I conducted a workshop called Same – Same – Differnet, workhop for flutists in May 2020 and during that process I was posting some thoughts on the event’s page on Facebook that would come handy during the workshop. As this is something any musician can use in their practice, regardless if they are performers, composers, educators, and no matter of what type of music they are dealing with, I thought of sharing them here well. I am guilty that there is not much profound information here but I think looking into the Elements of Sound is an area we overlook and it is good to be reminded about it every now and then. There will be a few blog posts coming, one for each element so keep an eye for the next one.
We know the properties of sound. How can we use this knowledge in our playing if all of these properties are usually predetermined from the composer? Or are they? If I change phrasing do I change the whole piece? And, am I allowed to do this? In what context? How much is too much?
Interesting questions! Thanks for asking!!! 😅 We will discuss later what happens with other pieces written in other eras or by living composers. Let’s take this small piece for now.
The score of Fantasy Impromptu-ish is pretty heavy. Notes everywhere and a couple of stylistic decorations, the score is almost complete. It could be, but it also could be a bit more. You see, there are some dynamic markings that can be interpreted in many ways. What is piano? If we try playing very softly then we might produce an air sound. Then we discover that we can play an air sound in a few dynamics. A note can have air and a pitch or go back and forth between air and pitch or… and still sound piano, quietly, reserved, gentle, held back.
Why don’t you take 2-4 bars of your favourite piece, or Fantasie Impormptu-ish and try to manipulate only one sound property using the entire phrase. The first property of the list is PITCH so let’s go with that. What can we do?
We can play that phrase using only
change of registers
Give it a go and let me know what happened.
All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.
Things to improve on and things to improve on EVEN MORE [and score!!!]
I organised an online workshop for flutists in May 2020. I sent the participants my pieceFantasie Impromptu-ish and asked them to familiarise themselves with at least one or two phrases. The purpose was to produce the piece in different ways, as many ways as the participants I had. I also talked about exploring and accepting how our experiences form our choices. Some more information about it can be foundhere.
The goal was to produce variations of the same piece by freely manipulating the sound colour. If we were to choose just one quality to work on and manipulate then playing with sound colours qualities would be it! I don’t feel I fully communicated this. I wanted to say: change the timbre of phrases, use the articulation and dynamic markings as guidance to help you identify which technique would produce the sound colour that could be described by said markings, narrow your focus on timbral changes. For example, if there is a legato jump you may choose to slide between the notes, if a fragment is staccato and piano you can try slap tongue or a key clicks and so on. In regards to rhythm, slow down the ending of phrases, speed up some arpeggiated fragments. But I don’t feel I successfully conveyed this.
I should have concentrated only on sound colour and appoint a specific phrase everyone would be working on. Rather my instructions were a bit vague. I was giving recommendations and invitations, not instructions or guidance. I didn’t want my input and expectations to affect their decisions. This didn’t backfire but with different wording of approach it could have gone smoother. Nevertheless, all participants showed traces of embracing the theme and investigating what kind of timbral effects they can bring to the piece so it was a success.
Another thing I learned was to save time to pause and demonstrate. And to put it in context, pause and demonstrate a few ways of changing the timbre of a note like are air sounds, percussive sounds, singing… Instead of having imaginary expectations and taking this knowledge for granted.
I asked the performers to be free and interpret the score as they felt made sense to them. The problem here was distributing a highly specific score. The tempo, articulation and dynamics were given as well as the rhythms were very precise and not to mention a little bit difficult. This wasn’t unjustified as I feared that without the phrasing marks and such, the score wouldn’t easily make much sense. My own insecurities of giving an idea of how the end product may sound, led to an overloaded score that achieved the opposite results of what I wanted. Instead my score could have had less markings, fewer complex rhythms and the words free or ad libitum could be placed on the top instead of the metronome marking.
At this point I would also like to blame Sibelius – the software – and how I work directly onto the software. I manipulate everything so that it sounds as close to what I’m looking for. I knew I did this, I never realised how negatively it impacted my creative process.
By now you can sense that I have trouble. What I always struggle with is communicating my thoughts especially when under pressure and with people I don’t know. It is something I am actively and consciously working on. Listening back to the short clip I remembered to record, I circle around the same words (interesting, interested) without adding a lot more information. If only you would learn something without the practice and the mistakes and yes, the feeling of humiliation…but alas!
