Composition: Helping Students Grow, Part 2

NAfME member Daniel Deutsch shares more strategies and tactics for helping students with their first composition assignment (continued from Part 1):

The student who can’t think of an opening idea:

“What kind of mood or style do you want for your piece?” Deutsch asks. Once the mood is picked, “Can you hear a little tune that sounds like that?”

When questions fail to jumpstart the process, Deutsch uses some ice-breaking activities:

  • Start in the student’s comfort zone: “What is your favorite scale?”
  • Ask the student to play the scale normally.
  • Then lead a series of transformations:


Note Duration
Repeating Notes
Change in scale direction


Soon, almost every student will discover a satisfying musical idea.

The Blocked Composer:

  • Try asking “What sounds good after that?”
  • Have the student listen passively. “I’m going to play your piece for you. Just imagine what would sound good next.”
  • Enlist the class’s help. Play the music while students take turns singing the next phrase.
  • Demonstrate possible solutions with alternative scenarios to choose from.

If the music seems drab or lifeless:

Appeal to the student’s emotions. “How do you feel when you score a soccer goal? Wouldn’t it be fun to put that in your piece?”

When the student’s ideas are hard to understand:

  • Don’t judge too swiftly.
  • Record the music and listen to it several times outside class.
  • Ask, “Do you mean this, or this?” as you bend the phrase slightly in one direction or another.
  • “Some of my favorite music is unusual. Do you want to create something unusual, or are you unsure what you mean or how to play it?”

The advanced student:

  • Help the student understand the theoretical implications of his or her ideas.
  • Extend the knowledge through exercises and analysis.
  • Urge the student to participate in regional, state, and national programs and competitions to interact with compositional peers.

Deutsch stresses, “All students must leave each lesson with hope, optimism, and a sense of how they’ll move forward.”

“In direct response to students’ weekly progress,” Deutsch says, “the curriculum spirals up through a series of topics: melody and harmony; tension and release; phrase, form, and structure; texture and instrumentation; dynamics, expression, and articulation; and tonal, modal, and atonal theory, as appropriate.”

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 3, 2010, © National Association for Music Education