“Take a Break from Hot Cross Buns”
Including composition in beginning ensemble classrooms can be difficult. A majority of class time is spent reinforcing instrument fundamentals, and students may have limited knowledge of notes and rhythms. However, composition activities not only help students progress quickly. Student compositions can also be used as formative assessments, and be shared with administrators and parents.
A student-created method book is a great way to include composition in your beginning ensemble. This project need not take a lot of class time, encourages students to practice at home, and strengthens students’ knowledge.
A Student-Created Method Book
1. After students have played their instruments for a few months, ask them to take an “inventory” of all the notes, rhythms, and musical symbols they’ve learned so far. Write each of these on the board.
2. Ask each student to pick one of these concepts. (In large classes, this can be done in small groups.)
3. Outside of class time, students write a short piece for their instrument that utilizes their assigned concept. Students can notate their compositions on manuscript paper, or in any other way they wish.
4. As students complete their pieces, they can ask you for notation help. This is an opportunity to help them with standard notation concepts, such as time signature and key signature. Again, this doesn’t need to take a lot of class time. Perhaps the last five minutes of every other class could be devoted to composition help.
5. After students have refined their notation, their next task is to circle their assigned concept and write a brief explanation (such as those that appear in standard method books).
6. Select a team of students to sort compositions into a logical order of increasing difficulty. Bind all of the compositions into a book and have the students present a copy to the principal.
7. If you have access to a computer lab and notation software, show students how to notate their music digitally. For example, Noteflight is free and easy for students to use. Having music in digital form makes it easy to transpose notation so students can play everyone’s composition.
8. Instead of playing from a “regular” method book at the first concert, play student-created pieces and have students explain to their parents what concept each piece teaches.
Writing music for a method book is less intimidating for students because it is a format they are familiar with. The pieces are short and simple so students don’t feel the pressure to create something too difficult. While writing, many students “discover” new notes and rhythms they haven’t learned in class yet. Also, time at home spent composing is also time spent practicing (which might not have happened otherwise).
Sharing final products with parents and administrators is a valuable advocacy tool. Unless people have a background in music, it can sometimes be difficult to listen to a concert and appreciate all of the learning that went into it. A student-created method book documents that learning in a fun way. Fun, advocacy, and learning? It’s the ultimate combination for beginning ensembles.
Arizona State University