Published in Junior Keynotes magazine, Fall issue, 1995

Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

Why is composition not an integral part of most pre-college independent studio programs? The reasons are understandable--lack of time; most students do not express interest in original writing; many piano teachers are not trained in composition and are not entirely comfortable writing. Thoughtful consideration of the benefits of composing, however, should convince music educators to give further thought to integrating this activity into a comprehensive music program.

What are the values of composing?

Composing develops the skill of using musical ideas for personal expression. The process of verbal and written feedback between student and teacher (or student and student) fosters communication and sharing of ideas -- from scribbling the first notes of an original tune to developing the idea(s) into a piece to performing the completed work.

Composing puts the student in touch with the challenging and rewarding aspects of the creative process. These include the ability to tap into one's own ideas, the willingness to shape and reshape those ideas, the need to be flexible, the discipline of working on a project over time, the ability to make decisions, and the courage to share the final work.

Composing develops a critical sense -- the ability to evaluate and form opinions about one's own work and others' work.

Composing fosters creativity and imagination in other areas of endeavor.

Considering the paucity of time for covering what must be covered in the weekly private lesson, why not start students composing in a monthly musicianship class? Use composing in a group project. First have students brainstorm a list of topics. For example, if the theme "A Day at the Zoo" were chosen, students could write about something they saw at the zoo. Some guiding questions for choosing a topic might include:

  • What animal did I like best?
  • What colors caught my eye?
  • Was I in a particular mood or did I have a certain feeling while at the zoo?
  • What was the weather like?
  • What kind of plants did I see?
  • Were there people working at the zoo who sparked my attention?

Examples of topic titles include The Giraffe, Stripes of Black and White, Lazy Day Smiles, Storm, Swaying Palms, and The Diver.

The ultimate goal would be to stage a presentation incorporating performances of the original works; a narration could be written to provide interest and transition between the pieces. Each student's individual contribution would be so important to the whole, motivation and commitment to the project would be insured.

It is important, especially with young beginning students, to give guidelines before they begin composing. After the topic is chosen and staff paper and pencils are ready, give the class specific directions. For elementary students, they could be instructed as follows:

  • Print the composition title at the top of a staff paper.
  • Draw a treble clef at the beginning of the first line and the second line.
  • Draw a barline at the end of the first line and a double barline at the end of the second line.
  • Draw three evenly spaced barlines on each line. This results in four measures in each of the two lines.

At this point, have the students experiment individually with sounds on keyboards with headsets, if your studio has the equipment. If not, have each student spend time at the acoustic piano for an allotted period while the class continues in another room. Tell them there is no such thing as a "wrong" sound or idea. Their one goal before leaving is to write something, even if it's just one little beginning group of pitches.

It seems a reasonable assignment that each student finish a first draft of the eight-measure piece by next month's musicianship class. Let them know you want them to enjoy playing with their ideas before writing them down. Assure them it's normal to not always have immediate ideas, that sometimes it's worthwhile just "doodling" on the keyboard. Tell them not to be surprised if they erase and change a lot. Also say you would like to check their progress at each private lesson. If they find it impossible to get their ideas on paper (especially if Mom and Dad aren't musically trained), have them tape what they've created and bring it to the lesson.

After an initial draft of ideas has been sketched, establish a working vocabulary the group understands. For example, a listing for elementary students can probably include: piano (p), forte (f), slow and fast (or Italian terms if known), specific note values, specific rest values, and pitch range. Show students that these elements add interest and contrast to music. Also, don't automatically exclude terms they haven't learned in their methods. For example, using different ranges of the keyboard adds a lot of interest to a piece, but elementary students are not equipped to write in a variety of registers. Why not teach them the simple concept of octavo (8va)?

As students (of all levels) rework and develop their pieces over several months, guide and challenge them to constantly ask themselves questions about their work:

  • Is my rhythm interesting?
  • Can I use more or less repetition?
  • Are there enough dynamic contrasts?
  • Am I using enough range of the keyboard?
  • Am I satisfied with the form of the piece?
  • Do I need to unify my piece more?
  • Is there enough variety of sound, rhythm, etc?
  • If there is a harmony part, am I satisfied with it?
  • Am I satisfied that my title reflects my piece?
  • Is the notation accurate?
  • Is the score neat enough that someone else can read the work?

Impress upon students that just as English writing skills strengthen other academic areas, so music writing fortifies other musicianship skills. And like performing, composing can be an enjoyable outlet for expressing who they are.

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This page was last updated November 4, 1996