Teaching Composition to Students

Or this post could be titled, “Reason #47 Why I Love Piano Safari!” 🙂

When Alyssa first began piano lessons last fall we tried some simple improvisation activities, but she was reluctant to play anything without knowing that it was the “right” notes. As we’ve worked through my all-time favorite piano method – Piano Safari – she’s gradually gained confidence and creative freedom. After a couple weeks of hashing out some ideas and discussing possibilities at her lesson, she came back with this fabulous original composition, Thunderstorm Over the Prairie.

The way this is presented in the method was perfect for her! She got to draw a picture to represent each part of the thunderstorm, then come up with musical ideas to reflect each element. She told me after she played this at her lesson that having the pictures was so helpful for enabling her to memorize her composition and keep track of where she was. As you can hear, she also enjoyed incorporating a familiar folk tune into her piece. I just love watching my students flourish as musicians who are comfortable all over the keyboard, whether playing written music, pieces by rote, or original compositions!

A Creative Composition Project

In case anyone here didn’t already know how in love I am with the Piano Safari method, I thought I would share a highlight from the lesson this week with my new beginning student Alyssa. We learned the piece, Outer Space from the Level 1 book over the last couple of weeks. Outer Space is a perfect combination of rote learning, composition, and creativity.

The main theme is taught by rote, but then the student is asked to draw a picture representing a couple of objects from space and compose an ending to match each one. Alyssa chose Saturn and Jupiter for hers and we discussed what things the planets have in common and what different characteristics they have. We also listened to some excerpts from Holst’s suite The Planets for inspiration!

I told her that if she could draw full page images for each of the endings – Saturn, Jupiter, and the given shooting star for the final ending – that we could create a simple music video to go with them. We used my Nessie mic, the free Audacity recording software, and iMovie to put together this simple, but memorable creation.

How fun for students to begin experiencing the joys of music composition, creativity, and technology within the first several months of lessons. There is a whole world just waiting to be explored and discovered!

The Music Arranger’s Page

Thanks to Christopher Sutton, of Easy Ear Training, for hosting Hans Hansen, I discovered this new website that is practically a course in music composition on a website! The Music Arranger’s Page is a collection of extensive posts on how to arrange music, write good melodies, figure out intros, and lots more! If you or your students are interested in learning more of the ins and outs of writing and arranging music, this website is sure to give you an education! 🙂

Finale – Essential Piano Studio Software

One of the first new software programs I ordered when I got my new computer system was Finale 2012. I had been using an older version on my last computer and knew I couldn’t live without it! We use Finale all the time in the studio for compositions, but especially this time of year when students are working on their Psalms Projects.

One of the great benefits of Finale is that students can download the free Finale Notepad to use at home to input their compositions, then send the files to the studio for final tweaking. Most of the time students prefer to work on their notation input here at the studio, but for those who want to familiarize themselves with the software and work on their own, this is a great option!

Calling All Composers and Arrangers!

SheetMusicPlus.com just launched a new (beta version) Digital Print Publishing that is open to composers and arrangers who want to make their work available to a large customer base. Just sign up for a free account, upload your sheet music, and start earning royalties. The composer/arranger will earn 45% of every sale, and all music will be available worldwide. According to the FAQs, Sheet Music Plus uses a proprietary process that helps protect the the rights of the creator. This looks like a great way for composers and arrangers to start reaching a wider audience with their work!

What if Your Student Could Compose a Piece and Have it Performed by a Professional Musician?

That is exactly the vision behind Music-COMP (formerly the Vermont Midi Project). The organization began in 1995 with the purpose of “encourage[ing] and support[ing] students in composing and arranging music.” This is accomplished via “A community of professional composers, teachers, pre-service educators, and students engage in mentoring and online discussion of student work.”

I had to do a little bit of digging to understand exactly how the program works. (I’m sure once they have fully completed the switch to their new program name and website things will be a little easier to navigate!) Schools or individuals can enroll in the program for a yearly membership fee which provides them access to the online mentoring website where students can submit compositions for critique and reflection. They also have the opportunity to be mentored by a professional composer for an additional fee.

