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Thomas J. West Music

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Music Students Embrace The Joy Of The Creative Process

Posted on May 4, 2011 at 4:14 PM


Now that my spring concert is over, my students are spending the remaining time in the final marking period in some really powerful (and essential) musicianship-building activities. We are beginning each class with drills on scales and tonic triad arpeggios. My middle scool students are performing from Ab major through E major for strings, and Db major through A major for winds. My high school students are working on all major and natural minor scales and arpeggios.


We are also spending some time working with rhythmic notation. Over the years, I have found that reading rhythms proficiently is the main hang-up most people have about learning music. My method for working on this is an interesting one that I will elaborate on in another post.


We are also doing some sight-reading. For my high school students, we are reading movements of the Handel Water Music, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and whatever free pdfs I can find online. For middle school, we are working with material from a book called Music Speed Reading by David Hickman. It gets the students to read only the note head positions on the staff and immediately compute that written symbol into a fingering on the instrument. It also works on training the eye to read notation by rhythmic groupings. Highly recommended.

Setting The Stage For First-Time Composers

Our main task, however, is exposing my middle school students to original music composition. In the weeks leading up to our spring concert, they spent some time about once a week learning about the primary chords in their easiest keys. For the winds, they learned the Bb, Eb, and F arpeggios in the key of Bb major, and for strings, they covered the D, G, and A arpeggios in D major. The students then chose notes in each of these chords and played an ostinato while I improvised a melody at the piano or on an instrument.

Then it was their turn: every member of the class got a chance to try improvising a melody. We discussed the main points of melody creation - chord tones with occasional passing tones, steps with occasional skips, begin and end on tonic, use repetition, etc. Everybody gave it a try - even in as safe an environment as our classrooms are at my school, it was still a challenging experience for many of them.

Now, the students are composing their own original songs set to an accompaniment. I offer them this assignment in three versions:

Version A: Students write an original melody for their instrument using the piano accompaniment I provide for them. The piano accompaniment is 8 measures of simple block primary chords. They can extend that into 16 measures if they choose. Key of Bb or D major.

Version B: Students write an original melody and create their own chordal accompaniment using the primary chords in those keys with additional sub-dominant chords as they see fit. Minimum 24 measures with an A-B-A form.

Version C: Students are free to write a piece in their choice of key and instrumentation, minimum 24 measures.

For all projects, the melody and accompaniment must be performable by someone in the class. Students for version C could propose writing a duet or larger ensemble and could write key changes, etc. My more experieced middle schoolers are already capable of some of this because they get regular doses of chrodal theory in both their guitar and keyboard classes. My most advanced student is writing for full string ensemble.

The students have the option of using manuscript paper, Finale Allegro on the classroom PCs, or Noteflight. For version A, students import a teacher-created accompaniment file from the class Moodle page - a .mus file for Finale and a Music XML file for Noteflight. Here is the Version A accompaniment for the strings class [LINK]. In order to use the Music XML file, they have to save it from Moodle to their desktop, start a new score in Noteflight, use File > Import, then delete the staves they do not need. Good computer skill work!

My high school students are continuing composition projects they began in marking period 2. Two students are collaborating on a string ensemble and guitar version of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion"!

Watching Young Faces Light Up

With these basic skills in place, the majority of my middle school students are absolutely loving the opportunity to write their own music! They have a very personal connection to their work, just as an artist in the ceramics studio loves their work. The results vary, but most of them are turning out some great stuff. Here is one students' piece on Noteflight [LINK]. By the way, the student example I used is from a student who began their instrument for the first time in September!

Once they finish their piece, they print them out and try to play them. As anyone who has composed for instruments knows, the actual mechanical performance of the music can sometimes be surprising. What sounds great on Noteflight or Finale ends up being difficult to execute yourelf, or at least will require some rehearsal before you become proficient enough to perform it.

The Lofty Goal: An All-Originals Concert

As we round out this school year, I plan to incorporate composition for these returning students starting in marking period 1 next year. New beginners will wait until the end of the first year as we did this time. The goal is to have about 50% of the winter concert be comprised of original student music and 90% of the spring concert be a showcase of original compositions. What better way to learn about all aspects of music than to write, rehearse, and perform your own stuff?

The personal connection they are building with their own art is what it's all about. As these students metriculate up through high school, they are building not only instrumental performance skills, but skills needed to be creative, original thinkers. These students are much more likely to continue being an active music maker once they leave high school than the average school band or orchestra student. Along the way, they will be learning how to share and collaborate with others online to make their music go far and affect many.

More posts of student compositions coming soon.

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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Categories: Music Education, Music Composition

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