The Write Stuff

By 
Sunil Shah
August 24, 2001
Marti Epstein
A student listens in Epstein's class.
Epstein talks to her class after playing a student composition.
Photo by Liz Linder
Photo by Liz Linder
Photo by Liz Linder

As a multi-commission composer and veteran teacher, Marti Epstein can address the finer points of harmony and counterpoint. But when asked about obstacles all budding composers must overcome, she arrives at a topic that has nothing to do with technique: the fear of writing bad music.

"The key is to realize that you're afraid and everyone else is afraid and to just try and (write) anyway," said Epstein, an associate professor in the Composition Department. "Just write something and if it stinks, that's okay. At least you've started somewhere. You can figure out why it stinks and then go on from there."

Students have been benefitting from such advice since Epstein began teaching at Berklee ten years ago. She works to instill a sense of adventure in students in subjects ranging from Traditional Counterpoint to Contemporary Techniques in Composition. And she does this while splitting her time between teaching and a busy composing career that has led to performances of her works by such groups as the San Francisco Symphony and the Radio Sinfonie Orchestra of Frankfurt.

"I think that probably my most valuable asset as a teacher is being a pianist," Epstein said. "It's important for students to hear what they've written. Some don't or can't do that themselves. And since they often haven't notated what they want to hear, I try to do something in the performance that involves a little telepathy, trying to guess what their notation would have been. Sometimes the students don't even know I'm playing their exercise because they didn't play it themselves and they don't remember what they did."

Epstein encourages students to break through notational barriers by using an open-ended approach to translating to paper what they hear in their heads. She asks her students to write down the sorts of sounds they want to create in the music, whether they use standard expression markings, descriptive phrases, or general comments. She admits that usually students' visions of their compositions are not adequately represented on the page initially, but after some careful trial and error, the right effect or gesture can be identified and notated correctly.

When a student asks Epstein for advice on developing a notational vocabulary there's one thing she can't stress enough. "Listening to music is a very valuable thing, but looking at scores is equally, if not more valuable," Epstein said. "Looking to see how a composer notated his or her ideas will give you so much more notation language. The interesting thing is that I don't think composers ever get away from that. The more experienced you become as a composer, the more complex your ideas are, and of course you still have the (notation) problem."

Once a student has solid musical ideas on paper, the next question is simple: Is this music any good? Of course the answer is very subjective, and some would even argue that music should never be judged good or bad. However, in an academic setting, the assignments and feedback can be very helpful to young composers. In classes such as Contemporary Techniques or Techniques of Tonal Writing, where students have many compositional assignments, Epstein confesses that "one of the hardest things about being a teacher is to look at someone's music and figure out what's wrong with it."

Any opinions about the musical result aside, Epstein feels that using the methods from class creatively is the real evidence of success. "It's not whether I like it or not, but whether a student can transcend the tool and learn to be creative," Epstein said. "You can teach someone notation skills, but you can't necessarily teach them creativity."

Epstein learned that lesson firsthand during her own college years, as a freshman music major. Frustrated while studying a particular counterpoint concept, she struggled to find meaning out of what seemed like nothing more than strings of whole notes and half notes.

"I couldn't imagine what it was good for and why we were doing it," said Epstein. "I was just terrible at it because I had no personal or musical connection to it. And then I got the brilliant idea that maybe I should play my counterpoint exercises. I started doing them by ear, and it was really like a light came on and I was getting it."

The musical light first went on for Epstein when she was a child. With a father who worked as a jazz musician, she was exposed to music early on and found herself drawn to the piano. She began lessons at the age of six and later learned clarinet. By the time she reached high school, she knew that she wanted to explore music as a career.

"It became really clear to me that I wanted to be a musician," Epstein said. "But my father, even though he was a professional musician, was really opposed to it and we had a lot of fights about it when I was in high school."

But Epstein persisted, winding up in Boston in the 1980s studying music in a doctoral program at Boston University. After graduation, she joined Berklee's Composition Department, which she believes is a good place for open-minded composers. "Since there are so many different kinds of music that happen here, there's a little bit more freedom in what people will accept and what people will want to listen to," Epstein said.

And while Berklee is a place where musicians experiment with new combinations of styles, they do so at a moment in history when composers are able to draw from more resources than ever before. Advancements in technology, communication, and travel are creating opportunities that are carving out new frontiers for musicians. It's a situation that Epstein says makes today an interesting time to be a composer.

"The biggest difference between today and the 18th or 19th centuries is that we have access to every kind of music through CDs and the Internet," Epstein said. "We know so much more than they knew. Chinese music. Balinese music. Those things were also happening when Beethoven was writing, but he didn't know about anything other than the language of his circle."

But despite the more insular lives that composers led centuries ago, Epstein insists that they were just as innovative as contemporary composers. She stresses this fact when teaching core courses, such as Traditional Harmony, that are required of all Berklee students.

"If you can show the students who are really into jazz that Bach wrote minor 9th chords . . . and how influenced by classical composers a lot of jazz composers are, then you can start showing them things they really respond to," Epstein said. "These composers were real life, living human beings who were creative and avant garde in their day. If you can get that across, you can hook some of the people who may not have been hooked otherwise."

Marti Epstein's Top Fives (listed in no particular order):

Top 5 Compositions for students to study:

  • Stravinsky - "The Rite of Spring"
  • Messiaen - "Quartet for the End of Time"
  • Schoenberg - "String Trio, Op. 45"
  • Webern - Anything, especially his twelve- tone compositions
  • John Cage - "Sonatas and Interludes"

Top 5 Favorite Compositions:

  • Sibelius - "Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82"
  • John Cage- "Sonatas and Interludes"
  • Morton Feldman - "Rothko Chapel"
  • Stravinsky - "The Rite of Spring"
  • Beethoven- "Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Choral), Op. 125"