Author: Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

Sakari Dixon Vanderveer seeks to incorporate the unique artistry of her collaborators in each of her musical compositions. Vanderveer’s desire to empower youth also remains a catalyst behind much of her work. She recently founded the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, a personalized, online intensive program for students ages 10-18 who are new to composing. Vanderveer’s aim is that children from all walks of life will gain access to contemporary music and composition, allowing them to develop a better appreciation and understanding of concert music – new and old – so that they, too, can cherish it and engage with it throughout their entire lives.

Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

A pen and a notebook with handwritten notes, a CD and a smartphone with a display of a video of music performance overlayed with the New Music Toolbox logo

Although K-12 music standards call for students to develop skills in composition, I often hear educators express that they feel ill-equipped to support their students in this endeavor. Many music teachers do not get trained on how to facilitate composition projects in the classroom, and their own experience with composing can be quite limited if their studies placed an emphasis on performance. As a result, instead of giving students the confidence to express themselves through their own works, many composition projects can turn out to be theory assessments in disguise.

Though these assignments can serve a purpose, they often do little to develop a young musician’s creativity, and at times, they can even stifle students’ artistry by implying that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to compose. Instead, students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development. This is especially crucial in music programs where many students’ only access to formal music instruction is in the classroom, where their studies are typically not as individualized as they would be in a private lesson setting.

This article is a collection of actionable tips primarily from my own experience as a composer-educator and founder of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop. These strategies can be adapted to group or private lesson settings and don’t require that educators have extensive background in composition. Though these approaches are geared towards middle and high school students, many of these tips can be adapted to create lessons for students of different age groups.

Cultivate a practice of observation and discussion.

Eric Booth, in his book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible, advises that we need to guide students in practicing observation before defaulting to interpretation or judgment – a discipline that we also need to cultivate in our own practice.1 This approach enables students to learn a great deal from the music that they listen to, yet it also gives them an ability to ask insightful questions of themselves while they are in the process of realizing their own ideas.

If a student listens to a new piece and responds with “This piece makes me feel as if I am watching a cartoon,” giving a follow up question such as “What about the music reminds you of watching a cartoon?” can help them to return their focus to aspects such as the instrumentation or texture of the piece.

When we model questions that focus on observation, this empowers students to practice asking themselves more insightful questions during the composition process. For instance, a student who is dissatisfied with how their melody resolves can ask themselves, “What about this melody makes it sound incomplete?” However, if they immediately judge the melody as something that is “no good,” they will likely abandon their original ideas, and the opportunity to learn from their experiences will be missed.

Even if the student ultimately decides to scrap their composition and start over, taking a moment to pause and observe what they have created so far can give them the insight needed to accomplish what they set out to write the next time around.

Focus on one element of music at a time.

In the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, one of our topics during the first week of classes is a lesson on the elements of music. When we give students the vocabulary to talk about elements such as rhythm, pitch, and texture, they become better equipped to make observations about the music that they are listening to. That way, they are less dependent on interpretations and judgment.

Even if students are having trouble finding the right terminology to use in the midst of a discussion, it can be helpful to invite them to describe what they are observing to the best of their abilities without having to utilize the proper musical term right away. The vocabulary can always be taught later, and the students’ findings can be great ways to open up conversations around new terminology.

Aside from listening exercises, composition projects that focus on a singular element of music are great for narrowing the scope of a lesson while allowing plenty of room for creativity. For example, I’ve often used the Sonic Scavenger Hunt by composer-educator Danny Clay as a starting point for students to explore the concept of timbre.

Experiment with many approaches to composition.

When students can try their hand at a variety of approaches to composing, they will eventually choose a writing process that is most inspiring to them. Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece. They may even decide to change their approach based on the result that they are trying to accomplish in a given project.

Though a new approach may be uncomfortable at first, sometimes, students can actually be inspired in unexpected ways. I’ve taught workshops where students work together to compose chance music; however, I always tell them that even if they set up a system for choosing the notes, they are always free to break their own rules and edit the piece if they are dissatisfied with the result.

After using a die, a coin, or a picker wheel to determine certain elements of a piece, often, they will become quite opinionated about which notes to change and why they are changing them–another great opportunity for conversation.

Bringing in guest composers to teach a class (either in-person or virtually) or finding videos of composers talking about their creative process can motivate students to try something new. Though some students may initially feel that processes such as rolling a die or turning their name into musical notes are not legitimate ways to write music, when they discover that there are many established composers who have created masterpieces with similar strategies, they will feel validated in their own creative process.

