Students learn to power through writer’s block by doing a deep dive into the works of three types of composers—and not just the famous ones.
Assistant Professor of Music and Artist in Residence, Anderson University
DM in Composition, MM and MA in Composition and Pedagogy of Theory, BM in Composition
“Teaching music is like telling a joke,” says Dr. Caroline KyungA Ahn, quoting a friend whose description seems particularly apt to her. “Some people will understand what you’re saying, and some won’t. If you find someone who understands and appreciates you, you feel like a millionaire.”
Born in Seoul, Korea, Ahn was inspired 15 years ago to come to the United States to study music composition, after earning her bachelor’s degree in the field at Yonsei University. “Music has been there since the beginning of my life,” says Ahn. “I tried to convince myself to be a doctor for practical reasons, but at the end of high school, I decided to become a composer. It just came to me. I was good at all things related to music.”
Since then, Dr. Ahn has become a prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, and theatrical works, which have been widely performed in South Korea, the United States, Europe, and South America. While her work embraces a wide spectrum of styles, much of it is inspired by the natural world.
For the past seven years, Ahn has also assumed the role of music-composition instructor at the university level. And it is there, at Anderson University in Indiana, that she feels some of her most important work is being done.
As equal parts teacher, detective, and counselor, Ahn is passionate about helping each of her students identify what motivates, frustrates, and, ultimately, inspires them—and to make them feel like a million bucks, too.
Challenge: Writer’s block, and a fuzzy creative identity
In Ahn’s independent study course on music composition, students attend private lessons with the professor exactly as vocal and instrumental students do: A student meets one-on-one with Ahn, then practices his craft on his own for a week, returning seven days later to demonstrate progress and receive feedback.
However, since her students are creators of original work, they face additional challenges. Two of the biggest: Most of them do not know what to do when they hit a slump or creative block—and they do not yet know who they are as a composer, which makes it all the harder to get back to work.
While Ahn feels it would be ideal for students in music composition to bring in a new piece of work to their lesson every week, she knows it is not always easy to be so prolific: Music composition is a discipline that comes with ups and downs. Almost all of her students hit the proverbial wall at some point, despite her encouragement to focus (write, write some more, revise, and repeat).
“Even though many students come to my private lessons ready to write, they get stuck,” she says. “Even the great ones do. Music writing is not like other music fields. Sometimes, you feel like you can’t think of a thing or like something is not going in the right direction. Some weeks you have no inspiration to write. You’re just blank. And when [students] get stuck, they need help to get out of it. Some will give up pretty quickly if they don’t see a way through.”
Having unrealistic expectations and an unformed creative identity only makes it worse. “Many [students] struggle so hard to create a ‘revolutionary’ style that they may actually lose the basic concepts and tone of the music itself,” she says.
As Ahn contemplated a strategy to address these challenges, she realized that she already had the answer. And it had been inspired years before, by the less-than-positive approach of one of her own former teachers.
Innovation: Doing a deep dive into the work of others
When Ahn was a student, she felt some of her teachers did not care if she got creatively stuck. Though Ahn says most music lessons center on persistent practice as the solution to everything, she quickly discovered that being told to “try, try again” by an increasingly stern teacher did not help her at all. One day, after a particularly frustrating lesson, Ahn decided to take a break, and she began to actively explore the work of other composers. This not only got her creative juices flowing—it also sparked an aha! moment.
“I thought to myself, ‘When I teach, I am going to have my students go deep into other composers’ work so they can get unstuck like I did,’” she says. Ahn refers to this concept as modeling, and she is quick to note that there is a big difference between modeling and copying or plagiarizing.
“My concept of modeling another composer does not mean to replicate what another does,” she explains. “It means to study them in depth, to analyze their style, to incorporate [the positives] into your own style using methods that are already proven and effective, and to further that style in your own unique way. [This] may lead you to create a more structurally sound piece that may be similar but completely enhanced and different. It is a great way for composers to develop their composition style.”
It also has been an effective approach to help students when they are faced with those awful, frozen, blank moments.
Ahn’s Three-Part Music Modeling Approach not only encourages but requires students to seek inspiration and wisdom from other composers—including ones who are not so famous (yet).
“This course is an independent study with an instructor. It can be more effective to work directly with a professor sometimes because of the intense nature of the subject. It’s more efficient to have one-to-one interactions. In a big classroom setting, it can be tough to talk about your personal creative goals and process.”— Caroline KyungA Ahn, DM
Course: MUPF 1900–4900 Music Composition Independent Study
Frequency: One 50-minute class meeting per week
Class size: 1 student per class in a 1:1 format; sometimes groups of 2–3 students
Course description: This course continues development of compositional skills from Theory I, II, III, and IV; Choral Arranging; and Orchestration in an individual lesson format. Students will develop full-length pieces in both contemporary and historic styles. Composition students will be encouraged to perform one of their pieces during the semester.
See resources shared by Caroline KyungA Ahn, DMSee materials
Lesson: Ahn’s Three-Part Music Modeling Approach
Ahn knows that taking an in-depth look into other composers’ work has been instrumental in getting her unstuck, so she encourages her students to do something similar.
