When Students Compose, They “Synthesize All of the Elements of Music with a Creative Purpose”

When Students Compose Their Own Music, They “Synthesize All of the Elements of Music with a Creative Purpose”

Daniel Deutsch, is a NAfME Lowell Mason Fellow, who has been honored for his work as a champion of student composition instruction. At the 2014 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Nashville he will present, “Strategies for Mentoring Young Composers.”

He has a simple message: 

“When students learn to compose music,  it empowers them.”

Deutsch says: “Composition gives students the feeling of artistic freedom and power.  One of my fifth-grade composers said, “Composing my own music was like being the President!”  A classmate added, “When I play my own music, my soul is released.  I can fly.  I’m special.” Another expressed the feeling of creative power like this:  “I felt I could create anything: the sound of rain, the roar of a tiger, the squawk of a bird. Composing brought out my imagination and made me more creative.” 

He says, “Because most of us learned composition in theory class, there is a natural tendency to teach composition as a set of theory exercises, using narrowly prescribed formulas.  In my opinion, it is better to start with idea, expression, and emotion.  “How does it feel to score a goal in soccer?  Let me hear that in your musical idea!” 

“With a prompt like that, the student’s response is likely to have character and commitment.  Expressing emotions in compositions imbues the student’s work with vitality and personality.  Students learn that even ‘negative’ emotions like sorrow and anger can be channeled into works of musical beauty,”  Deutsch says.

“One student believes, “Composing this piece was my anger management for the year!”  Of course, in order to develop as composers, students also need technical and theoretical instruction, and I will include much of that in my Nashville session.  But if the compositional technique is serving the emotional core of the music, it is much more effective,” he says.

Daniel Deutsch with Lowell Mason Fellow medal on stage
Daniel Deutsch


He believes, “Parents deeply appreciate the way their children’s compositions allow them to shine when performing original music that expresses their unique character.  They value the way composition weaves together artistic, intellectual, and emotional strands.  Parents feel rightly proud when their child performs second clarinet in the band, but imagine how they feel when the same child performs an original composition dedicated to a recently deceased grandparent.

“Sometimes you can guess the identity of the composer by the personality of the piece, but sometimes hidden facets of character are revealed, like the tender elegy of a sturdy athlete, or the eloquent grandeur of a painfully shy student.” 

The parent of two young composers wrote, “we, the parents, have learned more about our children through their work in composition.”


“Strategies for Mentoring Young Composers.”

He says his In-Service Conference session “will demonstrate proven strategies for helping students of all levels to develop as composers and improvisers, with an emphasis on creative self-expression.

“I  will begin by using two beautiful songs written by kindergarteners to show that composition does not need to be the culmination of years of studying music theory.  Instead, this approach builds on the natural “songfulness” of students, helping them to acquire the skills they need as they grow as composers.

“Using recordings of student-teacher dialogue and slides of student manuscripts, I’ll demonstrate feedback techniques and mentoring that help the students as they progress from stage to stage in their compositional process.

The session will offer specific troubleshooting suggestions for teachers:

  • How to facilitate creativity and originality
  • How to help the student whose ideas are disorganized
  • How to help the student whose ideas are too repetitive
  • How to help the student who is “stuck”
  • How to tailor instruction to the unique needs of your students

The strategies work in instrumental, vocal, general music, and theory classes,” Deutsch says.


Roz Fehr,  May 16, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)