One of the biggest perks of the Music-COMP program is that students can submit compositions for live performances by professional musicians. The motivation for and reward of composing rises to a whole new level when students can hear their work performed by live musicians, not just a computer sound card. This year’s Opus 24 will take place on Wednesday, May 2, in Ludlow, Vermont.

As a huge advocate for expanded approaches to education, I think this would be a fabulous real-world opportunity for any school, studio, or student interested in gaining experience and expertise in the field of composing!

Noteflight Notation Program

It’s been just about a year now since I first came across the internet-based Noteflight notation program.

I haven’t used the program much in the past year, but several weeks ago it came to mind and has been the perfect solution for a recent situation! You may remember that I’ve begun teaching via Skype, and one of my long-distance students has been working on a composition. It’s been really fun to work on it together over the internet, but I was thinking it would be really cool to get it notated so she has a printed copy to keep.

I could have just done it all in my Finale notation program and then converted it to a pdf and e-mailed it to her, but that seemed pretty cumbersome. Enter: Noteflight. The interface is sleek and intuitive, and I can input notes as we work on it during the lesson. My student has the link to the notated composition and can check it out at any time, listen to it playback, and print it out on her computer. Needless to say, she is thrilled to see her work on the screen and on paper! I think we’re going to be using this a lot more in the days ahead!

Tips for Songwriters

Professional songwriter Ben Cooper has posted a brief, but insightful article on Songwriting Tips. Usually, my students’ introduction into songwriting comes in the way of The Psalms Project that we put together each spring. I can definitely see the truth of Ben’s statement that, “When creating, we learn by doing, and we improve by repeating the process.” Students who started years ago by contributing a melody that was almost unsingable are now creating lovely pieces that are a joy to sing! Here’s another perspective that I really appreciated:

“Instead of over-analyzing each and every song I write, I’ve learned to figure out what I could do better in the process. Sometimes a song deserves to be re-written, but honestly, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s OK.”

I can relate to this as an author, too. Eventually you get to a point when you have to finish and leave an article or book “as-is” and learn from it (and the critiques you receive) so that the next writing project is better. Or, as a filmmaking friend of mine put it, “You can’t make your third movie first.” There has to be room to grow. Most of us would probably never let our first songs or compositions see the light of day, but if it weren’t for those, we wouldn’t be where we are today with our writing. The same goes for our students.

I love Ben’s closing sentiments:

“When it comes to this craft, there is no conventional path to becoming a professional (I know plenty of signed writers who never went to college, and plenty of unsigned writers who have a degree). In songwriting, every writer earns his or her diploma through experience.”

Some great thoughts to keep in mind as we work with composing students – helping them learn skills and strive toward excellence, but giving them room to grow as they write songs that are “stepping-stone[s] on the path to the next.”

Noteflight Provides New Approach to Music Notation

A while back I was alerted to the Noteflight website. Self-described as “Music notation for a connected world,” Noteflight provides an attractive alternative to traditional notation software. It is extremely intuitive and files can be easily shared with the click of a button. I think this provides a lot of possibilities for teachers, composers, bloggers, and students. For example, I can embed a score I’ve created right into this post for you to view, play, and print:

(Plus, I just discovered that if I make changes to the original score, it is automatically reflected in the embedded file!) I’m having fun experimenting with the possibilities and look forward to utilizing this resource more in the future. There’s also quite a collection of shared notation files from other users, but a limited search function makes it pretty difficult to find the useful or relevant files.

If you have any ideas for how you can utilize this site with students, please feel free to share!

MuseScore – A Free Notation Software

I’ve been hearing rumblings about MuseScore for several weeks, but Joy’s review of it earlier this week prompted me to finally take a closer look. Like Joy, I was very disappointed to find that Finale decided to charge for the NotePad software that they previously offered free of charge. I had quite a few students who used it for their compositions. MuseScore looks like a great alternative (it’s free!). I’ve downloaded the most recent version and look forward to checking it out for myself.