Looking back at my own musical upbringing, I was never the poster child of someone even remotely comfortable with improvisation and composition. At the time, I was very rigid with how I viewed music. I read the music on the page, and sang it. That was that. Whenever I was asked to come “off of the page,” I would really start to stress out.
As I began to think of my own classroom, and the curriculum I employ, I knew I had to be aware of my own tendencies to avoid composition and improvisation in order to make sure that my students were given the best I could give them.
My first step towards having students create compositions is having them notate the rhythm of a song they already know using popsicle sticks. While this is not composition by any means, I believe it is a low-stakes way to get students involved in the process of writing music down. Once we’ve practiced this activity for a couple of different songs (I usually do a mix of partner and solo), I move on into having students create their own choices to begin the path towards composition.
Once students are able to feel comfortable and successful in being able to write down a song they already know, I then work on having them take the next step into making their own choices. One of my favorite things I’ve used for this step is having students create a rhythmic burger composition. Not only does this help reinforce form, it is also an easy next step into students creating their own compositions. AND it can easily be adjusted for different ages and abilities by changing the form of the piece (I currently have ABA, ABABA, and ABACA).
I like using this activity for a couple of reasons: Firstly, it is low-stakes and only involves rhythm. Students are able to be successful with relatively low effort on their part. I’ve found that by having more frequent activities like this allow students to build on their compositional abilities with little to no “freak outs” on the part of my students.
When it comes to my older kids, one of my favorite projects is an ostinato composition project that allows students to experiment with four types of ostinato in a fairly easy way! I’ve written out an outline of the structure I usually use for this process at the link below, but the general process starts with students learning the cup song to a known song and then extending that to perform their own parodies with ostinato embellishments!
I’ve been very impressed with the performances of my students each time I have done this project, and I am such a big fan about how students tend to create their own points of extension, which is AWESOME for differentiation!
I love giving students the opportunity to create their own music, and to take ownership in the music classroom. However, I know that I have many students, like me, that are uncomfortable with the notion of starting with nothing and making something new. By guiding students to take smaller steps, I believe we are able to increase student confidence and performance on these types of activities, which is win-win for sure!
I talked more in-depth about these composition resources and lessons in Midweek Check-In #2! If you are interested in learning more about these, you can find the resources, as well as a recording of the live event by checking out the show notes at the link above!
Bryson Tarbet is the music educator and blogger behind That Music Teacher.