A hidden gem from this was inclusivity and playing with other musicians. The performers did play together at times, we played games and they had a chance to exchange ideas and approaches. They loved it and I most definitely loved it. I also noticed how there is more new music written for professional players rather than amateurs and students. At least I write having a professional player in mind so this was a wake up call to write music for various levels and purposes.
So overall, this was a positive experience. The most important being going through it form preparing and planning the workshop, talking with my dear friend on how to make it happen, to writing the posts, marketing and promoting it – even the minimal marketing I did, answering the emails and everything that led up to the minute before clicking START MEETING, to finally clicking END MEETING. I feel I got my toe through the door of organising something and self promoting which was haunting me for a decade. And that was the best learning of all!
You will find the full score here ready to download!
Composition tasks could be focused around the Elements of Music, especially if you have already discussed about it while working on a song. For example, if the children are learning Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you can talk about the form of the piece that is in ABA form. Or if you are teaching Oh! When the Saints, you might talk about rhythm. Use their experience of what they know to carry on learning and creating.
I’ve gathered the Elements of Music for you to have as a clear reference point. Different sources might use different words for the same thing, or say there are 5 elements only, or more. Adjust your findings for your teachings.
1) harmony (one sound existing around many other sounds),
2) melody (the sound pattern, arranging one sound after the other),
3) texture (how many sources of sound there are and how are they placed together),
4) rhythm (arranging short and long sounds to create a sound pattern),
5) form (how to arrange bigger chunks of sound in time creating sections that may repeat),
6) timbre (the colour or quality of the sounds chosen),
7) dynamics (when to play louder or quieter),
8) tempo (how fast or slow do these sounds progress through time)
9) other extra elements such as lyrics, or use of a video, dance, etc…
Thinking of music as a construction of sounds rather than only in the classical sense gives more options to you and the students. The children can approach music without misconceptions or predeterminations about what it should sound like. Whether the students are creating music with musical instruments, or their voice, or body percussion or, using objects in their surroundings, they will inevitably be referring to these elements while putting sounds or notes together.
An easy way to create composition activities is to play with rules. You know that music, any type of music is set on arbitrary rules, or guidelines. Don’t use parallel fifths, play all twelve tones before repeating the cycle, hold the chord as long as you like, the rules are endless. Make up your own rules, allow the children to come up with their own rules, they absolutely love doing so, and thus composition has already started. You can research, or you will already know, different music rules that existed over the hundreds of years of what we call western music, and adjust those rules to better fit the group you are working with. I am thinking about the classical music of the western world because I am more familiar with, of course, apply my suggestions to better fit your needs. Use folk or traditional music or the music you feel most familiar with. I would also invite you to think of incorporating movement and drawing in your activities as these enhance the learning and creative experience. Sometimes it helps to not think of composition in terms of absolute music like playing a beautiful melody on the flute, and at the same time not all composition activities will be about turning noise into music. Experiment and improvise.
Improvisation is your first step to composing – that’s how I do it anyway… If your learning time is limited you could improvise for just for 2 minutes at the start of the lesson to warm up the instrument, or get familiar with instruments, or their voices, their bodies, open up their minds. You can use these first few minutes to introduce the theme of the lesson through improvisation. They don’t have to know what the theme is but it will gently set the mindset of the lesson and your expectations. By playing all together it gets noisy but it also gives the chance to children open up and familiarise themselves with their environment in the music lesson.
Be accepting of what the children will come up with, be open to simplifying or complicating rules.Create, improvise, sing, dance!
If you’re still asking why invest time and effort in musical creativity, the short answer may be, and I’ll elaborate in another article more on the subject:
It brings forward needs for learning, like how to read and write notes, how do we indicate loudness and so on… Because now the student has to use them to right their musical piece
Students spend time with their musical instrument and figure out how it works by themselves and for their own purposes.
Cool! Now that you are passionate about normalising composition in your lessons let’s dive in a little deeper.
Where to start? What do you do? How do we achieve an open-minded teaching approach, be truly inclusive with the students’ ideas of solutionising, and not get hung up on our own expectations ?
Top tip, we may be incorporating non musical elements to make points clearer and activities more appealing.
We’re interested in a holistic way of teaching music, and composition is part of this learning.
