I find this a little bit hard to admit (and almost even believe now) but up until about 7 years ago, I never really taught composing to my students! I used to think that I didn’t have the time, creativity or real talent to compose…so how could I possibly teach it? Then, in 2007, I took the Music for Young Children certification and found out that if I wanted to be a certified MYC teacher, I’d have to suck it up and just do it…because part of the curriculum each year is composing! And, not only that, but MYC has a huge international Composition Festival each year and MYC teachers are expected to have their students participate! No pressure…right???? That first year of teaching composing and mailing off compositions to a festival was terrifying for me.
But I discovered something: Composing can be easy….and FUN! And now, years later, I look forward to every January because that’s when I start my annual composing unit with my students. We spend about 6 weeks working little by little on a composition. And how do we begin? Well, I tell my students that each composition starts with a teeny, tiny idea. In music we call this a MOTIVE. A motive does not need to be big, in fact look at Beethoven, he started an entire Symphony with a super tiny motive that went something like: duh, duh, duh, duuuuuh (Symphony no.5) and look where that led to!
So, our first week of composing is spent just on creating a little motive. Sometimes, I’ll throw a few ideas out to them like choosing a sentence to determine your rhythm and then adding notes. We did a little exercise with this. One student chose to use the sentence, “Ninjas on the rooftop”. Once we figured out that rhythm was just titi titi ta ta, she was free to add notes to it. 5 minutes later she had a motvie!
Each consecutive week, we learn a “trick” to add to our motive to expand our motive. Like this:
Repetition: easy! Just repeat the motive!
Sequence: move the motive up or down (did you hear this one in Beethoven’s Symphony?)
Retrograde: play it backwards!
Inversion: Turn it upside down!
Diminuation: make the rhythms shorter! (did you hear this in Beethoven’s, too?)
Augmentation: make the rhythms longer
Before they know it, that one tiny motive has become a full page of music! As my students grow and mature in their composing, they don’t always do it “by the book” and that’s okay, too. But knowing these little “composer tricks” and finding out even the “big guys” like Beethoven used them too, makes the whole composing process much less intimidating. And guess what else? Knowing these little tricks can also make IMPROVISING a lot less intimidating. Getting that creative process going starts with just an idea!
And now, we are done our composing unit for another year and the compositions have been shipped off to the MYC International Composition Festival….but I don’t think my students are done with composing….just yet! 😉 And that makes me extremely happy, because really, shouldn’t it be my goal to slowly be working myself out of a job by creating happy, independent musicians who can create their own music?