New Book Explores Teaching Music Composition to Students of All Ages

The authors of a new book, Minds on Music: Composition for Creative and Critical Thinking (MENC/Rowman & Littlefield), explain that without the guidance of a music educator, young people may never know that many things they do in daily life are natural forms of music composition.

“Imagine a society that taught children to read, but not how to create stories or poems of their own,” Janice Smith says. “A music education that does not value children’s potentials in sound— their ability to create songs and pieces uniquely their own—is similarly less than complete.”

Kaschub, coordinator of music teacher education and graduate studies at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, and Smith, undergraduate coordinator of music education at Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York, have worked together previously at several summer composing workshops. The workshops helped give a focus to the book, which they describe as a true collaboration. Its topics include research on the rationale for teaching composition, assessment, designing and working in a composing community, and composing activities for different age groups.

For more information about Minds on Music, visit Rowman & Littlefield. Read on for a Question and Answer session with Kaschub and Smith, who took turns responding.


Authors Michele Kaschub  (left, above ) and Janice Smith say teaching young people to
compose music is a key curriculum piece, whether for young children or
high school students.

Q: Your book states, “The act of composing challenges children to consider their understanding of the world in new ways.” Could you elaborate on this for our readers?

Music surrounds us so constantly in our daily lives that often we don’t consider its impact on our lives. When children compose, they are given the opportunity to consider how music makes them feel and how others might feel when encountering their music. This consideration of their own feelings and those of others is an important component of emotional intelligence that is rarely called upon in any academic sense in school. We invite them to consider what Dan Deutsch [Composition Chair for the New York State School Music Association and chair of MENC’s national student composition contest] has called the inner world of music. This is the new way of thinking that we write about. Knowing through feeling deserves greater attention in formalized education. Composing draws attention to that type of knowing.
Q: Minds on Music makes a case for more emphasis on the process of composing rather than on the finished product. Why is that important for young composers?

First, we make the case that both process and product are important in the study of composition. We simply suggest that focusing on helping students develop their capacities of intention, expressivity and artistic craftsmanship will result in more musically expressive and satisfying products.

We believe that this rebalancing of attention between process and product is important because it allows young composers to explore music’s expressive potential as they learn about themselves as composers and as they acquire technical skills. Too much emphasis on product can lead to teacher-defined products instead of works that express what the children are feeling. Composing does not start with filling in the blanks on some form. True composition must start with an idea, an emotion that has meaning for the composer and that the composer chooses to express in sound.

Student ownership is key. Teacher can offer “instruction.” We talk about creating “compositional etudes” which are pieces designed for exploring concepts and techniques.

“Compositions” are more defined by the composer, and the teacher is there to assist, answer questions and be a resource.

Q: What would you say to a music educator who is nervous about trying composition with their students or who can’t figure out a way work it in to a lesson plan?

Our book has an entire chapter devoted to helping teachers plan composition lessons that fit their students, in their classroom, with whatever tools and resources are available because we know that teaching composition can be daunting. Most teachers are accustomed to working towards a defined end. They have a finished score that is being prepared for performance or a recording that serves as the basis of a listening lesson.

The challenge in teaching composition is that only the composer knows what the music will sound like in the end-–and even the composer’s vision may change and evolve throughout the process of composing. Teachers need to trust that their students know more and can do much more than we usually allow. Young composers just need the opportunity and time to work on things and a teacher who is willing to listen to their questions and provide support. (Notice that we said “support” – not “answers.”)

Q: Your book offers guidance on teaching composing for different age groups. What are the challenges and rewards for each age group?

Elementary – exploring the wonder of sound, discovering the relationship between sound and feeling and the power of controlling that relationship.

Middle school – beginning to find their personal style and compositional voice while acknowledging the personal satisfaction composition can provide.

High school – realizing that music is a powerful tool for shaping, reflecting and inviting sonic meaning making. This often enables them to make strong personal statements to their listening world and to use music as a tool for cultural literacy and social change.

Q: Basic question here. Could you tell us how the book came to be, how you came to collaborate on it?

This is the hardest question! We began presenting workshops and talking to teachers and discovered hesitancy and uncertainty in relation to teaching composition. Many teachers hadn’t been exposed to techniques for leading composition study and were unsure of where to begin. (Formal study in composition is not always required for teacher certification.) This signaled the need for a resource. We have been friends and colleagues for many years. Since we had both taught school-based composition and undertaken research studying the processes and products of young composers, we thought we’d tackle the project.

Q: One of the most intriguing quotes in the book is “The composition teacher’s challenge is to help children find a balance between thinking in music and thinking about music.” Could you elaborate on that?

“Thinking about music” tends to get a great deal of attention in music classrooms and rehearsal halls. It relates to our teacher training in music theory and history. We invite our students to learn to identify how music is put together, what happens at various times, and how to draw connections between those events.

What is perhaps given less attention is the ability to “think in music.” Children need to be invited to imagine sound, to hear music inside their heads, and to bring that music out. This parallels what they do with words as they can imagine words and speak to others to share the kinds of knowledge that is well-suited for words. We want to suggest that some ways of knowing are best suited for the sounds of music and we want to invite every child to learn to think, feel, and know in that way (in addition to all the other ways that they know) about themselves, others, and the world in which they live.

Q: Who is the audience for your book? Would it work as well for beginning teachers as seasoned music educators?

Our text is designed for anyone who loves music and works with PreK-12 students. We hope that new teachers can use this text to develop a foundation for teaching music composition, but we also believe that it will be a valuable resource for currently practicing teachers. The text provides a rationale for teaching composition, an overview of what we know from research investigating the world of young composers, and guidance for teachers who wish to plan and assess work in composition units, lessons or activities. Further, the book contains suggestions for establishing a community of composers within schools and has chapters addressing the specific needs of young composers in grades PK-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and 9-12.

Q: Are there any other topics you would like to address?

I think another important question is: “Why should every music teacher include composition within the curriculum they lead?”

Every child should have to experience composing because it is something humans do. Not only do we “do” music in the sense of performing it or listening to it, but humans make up music of their own. That act of creation is valued in most societies across time and cultures. Imagine a society that taught children to read, but not how to create stories, poems, letters of their own. A musical education that does not value children’s potentials in sound – their ability to create songs and pieces uniquely their own – is similarly less than complete.

Additionally, composing inherently involves decision-making. Students find it empowering to make choices. It is even more powerful when their choices are valued by others. Most composers probably got their start because someone attached some importance to the choices they made and to what they created. Children respond to that type of attention as well.

 —Roz Fehr, October 1, 2009. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education