Composition for All Music Students

01 June 1988
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An article published in the American Music Teacher, Official Journal of the Music Teachers National Association, Volume 37, Number 6, June/July 1988.

An article published in the American Music Teacher, Official Journal of the Music Teachers National Association, Volume 37, Number 6, June/July 1988.

Page 1


More than a Special Interest, a Path to Musicianship

I'm a composer, a teacher, a parent and...a child.  A child because, regardless of my age, I "play" a lot. I play with sounds, ideas, moods, textures--all in a way that may be foreign to many adults and even foreign to some children.

Let me explain that statement by using an old analogy--the one about the sailing vessel being of no use without a rudder.  It's true, of course, and I've met students who will not accomplish much with their music because they don't have enough self-discipline to develop their talents.  But the converse of the old analogy is also true: a perfectly good sailing vessel, even with a good rudder, is of little use when becalmed, when there is no force to move it through the water.

As teachers know, there are a lot of creative students with child-like imaginations but no tools--no discipline--no rudders, if you will.  But as teachers, we must remember all those people, some of them our own age, with excellent discipline, possessing a number of truly fine tools, whose imaginations were "becalmed" somewhere in the tool-gathering process.

Teaching all music students, especially the average ones, to compose is a great way for us to provide a rudder and to give the ship a little boost.  Most of use see our main objective to be equipping our students with the tools they will need.  Yet we often find ourselves in the role of motivators, trying, like drama coaches, to inspire the new initiates with the joy of self-expression, using the words (music) of someone else.

Especially when that someone else is a great master, we want the students to appreciate the genius and discipline behind what the students learn and perform.  Good teachers try to do this by giving background on the composer, his style and even some of the compositional techniques he used to achieve tension-release, development of a thematic idea, or the unifying devices of form.

All of these methods of developing the "composer-eye-view" in the minds of young performers would become easier and more effective if we taught all students to compose, right from the beginning, as a standard part of music education, much as we now consider music theory to be a requisite part of any beginning private lesson.

Page 2


Advantages of Starting Composition at Young Age:

  • The student's so-called "tinkering" at the piano may well be one of the reasons that he and his parents decided to pursue lessons.
  • Everything about the lessons, including putting pencil to paper or being asked to make up a short tune, is equally new to the student, even if a bit arbitrary at the beginning.
  • The young student has probably not yet learned the myth that composers were "gods" that lived centuries ago and that present-day mortals (certainly the young ones) have no business trying to come up with anything of their own.

Objections from the Teacher:

  • It's hard enough for me to get in theory and still have time for technique and repertory.  How am I going to also work with the students' original pieces?
  • How can I teach composition, when I don't compose?

Objections from the Student:

  • I don't want to create something different; I just want to be like everyone else.
  • I can't stand writing my pieces down; it's so hard that by the time I have something written, I don't like it anymore.

How to Get Started:

  • Require all your private students to copy one entire piece (teacher's choice) each year as a requirement of your studio.
  • Ask students to make up (not notate) variations on their favorite pieces.
  • Take some time (the impression this makes is well worth it) to write down (while they watch) some of their variations in music notation.
  • Find a brief section (only a few measures) of their variation with the same rhythmic/melodic patterns as the one you have just notated and ask them to finish notating the remaining few measures that are similar.
  • When the student is ready to try an original pieces of his own, always make sure (unless the student is unusually self-directed) that you carefully "restrict" the number of creative tasks he must do at one time: you provide the rhythm (perhaps with words) and he provides the tune, or vice-versa; a certain number of measures are due next week (usually a phrase or period); you provide the "question" (antecedent phrase), he the "answer" (consequent phrase), parallel or contrary; have him write a melody that fits a contour diagram that you draw, or that fits a "home-tone" (steps 1, 3, 5, 8) and "traveler-tone" (steps 2, 4, 6, 7) plan.

Page 3


A Scene at a Music Lesson:

Teacher: O.K. Johnny, it's time to do your scales.

Student:  Miss Jones, I made up a piece this week.  It's really neat.  Wanna hear it?

Teacher:  Well, uh, yes.  I guess we can take the time.

Student proceeds to play a repetitive figure, syncopated, with uneven phrase lengths, changing meters, even changing tempos.  After he has beaten the idea to death, but not yet quite satiated himself with it, he suddenly appears to become self-conscious, stops playing without an ending and sheepishly makes some kind of game-playing remark like:

Student:  I guess it's not really anything.  It's probably not very good.

