I once had a music theory professor in college who wondered aloud why it was that so many composers wrote variations before writing in other forms. To him, writing variations was more difficult than developing themes in sonata form. I remember taking my cue from this comment and, though I wasn’t at all experienced at composing music, trying to write a piece and beginning with sonata form instead of variations. Over and over I was confounded in my attempts by my failure to generate enough ideas to develop even one theme. My music ended quickly with very little substance, or else continued on with a string of one idea after another, none of which were ever developed to any real extent.
Then at some point I remember thinking, because I’ve failed at sonata form, what do I have to loose trying variations. Contrary to that professors observation, variations were easier for me, and perhaps were also easier for the likes of Mozart and Brahms as well. Something old and something new. Variations always retain something of the original while introducing something different. It may be a change in meter, tonality, rhythm, or a flourish of embellishment around the melodic skeleton. There is something reassuring in knowing that everything being created is anchored in that one constant–the theme from which variations are being written.
The approach of balancing change with constancy is a useful one for teaching students one of the basic skills accomplished musicians possess; that of being able to repeat and creatively extend musical ideas. Music educators tend to spend a great deal of time having their students repeat things, but far less time having them extend musical ideas with other musical ideas. This falls into the category of generating musical ideas. As I thought about this the other day, I decided to try a lesson that begins with language, and then bridges language arts to music.
The lesson began with this sentence written on the board: “Malachi rode his bike.” The approach would be to introduce variations to this sentence by replacing words (variations) and adding words (extensions), and then having students do a parallel process with music. I wrote a series of unfinished sentences on the board, all derived from that first one.
“Malachi ____________ rode his bike.”
“Malachi (same word) rode his _________ bike.”
“Malachi (same word) (new word) his ___________ bike.”
“Malachi ____________ ___________ ride his _________ bike.”
Each student in the class filled in all the blanks, and then shared answers in a class discussion. A sample of how it might turn out is this: “Malachi proudly rode his new bike.” Malachi proudly raced his new bike.” Malachi wiped out on his bike.” Malachi let Xavier ride his new bike.” As each sentence is filled in, the students analyze what has changed from the original sentence, “Malachi rode his bike.” They notice that one word is added, then another word is added, then yet another word is added and another is replaced, and finally three of the words are replaced.
Next, I asked a student to clap an eight-beat rhythm. You could also ask a student to play or sing an eight beat melody. I then asked individual students to follow the same process as with the sentences. First, add one new rhythm for one beat. Next, add another new rhythm on another beat. After that, add a third new rhythm on still a different beat. Finally, replace the rhythm on two of the beats with two new rhythms. Throughout the process, the original rhythm pattern (or melody) is being varied and extended; it is not just getting additional beats added on to the end, it is gaining additional beats from within the pattern, and in the last step gaining a new rhythm without gaining an additional beat.
This process could then be transferred into a drumming game. The class stood in a circle. I used one drum small enough to play while holding it and pass around the circle. One student played an eight-beat rhythm, then passed the drum. The next student added on beat of rhythm and then passed the drum to the next student who added a new rhythm on another beat. The drum continued to be passed around until the changes were no longer free flowing. At that point, whoever’s turn was next created a new eight-beat rhythm to be varied and extended. Students are engaged beyond their playing turn, because they begin to generate ideas in their heads so that they will be prepared for their turn when it comes, and because one musical idea just seems to lead to another. The students time spent on extending musical ideas was well spent, and was good practice preparing them for more formal music composition in a later class.