3The ensembles might be determined in part by what performers are available to take part in the studio. Performance majors could get ensemble credit for being in a resident studio ensemble.

4David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, Learning Together and Alone, 3rd. ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 41-42.

5Linda Lambert, Deborah Walker, Diane P. Zimmerman, Joanne E. Cooper, Morgan Dale Lambert, Mary E. Gardner, and P.J. Ford Slack, The Constructivist Leader (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995), p. 22.

6Phyllis R. Kaplan and Sandra L. Stauffer, Cooperative Learning in Music (Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference, 1994), p. 10.

7Note that the formal studio setting is not implemented until the Senior year of the undergraduate program.

8Students working on Senior projects may be grouped into a studio designed for thesis presentation.

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Last modified on Sunday, 07/10/2018

Tom Baker

Tom Baker has been active as a composer, performer and music producer in the Seattle new-music scene since 1994. He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers' Salon, and co-founder of the Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO). Tom performs on fretted and fretless guitars, and has worked with many innovative musicians, including Stuart Dempster, William O. Smith, Christian Asplund, Chinary Ung, Ellen Fullman, Gino Robair, and Henry Threadgill. He has recorded seven albums, including two solo albums. His most recent release, SAVE, with his band the Tom Baker Quartet, has garnered much attention and critical acclaim. Tom has received many grants and awards for his work, including honors from the Seattle Arts Commission, Meet the Composer, Artist Trust, and Jack Straw Productions. His compositions have been performed throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Holland and England.

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