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JesseKnight

Textbooks for Composition

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Mr. Siek,

My grandson, at the age of 14, is exhibiting considerable talent in the area of composition. I looked around for a tutor for him, but alas he lives in a small town, and there is no one there competent to teach composition or music theory. He does have a piano teacher (she teaches him minor amounts of theory, she tells me). He also has a teacher of voice and is in several choirs and wins many scholarships for voice.

He and I studied _The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory_ by long distance (2000 miles).

What I am wondering is, would you care to recommend any texts that might help him--or any of us-- learn more about composition and music theory?

Or do you have any other suggestions for me that I could use to develop his talent in this area?

Or perhaps I shouldn't do anything at all and just wait till he gets to college, that his current teachers are enough. If he is truly gifted, I hate to wait that long.

Perhaps he would just be better off studying the compositions of great composers--Dover, for instance, has a considerable selection.

Any thoughts on the subject?

Thanks.

Jesse F. Knight

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You don’t really say how you know your grandson is a talented composer, but I presume it’s because he’s already writing. If so, I think that’s fine. Experts may differ on this, but even if the finest instruction were readily available to him, at his age I would still rather follow his interest in the subject rather than impose a good deal of theoretical discipline on him. However, I do think you should be concerned about helping him develop into the finest musician he can be, and inevitably this takes tutoring as well as instructional books. People sometimes differ over the meaning of “small town” so I don’t know exactly what is available to you, but I know many parents in my part of Ohio who drive considerable distances each week to take their children to competent teachers. I realize it’s often difficult, but most often it’s well worth the effort for all concerned. Most parts of the country are within 50 miles or so of a college with some kind of a music department, many of which even run programs that welcome gifted teenagers.

If he’s serious about composing, or about any other kind of a musical career, a good keyboard background is extremely valuable, and I think the most important consideration is to be sure that he’s not yet able to outplay his present teacher. If he reaches that point, I would seriously discourage his continuing with her, because I think this is the skill at present that most needs developing and should be his highest priority. I would also encourage him to perform in public as a part of his study, so I hope that she organizes periodic recitals.

Experts differ greatly over the wisdom of voice lessons for fourteen-year-olds—especially since he’s still an adolescent and his voice is still changing—but there’s nothing wrong with developing his sense of diction and pitch and exposing him to some standard repertoire. I am a little surprised that you have a voice teacher with much to offer in a small town, since their pool of prospective students is necessarily far more limited than it is for those who teach piano to young children. I’m also not quite clear what you mean by “scholarships” for voice—especially in a small town—because those are foreign to me, apart from the context of a college or conservatory.

Even in those cases where I’ve taught high school piano students with a decided gift for composition, I haven’t worried too much about trying to instill a formal background in theory. I certainly believe that at some point anyone interested in composition needs to learn the rules of harmony and voice leading, but scarcely any serious professional will attempt to teach those principles just by assigning readings, and you should be advised that written work overseen and evaluated by a tutor is equally important.

Since you mention the Dover scores, I presume your grandson is interested in serious composition, i.e. symphonic and chamber works, etc. Studying scores (with discretion) certainly may prove to be of some value at this point in his development, but it’s far more important that he develop his ear, and my guess is that he will not have heard live performances of most of the works he reads through. I don’t know what kind of a budget your family has, but I’m a great believer in acquiring whatever CDs seem appropriate through Tower, Amazon, or any other vendor you care to use (a boon to those living in small towns!). Cultivating his ear is at least as important as cultivating his eye. Again, I think I would follow his interest with respect to which composers, etc., but I don’t think that scores of a highly complex, involved nature (e.g., Wagner operas or Mahler symphonies) are likely to be of much value to this purpose until he’s a lot further along in his study.

All things considered, if he’s genuinely gifted and he develops a love for and awareness of musical masterworks, by the time he gets to college he shouldn’t have any difficulties developing in whatever direction he chooses for himself.

Good luck to you both!

Stephen Siek

Wittenberg University

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