Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Middle School Composition: Ideas and Inspirations

  For last few weeks I have been teaching a two hour music composition elective to 5 middle school students at Go Like The Wind School in Ann Arbor, MI.  Here are some of the main lesson concepts from each week:

Week 1: (introduction to composition)
     I wanted to challenge the pre-conceived concepts of what composition was supposed to be, so I started the elective by showing them some contemporary scores like these:

  From the first glance they said that the elective was nothing like they thought it would be, and they loved it!  I then simply asked them to create a composition in any way they wanted.  Here is an example of one they came up with, (two girls worked together on this one):

  We then took all the compositions and performed them.  I was amazed at how much ownership the students took in these highly interpretive ideas.  They had to make definitive decisions about timing, dynamics, instrumentation, tempo, and mood of the pieces.  During the performances they developed very strong ideas about how the piece should go.  We had to do multiple passes to "get it right" in the eyes of the composers.  I suggested they add a cover page to the composition defining some of these ideas.  This would help guide future performances.

Week 2: All about interpretation!
   I asked them to compose another type of interpretive composition. This time there was to be no notation, only an outline of the rules for the performers to follow.  The only restriction was that they needed at least five rules.  Here is one example of what they came up with:

Music Project by Talyor 
Instruments needed: piano, drum kit, guitar, ride cymbal, shaker and vocals
4 measures long, 4 beats per measure.
Piano: use only the notes between middle C and 2 octaves below it.
Drum kit:  only use the bass drum, floor tom, hi hat, crash cymbal and snare drum.
Vocals: the song must contain the word “play” and  “summer”.
Make measure 1 sound like a nice hot sunny day.
Make measure 2 sound like a waterfall with big fish trying to swim up it.
Make measure 3 a piano solo (any thing he/she wants to do)
Make measure 4 sound like a book being opened flipped though and then closed.
    I thought it was interesting how most of the students thought it was important to define the beat structure and measures.  This piece again, requires lots of decisions to be made by the performers and is open to lots of interpretation.  I love how, in the performance, the concept of a measure takes on a whole new dynamic in this piece.

Week 3&4: Real World Scenario 
  By now the students all consider themselves composers in their own right, so it seemed like the perfect time to give them some real world scenarios to work with.  I came up with these ideas and handed them out.  They were allowed to work in teams or on their own:

Scenario #1   You have been asked to compose a jingle for a national corporation that helps students get extra help for math.  The company is called Mathletics.  They are looking for a 30 second, (needs to be exact), spot that is lively, spirited, and encourages students to get extra help with their program.  they also want the song to incorporate their telephone number: 1-800-math4me, and their website:  The song must rhyme and be clear and easy to understand.  They need it by 2:45p.m.  All they need is a voice and one other instrument, (guitar, piano, drum, etc.).  If they like it, they will make it national, which could mean thousands of dollars for you.
Scenario #2  An art museum is premiering an installation of the pop art piece by Roy Lichtenstein titled "In The Car".  They want to commission you to compose a piece to be performed live at the unveiling.  There will be many famous people in attendence and they want to set the mood of the painting with your music.  You must research the piece, write a piece of music that fits the mood of the work.  There is no restriction on the time, but there should be specific instructions about when the actual unveiling should happen in conjunction with the music.
Scenario #3  You have been asked by a local museum to write a piece of music that will play for visitors as they walk through an installation about the construction of the Mackinaw Bridge.  They want the piece to reflect the popular musical styles at the time the bridge was being built.  The installation has 3 parts, each of which should be reflected in the music:
1. Ambition, which reflects the great ambition of the people involved in getting the project started
2. Loss, which reflects the loss of life that surrounded the construction.
3. Triumph, which reflects the grand opening of this glorious gateway.

  They had a great time coming up with the music.  I was surprised that in all the scenarios the students chose to use Noteflight to create their compositions. After weeks of great interactive interpretive work, they came back to the more 'standardized' way of  composing.   I actually took it as a great sign that after they spent all their time thinking 'out of the box', and they felt the strongest about their composition skills, they saw the notation programs as the powerful and creative tool that it is.  I am inspired!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lesson guidelines for Elementary Composition Project

Writing a song as part of an all-school collaboration. 

Grades 1-3, (done over the coarse of 4-6 one hour classes.)

1. Brainstorm - Discover what the students want to write a song about, talk about 'creative destruction' and the fact that some good ideas will not be used in the pursuit of the one we all believe in. Teachers role - write ideas down as fast as possible, group them, clarify them, connect them. Whittle it down to one main idea, theme, or story.  
2. Talk about style, mood, dynamics and whatever else you deem important about a composition. Help them to decide as much as possible about how these concepts will apply to their song.  
3. Create a melody through singing. Teachers role - Bring them face to face with all the decisions made thus far and ask them to sing how they think it will go. Listen very intently and catch ideas, play them back on whatever instrument you can relay emotion best with. I like using the guitar.  
4. Discuss the story or message that the students are trying to relate and help them to link the ideas, melodies, and overall structure of the piece. It is important to help them make decisions and commit them.  
5. As you compose the song, record it and play it back. They are their own best critics.  
6. Record the song on a multi track protools sytem with nice mics. Have older students play different instruments on the pieces and then bring in the young ones to overdub the voices. Each class does one song which is on an all school C.D. They perform their song at the spring concert.

I will be posting 6 years worth of these C.D.'s online very soon. Please follow me on Twitter to get the links. Also, please leave comments below.



Elementary Composition?

I was recently asked to complete a survey on my ideas about composition in the elementary classroom. The survey boiled down to one simple question:  

Why do you think composition is important at the elementary level? 
Once a composition is created, the composer is left to decide if it depicts an accurate representation of their OWN idea of music. That thought process is a vital component in the development of a creative, confident, and well rounded musician. When students are left only to 'perform' the ideas (compositions) of others, they become highly skilled at 're-creation' of musical ideas and they are rarely inspired to develop their own personal idea of what music is all about. Do you learn painting only by reproducing the work of great artists? Do you learn to dance only by following the moves of a great dancer? When you speak, are you only saying phrases and sentences that you have learned from great orators? As my two year old son would say...."No, MINE do it!" Sure, it is not "proper", but it is his way of communicating, and it is very effective! (And for all we know, he is channeling Shakespeare)

In the coming weeks, I will be posting 6 years of student compositions on the web. Follow me on twitter to get the links.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Every healthy music community needs a great show....

     Last night I played in a great show.  It was 2 inspired hours of music with 5 friends who all felt the same way I did.  We successfully shared our unique and joyful experience with an appreciative and welcoming audience. New ideas were expressed through the music and caused intense joy that was shared by everyone in the room.  When the show was over, there was no talk of mistakes, missteps, or miscues, only the most creative and exciting moments were reflected upon by everyone in the group.  We hugged each other, we smiled.  And we even made a little money, which went right into paying off our shared creative endeavors.
    This experience is why I play music, and why I feel blessed to do so.  I wish this kind of show on all of my musician friends.....keep playing, practicing, working, and loving what you do!  I also wish this kind of show on all of my music loving friends....keep going to see live music and come ready to share something special with the musicians. Come ready to share your love and passion for good music!
  Last night a healthy music community sat together and feasted on the fruits of creativity and hard work. It was a nourishment that came from the simple organization of space and time, and it goes straight to the soul. We owe it to ourselves to have this experience as often as possible.