How to think like a composer

Any musical composition begins with sound. A melody is nothing more than a “community of coexisting sounds”. Such a “community of sounds”, perceived and comprehended by human consciousness, marks the beginning of a musical idea.

Thus, any piece of music is the focus of musical ideas. Such ideas can be very simple or very complex, but, in essence, they all come down to a set of sounds that are perceived by the human mind as a melody, or, in their higher development, as music. In this way, composer’s thinking basically assumes the ability of the human mind to comprehend the sounds generated in it as a musical thought.

Even when this is applied to a genius: his ability to recognize stream of sounds as music and to recognize sounds as musical texture is not born from scratch. We know from numerous historical examples how the genius of all musicians, without exception, was cultivated in the process of their deep immersion in the development of musical foundations, and, above all, in the development of the ability to perceive a sequence of sounds as a musical idea.

One of the primary elements in the development of the ability to perceive sounds, their subsequent reflection in the human mind and refraction into composed music is the reproduction, intonation of sounds by a human voice, followed by a combination of melodies from such sounds. The process of internal hearing of music with its subsequent reproduction in notation is fundamentally the essence of the composer’s creative process.

Whatever composers biographies we turn to in order to follow the process of their musical development from their childhood, we are convinced that they all came into contact with the school of music making, in which the emphasis on the development of musical perception was put at the forefront of their learning.

These facts suggest an urgent need to develop in young talents the ability to perceive and recreate in real sounds a musical idea in the form in which it primarily originated in the human mind.

As I said earlier, such an ability is not born from scratch, but is the fruit of climbing the steps of musical development, consisting of such basic skills as intoning sounds with a voice, reconstructing initially simple, and then musically and rhythmically saturated melodies, memorizing melodic material with its subsequent reproduction from memory by voice, as well as the skill of its accurate metro-rhythmic display. One of the following, extremely important, fundamental abilities is the ability to record in musical notation heard melodies in the process of their real sounding, or from memory. This skill, along with the ability to intonate melodies by voice, leads the young musician to mastering the next stage of his / her development: to developing polyphonic and harmonious hearing and musical thinking.

Here I have only briefly listed some of the main elements in the development of musical talent. Real musical talent is primarily creative talent. Creativity in any form of art begins when blind copying ends. There is no doubt, of course, that copying is itself an extremely powerful learning factor. By copying, we learn from the masters. By and large, it is impossible to give an example of a single composer whose work in one way or another would not have relied on the rich stock of the cultural heritage of his predecessors. However, the creator goes further: he enriches the cultural heritage that he uses through his original and individual perception.

I would like to emphasize here the main, in my opinion, idea that any talented performer is, at the same time, the creator of the work he performs. Rather, I would say, he becomes a co-creator, co-author, as if re-creating the original idea of the composer. Such co-creation, of course, is possible only when the performer, using the full development of his musical talent, all his skills, becomes able to penetrate the essence of the original composer’s intent, as if rediscovering it for himself.

Those initial steps in musical development, which I already mentioned earlier, allow the performer with all sharpness and sensitivity to penetrate the unique features of the composition being analyzed, “sing” the music that he plays in his mind, marvel at its melodic originality, its harmonic colour, its rhythmic uniqueness – everything that, in the end, determines its embossed personality.

The developed ability of internal hearing, “singing”, reproduction of musical material by the internal ear in combination with the analysis of the style of the work based on the acquired listening experience – all these components lead the performer to perceive the work he is considering as a unique composition, conceptualized and embodied by him in the process of working on his performing design.

In the light of all that has been said, it becomes obvious that we are becoming aware of the urgent need for us, musicians – those who in one way or another in their activity come into contact with musical pedagogical practice – musicians – educators of the coming young generation – musicians who seek to develop the performing talents of the young generation – we come to the realization of the need to concentrate our forces on developing in young talents the ability to perceive, feel, interpret and perform a musical work as if it were created by them.

The main difference in this approach compared to the generally accepted approach, in which the main emphasis is on reading notes and their thoughtless, automatic reproduction, is the difference that the emphasis in creative training is placed on the realization of a musical work through its auditory and critical perception, followed by active creative reproduction at such a level as if the work being learned would be recreated spontaneously, at each specific moment of its sound, by an analyzing, and subsequently performing, student.

I am sure that any musician who is creatively approaching the training of his pupils finds one or another form, method, in teaching the skills of perception of the performed music. It seems to me that the diversity and originality in the approach to teaching musical performance skills should be highly encouraged and welcomed. In the end, it was just such a diversity in the training of the young generation of musicians that gave birth to outstanding musical performers! Here I will only allow myself to mention the ideas of musical education that I apply in the practice of teaching piano students in my class.

I must say that, of course, I prefer to work with those young performers who are already able to perceive music at a more or less artistic level. I mean the level that assumes that the performer has the ability to reflect his personal feelings in the performed work, which, at the same time, are based on the display of the composer’s style, the specificity of his musical language, and the expressive means used by him. But how often, in the process of meeting in my class with a new potential student, sometimes even technically advanced, and while listening to his/her performance, I have to bitterly note the fact or complete lack of ability in the student to convey the expressive, emotional, stylistic features of the work performed, or their presence only at an extremely rudimentary level! And then I think: “What a pity that the time for developing musical perception skills was missed for this young talent, and maybe lost forever!”

It is then that the painstaking work begins, literally from the basics, which revives in the student his ability to emotionally feel the music and perceive, in all their relief, the expressive properties of the work!

