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31 July 2007

Teaching Contemporary Music

Teaching Contemporary Music
© Danielle Carey

Introducing young people to contemporary classical music can be a challenging but rewarding experience for both teacher and pupil. The general attitude towards the very words contemporary classical music is often one of apprehension, fear, and misconception. I’ve found that it simply takes a new way of approaching music to increase understanding of this genre, and even ignite a passion for it!

Understanding the diversity of approaches to composition and performance of new music can be a gateway to a whole spectrum of new musical worlds.The first and most common misconception is that all contemporary music is atonal and too complex for the average music appreciator to understand. But the 20th and 21st centuries have given rise to an extraordinary variety of different styles, from serialism and ‘new complexity’ to minimalism and the influences of world music, jazz and rock. Understanding that there is a great diversity of approaches to composition and performance of new music can be a gateway to a whole spectrum of new musical worlds.

In performance/flute teaching

I enjoy introducing extended techniques to my flute students right from the start. Simple experimentation with some basic extended techniques can be lots of fun! Play scales with flutter-tonguing or sing+play, make up a simple ‘key click’ ostinato to play under the melody of one of their current pieces, play an entire scale using only harmonics. There are now several resources aimed at young flute players which explore contemporary techniques and styles: Phyllis Louke’s Extended Techniques - Double the Fun; Wil Offermans’s Improvisation Calendar; Ian Clarke’s The Great Train Race; Mike Mower’s Musical Postcards. When teaching a contemporary work to a more advanced player, understanding what the composer was aiming to achieve aesthetically can help. Many contemporary composers will include a written preface to their work to assist with this. It’s also worth noting that living composers will be thrilled to hear from you if you’re performing their piece – this is an invaluable resource for any performer, to get advice right from the source.

In listening

Much contemporary music uses the fundamental musical concepts in new and unfamiliar ways (i.e. rhythm, melody, harmony). Our society is cluttered with ‘conventional harmony’, straightforward rhythms, and sing-able melodies. Hearing music which doesn’t make immediate sense to our ears can be confronting. Give people tools to enable them to listen to music in a different/new way – listen for specific things (instruments, performance/compositional techniques, timbres/textures, motifs, etc.) or get them to respond in a ‘programmatic’ way – ask them to visualise a story/mood/image/colour to go with the music, how does it make them feel? Give people a reminder that music exists to reflect the entire spectrum of emotions, so if we feel uneasy listening to a particular piece that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Janet McKay is a prize-winning flautist (James Carson Prize – Qld 1993; Albert Cooper Prize – UK 1996) who has held executive positions in the Qld and NSW Flute Societies, and was Assistant Artistic Director of the 10th Australian Flute Convention. Currently completing a Master of Music (Performance) at the Sydney Conservatorium, Janet is a freelance performer and teacher specialising in contemporary flute music.


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teaching how to listen

I had an interesting experience recently. An adult student of mine bought a CD with baroque solo works on it interspersed with contemporary solo works. She expressed quite a negative opinion about these works, and on further discussion I discovered that she had no idea how to approach listening to these works - what was she listening for? So we talked about creating different sounds and colours, about blurring a sense of time, about exploring just what sort of funky sounds an acoustic instrument can create. Word choices seem to make a difference in explaining how to approach these pieces and the techniques used in performing them.. 'cool' 'funky' 'sounds' 'exploration' 'thematic material' etc rather than trying to relate it to the student's pre-conceived ideas about melody and harmony.

I believe that as teachers we have a duty to stretch our own experiences and teach our students how to do the same - in listening and in playing - and it's great that it's being talked about!

Teaching Contemporary Music'

I know nothing of UTAS's academic standards, financial arrangements or music scholarships. If what you say is true, I'm puzzled as to how the Tasmanian Symphony is so obviously world class. I'm basing that opinion on only one hearing though. However, their performance of Mahler's 1st, Mozart concert aries and a premier of a Sculthorp piece in Launceston (sorry, forgotten the name but it used the last movement of Beethoven's ninth as theme with added didgeriddoo), blew me away. The strings alone were the equal of the Vienna Phil' in it's glory days. I've listened to orchestras all over the planet and suggest I wasn't hallucinating on this wonderful occassion.

So, is there no connection between the Tas Symphony and teaching standards at UTAS? If not, why not?

Teaching Contemporary Music

Dissily's post responds to another contributor's comments about UTAS's education courses.

Turning blue...need air...

Oh dear, oh deary me.

You mean you actually think the TSO is made up of UTAS Conservatorium graduates?

