3 Mistakes to Avoid when Teaching Composition
It is a necessary part of the Music teaching evil—teaching composition! I don’t know about you, but my students, especially the younger ones, really don’t like composition 😦 The mere mention of it creates a collective groan. That was until a few years ago, I changed my approach and now my students love doing it! So below is a list of THREE things of what NOT to do when it comes time to assess those little munchkins on how well they can create and compose a piece of music.
Mistake Number 1
Tell Your Students that they are going to Write some Music
This is THE biggest mistake to avoid! I used to go into class, waving some manuscript and say something like— “Today you are going to write a 4 bar melody and then notate it on the stave”. I would then get some really strange, blank looks at me, with expressions of “are you kidding me” and “I can’t do that”. I don’t know what it is about notating, but students seem to have a huge wall and resistance to it. So to avoid these little blank stares, I say something like— “here the notes I want you to use, (usually a pentatonic scale of some sort) and here are the instruments you can use, now form groups of up to 4 people and come up with a 30 second piece that has two different melodic ideas and some rhythmic ostinatos, you have 30 minutes to decide who is in your group and what instruments you are going to use. Then we will perform for the class. Time starts now, go”.
I tell you, the difference is amazing! I will get more creativity, a lot more “musicality” about the pieces they compose, and then there are the added skill bonuses! Things like working in a group, arranging musical ideas and of course performing. All great skills to be developing in young musicians. Of course you can extend their learning with asking them to notate the composition on the staff, or even use a type of Texture Chart.
Mistake Number 2
Set too many limitations on the Composition Task
After teaching Music for over 15 years now, you learn a few things about human behaviour, especially teenagers. If you tell them not to do something, they of course will only want to do exactly what you do not want them to do! So when I used to tell my students in a Composition task they must compose for XXXX instrument/s, or it must be notated using XXXX program, or even it must be a group project with XXXX number of people, I would just get resistance!
Instead, try doing this—leave a lot of the choices up to your students! That might sound scary, but I guarantee that they will come through for you, and the compositions will be even better than you had hoped for. I like to give my students a lot of choice, within set boundaries. For example, I will ask them to write a song—that seems a little daunting at first, but I will tell them that they can use the lyrics that I have provided, and the suggested chord progressions, OR they could write their own lyrics and chord progressions. They know that the only real limits are that they MUST perform their composition as well as notate it in some form and that it cannot go over 4 minutes in length. The results will astound you if you let them think they have “free reign”.
Mistake Number 3
Tell them that they will have to complete a composition in their own time
I am not sure if this a sign of the times, or that it is the simple fact that I have only ever taught in schools with low socio-economic students, but this just scares the heck out of students! For the last 8 years or so, I will always dedicate class time to completing the current assessment. This might seem like a waste for some, but I find that this way I get a much higher completion and submission rate for assessments. When students have to do assessments on their own, they just don’t do it, or they don’t have the resources to do it, or they don’t have the motivation or even the skills to complete assessments on their own. So, now especially when doing compositions, we work on them in class. This way I get to help the student at the point of need, I can check progress and help problem solve with them when issues arise. It really is a win win situation to let students have class time. How much you give them is up to you, but I cannot recommend this enough—give them support and help them actually achieve!
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Julia from Jooya