Composition: Helping Students Grow, Part 1

Once students have completed their first composition assignment, how do you help these diverse students grow as composers? NAfME member Daniel Deutsch recommends some strategies and tactics:

When students present their first phrases

  1. Invite everyone in the group to say something positive about the music. They usually think of something kind and true to say. Two common problems are

• Disorganization (moving abruptly from one idea to the next).
• Repetition

  1. Discuss unity and variety. Deutsch tells stories to demonstrate. In one, the characters and setting change abruptly in every sentence. In the other, the same sentences recur over and over. He then plays a piece (like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) where “repetition and variety of simple elements lead to an eloquent musical statement.”

The student with too many unrelated motives:

  • “Good news,” Deutsch says. “You have enough ideas for 8 pieces. Which ones do you like best? Let’s use those and get more mileage out of them. Save the others for other pieces.” He then takes the favorite motive through repetition and sequence.

The student with too much repetition (maybe only an ascending and descending scale with no rhythmic variation):

  • “You’ve written a wonderful exercise,” Deutsch says. “Let’s all play it together. To make more of a song out of it, what should we do?” He suggests showing how

• making some of the notes longer stops the mechanical repetition.
• shaping contour by changing direction adds more interest.


“Criticism at this early stage,” says Deutsch, “can have a crippling effect.” Insincere praise can halt progress as well. Questions work well. “Do you want the phrase to end suddenly?” “How high should it go before it stops?”

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 MENC 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, February 25, 2010, © National Association for Music Education