December Composition Mentor

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    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! My name is Alden Snell and I teach instrumental music education at the University of Delaware. Prior to teaching in higher education, I taught instrumental music to all grade levels in Western New York.

    I’m excited to be the composition mentor for December and invite questions you may have about composing in any music education setting. I also invite you to share successful composition ideas with subscribers to this forum.

    December is a busy month for music teachers, yet when I was teaching in the public schools, I often found the last week or so before winter recess was a great time to try something new. Perhaps following your concerts this month, you might try some writing or composition activities with your students?

    I look forward to working with you through this forum in December.


    Hi, Dr. Snell –

    I have two questions for you:

    1) What is the best way to START? I have been assigning composition assignments, big and small, on a regular basis in my instrumental music classes for almost three years. That being said, I question whether or not I am starting the process efficiently. Thus far in my career, I have begun by assessing students’ abilities to audiate, using both solfege syllables and numbered scale degrees. Can you offer some advice on how to initiate composition in an instrumental class, or perhaps shed some light on teaching the basics of audiation? By using both solfege and scale degrees, am I throwing too much at my beginners?

    2) I recently heard Dr. Deutsch speak about mentoring young composers. I am jealous of the amount of time that he has to work with individual students on their compositions. Many of my colleagues have classes of over 70 students. When I assess my students’ composition projects, I often run into the problem of not having enough time to give my students adequate daily feedback. Do you have any tips on how to effectively assess student work so that my feedback is meaningful for the students as well as efficient for me? Is there a good rubric for this?

    Thank you!


    Hi John,

    Thanks for your post. Here are a few thoughts in response to your questions.

    Regarding where to START, when teaching beginners (of any age), I like to use the term “write” instead of “compose.” When I taught 4th grade instrumental music, we played primarily by ear for the first several months of the year. In December and January, I would introduce notation of all the tunes students had learned the previous fall and students would both read and write at the same time. I did not ask them to write much; usually 4 bars of rhythm patterns, 4 tonal or melodic patterns, or a short tune. By asking students to write specifically assigned content first, they were gaining comfort with the writing process without yet worrying about composing/creating something of their own. Once they were relatively comfortable writing, I would ask them create their own short compositions. I can expand on this further if you’d like, but I’m sure if you’re already inviting students to compose, you have plenty of good ideas on that front.

    Regarding solfege and scale degrees, I don’t believe you’re throwing too much at them, assuming they are fluid with both. Pros and cons of tonal and rhythm systems are worthy of an entire other conversation! I always tried to use one system, but I wasn’t shy about borrowing from other systems, especially if I knew my students were used to other systems from other music teachers.

    Regarding daily feedback, having enough time to provide adequate feedback seems to be the greatest challenge all composition teachers face. From a purely practical standpoint, I recommend you decide in advance exactly what you are assessing and focus only on that. For example, at first, you might provide feedback only on whether the correct number of beats appear in the measures. Then, still build in a few times a year where you provide larger scale feedback to student compositions. But from a day to day, week to week perspective, I suggest being more narrow in your assessment strategies.

    Regarding rubrics, I suggest two resources as a point of departure (there are many more):
    A Concise Guide to Assessing Skill and Knowledge with Music Achievement as a Model, by Darrel Walters (GIA Publications, 2010), is a book my students use when working on developing rating scales and rubrics.
    Musicianship: Composing in Band and Orchestra, edited by Clint Randles and David Stringham (GIA Publications, 2013), provides several composition lesson plans which include assessment strategies.

    Please let me know if you’d like me to clarify or expand on any of the ideas above. I’m glad to keep brainstorming!

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