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Teaching Composition In Ensemble Classes

Michael Fleischmann | March 2019

    State and national standards can be difficult to incorporate into a large ensemble class. Re­hear­sal time is limited, and topics such as composition and improvisation are difficult to fit in. I reserved teaching composition for my music theory classes, and I only taught improvisation in my jazz ensembles. Finding ways to teach these concepts to the other 80-90% of my students seemed like a daunting task. My answer was enrolling in a graduate course structured around Leonore Pogonowski’s Creative Music Strategy.

    On the first day of class we reviewed Gregorian chant by using improvisation and composition to better understand the music. We first listened to a piece of Gregorian Chant. As a class, we took turns discussing everything we heard, including guesses about the identity of the composer and piece. Without judgment, the instructor recorded all of our responses on the board, although some responses contradicted one another. We listened again and continued to spout out any and everything we thought we heard. Some discussion was necessary to address contradictions, but the instructor allowed us to lead the discussion and solve the problems on our own. We were fully engaged in the music from multiple angles, including historical context.
    Next, we were randomly put into groups of four or five students and instructed to write a piece of music in the same style as the chant we just heard on the text Alleluia. We were given 15 minutes to finish the assignment. Each group went into a practice room to discuss various ways of writing a chant, including intervals, modes, rhythm, text, melismatic versus syllabic passages, contour, and form. We were using vocabulary together and collaborating with one another to better understand the music.
    After 15 minutes, each group performed their compositions without interruption, and a teaching assistant recorded the event. As a class, we listened to each recorded composition one at a time. We debriefed, discussing what we heard and what we liked, and asked the composers questions about their music. The composers had the last word to discuss their process, how they arrived at their final product, what worked, what didn’t work, and what they might have done differently. Through dialogue, we were able to discuss what the composers’ intentions were and how they were achieved. The debriefing continued for each group.
    We used this same approach every day in class, immersing ourselves into other genres of music through physical movement, composition, arranging, conducting, and improvisation. We were placed into new groups each time, and composed music for the combination of instruments available to our group. I was initially skeptical that these exercises would work with high school students who knew less than a class of graduate music students. I doubted that they could compose something meaningful in such a short amount of time. I was wrong.

First Activity: Reconstructing a Melody
    I first tried the Creative Music Strategy lesson with my Wind Ensemble, an advanced ensemble consisting of mostly juniors and seniors. I told them we were going to write music in groups, but first, we needed inspiration, which was going to come from a piece we were working on. I transcribed two of the main themes for all instruments so we could play them in unison. We discussed aspects like contour, form, motivic design, variation, repetition, musical contrast, and tension and release. I led students through a brief analysis using relevant vocabulary I wanted them to learn.      For example, one of the melodies I transcribed had a sequence in it, so I showed students how it worked with the intention of asking students to include one in their compositions.
    I wanted students to start composing using the familiar material from the melody without actually calling it composing. I divided them into small groups and told them, “Take the melody and do something with it. Develop it. Turn it upside down.” They were not only going to engage in composition, but also arranging, orchestration, and improvisation. I showed the students some example videos from my graduate class so that they could see both the process and how the final product would look. Stu­dents had three days to come up with a 90-second composition.
    During these three days I wandered be­tween groups to ans­wer questions and boost confidence of those students who thought the exercise was too difficult. Common questions were mostly theory related – how to add harmony or which notes to change to shift a melody from major to minor.  Although some groups took to the independent work well, others were uncomfortable because they were accustomed to a structured, teacher-centered curriculum their entire musical career. Some students just wanted to be told what to do, and follow the directions of traditional notation, but the whole point of the exercise was that I wanted students to engage in the creative elements of music on their own, without restrictions.
    After three days, students performed for each other. Some notated passages in traditional notation, which was not required, others scribbled down a basic framework, and some groups played from memory or winged it – a rehearsed improvisation. Examples of ways students changed the passage included variations in a minor key, using a variety of tempi, or only using a motivic kernel of the original source material to develop. Some students wrote harmonies, and one group came up with a clever ABA-form composition inspired by a rain storm. This particular group experimented with shifting from the parallel minor back to major, and used multiple percussion instruments and extended techniques on their wind instruments to simulate rain, wind, and thunder.
    I recorded the performances and posted them to our Google classroom site. Immediately after the performances, we debriefed in a similar way to my graduate class. I started by asking whether students were surprised that they could do this. Most of them were, although a few of the more left-brained students – the ones prone to wanting to know exactly what they have to do to get an A – still felt it was a difficult project.
    Other questions were designed to get encourage reflection on the music after we watched a recording of a composition:

    •  What did you what did you like about their composition?
    •  What didn’t you understand about it?
    •  What musical elements (sequence, major/minor to­nal­ity) could you hear in their composition?
    •  What do you think inspired the composition, and were the composers effective in conveying their intent?

    After going through the questions as a group, the composers were engaged in a good cross dialogue with their peers. Some things I would ask the composers to share included:

    •  Tell us what you did.
    •  How did you start?
    •  What were your inspirations?
    •  What surprised you during the process?
    •  What would you do differently?