Many of the reasons for introducing a variety of approaches to composition also apply to experimenting with different styles of notation. Another great aspect of Danny Clay’s Sonic Scavenger Hunt is that it is a great example of a graphic score – a concept that is fit for beginners and more experienced students alike.

Students can also explore projects that don’t require any notation, such as composing a fixed media piece in a program like Audacity. Young composers tend to fixate on pitches and rhythms, but these alternatives to traditional notation can be useful exercises in developing elements such as timbre, texture, and dynamics when students might not have focused on them before.

Use technology to your advantage…

Even simpler apps, such as voice notes or a video camera that’s included with a mobile device, can be useful tools for composing. When I teach composition, I often encourage students to record their ideas as they go. That way, they don’t have to worry about forgetting concepts that they are experimenting with – a strategy that I often use in my own work before I begin to notate my ideas. Documenting the composition process can also enable students to better reflect on their experiences since it will be easier to see how the piece evolves over time.

Aside from being a way to introduce students to other artists and composers, watching and discussing videos of performances, interviews, and demonstrations can be a great way for students to witness how sounds can be created in innovative ways. For instance this performance of Zaka by Jennifer Higdon has been a great conversation starter amongst my students since it demonstrates the concept of extended techniques. Additionally, this profile of Angélica Negrón has piqued my students’ curiosity about electronic music and found sounds.

…but be mindful of where technology has its limits. 

At times, introducing certain technology too early in our students’ development can encourage them to “color inside the lines” in unintended ways. I have often seen this happen to students who begin to use notation software long before they have started to get comfortable demonstrating their ideas on an instrument or writing sketches by hand, however imperfect these methods may be at first.

In a lot of notation software, such as Noteflight, MuseScore, or Sibelius, to name a few, users are asked to specify parameters such as the meter and key signature before they begin to enter the piece itself. Changing these options later on can become a barrier if students aren’t aware of how to work around these limitations or if they are not aware that their tools are imposing such limitations in the first place. This often results in melodies and rhythms that sound too “square” and pieces that can become too redundant.

One way that I counteract this is by encouraging students to improvise their ideas on their instrument while they record themselves on their devices. Then, I guide them in transcribing their improvisations to the best of their abilities.

For students who have a limited fluency in written notation, this approach can be modified by using graphic or text-based notation, focusing on transcribing elements such as pitch or rhythm alone, or omitting the notation aspect altogether and allowing the student to memorize, perform, and even record finished versions their work.

Some verbal and graphic notes for a musical composition that can be used instead of music notation

Save the theory assessments for another time.

When composition projects are primarily intended to examine whether your students can write an eight-bar melody in D Major, for example, they are much more likely to become fixated on whether they are choosing the “right” notes and pleasing their teacher. Instead, opt for open-ended projects that enable students to explore and define their musical tastes.

Students who feel empowered to envision and realize their own ideas will gain a sense of confidence that can be applied to any profession whether they choose to continue in their musical development or move on to other endeavors. On the other hand, if they feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

Alice Kanack, the pioneer of Creative Ability Development, has a very helpful formula to refer to when structuring creative exercises for students:

Freedom of choice or Freedom from criticism + Disciplined practice and repetition of making choices = Creative Ability2

Whether I am teaching composition in my own studio or I am visiting another teacher’s class to do a workshop, I’ve found it much more empowering to encourage students to express their intentions and their artistic vision so that we can explore how they might accomplish what they intended. This is another reason why lessons that incorporate plenty of time for discussion and reflection are so important.

Embrace imperfection.

As educators, we can enable students to take creative risks and break free of a fixation on choosing “right” versus “wrong” notes by creating multiple opportunities for them to share works-in-progress. Often, I will set a short timer (e.g. 5-10 minutes) for students to respond to a prompt that is very narrow in scope. Then, they will have an opportunity to share what they came up with and express their intentions for their work as they go forward.

Even though there will often be at least one student who is too shy to share their unfinished works, I’ve found that simply inviting them to reflect on what the experience of composing was like can gain their trust. More often than not, they ultimately decide to present the music itself.

