Composing Difficult Rhythms

I wanted to revive the Composition Corner Q & A segment since I’m getting all kinds of questions via email and Facebook, especially about composing difficult rhythms for students who can create them but not read them.  Recently, Becky asked me on the ComposeCreate FB page:

I just finished working with my students and submitting their compositions to our state composition festival (Indiana). Three of my elementary students composed pieces where I had to help them with their more complex rhythm (and boy – some of the rhythms were indeed complex!). My question is, in your opinion, should I have encouraged them to stick with only rhythms they could notate?

Becky, let me first congratulate you on helping your students compose and notate their compositions.  I am quite sure that they are much more interested in piano than ever before since they are not only performers, but composers of their own music now!  You are developing life long musicians when you encourage them to make the piano and music their own!

Composing difficult rhythms | composecreate.comIn answer to your question, we know that kids can feel and “do” rhythms much more complicated than they can notate, so it’s great to just notate what they have written yourself, show them what their rhythm looks like (they’ll be amazed), and NOT ask them to read it. That’s why I don’t encourage my students to notate their compositions when they are young and am very careful to help them only as they are ready. See this question on notating compositions.

That said, the phrase you used “rhythms were indeed complex” might be an indication that they could use some help in developing their ideas to be congruent through their piece. If they have one complex rhythm that’s repeated, that’s one thing, but if they are using a variety of “unique” rhythms, that’s probably a sign that their piece needs some work in developing just one or two rhythmic and ideas so that the piece has flow. However, you have to be careful how you approach the student especially if they bring in their piece already completed and don’t seem to want to change anything.  See this article: What Do You Want Me to Do?

Many times, if a student brings me a piece that has multiple issues (too much material, not enough repetition, rhythms that have no flow, etc.), then I’ll just pick 1 thing to help them improve and leave the rest.  Make sure that you “find something positive” and then you might say, “You know, I think that you could just tweak this a little so that it sticks in people’s minds even more!”  Then, you can talk about how people need repetition (shift the focus vs. how bad their piece may sound) in order to remember a good idea.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask about teaching composition? Questions about composing difficult rhythms?  Email me and I’ll be happy to help!

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