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Incorporating Compositional Activities in the Orchestra Rehearsal

Why should we have our students compose?


Composition activities can help students better understand how music is put together and therefore approach playing in a more musical way - identifying motives, phrases, themes, development, sequence, etc.

Through music composition, students have the opportunity to engage their musical imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

The act of composing and the performance of student compositions can be highly motivational. Students develop a sense of pride and ownership in the activity unlike that experienced when performing sheet music.

Students who compose develop musical independence. The process of accurately notating a musical idea helps foster a greater understanding of the music notation system. In the area of language learning, research has demonstrated that writing enhances reading skill. The same is likely true in music, although we still need a body of research to verify.

Composing music can help students develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the art form.

Our profession has recognized the importance of incorporating compostional activities into the curriculum with the publication of the National Standards in 1994. Standard no. 4 reads "Compose and arrange music within specified guidelines."

Click here to read some great supporting statements from the the music education literature on the importance of incorporating compositional activities in the curriculum.

It is easy to talk about "WHY" we should have students compose. The benefits seem very obvious. It is more challenging, however, to figure out "HOW" to incorporate composition activities into the traditional orchestra rehearsal environment.

What should we have our students compose? Beginning Composition Activities in the Orchestra rehearsal

If you plan on incorporating  composition into your orchestral curriculum, it is important to establish a philosophical base from which to begin. There are obviously many approaches to music composition, but in my opinion some are more effective than others for beginning students of composition. Here are some ideas that I subscribe to; you may not agree with all my ideas, but if my ideas stimulate debate, I believe they are even more effective.

Craft Oriented Approach

The majority view of creativity among scholars is that it is a process which involves both "inspiration" and "perspiration". For music educators, this statement indicates that while we may be able to teach our students how to work with a musical idea (perspiration), we cannot teach them how to become "inspired" with a musical idea. Fortunately, a large body of research exists which indicates our students have plenty of generative musical ideas. We can teach our students the rational aspects of musical creativity but not the irrational. We must therefore concentrate our efforts on teaching the craft of composition in the classroom. Compositional activities which attempt to develop "creativity" without addressing the rational aspects of composing may not be successful for developing compositional skill. As Bridges (1996) states, "it is impossible to be creative without some control of materials, otherwise we have nothing except mindless doodling," and as Hunter (1994) writes, "Creativity without craft means nothing" (Rosevear, 1996, p. 17). Regelski (1986) writes, "While...composition can also be used to ‘teach creativity,’ this end is best approached as a natural by-product of composition rather than the focus of such instruction, if only because no one has much of an idea what creativity is. At best, starting out to teach an unknown leads to all kinds of hit-or-miss results; at worst, it makes a mockery of the craft of composition." (Regelski, 1986, p. 42).

Fortunately, in my own experience working with students, I have NEVER met a student who did not have a musical idea. And if you think about the great composers and the great compositions, very little of composing is about the musical idea itself. It is about DEVELOPMENT of the idea. Think of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with that tiny little rhythmic motive, or Brahms Second Symphony with the D-C#-D motive. Were Beethoven and Brahms creative? Of course they were. But they also spent many years learning the craft of composing - and without the craft they would never have become great composers.
 

Structural Elements

Students benefit from working with structural elements such as rhythm, scales, chords, motives, phrases, melody, repetition, variation, dynamics, texture, timbre, and form to craft a composition. The teacher of beginners should make every composition assignment an exercise in learning to control and manipulate some structural element of music.
 

Tonally Based

Call me traditional, but it seems to me that most of the music our students listen to, and even most of the music we play in orchestra is still based on tonal principles. If this is the case, then beginning composition activities should relate to what our students know about music and they should be tonal. Sure, there is a time and a place for atonal composition - but if a student doesn't understand the rules and principles of tonality how can they break the rules?

In my experience, composition activities that are "atonal" or aleatoric tend to devalue the craft of composing and do very little to develop students' compositional skill. Sometimes these activities can be very "fun" and sometimes we can use them to teach about the structual elements - but approach with caution.
 

Aurally Based

Composition is about sound, not dots on paper. Many students are confused about this concept. If you hand them a sheet of manuscript paper they will immediately start writing dots on it, and then discover later what it sounds like - if they can even figure out how to play it accurately. Of course advanced composers are capable of hearing the music in their mind  and can write it down without the assistance of an instrument - but beginners rarely have the "audiation" skills to hear the music in their mind. MUSIC IS AN AURAL PHENOMENON. The fact that so many students think that composing is about writing dots on paper emphasizes the point that we place too much emphasis in our curricula on reading sheet music. In fact, the only reason we write music down at all is just to preserve it accurately and/or make it available to other musicians. In beginning composition activities the rule should be: Play it first, come up with something you like - then write it down as the final step.

Limit the Parameters

It is important to put some limitations on the compositional activity so the student can be freed to be creative. Here are three examples of compositional assignments teachers can give students:

EXAMPLE 1: Please compose a melody.
EXAMPLE 2: Please compose a 16 bar melody in 4/4 time for your instrument.
EXAMPLE 3: Please compose a 16 bar melody in 4/4 time for your instrument (violin). Start on the note D, and end on D, and use only the notes of the D major scale. The lowest note should be open D string, and the highest note A on the E string.

Example 3 will result in the most focused products and therefore, the most creative responses. The more specific the teacher is in their assignment, the easier it is for students to complete the task.

