How to begin to teach composition

My last post was a bit negative about teaching composition in schools so this is going to be a bit more constructive.  Like I said, composition is a higher level skill and mucking about with instruments without having to think carefully and make choices simply is not composition.  Yes, composition can be completed in groups but when starting out, group compositions are actually more difficult to administer than individual ones simply due to group dynamics and the necessity to make choices that everyone can agree with.  It is easier to agree to your own choice than other peoples.

The key to good composition is listening, aural skills, the ability to know what you are going to do before you play it and more than anything the ability to limit your choices and understand how to develop a compositional feature.  This all must take place with knowledge of who is playing your music and where it is to be played.  Computers can take away some of these constraints but actually that is one of the reasons why students flounder when it comes to composing using computers – there are too many possibilities and it is not a lack of material that young people suffer from when composing.  It is too much – they do not know how to develop their material.

The following is how I would teach a first composition lesson. The first principle is that composing is about taking an idea and making choices.  Here is a very simple composition by LaMonte Young:

There is an idea and an instruction.  But the music is not developed.  LaMonte Young would probably disagree and say “a long time” is the development.  There is a title and a signature and it is dated so that we can identify who played what at what time.  Interestingly there is no indication what instrument is specified to play it, or whether it should be sung.  Obviously it needs to be said that only instruments or voices that are capable of producing the sound can qualify for this to be played. I would ask students to make their own tiny composition as an initial task for 5 minutes.  It can only last one bar. It has to have a musical idea, a title, a date and a signature.  It has to be played by the person next to you.  It does not have to use a musical stave but you might as well get used to using one as it will make the course a lot easier for you. You can’t copy anybody else’s work living or dead that you know about.  The reason for this task is two-fold. Firstly, I would want all composition work returned to me to follow those basic non-negotiables right from the very start. Secondly, there are many students who think they cannot compose – there is a stigma and this is a simple task that anyone who has some sort of interest in music will be able to complete.  Also, within these simple constraints you will see quite a lot of creativity going on.

My next step would be to take the musical idea that they have thought of and change it in some way.  Only a small way. Repetition is certainly allowed but there has to be some sort of development of the material.  Again this has to be signed and dated just as every piece will have to be.  Finally I would say that the next step is to think of some sort of ending.  A musical idea stated, developed and ended is a microcosm of any piece of music.  That is the basic premise of composition. I would then probably finish off by playing Beethoven’s Fifth and show how he takes a very simple idea we all know “da da da daaaaa” and develops it.  Homework – a piece of music signed and dated which presents an idea, develops it and ends it. Any length is OK but if anyone hands in nothing I am sorry that is unoriginal as it has already been handed in by John Cage a while ago.

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