Thursday, July 9, 2015

First Experience with Composition Projects

As part of my summer camp for music students, I decided to provide students the opportunity to compose an original work rather than performing a closing recital. Since this year's camp focused on reading, intervallic relationships, and rhythm patterns, the compositional process was the perfect way to move what we had learned from theory to application. There was only one problem: I am not a composer! I have arranged a few hymns in a pinch, but I don't have significant experience with improvisation, much less formal composition. I decided the only way to see how the project would work was to jump in head first and forget about my fear.

I'll begin by telling you that the final results were very successful and the kids had fun creating their own pieces. By no means do I suggest this to be the best method for exploring composition with young students. It was simply the process that made the most sense to me. Here are the steps my students and I used.

  1. Determine the length. We looked at pieces the students were currently playing in their lessons. Students noticed the recurrence of phrases that were four measures long. After some discussion, we decided to aim for multiples of eight bars. (If an extra bar was needed, we didn't fret about it since there were no definite rules for our compositions.)
  2. Generate the rhythm first. We began by reviewing the note values each student was currently using comfortably. Students were then instructed to write a rhythmic pattern that was original and interesting to their eyes and ears. (Earlier in the week, we decided to avoid rhythmic patterns that repeated a single note value for the entire measure to ensure excitement for the audience.) Once students had successfully produced a rhythmic pattern the chosen length of their composition, we moved to step three.
  3. Clap the rhythmic pattern! The composition project was the first activity in our camp that would combine rhythm and pitch, so I wanted to make sure the patterns were secure before adding melody. This also provided the student a chance to experience their compositions at various tempi. This step required the most time from my campers.
  4. Create a melody. Armed with their rhythmic notation, students moved to pianos and began developing melodies that fit the patterns. At this point, my students used letter names below the rhythmic figures as a notational system. (I recommend avoiding this pre-reading notation if students are able to immediately notate their theme on the staff.) I rotated between students, offering suggestions and explaining advanced aspects of theory -- such as why the leading tone wanted to move to the tonic -- in very simple terms. Once the student was satisfied with the piece, I had them play it for me in its entirety to ensure that I was clear of their intentions and the pre-reading notation.
  5. Notation! Students merged the rhythm and notes into standard notation on staff paper. Final copies were given to me to create Finale editions of their creations. With older students, it would be fun to allow them to complete this final step of the process using a trial version of Finale if a computer and printer are available.
There you have it! The students naturally created charming pieces and were not intimidated by the compositional process since each step added a new element and no one told them composing was difficult. I was encouraged to see that students were comfortable venturing into additional experiments in composition on their own using the steps of our process as they enjoyed experimenting to find the most satisfying sounds.

What has been your experience with exposing children to composition? What lessons have you learned? I'm definitely interested in hearing your ideas to try in a future camp.