Composition: Culminate in Performance, Reflection

“Performance is an indispensible component of the compositional process for student composers,” says NAfME member Daniel Deutsch. “Scheduling a concert or festival sets a goal that directly shapes student motivation and work. The concert brings the compositional process to its natural culmination, a public affirmation of the musical expressiveness of the young composers.”

Compositions reflect the personality of the composer. Often students can guess who wrote each piece, but sometimes they compose against type:

  • The quiet shy students who presents a heroic piece
  • The husky athlete who performs a tender or tragic piece

Deutsch describes the sheer variety of the music presented at these concerts:

  • A country fiddle tune
  • A calypso for alto sax, piano, and percussion
  • A Bartokian duet for tuba and baritone horn
  • A piano boogie-woogie
  • A classical string quartet
  • A spooky piano piece with 12 singers hidden behind the back curtain
  • A heart-felt graduation song

“When parents witness the degree of expressive authenticity and excited engagement, they become enthusiastically supportive,” Deutsch says.

Unlike other concerts, in a composition performance “the music emanates from the students’ inner lives,” says Deutsch. “It reveals their musical understanding more than any standardized test ever could. Their pride and self-affirmation is patently visible.”


Formative assessment helps guide students through the cycles of creating, reflecting, and revising. After the performance, Deutsch likes to ask, “What was it like to compose your own music? Did it change the way you think and feel about music?” Their responses reflect the freedom and power composing has given them:

  • “Composing my own music was like being the President.”—a fifth grader
  • “Before composition, whenever I saw a piece, I’d just play the notes without thinking how the notes are placed. Now, sometimes I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to put this note over here?’”—a fifth grader
  • “Playing my own composition in front of people made me feel like I was free.”—a fifth grader
  • “Now I think about the composer who wrote the music. I know how hard it is. I know he put the dynamics in for a reason.”—a sixth grader
  • “I no longer think of the piano as an instrument; rather, I think of it as a creative tool.”—a sixth grader
  • “It made me think as if my instrument was my voice, letting out my feelings and emotions.”—a sixth grader
  • “Now when I play piano, I can feel notes forming inside my head.”—a sixth grader
  • “Composing this piece was my anger management for the year!”—a sixth grader
  • “Every time I add more notes to the piece, there is this energetic and ecstatic feeling. And when I play, I feel proud of me and my music.”—a sixth grader

“Blooms’s revised taxonomy lists the following domains: creating, evaluating, analyzing, applying, understanding, and remembering,” Deutsch says. “It’s difficult to conceive of a program that helps students to grow in these areas more vitally than music composition.”

Resources–NAfME Books

Why and How to Teach Music Composition: A New Horizon for Music Education, by Maud Hickey

Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking, by Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith

Composition in the Classroom: A Tool for Teaching, by Jackie Wiggins

Daniel Deutsch is the Composition/Improvisation Chairperson of the New York State School Music Association and National Chair of the NAfME Student Composers Competition.

This article is adapted from “Mentoring Young Composers: The Small-Group, Individualized Approach,” by Daniel Deutsch, in the Fall 2009 issue of the Kansas Music Review. Used with permission.

—Linda C. Brown, March 17, 2010, © National Association for Music Education