Help Student Composers: Find Something Positive to Say

This is the second article in the Composition Corner series in which we discuss tips on working with students on composition.  See What Do You Want Me to Do? Today’s tip concerns what to do when a student brings material they have prepared on their own as opposed to a composition assignment that you might have given them.  More often than not, this is what most teachers face: “Mrs. Stevens, I made up my own song!  Listen to this!”

Tip #2 – Find something positive.

This is something all great music teachers do regularly.  In the same way that a teacher can find one good thing in almost any performance, a teacher can usually find one good thing in a music composition.  I think we often forget though that in these moments where we mention something positive, we can also help student composers by teaching them about additional compositional techniques.

I like to look for something in the following areas on which to comment:

1.  Form: Either the form of the piece or the smaller form of the melody (like a, a, b, a).
Drawing attention to where the student has created “relief” for the ears by altering an established pattern or drawing attention to where the student has created “white space” are two important composing techniques to which I like to give special attention.  Many students have problems knowing when to stop, so I like to comment if a student has used variation in their repeats effectively and has ended their piece at an appropriate length.
2.  Rhythm: A catchy rhythm or a rhythm that is repeated effectively are great things to mention.
3.  Melody: Step wise motion is so important in a good melody.  Leaps that are left in the opposite direction from which they were approached are effective as well.  Effective use of repeated notes is often overlooked, but useful.  A good apex should always be mentioned!
4.  Articulation: Though not foundational to the shape of a good melody, I like to talk about how it gives personality to a motive.

Here’s an example of how you might find something positive in a rather mundane composition .  Imagine your student comes in to play this composition for you:

Help student composers: find something positive to say |

Examples of Helping Student Composers by Finding Something Positive to Say

I think our gut instinct might be to say something dismissive like, “Oh, that’s nice.” or “Hmmm…interesting.”   But, here’s a way you can approach something like this and teach something about good compositional techniques at the same time:

I like the way you use so many steps!  Did you know that a good melody usually uses a lot of steps with just a few skips or leaps?
I like the way you used repeated notes at the end.  It sort of gives the ear a break from all the steps and makes me really listen at the end.”

In both cases, you are commenting on something positive in their melody AND teaching them something that they can use in their next composition.  Students will remember the positive things that you say as long as they are genuine and applicable.

These are just 2 tips to remember in working with your students.  When you feel unable or unqualified to teach anything about composition, please trust your instincts!  The same thing that makes you a good musician, can enable you to give constructive comments to your student.  You know what is a beautiful melody, you know when something is too repetitive.  You know when something is rhythmically interesting…you know because you are a musician! Learning a few things about WHY you know these things will enable you to be an even better teacher of composition to your students. So, stay tuned!  I’ll help where I can.

If you have questions about teaching composition and how to help student composers, please contact me and I will try to answer these in a future blog post.

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