But let's dig into this a bit. The work I did with Tomás was critical in my reaching a fairly high level of accomplishment. But when I think back I can't remember a lot that he said. He would assign pieces for me to learn and would teach, basically, by playing passages from them. Occasionally he would play with me. But I don't recall him talking about many details. He would give a context and point a direction. When I think back I realize that other crucial elements were my commitment, the very fact that I would travel to Spain--I had never been out of Canada before, never been east of Saskatoon!--the fact that I would practice five hours a day, month after month, the sheer dedication to mastering the instrument. It also helped being part of a community of students, thirty or forty from all over the world, who were also dedicated to the instrument.
I remember a conversation with a flute-player who said that anyone who has mastered (no, it is never perfect mastery, of course) an instrument has at some point sat down and devoted all of their energies for a year or more to the single-minded pursuit of solving the technical problems. That is what I was doing in Spain and for a couple of years after. Most people are simply not going to go to that effort. Assuming you are, a good teacher can be a real help in, if nothing else, illustrating a standard or ideal. But he or she is not going to teach you how to play. You are going to do that yourself! I would sometimes perplex students by telling them that: "I can't teach you how to play guitar, only you can do that!"
Turning to composition, it is even more true. I was at a little cocktail party yesterday and fell into conversation with a visual artist, a women of fairly advanced years. She does a lot of teaching and so I casually mentioned that I don't think that you can teach how to compose music. Sure, you can teach skills and knowledge like orchestration (did you know, for example, that trombones can only glissando between certain notes?), notation, formal structures, genres, music history and theory. But all those things are peripheral. The one thing you cannot teach is how to compose a new piece of music. Schoenberg in his book on Fundamentals of Music Composition takes a pretty good stab at it, but what he is doing is showing how to imitate some features of the style of Beethoven. That may engage you in thinking "musically" but only insofar as it shares an aesthetic space with Viennese classicism. This is true of whatever compositional method you envision. There really isn't such a thing as a compositional "method." Every composer develops a particular methodology for particular pieces. It is the particularity that is important. Teaching is always about standard practices. You can teach certain things about, for example, guitar technique, or principles of orchestration, or sonata form.
But you cannot teach someone how to write sonata, symphony or quartet movements like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven because they did not use a standard method. Outline any definition or description of sonata form and I can immediately point out multiple examples by those composers that fall completely outside that definition or description. Each composition is unique in important ways. Sure, some theorists and scholars can, long after the fact, point out some underlying principles that are often used, but that will get you very little way to being able to write a piece yourself in that style.
That blank piece of manuscript paper is terrifying to any composer because it represents the unknown. Every new composition, unless it is a mere rehash of older styles, is a journey into the unknown. It will involve the discovery or invention of some new idea or technique or principle. Or perhaps several of these. And each new idea will have consequences for the structure, the harmony, the rhythm. And you have to figure out what these consequences are and how to shape them into a structure.
I am writing all this because I just finished revising (meaning rewriting over half of it) my new piece Dark Dream for violin and guitar. The last thing I want to do is talk about what I actually did in the piece, so I am talking about teaching composition instead! No, I don't think you can teach anything important about composition. You can teach a lot about those peripherals, but that's all.
We are recording Dark Dream for violin and guitar and Chase for violin and piano in Toronto in early December and I will put up posts about that project as it happens.
I think I wrote Chase as a kind of encore for violin and piano. It was written very quickly for an upcoming concert of a couple of friends and later expanded. I had been listening to Hilary Hahn's lovely album of twenty-seven encores that she commissioned and I think this is what I would have written for her if I had been asked. Here is one of the pieces from the album, Mercy by Max Richter. It is rather more elegiac than most encores, but the album is full of unconventional encores.