Mentoring Young Composers

Composition is the creative wellspring of music, according to Daniel Deutsch. “When we teach our children to compose, we invite them into the inner world of music,” Deutsch affirms.

In a recent article, Deutsch lists a number of qualities and teacher tips conducive to composition by young people.

The first is an attitude on the part of all participants:

All students can compose:  Just as all children can learn their mother tongue and experiment with sound, people at any age can learn to experiment with sound, improvise, and do the creative playing that is composition. Students of all abilities can learn to make the choices that composing entails.

The educational setting:  Composition can be taught anywhere, but a small-group lesson is one of the most effective environments. The setting must be “supportive, tolerant, and nurturing,” says Deutsch. Improvisation can begin with just “fooling around” on one’s instrument or with the voice. “An atmosphere of trust and acceptance is essential,” he states. Teachers can model improvisational risk-taking to help students overcome their initial fears. How to begin: Start with ideas, emotions, and meanings. Encourage students to talk about how different musical elements can convey ideas, emotions, or meanings. Give some examples on one or more instruments. Ask students to return to the next class with some music that expresses a particular emotion.

composition | DragonImages

Help each student grow:  “When students play or sing their first phrases, the teacher can invite everyone in the group to say something positive about the music. All of them usually think of something kind (and true) to say,” Deutsch says. Help students organize their compositions by telling a story out of order and saying, “What’s wrong with this story?” Then tell a story that has monotonous repeats of certain phrases. The students will get the point. Then play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” for a demonstration of an eloquent use of simple repetition and transformation of motive.

Offer advice constructively:  The most effective teaching is often phrased in questions (e.g., Do you want the phase to end suddenly? How high should it go before it stops? What is your favorite scale? What should happen next?). If a work seems inconclusive, play the student’s piece and ask the composer to imagine what would sound good next.

Notation: Young students can use their own notation systems, but older composers should have the opportunity to see their compositions in traditional notation. They should also have the experience of writing notes on a staff by hand. Notation software should be used after the others skills are understood. Publishing student compositions in a book can be an incentive for learning proper notation.

Performance:  Performance, says Deutsch, “is an indispensable component of the compositional process for student composers. Having a composition concert or festival scheduled on the calendar of the school year gives students a goal that directly shapes their motivation and work.” The student composition concert can be a rewarding experience for composers, performers, and audience alike.

Reflection:  Debriefing and discussing the performance is an important final step that can help make the entire composition process more fulfilling and transformative to both students and teachers. Music teachers have the opportunity, in Deutsch’s opinion, to “teach the ‘whole’ student: left and right brains; cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains; technical and spiritual spheres. Composition is an activity that unites all elements of the student’s musical life.”

Daniel Deutsch is composition/improvisation chairperson for the New York State School Music Association. He was recently named the first chairperson of NAfME’s new Council for Music Composition. This article is adapted from his article “Mentoring Young Composers: The Small-Group Individualized Approach,” published in the January-February 2010 issue of School Music News, pp. 24–28.

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