On Teaching Music Composition in General Music Classes

2011Symposium_1_2Although most music educators have solid training in vocal and instrumental techniques, expertise in teaching music composition is less common. There are, I suspect, fewer music teachers who are composers than instrumental or vocal specialists. Even so, music composition is an important part of musicianship, the development of which is at the heart of music curricula and standards. At some point, students need to advance from interpreting expressions of others to expressing themselves through original work. Creating was part of the original content standards, and are even more prominent in the new standards. I will offer some suggestions on how to approach teaching music composition.
All creative work begins with fluency and thought. Fluency is necessary for the clear articulation of ideas, and thought is necessary in order to imagine and form those ideas. To write a poem one needs to be fluent in a language, and to compose music, one must be fluent in sound. Creating music requires the creator to think in music; to imagine groups of pitches and durations, and to be able to play with them until a sequence of sounds is found that meets a the creators expressive intent. Because of this, composers need the same abilities to audiate as music readers; therefore music composition should not be taught until the students can audiate learned and original music ideas.

Teachers can use call and response by singing part of a phrase and having the students sing the next part. Students will MusicEarneed to audiate what the teacher sings and what comes next in order to keep their place and sing their part correctly. After that, improvisation can be mixed in to further prepare students to compose by giving them practice in generating ideas, and playing with them without being concerned with notation. Both activities should be initiated on a neutral syllable and then continued with solfege. The use of fixed do will prepare students for notating their ideas. When students are fluent in their use of fixed do to respond and improvise, the call and response activity can be revisited with the additional step of writing down their responses after singing them with solfege. The next step after that is to have students begin writing down their own ideas. To keep original work from being randomly organized, once ideas are generated and written down, students should write don a plan that clearly states the expressive intent, form, purpose and context. In addition to proficiency in aural/oral notional and writing audiation, prior learning must also have included musical form. Students are then held accountable for carrying out their plan as they play with their ideas and compose their musical work. At this stage, students should also be given time to play with those ideas, exploring the possibilities with which ideas can be sequenced and fashioned into a musical work according to an expressed plan.

It is important that student work be performed during the composing process so that work can be evaluated and refined. With each performance, students should compare the result to their intents as expressed in their plans, and make revisions to refine their work until the plan and the expressive intent are proficiently met. When student work is completed, it is important that it be performed so that the student can enjoy the satisfaction of hearing his or her completed work, so that others can have the opportunity to share in the expressive intent of the composer, and so the student and the teacher can assess the composition to inform and improve future work. The fulfillment of the stated plan provides an objective means of assessment that avoids subjective judgements, or worse the problem of trying to objectively assess something that is a subjective matter. The point of the final assessment is not whether the teacher likes the work, but instead how well did the student do in accomplishing what s/he set out to do? Other objective criteria can also be inserted. For example, to what extent was the intended form adhered to, or to what extent was the composition correctly notated according to standard music notation practices? There is always room for subjective response to an artistic work, but quality work is crafted from procedures that can and should be objectively measured.


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