Pardon me while I laugh 'till I pass out.

Teaching Contemporary Music

Meghan - I agree with your ideas about teaching our students how to listen. The vocabulary we use as teachers is really important in communicating our ideas.

When I was teaching, I found improvisation and composing to be powerful tools for introducing contemporary music to my students (as well as a great way for helping them to build confidence and technique!). By building a repertoire of different sounds, textures and techniques through their own exploration, they were often better equipped to understand what they were hearing in contemporary works. And usually much more curious about new music by other composers!

Danielle C

'Teaching Contemporary Music'

I don't know how you could have come to that conclusion given my stated ignorance of how UTAS music dept' operates. I was attempting to discover if any of the Tasmanian Symphony players were teaching music at UTAS & if not, why not?

I'll have a symphony, a concerto, 1 overture and double onion (chilli, not mustard) on whole grain.

"If what you say is true, I'm puzzled as to how the Tasmanian Symphony is so obviously world class.."

Gee I dunno, I guess that one kind of threw me.

I must be obtuse or something.

Anyway, to answer your question, no, not really. The odd hack or two. The TSOs concertmaster has an associate position, but that could mean anything.

One doesn't want to get too precious there Disso. It's entertainment.

Nothing to worry about.

Feel grateful that those of us who don't attend are happy to provide the $400+ subsidy per seat per concert so you can enjoy a night out from time to time.

But I digress......

Peace be with you.

Teaching Contemporary Music

I'm amazed at the $400 per seat subsidy figure and would like to read more about it. Where should I start looking?

So, if there's little connection between the academic activities of the UTAS music dept' and the Tas Symphony, how does the UTAS music dept' connect to the rest of the music scene in Australia or are they really isolated from all that's going on ? This gets more puzzling by the minute.

And yes, I'm dead serious about the Tas Symphony being world class.

The little orchestra that could

Gosh, world class - knock me down with a sledge hammer. Who'd have thunk it.

Lets hear it for the little orchestra that could.

I'm afraid your questions are tinged with such delightful naivety D'silly, and, what with me all jaded and cynical, I really don't feel inclined to burst your bubble.

Tally ho!

was 'Teaching Contemporary Music'

Naivity? What part of my comments are you on about? If you imagine I'm naive when passing an opinion on orchestras of international standing I suggest you're either wrong, deaf or both. Having experienced more orchestras in more cities than I can remember over the last 55 years I'm not giving the Tas' Symphony a huge tick without having a valid body of experience as an internal reference. When I said, for instance, that the Tas' Symphony string section rivalled the Vienna Phil in its glory days, that's exactly what I meant. However, none of this directly relates to the topic of teaching standards at UTAS, a subject I admit , yet again, to knowing nothing about.

Choof, choof

Perhaps my experience of orchestras from the inside out diverges from your outside in experience?

Professional orchestras play in tune and mostly together most of the time the world over.

Can't ask for more than that.

Well, with some you can try, but you may as well have a go baking a cake in a chest freezer. You'll have better luck.

Teaching Contemporary Music

I hope this response arrives where it should as the habit around here of changing the headings on threads is confusing to say the least.

If your experience of hearing the orchestra is exclusively from within I suggest you've never known what you were supposed to be doing. If your comment was an obscure implication that the Tas Symphony does not know how to play in tune I confess to only having heard them play IN TUNE. By the way, I'm cursed with perfect pitch and as you probably understand that can make even a soprano's innacurate tremolo, and even some organ stops, a painful experience.That's as close to a valid response as I can deliver as I'm finding the English expression around here somewhat eccentric, to say the least.

It's all relative

Well D'silly, lets just be thankful that members of the TSO have been blessed with, or have acquired, relative pitch.


Teaching Contemporary Music

So, finally we learn ( still with a degree of ambiguity) you hold the Tasmanian Symphony plays out of tune. Luckily I haven't had that (relative?) experience.

Missunderstood Zelig

That's a bit of a leap there D'silly.

Methinks you read too much into my ponderings.

The TSO is perfectly capable, as is any other professional orchestra, of playing badly in tune as well as out.

Teaching Contemporary Music

Capable, but how often guilty?

Well, at least I now know what you were trying to say.

Here endeth the lesson

Well, there you see, we're back on topic sort of, because guilty usually when sight reading contemporary scores they can't be bothered learning.

Whoa, did I say that.

Performing Contemporary Music

Sight reading contemporary scores, I'm told by some required to perform them, is often done due to the nature of the music being extremely difficult to commit to memory. Composers may not think so but performers often do.

