Thoughts on Teaching Composition with Carol Klose

I am thrilled that there is finally a resource book for teachers on teaching composition to piano students!  Carol Klose has written Piano Teacher’s Guide to Creative Composition and it contains a great list ideas and tips on teaching composition to our students.  I recently interviewed Carol Klose about her book at which time she also gave a number of tips for working with our students and their creations.  Here is that interview:

Tell us more about how piano teachers will benefit from using Carol Klose’s book.

Piano Teacher's Guide to Creative Composition by Carol KloseMy new book, Piano Teacher’s Guide to Creative Composition, is ideal for teachers who would like to do more with composition in their lessons, but feel they don’t have enough lesson time, or feel they need a boost of confidence in getting started. Unlike many of the fine student composition workbooks on the market, this book is meant for teachers, which is what makes it so unique. The book offers specific suggestions and numerous examples that teachers can tailor to their own situation. The ideas are also perfect for use in summer composition clasees.

Some of the features that teachers will find useful are:

  • Initiating inspiration – how to jump-start a creative idea
  • Preparing students for producing unusual sounds on the piano that will lead them to explore their creativity in out-of-the-box ways
  • Simplifying the development of a composition by mapping it out with a graph
  • Suggested lesson plans that use a mere 5-10 minutes of weekly lesson time
  • An extensive list of compositional techniques called “The Composer’s Toolbox”
  • Several suggestions on how to refine a composition, including fixing awkward melodic lines, using motives as building blocks for development, enhancing accompaniment patterns at various levels, tweaking transitions, and finding solutions to too much repetition
  • An Appendix listing references I’ve found invaluable in my teaching of composition.

With what kind of students will Klose’s book help us?

Teachers will find the suggestions in the book helpful not only for students who bring in a composition for the first time, but those who have already composed several pieces in the past.

Many of the ideas in the book are geared to elementary students, but are easily adapted to intermediate and advanced levels, as well as adult students. I use these concepts and procedures for all of my students – even those who compose “nocturnes,” Baroque fantasias, and – dare I say it – “New Age solos”…

Do you think it’s necessary to be a composer to teach composition to students?

Even teachers with little or no composing experience can introduce and foster
composition in their studios using tools already at their disposal:

  • Experience – We have to remember that we already have a tremendous amount of experience in working with compositional techniques in our teaching of performance. We simply have to trust in that experience as we venture forth. The ear of an experienced teacher can pick up on so many things.
  • Praise – Most important is praise, along with an encouraging, positive attitude to keep the motivation going and foster student confidence.
  • Imagination – One must have a willingness to explore all sorts of new ideas with the student. Just let go and let the ideas pour forth.
  • Theory – It is also helpful to have a knowledge of theory basics, in order to help students address harmonic issues.
  • Analysis – One should refresh one’s memory with regard to the many compositional techniques found in standard repertoire. Paying attention to details and seeing them in a new way – both analytical and musical – gives us a fresh approach and understanding of form, interpretation, and detailing that we can pass on to students developing creative ideas.

Teachers often ask me, “How can I judge a composition the student plays for me for the first time?” I try to imagine that I’m hearing a new piece at a repertoire workshop and I listen for its strong points and possible weaknesses. I ask my students leading questions regarding these strengths and weaknesses, so the student thinks he is coming up with solutions rather than I.

Finally, it’s important to try composing and improvising oneself, to experience the challenges students meet, and above all to spark that creativity in ourselves that will rub off on our students. Simply start with a story and find musical ideas that convey the mood or describe events. Play with elements such as melodic ideas, sonorities, rhythms, color chords, clusters, and pedal. When we experience first-hand how much fun it is to create at the piano, our enthusiasm spreads to our students.

Do you include ways to teach composition to the average student or is this just for teachers of serious composition students?

Thoughts on composition by Carol Klose | composecreate.comThe book outlines ideas that can be applied to students of any level and compositional experience. Although it is particularly directed to independent piano teachers of elementary students through intermediate level, the general principles in the book can also be applied to students who are exploring more advanced composition. Whether one is developing non-diatonic motives as building blocks, or simply creating Q-A phrases, there are certain basics that apply to all – average and gifted, elementary and more
advanced.

What would you say to a teacher who doesn’t think he or she has enough time to incorporate composition into the lesson?

It certainly is possible to incorporate composition using just 5 or 10 minutes of weekly lesson time. The key word is: WEEKLY. By allowing the composition to develop BIT BY BIT from week to week, a “finished” composition can be achieved in 6-8 weeks. The secret is to go one step further each week.

I also suggest not writing at the lesson. Not only does writing take time, but it defeats the purpose of creativity, limiting students to notes they know from their method books rather than allowing them to explore the entire keyboard and its possibilities. Instead, I suggest that the student memorize their ideas and code them any way they wish. We can address writing at a special lesson or during the summer.

The lesson plans that appear in my book provide an adaptable template for initiating the creative ideas and building on them gradually, week to week, so that neither student nor teacher is overwhelmed. A graph, described in detail in the book, is the key to visually tracking the development of the composition. With this “map,” assignments are simplified and clear and students see their piece grow week to week.

I use a laptop at my lessons to type all the ideas the student discovers at the lesson, as well as suggestions for the next step at home. This written log becomes the composition portion of the weekly assignment sheet, which I then print out and add to the student’s three-ring binder. Samples of these assignments appear in the book. Imagine how much more a student will recall and respond to specific written details rather than a directive like “Continue on your composition…..”

Can you share a highlight from your experience teaching composition to your students?

There are so many “highlights” – it’s hard to pick one! Every time I see a grin on a student’s face after they’ve played the newest version of their composition, I’m in 7th heaven. Priceless. I remember the junior high student who composed a lovely lyrical piece and used it to play at her parents’ anniversary celebration in church. And another young student who composed and dedicated her piece to her grandparents and played it for them at our Christmas party. Another 8th grader composed a song, with lyrics and piano accompaniment, in honor of the victims of 9/11. She made a CD, recording the ballad in a studio with combo and the student singing with her lovely voice. It was so moving.

Another highlight is when a student breaks out of I-IV-V-I and explores something totally different. I’ve had students compose atonal music, as well as in tone rows, using 7 or 9 pitches instead of the standard 12. We have so much fun creating motivic building blocks from the row and experimenting with a variety of moods, ranges and textures. They love it!

One of my greatest highlights is to see gifted student composers move on in collegiate and professional work and realize their dreams. One of the most notable is a former student, Joe Kinosian (I can mention his name because it is already widely found on the internet). After college, he moved to New York City and continued to write musicals as well as act. This past year, his musical “Murder For Two” played at the Chicago

Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, with 4 extended runs by popular demand. He won the 2011 Jeffrey Award in Chicago for the Best New Musical of the season.

Postscript

I am so grateful for all the joy my students have shared through their compositions. Creativity brings about such a beautiful relationship between student and teacher! We must always remember that, no matter if a composition is 30 seconds long, or is a national or international competition winner, there is no “wrong” composition. Not every piece will be a masterpiece, but EVERY composition is a masterpiece to the student who creates it.

Thank you, Wendy, for the opportunity to share aspects of my book, Piano Teacher’s Guide to Creative Composition. Your blog is an invaluable resource for teachers!

Thank you, Carol Klose for this interview and your helpful insights!

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