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!