However, if the score involves a degree of permitted improvisation, such as say Boulez "Pli/Selon/Pli", then total committment to memory makes little sense as each performance is significantly different. How do you commit to memory something that changes everytime it's performed?

On the other hand your complaint reminds me of a comment I heard the clarinet player with The Adelaide Wind Quintet make during a rehearsal of a piece by Webern. The conductor paused to draw her attention to a wrong note. "How can you tell it's wrong?" she retorted,"They all sound bloody wrong to me!"

Now I don't agree with her take on Webern but this incident may help illustrate what's going on in some musicians heads when performing the more radical modern repertoire ( not that I'm necessarily putting Webern in that catagory) and why they cleave in desperation to a score; they're lost.

Arvo Part? Gosh How'my gonna play that!

Predictably you assume by 'contemporary' I mean 'difficult' 'complex' 'improvisational' and so on. I don't.

Webern, contemporary?


I don't mean to take issue with your nomenclature there Dissman but I'm actually talking about stuff composed yesterday which may for all we know sound like Haydn.

Arvo Part is as contemporary as any living thing on planet earth. But needs to be playing in tune. Ideally after a bit of practise the night before. If its not too much trouble nice Mr/s Miss Public Servant Tenured Orchestra Musician Type Person.

Performing Contemporary Music

I suspected you'd pick me up on the definition of 'contemporary'.

".....by 'contemporary' I mean 'difficult' 'complex' 'improvisational' and so on. I don't." Why didn't you make that point when first objecting to performance standards? We might have known what you were on about.

Darling, I'm not psychic! Not to worry, a rose by any other name.

"I'm actually talking about stuff composed yesterday which may for all we know sound like Haydn." Please, we DON'T need any more Haydn, much in all as I love his stuff.

Pärt is often put in the too hard basket by mainland groups, not just Tasmanian. I've suffered through a few manglings of Pärt by leading mainland choirs myself so you're not on your own. On the surface his compositions appear not to be difficult music but being so transparent anything less than technical perfection sticks out like a sore thumb. Compare Tonus Preegrinus's performances of his 'Passio' with, say, The Hilliard Ensemble's.

Now, let's discuss your objections to 'Mr/s Miss Public Servant Tenured Orchestra Musician Type Person. " I'm guessing here you're on about Australia's subsidized ABC orchestras and what such a system implies. I'd be interested in hearing your suggestions if you have a solution to this problem. Most suggestions I've heard involve the removal of Govt' subsidies. That could be the death of serious music in this country but maybe we could simply have shorter contracts for individual musicians and give conductors the right to terminate them earlier?

Another problem for new music is the intense desire the public appears to have of avoiding it. Ask any concert programmer about this. I wouldn't like to have their job convincing the accountants that new music deserves a larger airing. You almost have to sneek new compositions onto concert programmes using the old war-horses as camouflage. Recent popularisation of the 'classic' classics IE. 'Easy Listening' compilations etc aren't helping either. .....and don't get me started on the bastardization of serious music triggered by using utterly innapropriate pieces to back TV advertising. If I hear another chunk of Orf shoved under an instant cofffe add again I'll .. . . . ..GRRR! Add to all that the dire economic mess many top-ranking orchestras find themselves in today, especially in relation to recording contracts, and things don't look all that healthy. There's a few wonderful exceptions in younger chamber groups performing new music but sadly that's a drop in the ocean.

Busy busy scrape, scrape

'serious music' oh, please D'silly.

What with all that brow knitting going on out there why not let all those serious listeners pay for there serious entertainment.

I mean I don't have to subsidize Silverchair concerts, which I don't attend either and I suggest Mr Johns may in fact be just as serious about what he does as Mr Vine, and is often certainly as creative.

But then 'serious music' will make us all better people.

Is that it?

I'm afraid I got over the hierachical art/entertainment paradigm many years ago.

Some ensembles survive entirely by their wits, hard work and concertizing and canny sponsorship dealing, and, often with marginal audiences to say the best. They are usually also more serious minded and dedicated musicians than your average salaried superannuated orchestral hack.

Gee, isn't this 3-hour call over? Are we on time and half yet?

Bows down.

'their' not 'there'

I meant 'their' serious entertainment - of course

Zelig has another thought

What Serious Zelig meant to add, was...the relative merits or otherwise of the music notwithstanding, this is an agument about economics. That's all.

Its about the cost associated with mounting orchestral concerts for relatively small audiences and who pays for it.

Do the people who want to hear it pay for it?