“Consider another artistic field like painting,” she explains. “One of the new painting styles in the nineteenth century was Impressionism, used by some of the most popular artists including Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, and more. They all created amazing paintings using a similar concept and style, but we do not consider them to have copied or plagiarized each other.”
Ahn says her concept of modeling is “a great way for composers to develop and enhance their composition style by incorporating the positives from other composers. It’s not copying; it’s incorporating styles and techniques into your music to create your own style of music.”
Freshmen, for instance, must write in certain style, while upperclassmen have a variety of options for what they listen to and study. “For example, I let the [freshmen] listen to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and write their music in classical style,” says Ahn. “However, when they get to upper level, they will bring their ideas how they are going to write, and then I recommend [that they] model certain composers. They study both scores and recordings. I try to give them more freedom in terms of what they will write.”
When Ahn sees the need to step in and help the students out of their slumps or past their creative difficulties, she follows this three-part plan:
Step 1: Help students model themselves after the masters
For students still finding their style as a composer, it can be tough to decide whom to look to for inspiration. “If [students] don’t know where to start, I point them in the right direction,” says Ahn, who often will begin by reviewing her own compositions and famous compositions with her students. “I give them something or someone to look at that they didn’t know before. I educate them on the history of composing.”
She shares this advice from her own experiences:
Research all kinds of masters—not just ones you like
Ahn says that it is important to be knowledgeable about many of the masters in your subject matter, including those who may not be inspiring to you personally. (Not all students will have the same preferences you have.)
Help them ask the right questions
Some of the things Ahn wants students to ask when they are evaluating the musical pieces of other composers include:
- What do you want to learn from this piece? Are there specific things that you are looking for?
- What is the composer of this piece doing in order to achieve the goal? Do you think it is appropriate/successful?
- How can your composition be different? How can you adapt the composer’s model to your own piece/composition?
Talk about the masters who inspire you
“What are the qualities you admire in the experts you emulate?” Ahn asks herself this question often, and she shares her self-reflections with her students. “I love modern classical music, which I know sounds like an oxymoron,” she says. “It’s different from Beethoven, Bach, and those classical composers.” She says it is hard to define, but she describes it as “more intense” than traditional classical music. “I love György Ligeti, Jonathan Harvey, John Corigliano, and Jennifer Higdon’s music,” Ahn says. “There are so many great composers whom I love. I get inspired by them all the time.”
American composers, in fact, were what led her to this country in the first place. “I love how detailed they and their understanding of different musical styles are,” she says. “I also love their willingness to experiment, which has inspired me to be free to create my own style.”
Incidentally, this is another form of modeling, in which Ahn is showing students how to glean inspiration from others.
Step 2: Have students be models for each other
After students investigate the work of professional composers, Ahn asks them to share their compositions and goals with friends and loved ones, as well as with other student composers. Research studies have shown that telling people about your work commits you to it in a deeper way than if you were to keep it to yourself, she explains.
“I tell students to ask the peer about [your] work. Be curious. Be analytical,” she says. Ahn also encourages students to learn from each other’s process and practice by providing constructive feedback for other students. They can do this by asking the same questions that they posed about the masters’ work (see Step 1).
Though lessons are individual, students also benefit from looking at each other’s work, as they are then able to identify positive takeaways that they may want to try in a future piece of work.
Step 3: Have students reflect on their own modeling
The final step, says Ahn, is for students to engage in self-reflection. She wants them to consider these questions when they think about how well they served as a model when working with other young composers:
- Have you done a great job modeling for others?
- Where did you fail?
- Why do you think you failed?
Once students have finished their self-evaluation, Ahn meets with each of them individually to compare her evaluation with theirs. They discuss any differences of opinion and brainstorm ways they can work together differently to foster future improvement.
“It has been really great to see the ‘progress’ rather than the ‘result,’” says Ahn. “Grading a private lesson is always tricky, but evaluating them this way has been much smoother and less problematic than larger-class evaluations. My private students can see why their grades are good or bad, or why they are struggling, because we went through all of the different steps together.”
Ahn says she knows that the final musical result is what everyone is waiting for, but to her, the end product is not the only thing that matters. Process and progress are important too.
At first, many students are surprised by Ahn’s approach because they had not thought about seeking inspiration by studying other composers, their processes, and their work on a deeper and more specific level.
Her students give Ahn high marks for her personal dedication to them and their music. These comments are verbatim from her teaching evaluations:
“As a composition student, I always wanted to write different styles of music. But at times, it was getting little confusing figuring out what style of music best fit the piece that I’m writing. Studying under Dr. Ahn really helped me to become a better composer since she was able to teach me so many aspects about writing music. I really enjoyed her teaching me different styles from different composers that I could used to incorporate into my music. Looking at other composers’ work helped to make everything clearer for me on what direction I need to take. Thank you Dr. Ahn for another wonderful semester!”
“It has been a joy and a privilege to work with Dr. Ahn these past few years. She is very insightful and can always find accurate ways to critique my work. She has a very hands-off approach to teaching composition, meaning she lets me explore the full range of my creativity. This way of teaching is incredibly helpful because it teaches me to grow and discover on my own.”
“I learned a lot in this course and my professor gave me the tools I needed and inspired me to be a self-motivated doer.”