Let’s start by aborting any notions there may be about (a) talent – it’s a different discussion – and people born composers, and (b) not everyone can teach composition. You might agree as well, school is the time when children get to observe, experiment and investigate what otherwise they wouldn’t have the chance to. Like how to do stuff and how the world works, how to think and problem solve using all of their senses in order to learn the whats and the hows. The Whys come through creativity.
Composition, musical creativity, in the classroom is an activity for every student and not only extra work for the (“talented”) few that might be up for the challenge. Of course, if you discover a child showing a bit more interest then by all means offer more material to work with. But you may consider presenting it like the bonus exercises they get in Maths, where those extra exercises are there for every student to decide if they want to solve them and the teacher will encourage as well.
Every music educator can teach music composition. You don’t have to win an IVORS award to do it. You don’t even have to study specifically music composition to qualify as the educator for musical creativity. If you think about it, not all primary school teachers have written articles for big newspapers or published books, yet teaching students to write essays, poems, diary entries and more is part of the national curriculum so they all teach it. The children finish primary school and know the process to writing a narrative. Throughout their school years the students practice different writing techniques, some abstract, some more concrete but the purpose remains to provide a set of tools and knowledge to use later on.
Adding music composition and creativity into our lesson plans will become a habit. Some teachers enjoy music composition written on 5 lines with a clef, and a key and time signature, finishing each piece on the tonic, regardless of what the children know about theory. This is acceptable. It’s closer to what the children are used to hearing and by practicing the same concept many times they will eventually realise what the more technical terms mean and how they are used (see reason 1 above). Other teachers use more abstract and kinaesthetic approaches, like tracing the periphery of an object with vocal sounds to play with aspects of musical form (see reason 2 above). The end product remains: a musical piece (sound piece) written and performed by the students.
Identify your learning objectives for each lesson and that will lead to the best approach for the creative segment of the lesson. Every music educator is qualified to incorporate music compsition in their lessons and every student is entitled to being creative through music. It can be a short segment where the focus is on a small creative activity or creativng a new piece. But every time is for every child. I strongly suggest the Orff method for inspiration. Part 3 is following with tools on putting a your creative segment together.
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.
The children divided their piece into 2 lines where each line had 4 bars.
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.
Start the piece with a C or E or G
The last note of the first line had to be G or B or D
The last note of the piece had to be a C.
Write any notes they liked that belong in the C major ( the C major scale was written on the board)
Play what they wrote
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:
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
Dedicate the whole 60 minutes of the lesson to do this
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
Write a two bar rhythmical melody using note values that they already know and then exchange with their partner to write in the melody
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.
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…
Easy activities to get primary school students composing
Sound and Music, which is a national charity for new music in the UK, have conducted a survey and discovered that music composition and creativity are generally overlooked in schools in the UK. You can find information about Sound and Music and their initiative here where you can also download the report here as well. Composition or music creativity is often overlooked during a music lesson.
I’ve put together some activities and overall thoughts about teaching music composition in primary schools, for children between 5-11 years old and about 30 children in each classroom. Always assess your group of children and tailor to your teaching style. Everything is open to interpretation.
My overall view on composition in primary schools aims to defy the rigid boundaries of classical music and concentrate on putting sounds together. I think one of our goals as educators is to set the bare foundations where students can later build on. Movement is an important aspect of music learning because it enhances the learning and it makes everything fun. Use the activities in a way that will serve your and your classroom’s purposes.
I know, time is a major factor that determines what and how a lesson will take place. Focusing on performance, to read and play notes, is measurable by students, parents and the heads that determine if music is needed in the school. So it becomes risky to introduce this abstract concept called music composition. But I do believe it is worth it!
Ask the children to write on a piece of paper a note and give it a duration between a crochet, minim or semibreve. Display the papers on the board and arrange them in bars and perform it. The children will enjoy seeing that their own note is on the board and anticipate to hear it being played, while you check they know their theory. For more advanced children, ask them to write an entire bar.
I’d suggest keeping a simple time signature, like 4/4 or ¾ and for the more adventurous 5/4 might work as well. Not using any time signature is always an option and children will learn something different.
You may go full avant-garde and instead of writing notes, write down sounds you can produce using objects in the room, your body or voice. The sound can be as short as 1 bang and as long as 4 seconds, for instance. Shuffle the papers and each student picks one out randomly. Arrange the students to their positions and listen to the beautiful specific randomness. You can introduce the idea of a conductor leaving it up to them to decide how the music will unfold. For this activity it might be good to call on being sensible.