Or do all of us kick in so they can pay only a small part of the cost and the rest of us can feel all warm fuzzy and civilized knowing that somewhere out there, in a concert hall near you people are listening to Mozart.

Contemporary 'Serious' Music

Serious music isn't my term but is commonly used and understood to be that branch of music formerly described as classical. Now, if you're talking serious music in a broader sense I'm happy to inlude the likes of Mr & Mrs L Reed, Tom Waits, Ali Akbar Khan, Oscar Peterson etc etc etc.

Contemporary Music

Only an argument about economics? No, I suggest it's an argument about political philosophy. Your ideology, in this context, appears to be one that would make Ayn Rand smile.

And no, I've never gotten anything like a warm glow thinking about someone listening to Mozart somewhere. Why would you?

I think this phone call has indeed gone over it's time limit though, don't you?

Not ready to hang up

I agree, the culture of entitlement is part of it and this is certainly a politico-philosophical question.

But whether or not one can pay to keep something running that isn't economically viable is about economics pure and simple.

Deciding what you do about it is another matter entirely.

Not ready to hang up

Mundo Jedi returns.

I find myself having to agree with the mischievous Zelig here; professional orchestras exist to employ musicians.

It is their raison d'etre.

Playing music is a byproduct, so to speak, of that employment.

But it also contributes to revenue streams - as long as they don't play too much of that unfamiliar new rubbish - and so the musicians can be paid since they are employed and so must play to earn money to be paid so the orchestra can employ musicians to play to earn to ..........etc......etc

It's a pretty sweet arrangement.

Beam me up

Music subsidies

"But whether or not one can pay to keep something running that isn't economically viable is about economics pure and simple."

Is it? Take for instance the forestry industry in Tasmania (off topic but I suggest a good illustration) This industry is subsidized to the hilt. The main beneficiaries are large mainland investment funds, not the forestry workers who have seen a radical reductions in their numbers over the last few years.

Is this a purely ecomonic matter? I suggest not, especially when you consider that federal subsidies are encouraging the conversion of prime agricultural land to tree plantations in a time of increasing food shortages due to global warming.

Even more weird is the $15 million of Tasmanian state revenue that's gone into bribing a mainland football team to play in Luanceston on occasion. Compared to the total subsidies spent on these two idiocies I suggest gov't support for an institution such as the Tasmanian Symphony is sane by comparisson. There are other issues of equal importance though. Why, given that a decent symphony orchestra contributes significantly to the national & international repution of any city & its state doesn't more private money pour into these organizations?

Don't know why I bother with all this .......may as well buy a pair of ear plugs and make a booking for Elton John's little recital in Luanceston. That doesn't require any subsidies and look what sophisticated enjoyment in gives the great unwashed.........excuse my elitism.....I was raised from an early age to be a snob .

Not Performing New Music

Sorry, I simply can't work out what it is you are trying to say.

Caught in the headlights

I thought I'd flush you out eventually D'silly.

Unwashed, university educated, leftwing, wealthy Zelig.

Teaching Contemporary Music

Unwashed, university educated, leftwing, wealthy Zelig?

Shower every day petal - care to sniff my armpits?. I'm 100% an autodidact with not a single degree to my name. Yes, I'm left of centre and proud of it ( although I do adhere to Rand's epistemology) but I have no idea what the hell a Zelig is. Wealthy ? I wish --- care to make a donation luv?

Now, can we set all this to music and stage it at the Met?

What shall we call it? "The Song's Gone Sour"? "Tales of Ignorance and Bliss"?

I'll leave you the job of hunting down all the private backing. Who'll we get to write the 'tunes'? I vote for Laurie Anderson or Sculthorpe. Shame Peggy Glanville Hicks has gone to the big concert venue in the sky, she'd have been perfect.


..'I have no idea what the hell a Zelig is'

Perhaps some of this might have made some sort sense if you had.

Zelig goes away now. Bye everyone.

"Swansong for Zelig"

Act III.

Zelig: Humming distractedly, tucks copy of Atlas Shrugged under armpit and slinks off into the sunset.


Postlude to Zelig's Swansong

"Zelig is named after a Woody Allen movie

about a man who had the strange ability to

become the physical and psychological

reflection of anyone he met and ..."

(To the tune of 'Ach, wei lang die Seele schlummert' from Wolf's Spanish Songbook)

Swansong for Zelig

I imagine Mr Zelig would saunter confidently into the sunset rather than 'slink'

'Bye Zelig, we'll miss you.

PS. I got it.


Ducky, I'm writing the libretto, not reporting fact.

I'm glad you got 'it'.