What I Learned from Teaching English

Humans thrive on stories.  It’s an essential part of our existence.  It’s probably why we haven’t annihilated ourselves.

We’ve passed on stories since our species began. It’s how we communicate.  Give someone the plain and simple facts, and they’ll forget them the next day.  Encode those facts in a story they can relate to, and those facts will stick.

I left the music business for some time.  Several of those years, I found myself teaching junior high English.  In many ways, English isn’t too far removed from composition.  The creative aspects are very similar.

In fact, I should back up even further.  Before I taught English, I set out to write my first novel, which lead to my teaching.  This was a huge learning experience.  I’ve always been a technical person.  I focus on the details.  The emotional element, the story telling itself has always been hard.  I forced myself, with my novel, to explore these areas that were hard for me.  In so doing, I became a better composer.

The first drafts of my novel were not good.  I’ve gone back and looked at the first attempts and cringe.  They were clunky, and full of technical information.  As I honed the writing, the technique went away and the story came through.  I was able to move the technique to a more hidden and subtle place in the writing.  It was still there, but it didn’t seem like reading a textbook.

To do this, I had to go and study in ways I had never studied before.  I started looking at philosophy, psychology, mythology, and religion.  The common element is the story.  The story arc is the musical form.

Sometimes, they say that teaching something is the way to learn it.  So I ventured into the classroom.  I was still writing the novel when I began to teach elements of story.  In the back of my head, I was still thinking about music.

The elements of story are easy to comprehend.  Plot, setting, character, conflict, and theme.  A good piece of music is no different.

The characters can be the individual instruments or the various melodies and counter-melodies.  The theme is the overall character of the piece.  The conflict is the tension, the sturm und drang. The setting is the whole ensemble.  Finally, the plot is the form.

If any of these elements are off, the story falls apart.

Think of a favorite movie or book, and they’ll fit this.  Now, think of a bad book or movie (like Episode I of Star Wars).  They’re lacking something.

So, how does this apply to music?

For me, it was learning form.  Years ago, I eschewed traditional form.  I could never understand why though.  Once, I started teaching the elements of story, I figured out why.  In particular, it was the element of plot.

In teaching plot, we use something called a plot line diagram to help the students visualize what’s going on in the story.

plot line

Of course, this is a highly simplified model, but it serves as a basic outline. It’s entirely likely that this diagram is familiar from school.  But, I began to think of this in terms of music.  I though of the great pieces of music that I know.  Every one of them follows this model.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a sonata form, or rondo, or binary, or what.  The listener won’t hear that.  They’ll hear the simplified plot line version.  And that’s the reason I abandoned traditional form.

Instead, I began to compose with the elements of story.  In order for the piece to be coherent, we need to think of themes and instruments like characters.  They come and go; they interact; they live, breathe and die.  If we just follow the characters, we can begin to have an intelligible work.

Next, there must be a conflict to resolve.  This is usually fairly easy in music as the conflict is taken care of by the harmony.  However, the larger picture of harmonic progression is what is needed to unify a conflict in a piece of music.  How we structure the piece’s conflict outlines the work’s plot.

In essence, what I found was that studying as many areas as possible is a great way to get new ideas.  Focusing on just the musical aspect severely limited my own creativity.

Oh, incidentally, if you’re interesting in my book, here it is…



The Lost Ox