That being said, it is crucial to create a safe space for them to be vulnerable in this way, especially if they are in a group setting with their peers. All students need an environment where they are taken seriously and their creative ideas are not dismissed as being too weird, too simple, or too ridiculous, to name a few. This goes for all parties involved — their peers, their teachers, and even parents or guardians who are supporting them in their studies.3

Because of this, modeling what it’s like to embrace imperfection can be a powerful tool. When I give students an opportunity to work independently during class, I will often use the time to compose ideas for the same prompt and demonstrate what it’s like to share my own imperfect, unfinished work. This includes verbalizing my thoughts on how I feel about the creation at the moment. Whether I am excited about moving forward with my ideas or I feel ambivalent and want to scrap them, I make a habit of sharing these reflections with my students so that they can feel safe to do so as well.

Connect lessons to real-world experiences.

Introducing our students to living composers, whether it is via a live workshop or through pre-recorded media, can illustrate the many ways in which a career in music can take shape.

This can easily become a starting point for activities that give students a taste of what the music profession can be like. For instance, prompts such as writing a short solo for a classmate to perform can give students a glimpse into the process of writing a commission.

As part of the You(th) Can Compose! Summer Workshop, Samantha Hogan, has visited our class to share excerpts from her concert works as well as selections that she wrote for games and film. After her presentation, she facilitated a lesson in which the students created music to portray characters from I Wish I Were A Butterfly, a children’s book by James Howe. This kind of activity is a great way to introduce students to the idea of telling stories with music.

Aside from empowering students to make creative choices in the music itself, encouraging students to assist in the production of their work can give them confidence to initiate their own projects later on. Tasks such as recruiting performers, designing art for a concert program, or creating posters to advertise a performance are great ways to empower students to make creative choices and make their vision become a reality – skills that are vital for the career of any artist in today’s world.

One of Sakari's online composition lessons.


As you begin to apply these practices, my hope is that you will feel more confident to share the art of music composition with your students, even if you have little formal training in composition or you do not identify as a composer. Though an emphasis on observation and experimentation will take much more time than prompting students to “color inside the lines,” approaching the study of composition in this manner will offer more enriching opportunities for us to learn alongside our students, inviting them to take risks and explore new territories in their creative practice.


  1. Eric Booth, The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33.
  2. Alice Kay Kanack, Fun Improvisation for Violin: The Philosophy and Method of Creative Ability Development (USA: Summy-Birchard Music, 1996), 15.
  3. Kanack, 20.


Letting My Network Become My Classroom

When I decided that I was not going to grad school immediately after my bachelor’s, I initially feared becoming stagnant in my musical education.  Although I have never been shy about being an autodidact, my concern was that I would lose motivation, direction, or both. After I plunged right into a 9-to-5 position, I began to contemplate what it would look like to create a routine that would facilitate the continuation of my education in music while being outside of academia.

In that first year, I played gigs occasionally and taught a few students on a regular basis. Aside from an inspirational session at the St. Mary’s Summer Composition Intensive that summer, I hardly composed. I didn’t intend to take a break, but the combination of letting other priorities crowd my schedule and simply feeling a bit directionless allowed the time to fly by.

It occurred to me that I needed to surround myself with new people and new ideas in order to continue studying composition in the way that I wanted. Though simple questions such as “How far have you gotten this week?” or “What scores have you been studying?” are not the reason why I continue to compose, I came to realize that having the accountability and the support of peers and mentors motivates me a lot more than I’d like to admit.

Having the accountability and the support of peers and mentors motivates me a lot more than I’d like to admit.

Basically, I felt that I needed a more structured and musical environment to further my studies. However, pursuing another degree seemed cost-prohibitive at the time, and I had already decided that I didn’t want increasing debt to negatively impact the opportunities I would pursue.

My first major step in continuing my studies was to budget for private composition lessons, which I realized would cost much less than tuition in the meantime and would get me what I craved most: one-on-one mentorship. Utilizing a mixture of Skype and in-person lessons has helped to accommodate both of our schedules, especially when traveling to meet up is less convenient.

Eventually, I learned to make a conscious effort to connect with new peers as well. One of the greatest challenges for me as a musician outside of academia has been tapping into a community of those who are in similar stages in our careers, which is a natural feature of most degree programs. I’ve learned to better keep in contact with those whom I’ve met in school or at summer programs, for example. We share what we’re working on and discuss the challenges we are facing in our development.

I’ve also found that seeking out and attending local concerts and recitals regularly has helped— especially if I force my introverted self to hang around and chat with people afterwards. I can think of a few friends whom I’ve met while attending local concerts, and we still keep in touch and share our current work or the music that we’ve been listening to.