Link music history, discover new composers and musical styles with what the students are learning in other subjects such as English, Geography, Arts, History… I find that 20th century music is the easiest to experiment with. You would be looking at minimalism, serialism, atonal, aleatoric music, and the list goes on. I define the style in the broadest sense so the children don’t get confused or discouraged. Each time we talk about that style I add another small element to the definition.
You can link serialism with the World Wars history. Ask the children to come up with a series of 7 different sounds or notes and number each individual sound from 1 to 7. Perform the series twice, the first time as is and the second time perform it in reverse, from 7 to 1.
Use the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to introduce to the children the idea of form in music, ABA structure, and invite them to come up with body movements to indicate each section. An example could be to wave your arms for A sections and bend and stretch your knees for the B section. Ask the children to work in groups and write their own set of moves on a piece of paper. Then exchange the papers with other groups and always finish with the performances.
Take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, write the last 4 bars of the song on the board. Ask the children to write their own piece using all the notes on the board, so use each note twice, in any order they like but keeping the first and last note as is.
Invite the children to think of their morning routine and pick just one action, such as getting out of bed, brushing teeth etc… Ask them to try and mimic the movement using sounds from ordinary objects or musical instruments. Note it down using conventional or unconventional notation, and perform it. They can think about what they are feeling while they would do the movement, what they hear, see. This activity is comes ready with a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s very concise and can be approached from many different angles. I wouldn’t try and guess what each composition is based on as it would subtract from the purpose of creating music, art.
Always sing, improvise, and listen to anything including folk music, which is very important. Ask the children regularly if they wrote a song they would like to share. This way they you are showing them that writing music is an ordinary thing and you are interested in their work.
I encourage you to check the Orff Method if you’re not familiar with it. It promotes a similar thinking and ethos. You can take part in day seminars or their incredible one-week summer school in York where they go into more detail about music education. You can find lesson plans online from other teachers incorporating this method and music creativity. Make these activities your own and have fun with them!
Path for bass flute appearing on the C.D. One Minute by Iwona Glinka (fl, pic), C.D. review by Ronald E. Grames Piano – saxophone, fusion on a Cypriot folk tune Αγάπησα την που καρκιάς Piano Improvisation Moon River arrangement for saxophone Chestnuts are roasting on the fire…
Even though I haven’t studied music therapy in depth, I have spent time in lectures, reading, researching and discussing about it. It’s undeniable that music therapy can heal a person. But how exactly does it do that? What does the therapist want to achieve by the end of a course of sessions? ”If the point is to make the patient express his inner thoughts (never said the word feelings), how can they talk through art? Unless they are writting down or saying actual words, noone knows what they are thinking so why go through that process?” someone asked me once and they were determined music therapy is just another trend. Well, what are your limits and how can you handle yourself?
When we get angry we don’t explode or errupt like a volcano. We are more like the cassaroles that grandmothers have (mine does) that you turn a nob and it lets steam out slowly, no destruction and you can eat lovely food later. I come to agree with this idea. (In simplistic terms) holding emotions in and then letting our selves explode in merely another bad habit. It doesn’t show power and that you are the voice of reason, like they do in the movies, on the contrary, it shows lack of characters for not speaking up earlier and not to mention the destruction you might cause on the way to proving a point. I’m not arguing about the act of getting angry but the act of resorting to “volcanoing” as a safe place. So initial steps, detect the situation and trust yourself that you can be a better version of yourself.
Now what I had to do was opening up to the world and explaing my thoughts, anxieties and conserns. This had to be done soon before emotions pile up again.
I had gone through a phase where I loved Chopin and then I was bored of listening to his piano pieces, they would sound a little bit pretencious (this also came from my social surrounding at the time). I opened my book today and found one of his Valses. The brilliance of his writing was just laying there. A melodic phrase, repeated enough times to built a smooth lift off. The pianist announces the idea without having to move his hand, just relaxes the wrist on top of a key position and lets the fingers dance on the keys. The left hand does the dumb-pa-pa-dumb-pa-pa. Sink the fingers in the piano, don’t sit on each note, play the note and it’s gone, you will lock the harmony with the pedal. “Move on, don’t drag the piece, use rubato sensibly, don’t hold back the rhythm.” Right foot and left hand have to coordinate to trap the correct harmony so the right hand can ring out the melody. The music moves forward to come back to the same idea, the comfort zone. The dumb-pa-pa, is one bar and it’s in constant move. It’s there to project anything and everything the right hand says. Even that fleeting little passage you spent hours perfecting and unless you aim after the end of the passage you will never get it right. It is a fleeting melody and giving it more attention than what it needs then you loose momentum from the whole piece. Find the sense of “home” of the piece, that’s where all the melodies lead to. And, oh yes! when you find that feeling of “home” in the piece you know it’s half way there.
