Composition Lessons

In view of my call for a renewal of traditional techniques in classical music composition (see the “About the Music” essay on this site), and in response to the many frustrated e-mails I receive from students who cannot find a university faculty who are either able or willing to allow those techniques, I have decided to offer online composition lessons to a very limited number of adult-only students who are not taking college composition lessons at the same time (and who are not enrolled at Vanderbilt University, in particular). I do not need the money and undertake this due to the great need for such teaching to be available. As a university professor of composition, I have taught (by my estimate) over four thousand composition lessons at all collegiate levels for thirty-plus years (until retiring in spring 2020), and with my students achieving many successes as a result. See my biography and the media page on this site for my further qualifications.

I had no plans to teach further and just wanted to compose in my retirement. However, a friend of mine who is a very successful professional composer for media recently said something that made me think. He said, “If I wanted to be a professional composer and were a young person today, I would skip the enormous cost of college and seek out teachers who write music like I want to write, and I would work with them privately till I feel ready, and then put my portfolio out and get the same job I’m doing now, but at a great financial and time savings.” A student at another university wrote to me recently as a senior and said something similar: “I feel as though I have wasted four years and a lot of money. I wanted to learn to write good music, and after almost four years the only composition skill they have given me is how to write a cue for a horror film. I also wanted to learn great art and literature like Shakespeare, and they said that for political reasons they no longer include that kind of stuff in the liberal art curriculum!”

I realize that a college degree can still have many benefits, of course — certainly in fields like engineering and medicine — but perhaps nowadays it is not the best or only choice for absolutely everyone, if you do not emerge from it with the skill set and knowledge of what used to be the canon of liberal arts that you hoped to gain from it. Indeed, higher education has entered a crisis period with the forced implementation of online learning. More people are realizing that a valid education can be obtained in alternate ways, and attitudes toward the necessity of a college degree are rapidly changing, provided skills and learning can be documented in some other way. A diploma looks nice on the wall, but only your own initiative, your portfolio of works, and some good personal letters of recommendation from respected people will actually get you the job.

A truly talented young composer who wants to write in a traditional style, for example, for film, might do well to custom design an a la carte educational plan, including private composition lessons and tonal orchestration with someone who actually has that skill (like me), film music techniques with an experienced film composer or a one-year certificate program at a film composing school (there are several now), including technology lessons with someone who can teach them the technology; and then they should try to intern with someone else who can put them to work to give them experience in the field. Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of online “Great Books” courses, and you may well end up with a more gratifying education for far less time and money than you might find at a university, and without the political agendas. My hourly rate may sound high, but it is far less expensive than college tuition.

Student qualifications for composition lessons with me: You must be of legal adult age in your country. (I prefer not to deal with parents and with legal minors.)

You must already have reasonably good skills in the notation of music by computer, e.g. Finale or Sibelius, etc. This is so we can focus on the composition and orchestration.

I don’t wish to teach a music theory course, but discussions about things like harmony and counterpoint could be mentioned where they relate to your own music. I may refer you to listen to certain compositions that relate to what you are writing, but neither will it be a course in analysis.

You must not be enrolled in university composition lessons with another teacher at the same time, which would divide your time and be a distraction to both lessons, and it could cause me to appear unprofessional. I depend on your truthfulness in disclosing this; maybe we can work together in the summer.

You must have paid for each lesson in advance, using PayPal. To apply and be accepted for lessons, you must first submit at least two examples of music you have written and send me an e-mail with a summary of your background in music. Your background should include some coursework in music theory (whether or not it was at a university or through Advanced Placement, or on your own), and you should be able to play some instrument (though not necessarily at a high level) by fluently reading from fully notated music and not only from improvisation, lead sheets, tablature, or “by ear”. Composition lessons primarily entail a critique of written out music notation. I do not comment on an audio recording alone.

Style of music: Although I have composed and taught students using every style from atonal to postmodern, you must understand that I am offering these lessons to improve people’s skills in composing traditional classical, tonal, melodic, narrative music for standard orchestral instruments, either in chamber ensembles or music for full orchestra, band, or choir. This does not include the kinds of tonal music that have no melodic line, are ambient, New Age, fundamentally electronic,  minimalist, or in a pop or jazz style, nor does it include popular songwriting. You are free to do all of those things on your own, of course, only not for these lessons.

