Sometimes Getting Composition Going in the classroom can be tough. Students will have a range of abilities and skills and we have to refine them. The word compose is in itself a word that might conjure up fear amongst students and teachers. I wanted to share some of the ways I get going with composition and give you a few ideas to get you started.
Start with knowledge
When I start teaching composition in Year 9, I always start with musical knowledge rather than a genre. What I mean is, I don’t stay straight away that we are going to compose a minimalist. What I like to do is teach students about a certain element of music, or a key skill, and then get them to explore this through composition.
Take Rhythm & Metre for example. This is a key component of musical understanding, but the best way to generate the learning is through practical work. So I like to start Year 9 with drum-kit compositions, where students are exploring the range of different note values, rhythmic devices and metres. When you start with knowledge you are not only getting them to wrestle with a concept, but you are getting them doing this creatively. What then evolves is a series of rhythms that students then morph into a drum-kit composition. This is then something that drummers can come and play for the students.
Don’t be afraid of DAWs
It is often quite daunting when you consider all the ways that composition can take place in the classroom. But of course composition takes place in a students mind and on instruments before it goes anywhere near a computer or DAW. What we mustn’t do is be afraid of all the options available to students and we must encourage them to use what works best for them. Realising a composition on Sibelius, Soundtrap, Dorico, Cubase, Ableton, GarageBand or NoteFlight is only part of the journey.
As teachers we must guide students in the composition process and then allow them to work out how to present their ideas. I love it that in my last Year 11 lesson I has students on Sibelius, Soundtrap Cubase & Ableton all in the same room! Often the students know the DAW well enough and you can just make sure that they know how to compose.
Compose with the Set Works
Set works are great because they allow our students to focus on some music in their studies. I really enjoy teaching set works, but I like to bring them to life. For example, when I teach Purcell I like to use Ableton & launchpads to really bring the topic of Ground Bass to life. It is good to get students composing with the same ideas as the “great” composers. It helps them to see why a chord sequence sounds the way it sounds. Killer Queen has a great chord progression. Give it to the students and get them composing a melody over the top. Composition can be approached with short tasks that help them learn key topics. Another good one is to give them a load of ideas and get them to arrange them, exploring textures along the way.
Compose in Chunks
Sometimes the thought of composing an entire “piece” of music is a little daunting. It is therefore quite nice to break it down into chunks. I like to get students composing just a melody, or a short ostinato. Sometimes I get them to come up with 4 bars of atmosphere, exploring a few instruments along the way. A chord progression could be a good approach for a lesson or maybe a cycle of fifths. teaching them the tools needed for composition is really helpful, and this can be done in small chunks. It isn’t always necessary or helpful to just expect students to create an entire piece, particularly without much planning and listening time.
Have you ever tried running a composition club? If you want to get your students excited about composing then I suggest you start one. It is simple really, you organise a time where students can gather to compose. This might be individually or in a small group. Whatever approach you take, the benefits are clear – more students will be enjoying composition. How often do we forget to remember that composition is as important as performance at GCSE & A-Level. Now some might say that performance leads in to composition, but a great performer isn’t always a great composer. Something for you to ponder!
I love it that we can watch anything we want on YouTube! What an amazing resource. One thing I like to do is find videos where composers talk about the composition process. I have watched several over the years with my classes and I find them really helpful. Hearing about the different processes that composers use is really inspiring for our students. One person I particularly love watching is Rick Beato who has so many videos about so many things. From chords to film scoring, there is something for everyone on his page! Rick makes modes exciting and shows how they can be used in compositions – there is some great stuff on his channel.
I Can Compose
One website that I have turned to over the last year is I Can Compose. It is packed full of so much and I am so grateful to Rachel for putting together such amazing resources. Her listening packs are fantastic and really help me with my drive to get students deliberately listening to more music. There are so many wonderful composition projects on there and it really has everything you need. Rachel has also written a really handy little book that I read as soon as it came out – How to teach Composition in the Secondary Classroom. What I love is that it is full of little ideas to try out, and it is a compact book that you can easily carry around with you.
Focus on Sound Pro
I am a big fan of Focus on Sound Pro because it was a real life saver during the Pandemic. But as I also say, technology is for life not just for Pandemics. Focus on Sound Pro now has a growing amount of content that is focussed around composition. There are some soundtrap resources on there as well as study pieces to help. What I am finding is that when students encounter an issue with a composition I get them turning to FoS Pro to look things up and see the words in action.
I also noticed the other day that Music First are running a composition competition. External competitions are great for students and also so often they are performance based. I am hoping to enter some students and give them something to work towards other than exams!
Passing Notes Education
I recently attended a webinar provided by Passing Notes Education and it was fantastic. The topic was “Film music” and the hour long session was so helpful and enjoyable. The sessions they provide are mainly led by teachers and they are not expensive at all. Resources are provided and you leave feeling ready to tackle your next compositional challenge. I think the Bach Chorale ones look really useful, although I haven’t made it along to one of them yet.
Getting Composition Going
Just a few thoughts on composition and I am sure I will have more. I love seeing students getting creative again. But I also love using composition as a way to develop their understanding of music. The more we can get students exploring music, the more creative and successful they will be! Listening is of course a key component of this my final thought is, start with listening and then you can really get composition going.