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Teaching Composition

Andrea Hollenbeck | October 2009

    Magic happens in the band room when students study composition, a part of music that can be as rewarding for them as it is for directors. Students who compose practice more (it’s their own music), and the result of more practicing and playing is that directors hear greater improvements throughout the ensemble.
    Composition can give shy students a new sense of pride as everyone applauds their pieces, and even uninspired players feel motivated to write music once they hear their efforts performed. For one timid student who didn’t like composing, the smile that came across her face was priceless as she listened to a friend play her music; she was eager to create something new at her next lesson.
    Many students like to compose simply for the chance to explore music through a computer and develop finesse with notation software. In no time they are printing out six-note melodies with repeated ideas and simple accompaniments. For some students composing seems to touch a light in their heads as they realize people who compose are quite special – not simply dead old men.
    Composition class easily becomes a teacher’s ally because original pieces are a vehicle from which to assess each student’s musical knowledge. For example, if you want to know whether your students understand  68 meter, have them compose a piece in  68. This suggestion is something Maud Hickey, a professor of music education at Northwestern Uni­versity, passes on in her methods classes. Once students understand 68  meter through composing, their sightreading improves and their understanding of the literature expands.

Composing 101
    My beginning- and intermediate-band students compose three to four times each semester. Advanced band members, third-year players, compose two to three times in the first semester and once or twice in the second semester; they may also spend more time revising a piece. I typically devote ten minutes introducing each composition assignment during one class. Their final composition is a form of individual assessment, similar to taking a final exam. When students perform their compositions for the class it can typically take 20-30 minutes for a class of 45 students.
    I introduce composing by having students learn the first six notes of a scale: Concert B flat =1, C=2, D=3, E flat =4, F=5, G=6. Before class I write patterns with scale degrees on the chalk board to use as warmups. These will typically look something like: 123454321, 53135, or 1121123211234321123454321.
    Next, volunteers play any four notes – 1231, 2345, 5653, etc. – and everyone in band has to determine the pattern of these four pitches. The students get so excited even though it’s only a five-minute exercise. We talk about whether the notes have a pleasant, cohesive sound and if the group sounds like it has an ending, after which I introduce the concepts of tonic and dominant.
    It takes the first three weeks of beginning band for everyone to recognize the patterns.  Directors who are beginning composition lessons with older students can teach this as well or leave out the scale degrees completely. Eventually I move the tonic/root to different keys, and the students transfer the scale degree to other scales, which will help them transpose to different keys in later years. It could also work to use solfege.

A First Piece
    By the fourth week of class I pass out instructions for the students’ first official piece, the First Six-Note Composition, which I also include on the school’s website. The students are to compose an eight-measure piece with all six of the notes they know, using each pitch at least twice.
    The goal of composing should be to make music, not just explore different sounds. As a part of the composition, they answer two questions that show they are thinking about the music, such as “explain why your composition is creative and catches the audience’s attention.” I use the words “capture the audience’s attention” hoping they will compose and then revise the music to be sure a melody is present. The students’ reactions to the music will influence the final grade. This is a motivator for students to make sure they are prepared to perform.
    Students can work on their compositions as homework, in school, or in class in small groups, whenever it is convenient for the director. The frequency of assignments is also up to each director and will vary depending on the schedule and workload.
    I recommend giving students at least three weeks to compose but set a date during that time to review a draft of the pieces to be sure everyone has started writing. For the draft I check their work and ask them to play a few measures. This helps to catch students who are borrowing from Star Wars (they need to start over) and gives me an opportunity to discuss plagiarism in music.
    Students may ask for help creating an interesting  title. You can guide their decision by asking about the inspiration for the piece, whether they will dedicate the music to a special person, and what they think the title should be. Some students start a composition with a title in mind while others save it for last. For students who are working in Finale, the program begins by asking you to type in the name of the work. When students don’t know, I suggest they move ahead and simply pencil it in later.

Groovy Roller
    During beginning lessons I encourage students to invent notation using symbols, pictures, or letters instead of composing with a traditional staff so that people who are not musicians can read and play the piece. In class students perform each other’s compositions so they have a realistic experience as composers and I have time to assess their understanding of music. Further, it helps them avoid the temptation to randomly place notes using Finale.
    I have students go to the school’s website to see the composition Groovy Roller, which has sections marked MA and MB. When you listen to the piece, it is clear these sections repeat. The symbols in the piece are A, B, Key 2, Repeat, Scale, F ¼ (which means F is a quarter note), E ½ (E is a half note), in addition to other note names that are indicated in letters. It is a good first composition, especially considering the young composer did not use standard notation.

