When a young musician develops an interest in composing, they will most often go for advice and help to the music teacher with which they have the closest relationship. This will usually be their piano teacher, choir director, band director, church music leader, etc. How these first experiences are handled can have a tremendous effect on how the student develops, and whether they decide that composition is something worth pursuing. And yet, most teachers in these positions have little or no idea how to advise or guide a student in this area. Furthermore, there seems to be a distinct lack of resources available to fill this gap.
For this reason I have begun to compile some thoughts, helpful hints, and easy exercises that may serve as a basic reference source for those teachers who would like some guidance in dealing with young composers. These materials are not in any particular order, and they will almost certainly grow over time. If you use any of these ideas with a student, I would encourage you to contact me with the results (good or bad) so that I can begin to accumulate some empirical data on the effectiveness of these techniques.
There IS an important relationship between these two techniques in that they both use musical notes to communicate the original musical ideas of the performer/composer. They ARE different, though. You can help illustrate this to young composers by discussing the difference between speaking on the telephone and writing a letter (or maybe typing an email). When talking on the telephone, ideas become words and are spoken almost immediately without much or any time to consider or improve the language or structure. When writing a letter, there is always some preparatory thought before anything is written, and we often erase to refine our content to be more precise, eloquent, or to have a specific impact on the reader.
As a teacher, encouraging improvisation is very useful in that it can lead the student to the realization that they may have interesting things to say through music. This could lead them to compose. In my opinion, though, a composition is something that involved forethought, revision, and notation.
DO – Help the student focus their ability to be creative with limited resources. You can do this by creating exercises that limit a variety of elements including instrumentation, length, style, rhythm, scale/mode, etc.
DON’T – Don’t be afraid to set boundaries for a
student. Think of the difference between the following approaches:
Which one would produce a more interesting result? Which one would make better art? If, in your fear of limiting a student, you fail to provide reasonable boundaries in the assignments, the student will most likely just continue to compose in the way that is most familiar to them. In other words, they won’t be growing or learning.
DO – Give the student a sense of their historical position. Expose them to a variety of styles and techniques, emphasizing the progressive nature of musical style and numerous contemporary approaches. You don’t need to explain the theory or defend the style of any of these approaches. Simply give the student an awareness of the breadth of possibilities in musical expression.
DON’T – Focus on the development of the student’s “personal voice” as a composer. This will develop much later. In any case, “personal voice” is not taught. It develops naturally as the composer settles into their musical maturity. It is a result of a wide variety of conscious and unconscious choices, preferences, and musical heritage. Focus instead on awareness and facility with a broad range of musical approaches.
DO – Encourage the student to write for performing forces that you can assemble to have the piece read. Try to foster a supportive environment that puts the composition, not the composer, in the spotlight. Remember to warn the student that revisions are usually necessary after a reading. Whenever possible, arrange a performance of a work and make sure it is recorded. Remember: when applying to competitions or colleges, a recording with live performers is very important.
DON’T – Let the student compose works that stand little chance of being read or performed. MIDI demos can be helpful during the composition process, but should never serve in place of a recording with live performers. A MIDI demo of a song also carries with it the implication that the work was not performed for some reason.
DO – Emphasize communication over theory. Help them find things to say through music. There are a wide variety of ways to do this. See the sample exercises below for some ideas. You will quickly start making up your own.
DON’T – Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that theory needs to precede composition. Let the student compose with the tools they already have. Then, as they try to understand how to write their ideas down and refine them, they will realize their need for more theory. Remember that great speaking or writing is all about having something to say. If someone has to make a speech and doesn’t know what to speak about, extra help with sentence structure will not help them. Likewise, theory is great for refining how you say something, but it will not help you come up with something musical to say in a composition.
DO – Emphasize balance between repetition and contrast. Young composers have a tendency to want to let the piece evolve as it wants to. They often have the mistaken impression that writing to a planned form will restrict them or hamper their creativity. Gently discourage them from this. They will also have a tendency to fill each piece with idea after idea, while not sufficiently exploring ideas they already have presented.
DON’T – Force the student to conform to traditional formal structure. Also avoid the other extreme – letting them compose without any plan at all. The main idea here is to encourage them to have some preconceived plan for the direction a piece will take.
DO – Challenge the student to state clearly in words what their objectives are in each piece. This helps them clarify their direction, and it helps you determine how successful they have been. For example – if a student shows you a tonal work with lots of unresolved dominant chords, you might be inclined to think that they don’t understand the need that those chords have to resolve. This might lead you to correct them, or even criticize the work. On the other hand, if the composer was writing a piece about being hungry and not getting to eat, then you will realize that, not only has he understood the nature of the dominant chords, but he has used them to his creative advantage. In both scenarios, your reaction depends heavily on an understanding (or lack thereof) of the student’s intentions.
DON’T – Tell the students what notes to use or imply that there is a “right” and “wrong” way. Help them understand their choices and evaluate them for themselves.
Notation matters. Alternate notations are great, but they must be clear. A score is more than notes. Every score needs: tempo, phrasing, articulations, etc.
A note about encouragement: Young composition students need encouragement. Remember that their first experiments in this area will determine whether they stick with it or not. Avoid discouraging them by overly criticizing their work. Also avoid creating a false security by telling them they are already "little Mozarts" or the like. What you want to convey is that they have talent and potential, but that it is up to them to bring it to fruition. Talent and creativity will not make them a good composer. Only practice will do that. Your encouragement may be the key to whether they will believe in themselves enough to stick with it.
Abstract meaning is hard (accomplished through formal structure, tonal relationships, or thematic development). Don't start here. Start with an extra-musical concept (story, picture, etc.) that the student grasps and set them to the task of communicating that meaning through music. As a student sees how conversations and TV shows can lead to compositional material, they may be interested in a wider variety of source material. This will give you, the teacher, an excellent opportunity to introduce them to drama, literature, poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture, dance, etc.
When you talk about these other arts, emphasize what the work is about (usually an emotion). Remind students often that the arts are supposed to be an honest outlet for the FULL range of human experience. Students in high school "feel" very intensely over a wide range of positive and negative emotions. If a student is limiting the range of their expression, try to encourage them to explore a wider area.
Encourage a student to write from out of (not IN, but as a result of) their musical heritage.
Other Examples in Summary: