What To Do When Teaching Student Composers With No Rhythm

How to work with student composers with no rhythm | composecreate.com

You are teaching student composers and Pete comes into the lesson and excitedly says, “Mrs. S, I made up a song this week!” Of course you are going to jump up and down with him and tell him how much you want to hear it! (Yes, you should listen to his piece first. He won’t think of anything else until he gets it out.) So, he plays his pulseless piece and you give him the appropriate high five comments, finding something positive to compliment and says, “I want to send it into the composition contest! Will you help me write it down?”


You were hoping he wouldn’t ask that! And I’m not kidding when I said his piece was pulseless.

So…if you have had this experience, this question from Lisa will resonate:

How do you help a student establish a time signature when their composition seems to have no sense of pulse?

This is a difficult question, but Lisa has actually hit on the part of the answer in her question! While it is true that there are some pieces of music that are intentionally pulseless, most music students really want their music to be memorable, toe tapping, brilliant, or audience pleasing. And you need a pulse to be most of those things.

Student Composers With No Rhythm Can Learn Rhythm

So as you are writing down the composition (and as you write down any composition for that matter), think of this as a teaching opportunity.  When teaching student composers, remember that mo grade school teacher will allow their student to submit a essay to a writing composition if it contains obvious errors in spelling or debatably awkward sentences. She will use this as an opportunity to help the student see how to improve their essay before sending it in. If they don’t want to improve it, then I know of great teachers who allow them to submit their essay anyway and learn that the winners are typically those that allow others to help them improve.

It’s the same way with teaching composition. Just because you are a piano teacher and not a composer, doesn’t mean you don’t have valuable tips to teach your student about composition.

Play It Back With Rhythm

As you are writing down their composition, play it back to them with a little more rhythm. Maybe if they hold a few notes longer or make a few note shorter, a pulse and meter will emerge. Usually, when teaching student composers and a teacher plays something back to a student with a slight variation in rhythm, the student will respond positively to the change (if they even notice at all. They might just start playing it the way you played it and think that’s the way they’ve been playing it the whole time).

Write it Down Anyway and Revisit It

If they are resistant to any suggestions, you can also write down what they have, writing in the crazily changing meters as you see them. Then, set it aside (I usually take several weeks to write a composition down because we need to do other things in the lesson) and take opportunity with the very next piece to show them that the meter stays the same throughout most if not all the piece. Then, do the same with the next piece. Then the next. After that, revisit the piece and suggest:

You know, in every composition that I’ve seen win a contest, the meters is pretty consistent throughout the piece. What about if we tried this meter?

[Now go back and play it with rhythm again as I suggested before.]

Even if the don’t think you know a lick about composition, they’re probably more apt to think that you at least know a little bit about the people who have won the music composition awards. Sometimes merely framing the changes as “a better chance to win” is just what they need to be open to your instruction.

Make Rhythm Learning Fun

For many students, it’s way too hard to learn and become proficient at rhythm when they are also being asked to read notes! As you are teaching student composers, pull rhythms independent from other elements makes it much easier to grasp and conquer! So, continue to work with these students on rhythm outside the context of composing and learning to read music. Rhythm Menagerie and Rhythm Manipulations do this for you in a fun and engaging way! Do your students a favor and check them both out today. With diligent practice, these pulseless students will not be pulseless for long.

In The End, This is Most Important About Teaching All Student Composers

In the end, you need to remember that when teaching student composers, you never want to kill the love of creating in a child. So, if you sense at all that what you are doing is discouraging them, then don’t do it. You can find other ways of teaching them about pulse and meter without making it about their personal creation.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll be the next John Cage.

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