How Much is Too Much Help for Composing Students?

A teacher recently sent me this question about how much is “too much” help in assisting an elementary student in a competition contest. I thought I’d share what I shared with her in case it might help you.

One of my elementary piano students who is in second grade and is not yet very secure with note names or rhythms. She is competing in a competition program and I’m not sure how much help I can legally give her. The competition theme is something that she “believes in, dreams of, or inspires her.”

Do you have any ideas, or could you point me in the right direction, or what I can do with my young student during her lesson? What is legally “guiding” her and what is not? Maybe I’m “overthinking” this!

Thanks so much for your questions. There are a number nuts and bolts articles on the blog about teaching composition (called Composition Corner), so let me first direct you to the Composition Corner. Note especially the Index of Composition Corner Posts article this article especially as it indexes some of the earlier posts that direct teachers to articles about weaknesses of students and very specific ways to help them with this weaknesses.

How Much Help Depends on the Age

I think with a child so small, you really must help them, so don’t worry too much about how much help is too much help for composing students when they are that young. Of course, you don’t want to put “words in their mouth,” but they’ll need help with all kinds of things and this is a perfect opportunity to talk about form, structure, motives, rhymes, rhythms, etc.

Ask Students Questions

Specific to your student, I’d first start by asking her what kind of dreams she has (the concept of “believes in, dreams of, or inspires her” is too abstract for her age anyway. Then, I’d definitely suggest certain ways of making those sounds. Does she just like dreaming in general (or can’t think of anything specific), then just start her on the black keys and have her improvise “dreaming music.” Or you could introduce her to the whole tone scale and do the same thing. As you improvise with her (use the many available black key improvisations), you can stop her when you hear a great motive and say, “Hey, that’s a cool idea! Let’s take the small idea and repeat it a few times so that your audience knows it’s important!”

Then you might say, “What words could we sing with this?” The concept of lyrics comes very naturally to some students and NOT naturally to others, so play this by ear! There’s nothing wrong with creating a song without lyrics.

Most students this age are not going to write long and complicated pieces of course, so I wouldn’t worry much about exploring a B section and large scale form. But as we know, melodies also have form, so I’d explore the concept of an a, a, b, a structure in her melody if she tends to repeat things over and over OR tends to have too much material. Both problems are a sign of lack of form. By all means help her get started with finding a “b” idea if she doesn’t understand. Suggest 4-5 ideas and have her try one that she lacks. Chances are, she won’t remember what you play, but can get started with your idea and it will become hers as she explores it.

Remember How Little They Know

A lot of teachers worry about how much they should help a student. My opinion is that many student so young doesn’t have the tools yet to put together a good composition and it’s our job to give them those tools. As long as they are taking the concepts that you are presenting and then putting their own “musical” words to it, I think it’s just fine. Think of it like a cooking competition. You wouldn’t leave a child in a kitchen all by themselves, would you? They might know that a cake needs flour and sugar, but wouldn’t even be expected to have a clue that there needs to be a little baking powder and baking soda. They probably don’t even know what those are! Our job as a teacher is to make them aware of these “ingredients” and how put something together into something that tastes good.

And of course, you should definitely help them write it down (as a matter of fact, you’ll be writing most of it down…just ask a few questions now and then to help reinforce theory. Example: “What is that note that you start on?” “Do you think these notes are quarter or half notes?” Would you like this to be forte or piano?” etc.) You might also be interested in these articles, “Do You Have Students Use Notation Programs?” and ‘Should I Simplify My Students Complicated Rhythms into Something With Which They Are Familiar?”

What other questions come to mind about teaching composition and how much help is too much help for composing students? I’d be happy to try to answer these.

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