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.
Music Memory Tricks

Music Memory Tricks

In my last post, I mentioned the four types of music memory:

  • Kinesthetic Memory, where the fingers “know” what to play;
  • Aural Memory, where the performer knows how the piece sounds and can hear the music ahead of the performance;
  • Mental Memory: where the performer can reconstruct the work from a mental understanding of the elements of the work;
  • Photographic Memory: where through genetic luck or extremely hard work, the performer has a visual image of the sheet music in the imagination.

I try to help my students develop only the first three types of music memory. Developing a photographic memory of a single work requires not only a depth of understanding and musicianship that extends well beyond that of most high school students, it also requires a patience and focus that not even I choose to apply.

Here are some music memory tricks I teach my students:

Types of Music Memory

Types of Music Memory

I am aware of four types of music memory that can be used in performance of a piece of music by memory:

Kinesthetic Memory is where the fingers “know” what to play based upon habit. This is the weakest kind of memory, and it is most prone to break when performance conditions change. Yet, it is also the most common and frequently the only form of memory used in performance. A change in instrument (teacher’s piano versus home piano versus stage piano) can throw kinesthetic memory off. The piano keys feel different, and the physical cues that trigger the kinesthetic memory change. When the performer is nervous, or even playing at a different time of day, the body behaves differently, and the kinesthetic memory can again be broken.

Kinesthetic memory also tends to be sequential, in that the memory of a note depends upon the correct performance of the previous note. If a note is played incorrectly, then the sequence is broken, and the body does not remember what comes next. From a performance point of view, kinesthetic memory tends to be passive, and the performer in effect is letting the body do the work instead of intentionally creating an experience that will move both the performer and the audience.

For these reasons, I always encourage students to develop other kinds of memory.

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.
Staff Line Hopscotch and the Circle of Thirds

Staff Line Hopscotch and the Circle of Thirds

In previous posts I wrote about the importance of learning the circle of thirds and using fingers as a learning mechanism for the circle of thirds and reading. Here’s a quick and easy floor game suitable for individual or group classes that involves traversing staff and ledger lines. You can play this game with or without fingers, depending upon the level of your student(s).

Staff Line HopscotchTo play the game, you need to mark on the floor a staff (grand or 5 line) and any optional ledgers. You’ll also need markers or cards that have diatonic note names written on them.

I lay on each line of the staff the corresponding note name. A student then takes a bean bag and tosses it to a line. The bean bag is repositioned to the line nearest to where it lands. The student then walks or hops from line to line, naming the note that line represents, and upon arriving to the bean bag, picks up the note name from that line, and continues the hopping & naming to the far end of the staff. We typically start at the lowest note of the staff and work our way up.

Each student takes turns toss, hopping & naming, and picking up their card. They must remember the names of the lines on which there is no card left.