Notating Rhythms

    Most students have a difficult time writing rhythms correctly, so in the beginning I am lenient if their notated rhythms don’t match what they play or if a measure has too many or too few beats. However, if the goal of the composition is using correct rhythm, then I expect each measure to have the right number of beats with the rhythms notated correctly.
    Sometimes a composition assignment has only a few parameters while others have detailed, specific instructions. For a Challenge Composition students write a piece using difficult rhythms, varied dynamics, and musical elements that are geared to specific instruments or players, such as playing an octave or starting on a high note. Students rise to the occasion, and the results are quite impressive.
      If students lack creativity, I ask questions to help them expand the work and guide the direction of the piece.
    • Do you want the melody to go up or down?
    • What patterns exist?
    • How can you expand the pattern, continue the existing one, or change the pattern?

Another way to stimulate students’ imaginations is to have them think about the qualities of their band or orchestra literature.
    • What compositional techniques does the composer use?
    • How can you incorporate those techniques into your composition?
    • What is the architecture or form of the march we played today?
    • Would that form help your piece?
    • How does the rhythm change later in this measure?
    • What is the motive in the march? What is your motive?
    • How would it sound if the tuba played the clarinet part? How can you play it differently?

Other Composition Ideas
    For another composition I have one student develop guidelines and another student compose. The students then exchange their ideas, writing a composition based on one another’s requirements. They perform the piece in class and listen to comments – positive and constructive – about the assignment. As a teacher I gain new ideas from my students.
    Some students like the idea of creating tributes to great composers, so they study the musical elements of their works, such as the forms, sound, and rhythm, and use them in a new piece. Students also love to write music based on something going on in their lives, such as one young composer who created a jazz-style piece, showing  he was excited to be in the beginning stages of learning jazz rhythms and articulations. One student wrote a programmatic piece based on a book she loved, Jane Eyre.
    My students have worked together to compose duets, playing them with consonant and dissonant sounds. The students each write something, play
their efforts, and revise and revise. Others play short parts, revise the music, then write again. Finale comes in handy to expedite the process because it lets students hear their music at the desired tempo while they are still creating. One flutist went all out and wrote a Celtic-sounding piece for full band using the Finale software she had at home. She even printed music for everyone in class.
    My students downloaded Finale Notepad, which was free until this past year (now it is $9.95), and the computer lab at my school has Finale downloaded to each computer. Students can also write their compositions on staff paper, which is free by going to Google and typing the words: free music staff paper. At least once a year, I require that they notate music by hand, which is a good lesson is knowing how to write notes and compose in a different way.

Failures and Successes
    A student usually knows when a composition sounds like a flop. Lackluster results are due mostly to inexperience or when someone doesn’t put much effort into a project. Overall, young composers are respectful of one another, regardless of the level of the music. When students are truly impressed by a composition, their natural body language, smiles, and comments are worth a million words. They want hear the music again and curiously ask about what inspired the piece.
    A percussionist who was well advanced with technology made a video composition using animation software. He constructed a xylophone in flash software, then programmed it to play the composition, even assigning colors for each key. A favorite among students is the chance/die composition idea in the book Sound and Structure by British educator John Paynter. Students form two columns on a piece of paper, one for pitch and the other for rhythm. Next they assign each side of a die to a pitch and then to different rhythms. They roll once for the pitch and then a second time for the rhythmic value, until the composition is complete.
    A student percussionist once wrote a drum set composition that explained why a drummer comps. He demonstrated comping in the piece and also depicted the drummer who influenced the composition. Although I thought the music would be a disaster, it turned out to be one of the best played that day and highly educational.

Grading Student Compositions

    I include compositions as part of each student’s project grade, which is 20% of his entire grade. Any type of point system is up to each director, whether it is grading based on 100 points, .5 point, ABCDF grading, or using the words ad­vanced, proficient, partially proficient, or insufficient evidence. As part of the grade students answer questions about their work, which gives me insight into their musical knowledge, and they play in front of their peers.
    Sometimes they turn in either audio or video recordings, which I collect in a manila envelope instead of carrying around a stack of CDs, DVDs, and zip drives. I advise against sending compositions through e-mail because the files are big.

Parents’ Comments
    Each year a few parents tell me their child isn’t smart enough to compose. My response: Please call me again in two months if that is still the case. If students are reluctant because they haven’t composed before, I encourage them to make every effort to complete the piece because starting the process is the difficult part. Once they begin, their ideas usually continue to flow.
    Composing in band can be the start of creating music for composition competitions or commissions gained through grants, fundraising, and benefactors; grants are competitive but attainable. My school is fortunate in that it has a grant coordinator who sends grants through district e-mail. Certain businesses (Target, Best Buy) award grants; if you search for grants on the internet using Google, be sure to write down the criteria for each grant, keeping in mind specifically what each requires for an award because the details will differ. 
    Once students hear the performance their first piece, they will thank you for including composition as a part of band. Students grow in confidence and self-esteem, and they continue to compose. Creat­ing music improves musicianship and the band program in general. After teaching compositions for 11 years, I realize students simply love it.

Suggested Reading
Susan R. Farrell, Tools for Powerful Student Eval­uation (Meredith Music Publications)
Maud Hickey, Northwestern University,
John Paynter Sound and Structure (Cambridge Uni­versity Press)
Rena Upitis, Can I Play You My Song? (Heinemann)