    Upon debriefing with my students, I was delighted to hear such comments as “This was fun,” “I enjoyed this as a break away from what we normally do,” “I learned more about myself,” “It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” and “It was fun to play with other people that I wouldn’t usually play with.” Overall, I felt that students exceeded my expectations. This wasn’t a six-week unit on composition and music theory, it was simply built on students using their instincts and musical know-how to come up with an idea. it is surprising what your students can do without courses in music theory, arranging, orchestration, or arranging. It was time to expand the exercise.

Second Activity: Words from a Theme
    After experimenting with my most advanced students, I expanded this second lesson to include my Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, (primarily grades 9 and 10), and my beginning band (mostly 9th graders). Before winter break, we generated a list of words that described our experiences (or emotions) that we could associate with our upcoming time with friends and family. We ended up with about 30 words on the list, including things like laughter, food, friends, joy, and stories. New groups were assigned, and students used those words as inspirations for their compositions. They were tasked to chose one or more words from the list as inspiration for music: How would music about food or laughter sound? Student had three days to write something, and we presented and recorded the final products in the same way described above. During the debriefing period, students tried to guess the stimuli for each composition; questions added included “What were the words that you think inspired this piece?” and “What do you think they were trying to say with their piece?” 

Third Activity: Telling a Story
    Toward the end of the school year, students were asked to tell a brief musical story with a beginning, middle, and end. As an option, I invited them to reimagine thematic material from any of the repertoire we performed throughout the past school year. Some wrote original material, some used motivic material from our concert and contest music, and some went back to music we played at the beginning of the year for ideas. Some students painted storylines, while others came up with mood music. One memorable composition depicted a police chase, with a percussionist blowing a police whistle and a trombone imitating a car engine. 

    I felt that the lessons succeeded at pushing students to improvise and come up with musical ideas appropriate to the task. Students also had to compose in a novel and appropriate way. They were experimenting and giving each other feedback. As an added bonus, this activity requires students to play in smaller groups together, which may or may not be a regular experience depending on the role of chamber music in a program. Most important to Pogonowski’s vision of this Creative Music Strategy is that students are engaging in creative musical processes and discovering musical meaning on their own without the explicit direction of a teacher.
    There were some surprises. Stu­dents at all levels were absolutely capable of doing this activity and enjoyed it more than I thought they would. I greatly underestimated their abilities.
    The primary obstacle I experienced was space. I did not have enough places to send students in their break-out groups, and I had to send some groups outside to work, an unsuitable solution for colder climates than mine. Also, this presented a noise problem with nearby teachers of other academic subjects. Although I think student groups of no more than five work best for this project, it might be necessary to increase group size if space is limited. 
    I also gave students too much time to work on their compositions. Although the first attempt might take longer to put together, in the future, I would make this a two-day project and only ask for 30-60 seconds of music rather than 90. The introduction takes 15-20 minutes. The professor who taught my graduate class recommended no more than 20 minutes of actual composing time. In my graduate class, we discovered that more time might not have been that much more beneficial and that there may be a point of diminishing returns. The product may not have been that much better with an extra day of work. Then, the performances and discussion of each composition runs 30-40 minutes depending on how many groups you have, and this stage could run longer if the discussions are rich.
    In the future I plan do develop more opportunities for more critical reflection. I would recommend generating a list of critical reflective questions beforehand to help guide discussions during the debriefing period. I would like to get students thinking critically about what they heard.

    Finally, I should have allowed the students to refine their product after the initial debriefing period. Letting students apply suggestions from both the teacher and their peers can be a powerful tool in deeper learning of the material. It is in this stage that students can consider multiple perspectives about their work, and make it that much better.

    Although I did not grade any of these exercises, I would recommend using a rubric. Numerous rubrics and resources for student compositions are available online. I would recommend The National Core Music Standards on the NAfME page as a starting point. You might also consider creating a rubric with the help of your students. This can be a useful discussion with your students about evaluating music. Ask them what makes a composition good and have them determine how effective the composers’ intent is conveyed musically.
    Composition is anxiety-provoking enough, I am reluctant to add the additional pressure of grading to the project beyond noting whether a group did or did not come up with something. Some of the groups did not try hard and only got a few seconds of music done. If this happens, try to use it as a teachable moment. For some students their belief that they cannot do the project might take longer to break down. It is important to remember that this is a messy endeavor, and some students are going to be less successful than others. Let them try again; that’s how they will learn. 

Younger Students
    I am teaching middle school now, and although students this age might need a little more structure, Pogonowski, who came up with this idea, describes using this activity for students as early as elementary music. The students in my high-school beginner class only knew seven or eight notes, and they were able to successfully navigate this lesson.

    The student-centered approach of the Creative Music Strategy not only engages students more in the process of creating music but encourages a deeper understanding of music from a variety of aspects. I also believe that this strategy is a powerful tool to engage students in higher-order thinking and might improve their level of performance overall. 
    As a conductor, I think any activity that requires students to connect to music beyond traditional notes and rhythms is beneficial to their development. The applications for this strategy are almost endless and can be used to have students engage in specific concepts such as form, harmony, scales, and modes. By presenting a short composition that meets certain criteria, the activity is also an assessment tool. The most rewarding part of these lessons was walking around and watching the process unfold. Believe in your students’ abilities to be creative. They will surprise you.