Over time, I’ve also found ways to break through the geographical barriers of meeting other artists. I used to shy away from social media until one of my teachers convinced me that it can help build a network when used well. My expectation was that online networking would primarily lead to more career opportunities, but what I didn’t anticipate was how much it would connect me to others who have much wisdom to share.

I used to shy away from social media until one of my teachers convinced me that it can help build a network when used well.

Thanks to others’ recommendations, I’ve stumbled upon several resources, like this website, where I can learn from other artists who I haven’t been able to meet in person. Below is a sampling of resources that I have been following over the past few years. Some are geared specifically to composers, performers, or teachers, yet much of the advice is transferrable from one field to the next. Some focus on the business aspect of music; others focus a bit more on the creative process, improving technical skills as an artist, or simply sharing new works. The best part is that many of these are free or low-cost. Most of these reference or link to other artists and resources as well, so I totally recommend following the rabbit holes as much as your heart desires!



deBreved: The Tim Davies Orchestration Blog, by Tim Davies

Of Note, by Robert Puff – a blog of tutorials on popular notation software

Audition Hacker, by Rob Knopper

Musochat – a monthly discussion forum about classical and new music

Bandestration: The Online Guide to Composing for Wind Instruments, by Bret Newton



Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, by Angela Myles Beeching

The Savvy Musician, by David Cutler

The Savvy Music Teacher: Blueprint for Maximizing Income and Impact, by David Cutler

Break Into the Scene: A Musician’s Guide to Making Connections, Creating Opportunities, and Launching a Career, by Seth Hanes

Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, by Elaine Gould


Podcasts. . .

. . .On business skills:

The Portfolio Composer, by Garrett Hope

Music Publishing Podcast by Dennis Tobenski

The Musician on Purpose Podcast, by Clair Condit and Allie Tyler


. . .On profiling artists and their creative processes:

Listening to Ladies, by Elisabeth Blair

1 Track Podcast, by Anthony Joseph Lanman

Composer Quest, by Charlie McCarron

Lexical Tones, by ADJective New Music

Meet the Composer, by Nadia Sirota

New Sounds from WNYC (technically a radio show, but some episodes are downloadable as podcasts on iTunes)


Video Channels:

Score Follower, Incipitisify, and Mediated Scores – a network of YouTube channels where scores can be viewed along with performances of contemporary works

Orchestration Online, by Thomas Goss


Exchanging Perfectionism for Contentedness

I used to wear the title of “Perfectionist” as a badge of honor. My former office mates and I, for example, jokingly competed for being more “type A” than the next person: one would make sure all the papers in the files were facing the same way, and I would make sure that the tabs for any added files would alternate flawlessly – left, middle, right, left, middle, right. . . . We bragged about how well-formatted our spreadsheets were. Being on the finance team, our ability to reconcile accounts down to the last penny was implicitly part of our job description.

As a composer, I’ve realized that perfectionism is encouraged frequently to some extent and with good reason. Precise notation minimizes uncertainty for performers and makes rehearsals more efficient.  Thoughtful orchestrations ensure that gesture is not lost.

Don’t allow perfectionism to creep in too early in the creative process.

However, I’ve also learned the hard way that such meticulous attention to detail has a time and place. My weakness is that I allow perfectionism to creep in way too early in the creative process, preventing me from letting ideas flow freely so that I can complete a piece. I’m learning to own the fact that improvisation is one of the compositional techniques that generates my ideas rapidly, but for some reason, part of me feels obligated to over-intellectualize my pieces early on.

For instance, in one section of a theme-and-variations-based piece that I began in the fall, I struggled with the texture of one variation in particular: I would write an idea, discard it, and repeat the process with much frustration. There was a gap in the piece for months on end, but I had decided that the pacing was not satisfactory if I eliminated that section. Yet, after improvising on the piano during a 15-minute break at work, I finally came up with the texture I wanted. I instantly recorded it on my phone so that I could remember the details when I got home.

Since I graduated from college, I’ve had less of an impetus to stick to deadlines such as end-of-semester recitals that force me to put down my pencil and say that the piece is “good enough” to share or perform. I’ve found that I have relatively little trouble coming up with new ideas, yet developing the ideas through their completion is much more of a struggle. Unfortunately, using self-imposed deadlines as a strategy to counteract this tendency has often had little effect on me. I simply keep extending them.

