For the past six months, I have been working on a new resource to help piano teachers compose and improvise with their students. I am going to give you the full scoop on the new resource soon, but I wanted to introduce the resource with this article discussing how composition can be used in the private piano lesson. Update: the new “Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano” eBook is now available here in the Shop!
There are many challenges to having piano students compose. For example, teachers might feel that:
- I don’t have time in the lesson to teach composition.
- I don’t know how to teach composition.
- I don’t know how to give a composition assignment.
- My students don’t understand how to compose a good melody.
- My students are overwhelmed at the idea of composing their own music.
Despite these challenges (yes, I feel them too), I have enjoyed having my students compose their own pieces for many years now. Here is how I incorporate composition in my lessons:
- I do not have every student composing a piece all of the time. We do it now-and-then, as a temporary replacement or an addition to the theory assignment.
- Some students do not enjoy composition. I don’t compose very often with those students.
- Some students LOVE composition! I compose often with those students.
Most students need a lot of help with their first composition. After that, the process becomes easier as the student becomes more independent.
Getting started is the hardest part. Most students will become completely overwhelmed and paralyzed if you tell them, “Start composing your own piece this week.” This problem occurs when the assignment is too broad, giving the student no idea for how to start. (Stay tuned to hear more about my solution to this problem when I announce my new resource mentioned earlier.) Update: the new “Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano” eBook is now available here in the Shop!
Once the student has the piece started, things become easier.
We usually only spent 3-5 minutes during the lesson on the composition. At the lesson, I check over their work, answer any questions, and perhaps make a suggestion for what to work on next. Most of the work is completed at home.
Each week, students add a few measures. I allow students write out the composition using their own invented notation at first if desired. Most students use traditional staff paper.
At the lesson, I admire their work and offer suggestions. I don’t dictate the composition: I instead offer options and let them decide. I suggest that we figure out the time signature and add barlines. I suggest that we should let the performer know what fingering and dynamics they should use, and whether the melody should be staccato or legato. I suggest that we use AB or ABA form, or that they compose a through-composed piece that tells a story.
Pieces can be very short. A good rule of thumb is to allow students to compose pieces that are comparable in length and difficulty to their current playing level or one level below that.
When the piece is finished, I borrow the paper(s) and input the piece into Finale. Older students can notate their pieces themselves using the free Finale Notepad or something similar. I also assign students to draw their own illustrations. Later, I scan the illustration and put the picture file directly into Finale. Then, I save the Finale file as a pdf and email it to parents to keep.
Sometimes, I record the student playing their piece on the piano.
Here is an example of a piece my student composed and illustrated:
On the coffee table in my living room / waiting room area, I have a binder of student compositions on display for parents/students to admire.
There are many benefits to having students compose their own pieces, even when the outcome does not sound like Mozart. :) Composing music is a great way for students to bring more creativity to their music study. Through the composing process, students gain a greater appreciation for the work of composers. They also learn the rules of notation and the elements of a good composition. My favorite part is seeing their individuality shine through their compositions!