A number of music educators support limiting the parameters in beginning composition activities. Brophy (1996) writes:
 

Although you must set a number of parameters in the beginning, over time students become quite comfortable with the process of composing and can create works of increasing sophistication (Brophy, 1996, pp. 15, 17).


Hickey (1997) also writes about limiting compositional parameters for beginning students:
 

Deciding what kind of compostional parameters to give to students will depend upon the composing experience they have had. A teacher might begin with very strict compositional requirements and templates and, eventually, wean students from these by encouraging them toward more free composition (Hickey, 1997, pp. 20-21).


One of my favorite quotes supporting a guided composition approach which sets parameters for students to compose within is found in the writings of Stravinsky (1970):
 

A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy. The effects it produces may accidentally amuse but are not capable of being repeated. I cannot conceive of a fantasy that is repeated, for it can be repeated only to its detriment...The creator’s function is to sift the elements he receives from her [the imagination], for human activity must impose limits on itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free...If everything is permissable to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile...I have no use for theoretic freedom. Let me have something finite, definite—matter that can lend itself to my operation only insofar as it is  commensurate with my possibilities. And such matter presents itself to me together with its limitations. I must in turn impose mine upon it. So here we are, whether we like it or not, in the realm of necessity. And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformally widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.
I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit (Stravinsky, 1970. pp. 85-87).


A composer of Stravinsky’s development and skill obviously has the ability to limit his own parameters, to create a framework within which to compose. The teacher of the compositional novice, however, has the responsibility of providing the parameters and framework for the student. By providing beginning composition students with a rhythmic or tonal framework, students will be freed to use their imaginations in a more meaningful way and be able to develop a conceptual understanding of the basic properties of melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and form.
 

 

Base on Existing Musical Material

It is always easier to compose a new piece as an extension of something that already exists, be it a theme, a bass line, a chord progression, or a form.
 

Theme and Variation Activities

Start with a given theme.
Improvise using chord tones.
Keep it simple and gradually increase complexity.
Emphasize the importance of balance between repetition and variation.
 

Example 1 - A Paris
* Use a simple folk song as theme.
* Teach them the theme.
* Teach them the chords.
* Play theme substituting chord tones.
* Quarter note/ Eighth note ornamentation of theme using chord tones.
* Quarter note ornamentation with passing tones.
* Eighth note ornamentation.
* Modal variation - parallel minor.
* Figural Variation, Meter Variation, Tempo Variation, Character Variation, Melodic Variation
* Arrange student variations together to create new orchestral work—"150 Variations on a French Folk Song!"
 
 

12-Bar Blues Activities


* 12-bar blues in D
* Use a background - synth, CD, BIAB, Aebersold, etc. (I recommend straight 8ths, not swing!)
* Create a 1-bar rhythmic pattern (riff or motive).
* Make sure they write it down correctly.
* Create a 2-bar pattern.
* Retrograde the patterns to create new rhythms.
* Set riffs to pitches of D7 chord or D minor pentatonic.
* The rule is you need to be able to play it on your instrument!
* Try playing the riffs with pitches of the G7 and A7 chords.
* Create a melodic variation of original melody. Keep the rhythm of the riff exactly the same, while varying the pitches.
* Have students teach their riffs to other students (They can play their own riffs with amazing expression!)
* Arrange student riffs and variations and create a new orchestral work, with or without background.
 

Trio - Chamber Music Activities

* Start by writing a rhythmic motive - one measure long.
* Write a second one-measure rhythmic phrase.
* Use inversion to create two more one measure patterns.
* Try combining patterns, use repetition, and create 4 and 8 measure phrases.
* Students can teach patterns to class, It can become a rhythmic dictation lesson etc.
* Give students a worksheet with a simple chord progression (I-IV-V). Ask them to use chord tones (arpeggios) and set their rhythmic phrase to the pitches (Play first, then write it down!)
* Add a bass line - demonstrate different types of bass lines - two beat, 4 beat, one note per bar, or show them how they can make the bass line related to other part by using a rhythmic idea from the other line. They can write the bass line in their clef.
* Add a melody above the middle and bass that uses scale as well as arpeggiation.
* These pieces can become performable chamber music works
 
 
 

Atonal Approaches

* May be based on Special effects sounds - tremolo, snap pizz, glissandi, harmonics, bowing behind bridge, col legno, ricochet, trill, fingered tremolo, tapping on instrument.
* Traditional or Invented notation can be used, or piece may never be written down.
* Programmatic - music attempts to depict a non-musical event (e.g. mosquito flying through chalkboard).
* Use a visual stimulus such as a movie (nature video, horror movie, etc) or a picture or even the wall in the classroom.
* Students may conduct and control musical events through gestures.
* Can be a great way to introduce students to modern compositional ideas.
* WARNING! Creativity without craft means nothing. Avoid the  "creative" free for all.

How much time will this take?
* 12-bar blues- 15 minutes in the middle of four rehearsals (60 minutes).
* A Paris - Each variation took about an average of 40 minutes.
* Trio - Most students finished a 16-bar trio in four 50-minute classes

Materials you will need
* Worksheets (much better than manuscript paper)
* Pencils
* Something to write on
* Instruments
* Overhead projector with a transparency of the worksheet

Other things to remember:
* A composition project should culminate in some type of performance.
* Everyone has musical ideas. We just have to learn how to work with them.
* Composition is only part inspiration.  Most composers have perspiration as well as inspiration.
* Composers don't operate in a vacuum. It is important to learn the "rules and principles" of traditional composition.
* It might not work perfectly the first time you try it. Don’t give up.


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