Miss Jones suspects that Johnny didn't prepare his scales this week and may be trying to divert her attention.  Also she doesn't especially want to try to figure out all that crazy stuff Johnny did in his piece.  At this point, we've probably all been tempted to say something like:

Teacher:  That's very nice, Johnny.  I'm really glad you are making up your own music.  I wish I had time to help you write it down, but we have so many more things that we need to get done today that I think we'll have to do that later.

That would probably be the end of the story.  But what about the teacher who doesn't want to squelch Johnny's creativity:

Teacher:   That's very nice Johnny.  I'm really glad you are making up your own music.  Why don't I help you write it down.  First, you try to write as much of it this week as you can, and then I'll plan to set aside some time in next week's lesson to check what you've done.

Next week, Johnny returns with little or nothing written down.  The teacher is a bit surprised that he has written so little and at the poor quality of what he has notated.

Teacher:  Johnny, why didn't you write more of your piece?  Don't you like it anymore?

Student:  No, not really.  I got tired of trying to figure out the notes and the rhythm.  And my dad told me I was just messing around.

The two main stumbling blocks in this story were the teacher's unwillingness to adjust her lesson plans to spend some time with Johnny's piece, and the problem of notation.  The first is a matter of flexibility and being willing to "discover" as well as "teach".  The second appears to be more complicated.

Especially if the student is easily discouraged, notation isn't absolutely necessary at the beginning.  In this age of chip technology, students can use tape recorders and synthesizers to have a "voice" that can be replayed at will.  Instead of fighting this, many teachers use such equipment to help keep the "wind blowing in the sails."  But they communicate to their students, over a period of time, that the pieces they create will be much more fun for the listener and for themselves if they notate them, and that the time and thinking process that it takes to notate will contribute substantially to the quality of the pieces they write.

Page 4


What Should Miss Jones Do?

We're already better off for having thought about this little story and what not to do.  Our response will be a more considered one.

Without giving the student the impression that he can interrupt your lesson plan whenever he wants, if it's in the name of creativity, your response when he shares something of his own should be positive, but analytical.  Show him that you were really listening.  Point out something distinctive that you noticed: use of changing meters, or just some melodic figure you liked.

Explain that, in order to get his piece written down so that others can play it, you and he will have to both do a bit of extra work, but that it probably will be fun, too.

Your Job will be to tape record him playing his piece and to do a bit of "transcribing" this week.   (This gives you plenty of time to make decisions about meter, rhythm, etc.)

His job will be twofold: (a) to practice his piece and make sure that he can play it roughly the same way each time (turns on his "internal editor") and (b) to actually write the note heads (whole notes) of a section of the piece.  He is not to try to figure out the rhythm, but he is to align the note heads carefully so that notes in the right and left hands on the piano appear at the proper places relative to each other.

At the next lesson, even if you have already figured out the meter and rhythm yourself, have him help you find which of the note heads he has written seem to have more stress or accent.  Have him look for any kind of regular pattern in the stresses to help in determining the meter.  You may have to come up with the final answer, but he will have been actively involved in the search.

Remember that there are sometimes several "right" ways to notate a piece (such as 3/4 with triplets as opposed to 9/8).  Even though the student may pick a way that is not quite as "right" as it could be, if it is an accurate notation, you might allow him to use it.  If you show him a better way, be sure that he understands that it is better because it will help his piece to come out the way he intended when read by someone else (average quarter-note speed, and so forth).

See if he will allow, as an experiment, another of your students to learn the piece from his notation to see how well the notation gets the music across.  If the experiment works, the second student might even be persuaded to perform the first student's work on a recital, which can be a real "kick" for both students.  It can also be a rich learning experience (not always pleasant) for both students.

If the composer wishes to play the piece on a recital, encourage that the piece be accurately notated before he does.  You're not trying to discourage improvisation, just to prevent misrepresentation.  Also copies might be made available to any students who might want to learn his piece.

Seek out student composition contests, such as the one MTNA offers, emphasizing that the main goal is to get the comments of the judges, not just to win a contest.  If the judges make suggestions for improvement of the piece, which is, after all, one of their responsibilities, encourage the student to try his hand at the suggested changes.  Quite often the student is discouraged because he doesn't want to have to recopy his piece.  If you can help him find ways to "divide and conquer" that task, you will have helped greatly.

If the student's family owns a computer and can afford software, encourage them to purchase a music-writing program for the student.  Many students who would become discouraged after twenty minutes of handwritten notation will spend hours at a computer programming the notation of their piece.

I've presented a few ideas that may help young students develop the "composer-eye-view"--a perspective that will not only make them better musicians, but probably happier individuals, as well.  If you feel there really is not time in your lesson plans to try composition, perhaps you can approach your students and their parents about making composition a special project for summer lessons.  You might be surprised at how much fun you'll have, and how much you might learn.