Teaching Composition

Teaching Composition

In my studio, the new year marks the beginning of composing season, during which each of my students will write at least one composition. A couple of my students typically will write one or more pieces on their own, but most of my students need some level of guidance and encouragement to get them from the beginning of the piece to the end. Some of my youngest students will take only a couple of lessons to complete a short piece. Usually at least one student hates everything he or she writes. In this case, the process reminds me of one of those made for TV movies I saw as a kid, where I am the farmer blindfolding the panicking horse so that I might lead it out of a burning barn. But most of my students enjoy the process and are quite proud of the end result.

I require my students to compose for several reasons:

  • I am an active compose partly because one of my early piano teachers encouraged creativity beyond what was written on the page. I may not have pursued this passion if that door hadn’t been opened for me by that teacher. Hence, I believe it is important to crack this door open for every student, at least to offer a glimpse of one potential creative passion a student might embrace.
  • I want my students to know that music is not written only by dead white men or far-away, glamorous rock stars. It can be written here and now, by anybody, including a five-year old beginning piano student.
  • Writing music offers great opportunities to dive deeply into music analysis. My younger students write to conform to basic musical forms, while my older students analyze works that they have enjoyed playing and write music modeled after that.

A Busy Fall

It has been an overly busy fall.  Hence, the scarcity of posts the last 2 months.

I have been busy with several projects, and everything has turned out well, it seems:

  • Music Flash Class iOS 8:  Some of you may use Music Flash Class, a highly configurable app for note recognition. It drills, teaches, tests, and even has a group oriented game in it that gets kids hopping out of their seats. I initially wrote Music Flash Class in 2011 because there were no apps that allowed me to teach note reading the way I like to, and still there is nothing as configurable as this app on the market. It survived bug free through iOS 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7, but iOS 8 broke it, and I was faced with reworking it. That is now completed.  Several teachers who emailed me about the app volunteered to test it and make sure it worked on a variety of devices.  I formally submitted Music Flash Class for approval last week, and I’m hoping that Apple releases it today or tomorrow.
Google Docs with Embedded Music

Google Docs with Embedded Music

Frequently I want to make a music worksheet that contains formatted text and music examples. You can do this with Sibelius, but I find it cumbersome. There is a way to do this with OpenOffice and LilyPond, but it is difficult to set up and, I found, subject to stop working on subsequent updates to OpenOffice. So, most of the time, I resort to exporting graphics from Sibelius into Microsoft Word documents. This means that my document data is scattered between multiple Sibelius files (assuming I save them) and one Microsoft Word document. Updating the document with new or edited music examples is not always easy.

Today I discovered a tool that allows you to edit and embed music directly within Google Docs (also known as Google Drive). This keeps the text and music within the same document, and they can be edited easily for future changes.

Learning new Skills

Learning new Skills

Six hours after sitting down to hammer out my next Songwriting Class assignment, my brain is tired, I’m very hungry, and I feel only marginally closer to my goal. I suspect that if someone else were around, I’d discover that I was a bit cranky, too.

I am diligently following processes professor Pat Pattison recommends online and in his book Writing Better Lyrics, optional reading material I am finding quite necessary. There are steps a lyricist can take to discover ideas, word combinations, and effective story telling. For me, some of it straightforward (object writing), some tedious (exploring the thesaurus, identifying rhymes), and some quite difficult (finding an effective angle, avoiding cliches, finding metaphors).

All of this creates great sympathy to my middle school and high school piano and composition students, and it has offered me some opportunity to reflect upon what it takes to learn a new skill.

Reference for Guitar Chords on the Staff

Reference for Guitar Chords on the Staff

This week, one of my tasks is to edit the guitar part for Impulso: Concerto for Marimba, Flamenco Guitar, and Dancer, a collaborative project with Chris Burton-Jacome.  Chris is a fabulous flamenco guitarist living in Phoenix. Chris, his wife Lena, and my wife Maria will be performing the concerto in St. Louis and in Phoenix in November.

I was finding it time consuming to figure out what notes to write on the staff for the strummed chords until I started noticing patterns.  For most barred chords, there seem to be only a handful of voicings that are used.  I searched the web for a reference sheet that would show these voicings on a staff, but I didn’t find what I needed.  So, I took some time to make up a reference sheet to help me translate what I had originally written for the guitar part into something that was playable.