One of the very primary components on which my attention is focused on the initial stage is the singing of sounds, their intonation. This may look strange, but it is a fact: most students lack the ability to reproduce by their voice not only a melody, but even one single specific sound. Not to mention the fact that almost none of those who got into my class at first were able to synthesize with their voice the sound displayed in the musical notation!

So, we start by singing sounds. I am omitting here all technical details on how this is achieved. Gradually, the student acquires the skill of singing not only individual sounds, but also the melodies composed by them.

This component is followed by the development of the ability to reproduce the rhythmic structure of the melody. Again, this probably sounds implausible, but this fact remains a sad fact: in most of the students who come to me, the ability to reproduce the rhythmic nature of the melody, phrase, is almost completely missing! Yes, they may even have some kind of theoretical knowledge in the field of rhythm, but this knowledge, as a rule, is almost not reflected in their actual application in practice. Thus, we come to the need to develop the skill of “sense of rhythm”, which is a conscious process and is supported by exercises, and through rhythm, through the upbringing of the sensation of the rhythmic periodicity of musical texture, to a rhythmic score. The most important elements in the learning process here are such as the elementary out loud counting and clapping beats, along with a gradual fragmentation of the beat and then interspersing a variety of rhythms in each beat. It is very important at that point to constantly apply emphasis on understanding the “time continuum” in music, the “life in time” of any rhythmic configurations, starting with the simplest once. One cannot ignore that elementary idea that all life processes of the human consciousness in one way or another take place in time and, in one degree or another, of its compression or extension. The structure of a piece of music in its “time continuum” has a tremendous impact on its character and emotional content!

Following this is the next most important component in the development of musical perception, on which I focus with all seriousness and without which, in my opinion, the correct interpretation of a musical work is unthinkable – is harmonious and polyphonic perception. Although I combined my consideration of these two types of polyphonic musical texture into one paragraph, in fact, their introduction to students often takes place in parallel rather than sequentially, due to the limitations of each lesson in a compressed time frame. And in this “parallelism” of the students’ mastering of these two principles, of course, there is a weakness in their assimilation. In fact, and I often mention this to my wards, the study of the specifics of chord, and therefore polyphonic exposure, should begin with the skills of contrapuntal writing. Indeed, in a historical perspective, the ability of mankind to perceive a harmonious musical background began with the realization of the interval relationships of two or more voices-melodies simultaneously sounding! The counterpoint, in my opinion, should be taught to students long before they are taught harmony, which is just a derivative form of polyphony. In my class, I try to instil counterpunctal thinking in students at an early level of their musical background. The voice reproduction of melodies I mentioned above goes further and deeper: the student is invited to identify and highlight individual parallel melodies that either “openly” pass through the musical fabric or are “hidden” in its chord structure. Here, “singing” of each of the melodies separately, and singing of one of the melodies with simultaneous playing of other sounding voices are applied. Again, I dwell on these aspects only briefly. In fact, in the learning process, the focus on these aspects always varies and is supplied with numerous additional elements that contribute to their better learning by the student.

The next extremely important component in the development of musical perception, of course, is listening to music! I don’t need to explain my idea here – it is so obvious! I can only say that I always try to provide my students with information, and often even factual material, relating to various sound recordings – and not only those that are currently performed by the student, but primarily those that accompany these works in one way or another . The musical impression is based on associations. And nothing better can cultivate associative perception as an acquaintance with many works of world musical culture!

In parallel with listening, there is a sight-reading skill. Again, I do not need to delve into this aspect in this short essay. But I would like to clarify that this is not just about developing the ability to “translate into sounds” what is written on musical paper, but about the ability to spontaneously, involuntarily “read” a musical work in the way that good readers read a literary or poetic creation, putting into this reading all the emotional power and the whole narrative meaning of the work, its author’s idea and its actor’s embodiment.

And finally, I should mention here another component in the comprehensive method of educating a young musician, a component based on all of the above components and leading the student further towards free, spontaneous, inspired performing art – the improvisation. I must emphasize that I primarily mean such type of improvisation, which is based on the musical representations that have developed in the artist’s mind and, consequently, on the ability to “hear” music with an inner ear, to present its character, style, rhythm, harmony and all those features that I mentioned above as components of the musical preparation of a young artist.

The introduction to this skill, of course, applies only to those students who have already fully mastered all the skills I have listed above and who are able to express their thoughts in a musical language on a more natural level of their dealing with music!

Here, I only briefly mentioned some important components of a successful music-teaching process. All of them, like the colours of the solar spectrum, come down to one goal – the education of a young talent as a brightly gifted performer-composer.

Here I would like to emphasize the urgent need for the presence in the process of educating such a young talent of a galaxy of highly qualified teachers of theoretical disciplines who give their soul and heart to their contribution to this noble cause! Of course, I am referring to those specialists who would clearly imagine that their goal is by no means a shameless adventure in the “successful passing” of one or another exam in theoretical discipline with the subsequent instant “forgetting” by a student of everything the one has just learned. But I mean such teachers who would help young musicians to fully and completely develop all the material they mastered on the way of their formation in the world of musical creativity!

In conclusion, I would like to remind and paraphrase that great in its simplicity dictum, which reads: “The more precious a gem, the more polishing it requires.”

Indeed, the truth is: “The higher the talent, the more attention and care it requires in the process of its formation and growth!”