You may write music for the lessons that could be used as a film cue, but the lessons will primarily be about making that music the best it can be, not about film composing issues (for example, not about discussing what style best matches a certain film scene). You are free to put that music to film later.

How the lessons work:

After you have made an initial inquiry telling me about your background, have submitted at least two pdf scores with audio playback files (or web links, e.g., on YouTube) as examples of your work, and have been accepted as a student:

1) First you will e-mail to me a link to a DropBox folder containing a .pdf file of your score and an .mp3 or .wav file of the computer playback of that music. Music must have a score and be fully notated with both score and recording sent to me. However, when starting a piece, your score might consist of sketches or a reduction of possible ideas that need not be fully arranged or orchestrated yet.

2) I will then notify you that I have received your materials and that they are sufficient for a full hour lesson, and then we’ll schedule a day and time.  In order to make it worth the money you are paying, I will tell you if you need to first send more music or make some basic changes and resubmit it for approval before we schedule the lesson. I will study your music prior to the lesson to be prepared to use your time and money well, with a list of my critiques and suggestions to go through with you. In the rare event, due to me, we do end up not using the full hour or are interrupted by the technology from using all of it, I will not refund the money but will pro-rate the time we spent and apply the unused tuition amount to your next lesson and charge less for that one. (If the interruption is on your end, for example, you are called away, there is no refund. If you are ill, please reschedule the lesson in the first place.)

3) After you hear from me that the lesson is a “go”, and any time up to one hour before the scheduled lesson time, you will submit your payment to me via PayPal. The first one-hour lesson will have a non-refundable fee of just $50 U.S., plus any transaction fees charged by Pay Pal (if any). This fee is less, because some of this first lesson may be telling me about your goals or a planning session for a project you want to undertake. After that, the non-refundable fee for each one-hour lesson is $100. U.S. dollars, or the equivalent amount in your currency on the day you pay, PLUS any transaction fees charged by PayPal. During or after the lesson, there will be no refunds (for example, if you don’t like what I told you in the lesson). However, there is no contract or agreement for a certain number of lessons. You can simply choose at any time not to schedule any further lessons. We can also communicate by e-mail at no charge if you have a very quick, minor, or followup question, or want to tell me anything about your situation not relating to the music itself.

4) We can conduct the lessons either on the phone, while both looking at the score and referring to certain measure numbers and/or to the timing in the recording; or we can conduct the lessons using Skype or Zoom video chatting, which might allow me to share my screen with you and point to spots in the score with the cursor arrow while talking. Near the end of each lesson, we will try to agree on a set of goals for the next lesson.

5) Each lesson will be scheduled separately to be convenient to both of us and may be on a different day of the week or different time of day. You can request a lesson when you feel ready for one but usually no more than one per week. The lessons might be weekly for some students or monthly for others, or only twice a year for others, as desired. I am happy for you to list my name on your resume as a teacher, but only after you have had at least twelve lessons, the rough equivalent of an academic semester. After every twelve lessons, I will provide you with a certificate of completion for that course of private composition lessons, if you wish.

I am happy to coordinate this with a university for credit, if they will accept it as an internship, independent study, or study abroad for credit. (Universities are unlikely to accept this in lieu of required composition lessons with their own composition teachers, if they have such teachers available, but some might offer elective or internship credit.) In four months of continuous weekly private composition lessons with me, you could cover the equivalent of two years of lessons at a university, the equivalent of a college minor in composition, due to all of their breaks and summers off. My preference is for lessons during weekday daytime hours, Central Time zone in the U.S., if possible.

6)  Finally, if English is not your first language, it must be at a fluent level. During our first lesson, if I cannot understand you, or if you cannot understand me, I will refund your fee and not work with you until you have improved your English skills for me to understand you. If you are a good English speaker and we can understand each other but encounter technical problems with our computer or phone connection, I will be glad to reschedule the lesson (without additional charge) for another time.

To make an e-mail inquiry about taking composition lessons, click HERE.

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