Well maybe it’s not all black and white. Take a step back and review the whole piece. You can see what melodies are repeated and how they bloom and blossom only to get repeated again (thankfull for the student player that will find it as an excuse to practice less). Maybe it’s a good time now to talk.
Second time playing the same piece. Ah, yes. I’ve played this before. Why does he use so many black keys? Well, it didn’t make it more difficult to read, did it? Let’s try it in an easier key signature. It’s horrible, it looses it’s character, and my fingers get tangled, they don’t slide so smoothly. Yes, maybe there is another way to look at a problem and the first step is to realise it as a situation and not as a problem. Talk about it again change your angle, there’s always more than meets the eye.
Third time. Playing the same piece. This melody is flying off my fingers. Okay, the left hand still sits on the notes, maybe I should read the harmony. I now can prepare the right hand to play G natural and the left to play Gb. Why didn’t I see it before? The G was running away from home. Gb is where it sould be. Someone is grounding you down. They don’t deserve to be in the dark so to fulfill the old habit of exploding to make a dramatic effect on others that don’t matter and be expected to pick up the remains. Have another talk. It’s alright. You are home, Frederic.
Pick a language you know completely nothing about. Imagine you are learning how to say a ‘bad word’ or a phrase like ‘I love you’ in that other language. You can also make it up.
We arrange letters in logical positions to form words. The letters are the body of the word. Every person, no matter what language they can speak, will see the same characters and will (generally) be able to reproduce them by copying the characters of the word and writing them down. Some might go as far as enunciating the letters to form the word and until then it is a reproduction of the sound of the word.
Later, we will find out about the meaning of the word. That’s the brain. If it’s a ‘bad word’ we might giggle knowing it’s a bad word in another language and in our language it doesn’t mean anything. This information will be stored in our brain, like any other piece of information and if we use it often we will remember it if not, it will be jumbled up in there.
Taking for instance a phrase like ‘I love you’. How do we feel if someone said it to us in our own language and how in the foreign, unknown language. The meaning is the same in both languages. But there’s a deeper connection to the phrase when it is said in the language we have be speaking throughout our lives. That connection to the meaning of the word or phrase I call: the mind. The higher understanding of the word that only repetition, practice and daily interaction with the language in various forms will eventually make us able to feel the words on that level. To realise when a word is being used correctly without having to go through grammar and syntax rules. It just “sounds” right. These rules are abstract and change according to the language and sometimes the region. Some languages may have the subject before the verb and some the other way round, some languages might not need to use a specific word to determine the person in a sentence (I, you, he, she…) and some languages do. Translating directly from one language to the other without thinking about these rules will sound like nonsense.
And now connecting it to Music. The letters are the individual notes or sounds, that we arrange in time and space to make a fragment. To form a musical phrase, we arrange these fragments into patterns, or motifs, and so on. Just like grammar and syntax rules, there is music theory that will help to better understand the needs of creating a musical passage, how to give the feeling that the phrase has finished but not the whole piece, manipulate rhythm and melody within one phrase. These rules, for me, are as important as the rules we use in our language. Just like language, these rules might have some alterations depending on the type of music; folk, eastern European, middle eastern, classical and the region of course. The special thing though is that music is universal. And no matter where or what kind kind of training someone has had, they will make sense of any kind of music much easier than someone that had no training. Wherever you are in the world, if you hear the music you are used to listening to (not necessarily the one you like) it will touch your emotions so deeply as if someone curses or says that they love you in your mother tongue.
In conclusion, learn your traditional music, practice, learn, enjoy learning and practising and prefer to defy the rules, rather than reinventing the (cart) wheel. It’s okay. Of course, some practises are straight forward and just a few interactions with the means will help you come to the same conclusions other people pay money to learn but it is a shame to see someone with such potential voluntarily stop their mind from progressing.