A right way to teach composing?

With composition a compulsory part of the school music curriculum (at all levels) I continually reflect on my approach to teaching composing. The range of activities vary from whole class, small groups to individuals and emcompass a breadth of styles and genres. There can never be one method but a series of strategies that can be used as required. It is essential that composing be differentiated from improvisation – the latter being the spontaneous creation of music, while the former (for me) is the planned and prepared creation of music. This is not to say there is no preparation for improvisation, and perhaps one could add a performative layer to improvisation where it is often done at an instrument while composing may not involve an instrument. What we do need to do as composition teachers to help less experienced composers develop strategies to get started, develop the material to fit the demands of their brief and finally aid them in the preparation of the materials for the performer(s) to ensure the instructions reproduce faithfully the sounds the pupil hears/desires for their piece.

All composing for me starts with imagining something, ideally a sound, mood, character or idea. I encourage my pupils to take a similar approach and to make some decisions before they begin to generate material. They need to set some limitations before they can begin to formulate more precise ideas; which instruments/timbres do they feel will be appropriate for the needs of their chosen piece etc. The next steps include defining the limits of the piece in terms of length, and potential structure. Such plans need not be fixed and pupils need encouragement to see them only as a starting point and flexible enough to cater for changes in their brief as the composing progresses. I have found this approach works well with reluctant and less experienced composers, particularly at GCSE level.

Teaching composition to less experienced composers needs tact and diplomacy. Some ideas a pupil may show us, as more experienced composers and musicians, may be perceived by us as less effective material may have taken the pupil several hours to generate. It is essential to make them feel safe and willing to take risks and be creative, regardless of their musical expertise, and not dismissing material is of the utmost importance in the early stages. One negative comment will close the creativity immediately, and the pupil then may find generating material even more difficult due to fear of failure. Encourage an atmosphere of fearless risk taking in the ideas pupils generate, avoiding discussions of ‘rules’. Let them experiment with the combination of sounds encouraging them to go by their ears, and what they consider to be ‘good’. If a pupil returns with material they tell me is ‘not very good’ I send them away; ‘come back with material you think *is* good’.

I recommend repertoire for pupils to listen to throughout my lessons. Exploring models of good practice, and effective combinations of sounds that create a similar mood/character to the pupil’s brief is a great way of extending the pupil’s palette of compositional expression. Encourage them to try out ideas, concepts, approaches they value and recognise as effective. Let them lead the choice of repertoire by connecting what you consider to be valuable to what they consider to be effective music. Most pupils will spend hours each day listening to music; we need to encourage them to share their own musical tastes in an atmosphere of acceptance. As teachers we should dispel any idea that their musical tastes are inferior to ours as musicians/teachers. All musical tastes are valid, and once a pupil feels accepted to share their musical tastes they will feel more confident to experiment with sounds in a way unique and personal to them. Only then can they produce compositions that have a voice and a real sense of creative ownership from the pupil.

After the initial steps composition teaching, for me, becomes an individual tutorial approach. I respond to the material the pupil presents, always careful not to regard their efforts as less effective but to facilitate an enquiring mind from them: “where could this material lead?”. Above all there can be no right and wrong, there can only be effective and less effective with regards to their intentions.

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