Dr. Stephen Lias

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Working With Young Composers
A list of helpful suggestions for
piano teachers, choir directors,
and band directors

by Dr. Stephen Lias
SFA Associate Professor of Music
Theory and Composition
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


When a young musician develops an interest in composing, they will most often go for advice and help to the music teacher 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:

“Say something”       or         “Tell me about an embarrassing memory”

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.


    a.) Have the student select a short conversation between two characters in a play, novel, movie, or TV show. If you wish, you may select one for them that will serve some specific purpose.

    b.) Have them write out the conversation. Discuss the nuances of the conversation with them (motivations, emotions, subtext, etc.).

    c .)
    Ask the student to think of two instruments that would represent the characters well. This could be based on what the character looks like or what their voice sounds like, but more interesting results may come from selecting the instrument based on what their objectives are (like an oboe for a manipulative car salesman, or a trombone for an overbearing Mother-in-law).

    d.) Have them compose a musical version of the conversation. Encourage them to try to include as much of the original nuance as they can. As always, have them explain their own decisions and how they feel the exercise impacted them.

    a.) Show the student some examples of musical character sketches. There are many to choose from in piano literature (Schumann, Ives, Bartok, etc.).

    b.) Ask the student what they can infer about the subject of a character sketch based on the music. Make sure you ask “why” a lot. Don’t settle for things like “I think he is mean” – ask them which notes, rhythms, or chords sound mean to them.

    c.) Have the student select a fictional character from a book, cartoon, TV show, or movie. Start out with characters that are simple and two-dimensional (Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, etc.) and then move on to more complex characters. You will have better success with characters that the student has strong feelings for. Try to occasionally use a character that evokes strong negative feelings in the student.

    d.) Make a list of the few important character traits that the piece will focus on. Try to limit this list as too many ideas will be counterproductive.

    e.) Have them compose the character sketch.

    a.) Make a list of four or five contrasting emotions (regret, anger, eagerness, and shyness, for instance).

    b.) Have the student try to find existing pieces of music that they feel exemplify each of these emotions. You may need to help them in cases where their knowledge of (or access to) music is limited. Discuss how these pieces achieve these emotions. Whenever possible, try to get the student to say for themselves what the connections are. Remember: LYRICS DON’T COUNT.

    c.) Based on your discussions, make a list of two or three musical devices that composers have used for each emotion.

    d.) Have the student compose a musical fragment, melody, or piece that uses these devices as much as possible.

    e.) Ask the student if they feel that their attempt was successful. If not, try going back to the other pieces and identifying different musical techniques and try again. Let them make mistakes and retry whenever possible. A student might identify a slow tempo as a contributing factor to sadness in a piece, but might miss the use of minor/modal scales. The result may be that they have to try again, but it also may lead to some real surprises.

    f.) Remind the student that music covers the entire emotional range of human experience. Try to give them opportunities to express a wide variety of emotions in their music.

Other Examples in Summary:

  1. UNCONVENTIONAL INSTRUMENTS – Have the student write a short piece for kitchen utensils, or perhaps have them write for pianist wearing oven mitts.
  2. COMPOSING OVER A CHORD PROGRESSION – You can create or borrow a chord progression and have the student create multiple melodies that will work over this progression.
  3. RHYTHM STUDIES – Provide a rhythmic motive to the student and ask them to compose a short piece that uses the same rhythm as long as possible while maintaining interest.
  4. TRIAD AVOIDANCE – As we all know, the biggest trap for young composers is that their hands want to fill every space with a root-position triad. Try limiting them in a variety of ways and see what results you get.


The Texas School Music Project is a source for ideas and information concerning pedagogical practices in the music classroom or rehearsal hall.
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