The power of composing in music lessons

“Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art”

Debussy

How much composing do you do with your students in music lessons?

When I first started out as a piano teacher all those years ago, the honest answer would have been none! We did composition for theory exams, but I didn’t really see its true value as a helpful learning tool during regular lessons until sometime later.

I was teaching a young piano beginner called Sally who was having trouble remembering her finger numbers. She was fine when I asked her the number of each finger individually, but got flustered when it came to playing them from a book.

I grabbed a piece of blank paper and drew eight large boxes. It happened to be a few days before Halloween so we chatted about what Sally would be doing that day and the costume she planned to wear. It was a ghost outfit so between us we came up with the title, “The Spooky Ghost Says Boo!”.

Then it was time to get creative! I suggested we used the right hand only and fingers 2, 3 and 4 on the three black keys.

Children love creativity and spontaneity, exploring sounds on their instrument and using their imagination. But when we learn to write music it soon becomes apparent there are a lot of rules and guidelines to follow!

With Sally I wanted her to have some control of her composition. It was her tune so she could decide exactly which finger number went in each box – and never mind any rules! We played around with different sounds, having fun coming up with ideas until Sally was happy with it.

After a few mini compositions Sally was much more comfortable with finger numbers. Ever since then, I have used composition as a useful tool to reinforce certain concepts and complement what is being learnt in the tutor book.

After all, why be confined to doing only what the method book says? It’s great to go off exploring, to not only have some fun, but make sure a student really understands something.

Often I’ll give some guidelines. If a student needs help with note recognition, for example, and are having trouble remembering B, A and G in the left hand, I give them a blank piano stave to draw on and might write in a few notes here and there. Perhaps as little as the first and last notes and then get students filling in the blanks with their own ideas.

But other than that we throw out the rulebook and get creative! It’s important not to stifle imagination. As Miles Davis said, “there are no wrong notes”.

One of the reasons composing is an effective learning tool is because it’s something that belongs to the student. They feel really involved in their own learning. While studying for a teaching diploma I came across the concept of “ownership” in a book by Susan Hallam and it has stayed with me throughout my teaching ever since. Students are motivated when they feel what they are learning belongs to them.

Students aren’t just passively working through the method book, but taking an active role by making their own music.

Do you use composition in your music studio in this way?

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