Teach Composition the Right Way

Part 1

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Okay, now let’s not think in absolute terms. There are many right ways to approach composition in the classroom of a primary school. As long as you are following the needs of your classroom and your musical beliefs then you are probably doing a good job.

My music teaching style follows loosely the Orff Schulwerk (Orff approach), where I combine music with drama, speech and movement in my lesson plans. Giving space to exploration and experimentation of sound even if it gets a bit noisy at times, proves to be valuable. In each lesson plan I have at least one activity of listen-and-response, one creative activity and and one performance activity in no specific order. I will also incorporate non musical activities during any lesson, like movement, drama, writing, because it engages the children to realise music through a different spectrum. Telling a story will later become a sound story, then remove any spoken words, and use musical instruments, for example. Or to show the quality of a sound: high, low, fast, slow, we will use some movement based activities. So creativity during the music lesson will take many forms before it becomes music creativity.

But you might want to go through a very direct compositional route. Maybe something like this one…

I was co-teaching a class with a music teacher that had more than 35 years of teaching experience, I had a handful. We agreed that the last 20 minutes of the lesson would be spent on composing. The composition segment went as follows: 

Task: to write 8 bars of music. 

  1. The children divided their piece into 2 lines where each line had 4 bars.
  2. We asked them to write the rhythm of the first four bars of the piece we were working on and repeat the same thing in the second 4 bars.
  3. Start the piece with a C or E or G
  4. The last note of the first line had to be G or B or D
  5. The last note of the piece had to be a C. 
  6. Write any notes they liked that belong in the C major ( the C major scale was written on the board)
  7. Play what they wrote
Rania’s personal

Is that something you had in mind? 

Fact 1: We had relevant results. 

Fact 2: During the process the children were confused, it took them ten minutes to just write a note down

Fact 3: Most children applied the scale to the rhythmical melody – not wrong but it happened because “that’s what they understood they had to do”. 

Fact 4: It was a Year 6 classroom, 11 year-olds that more or less had an idea of how their musical instrument works, the clarinet, they could roughly read notes. But in terms of writing notes down that never happened. 

I think this was a well intended task for children of that age, but not suitable for this specific group. Writing notes down might seem so obvious and common but it’s a valid step, one that cannot be skipped. When I asked other colleagues about this activity they more or less agreed to it. I have my thoughts about this. 

This task is well structured, and it invites the children to fill in just enough gaps. The rhythm and the set of notes were already provided, as well as starting and finishing notes. So the children had to pick notes and apply them with the indicated rhythmical value.

But this activity didn’t fit those students, they found it too intimidating. It was their first time writing notes on a piece of paper and it was for a very short time. And of course, the discussion is about making composition a standard activity in a music lesson. So potentially there will be a learning out of this and the children will want to do more of it. This activity pushes the student into a composition pit but not down the composition path. It’s good if you want an activity for the last lesson of the term and have never to follow up later on – which is what it was. 

However, if composition is part of your music lessons from the beginning of the school year, no matter the age of the students, then by default, composition won’t be just a last-day-of-term activity, the children will get used to following composition instructions and when you do want to have a fun and more complex activity you would have more ground to work on.

If I could go back to that day, with the same children, same level of musical knowledge,  and do the same activity, here are some things I would do differently:

Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash
  1. Print a page where the rhythm is already above the music staff, and the key-notes are also given so they would just have to concentrate on writing a melody 
  2. Dedicate the whole 60 minutes of the lesson to do this
  3. Asked them to choose one bar from the last piece we were working on and copy it on a blank music staff and then choose another one from a different piece
  4. Write a two bar rhythmical melody using note values that they already know and then exchange with their partner to write in the melody
  5. Work out an example together before giving them full freedom to create

Though, know that it’s common for students to seem confused when they’re asked to create something new without any sense of direction given to them. No matter if it’s to create a music piece, write a passage, come up with a move, create a board game, write code, etc… Creativity often times feels like picking material out of a sea of chaos, it’s daunting. And if they only interact with that ‘sea’ one hour a week if lucky, creating smaller and perhaps a bit restrictive exercises and often might be more beneficial than one bigger one every three months. The more disciplines we use and invite the students to be creative in the more normal it will get to create stuff by themselves and later on.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When anyone is creating music they have to predict to some extent how the final product will sound, stay relevant to the theme, and notate abstract and arbitrary symbols with the intention of some person reading and understanding them. Composition is learning through process and continuous involvement with the craft. Not to find the next Mozart but to develop the next generation of thinkers and doers…

all ideas are my own

© Rania Chrysosotmou 2019

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