Last spring I incorporated composition in my 7th grade instrumental music class. This class met twice a week for 50-minute periods. Fourteen students participated in the class; seven started playing new instruments (including flute, percussion, alto saxophone, and guitar) at the start of the semester. With varied instrumentation and performance ability, I focused on small group learning, which allowed composition assignments to be tailored to individual needs and interests. Objectives for the class included: (a) learning a variety of repertoire in major and minor tonalities, (b) learning music in a variety of styles, (c) improvising on tonic and dominant harmonies, and (d) composing melodies and arrangements following specific guidelines.
To provide a musical environment that would promote creativity and understanding, students sang and performed by ear and with notation: (a) melodies and roots of chords; (b) harmonic, rhythmic, and expressive elements; (c) improvised melodic patterns and phrases; and (d) improvisations, modeled on Developing Musicianship Through Improvisation (Azzara & Grunow, 2006, 2010a, 2010b).
Students focused on three composing/arranging assignments related to repertoire performed in class. Compositions were evaluated using additive and continuous rating scales, which included tonal, rhythm, and expressive dimensions (Stringham, 2010). To receive a top score in tonal and rhythm dimensions, all pitches and rhythms are correctly notated given the harmonic progression. To receive a top score in the expressive dimension, students notate time signature, clef, stem directions, articulations, and phrasing correctly.
In their first assignment, students were asked to compose a melody to the harmonic progression of “Frère Jacques.” One student’s composition appears below. In this example, the composer demonstrates understanding of tonic and dominant harmonies by choosing appropriate melodic pitches, and shows understanding of form and reuse of material found in “Frère Jacques” with repeating two-measure patterns.
In the second composition, students were asked to arrange a familiar song, such as “Eency Weency Spider” or “London Bridge.” Arrangements contained four parts: melody, bass line, guide-tone line, and counter melody. Below is one student’s arrangement of “Eency Weency Spider.” The composer correctly notates all pitches and rhythms given the harmonic progression, and demonstrates appropriate phrasing and articulation.
In the final assignment, students were asked to arrange or compose anything they wanted. Students had the option of using NoteFlight or writing by hand; each student-organized group performed at the spring music concert. Arrangements included: (a) “Lion Sleeps Tonight” (Solomon Linda), arranged for piano, violin, and guitar; (b) “Disney Medley” (Elton John, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Leigh Harline, and Ned Washington), arranged for alto saxophone, guitar, violin, viola, and two flutes; and (c) “Drops of Jupiter” (Train), arranged for two guitars, drums, piano, and violin.
While introducing composition in my instrumental classroom was successful, there were bumps along the way. Students expressed frustration with the unfamiliarity of composing and arranging. However, by the end of the semester, students demonstrated skills and understanding that contributed to their overall musicianship, proficiency on instruments, and success at the spring concert.
Azzara, C. D. & Grunow, R. F. (2006). Developing Musicianship through Improvisation, Book 1. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Azzara, C. D. & Grunow, R. F. (2010a). Developing Musicianship through Improvisation, Book 2. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Azzara, C. D. & Grunow, R. F. (2010b). Developing Musicianship through Improvisation, Book 3. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Stringham, D. A. (2010). Improvisation and Composition in a High School Instrumental Music Curriculum. Doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester.
-Leslie J.B. Hart, Castilleja School