Composition is one of the best things we can do for our students. It forces them to think creatively rather than just reading notes off a page, and it allows them to express themselves musically. When a student is able to write a short piece of music, even a measure or two, and hear it performed, there is a sense of satisfaction and pride. They wrote that music, they own that product. It’s a great feeling to be able to offer such an outlet to our students.
One of the sessions I attended at the Michigan Music Conference this past year focused on composition activities in an instrumental classroom. What can we do that steps outside the established instrumental norms, and offers our students a better musical experience? Quite a few of these compositional activities looked like a lot of fun, so I took them home and waited for an opportunity to try them out in my own classroom. This series of blog posts will follow one of these projects from start to finish, and hopefully offer some insight into student reactions, difficulties, and the benefits of such a project.
Introducing the project
During the last 15 minutes of a rehearsal with my 7th graders on a Friday a few weeks ago, I had everybody pack up their instruments and come back to their seats. I told them that we would be doing a short composition project that we would eventually be performing. The project was an eight bar rhythm composition, so I handed worksheets with instructions, two examples, and 8 empty measures. Since this was the first composition experience for most students, I gave them quite a few parameters: only half, quarter and eighth notes, the last note must be a whole note, and the composition must be playable.
Assessing Part One
Before collecting the first part of the projects, I made sure to temper my expectations. A lot of these students have been playing music for just a year or two, and had never composed. I wasn’t expecting each and every person in the class to have a full four beats in all eight measures, I wasn’t expecting perfect note heads and stems, and I wasn’t expecting the most rhythmically advanced compositions.
A few of the compositions that I collected would have one or two beats in every measure, a few had five or six. They didn’t get marked down for this, but rather this determined the direction of some of my lesson plans for the rest of the year. The students showed me that we needed to spend some more time on understanding rhythm, which as far as I’m concerned is a positive.
On the other end of the spectrum, a few students had incorporated some pretty elaborate syncopations into their compositions. I knew these kids could be used to help teach the others. Inevitably, these were the students who were taking private lessons and might be a little frustrated at a slower-paced class. By giving them a small leadership/teaching role in the classroom, I can better engage them.
Setting Up Part Two
My original intent for part two had been to put all of these various rhythms into Sibelius, and use them to play scales during our warmup routine. But after seeing how many students could still use some work on understanding rhythm, we will spend some time on that, do part one again, and then begin performing some of those compositions. Look out for more updates in the coming weeks.