Don’t lose self-esteem because of a denied sense of accomplishment.

One of the mantras that I’ve learned from Rory Vaden’s best-seller Procrastinate on Purpose is, “Done is better than perfect.” More often than not, if I am waiting to complete something because I feel that it is not “perfect,” I fail to complete the project at all. As a result, I tend to lose self-esteem because I deny myself a sense of accomplishment, giving myself even less confidence to tackle the next project at hand. The result is an ongoing, downward emotional spiral.

I’m slowly learning to combat my desire for perfection by seeking satisfaction in the progress that I’ve made. When I allow myself to be content, I can finally reflect on what worked and utilize that knowledge to move forward, building my confidence instead of tearing it down. Even when ideas don’t work out, framing them as an opportunity to learn from what didn’t work allows me to further my progress.

In the case of the seemingly magical fifteen minutes where I re-wrote an entire section of that piece, reframing my failures in this way made me realize that it wasn’t just that moment that helped me to arrive at a solution. It was changing my process from simply discarding ideas to identifying morsels of progress in those subsequent drafts which helped me to finally move forward.


Wearing All the Hats: Reflections on Being a Teacher, Too

Back in college, I often viewed teaching private lessons as a way to earn a bit of extra spending money. I taught a couple of children through the University of Redlands at the time, and it was just enough to cover modest expenses such as clothes or my cell phone bill. Since I was convinced that I wanted to focus on freelance composing and performing when I graduated, I didn’t thoughtfully consider the possibility of teaching as an integral aspect of my identity as a professional musician. Though I have always had the utmost respect for K-12 teachers, I had decided that having my own classroom full of students wasn’t the best fit for me. And with my limited business skills, I assumed that a modest studio of private students would not be lucrative enough to cover major household expenses.

In the years since, I’ve learned that teaching lessons can be a very reliable source of income when the business aspect is managed well. Reading books like The Savvy Music Teacher by David Cutler gave me the financial chops that I needed to go from teaching under the auspices of other businesses, which kept a sizeable portion of my income, to managing clientele on my own.

What I didn’t expect was how much teaching would shape and mold my identity as a performer and composer. I had been told that it would reinforce my technical abilities as I continue to study music, but to my surprise, there have been many other benefits as well.

Students remind me of what it is like to approach music with a sense of curiosity, lightheartedness, and joy.

On the days when I am feeling frustrated with my own progress as a musician, my students—especially the children—remind me of what it is like to approach music with a sense of curiosity, lightheartedness, and joy. Most of my students have sought me because they essentially want to play music for fun. They seem to have few assumptions about the successes that a musical life could grant them as they grow older, so they are naturally free to explore many creative paths with little worry that what they are doing is the “right” thing.

Though it is taking a bit of extra effort to retrain my thinking as an adult, I’ve been learning to relinquish feelings of guilt around artistic exploration that doesn’t feel immediately purposeful or profitable. There is something about being a teacher that tacitly holds me accountable to learn without ceasing, and I remind myself that in some respects, all of the skills that I acquire will find their way into my artistic voice and prove their worth in due time.

Above all, my students inspire me to write and play for them. I can still remember myself as a young child, sitting on the edge of my seat in awe as I watched my teacher play with the local symphony. Education is one of the ways I am choosing to give back and stay connected to the heart of my community. I feel fulfilled knowing that I can give a young student the same experience that my teachers gave me.

Initially part of me felt a little dirty for teaching as a way to make money…

Initially, as a budding freelancer, part of me felt a little dirty for teaching as a way to make money on the side. I sometimes felt the stigma that if I needed to teach for a living, I was somehow failing at being a performer or composer. When non-musicians asked me what I did for a profession, I perceived that identifying as a music teacher quickly overshadowed my other identities as a musician, just as saying that I worked in an office during the day made it seem as if I played gigs only for chump change.

Now that I’ve been teaching for several years, I feel pride in knowing that the greater portion of my income is earned from a variety of activities in music. I no longer feel burdened by others’ opinions of what I do for a living because I know that whether I am teaching, performing, or composing, I am dedicating myself to a career that gives me life.


Learning to Embrace Community-Based Music-Making

I confess that right after I graduated from college four years ago, I was reluctant to join community groups as a way to both maintain and further my skills. In my mind, I planned to network, prepare auditions, and perform music primarily through gigs.

When I made the adjustment from being in school full-time to working a 9-to-5 plus teaching during evenings and weekends, I found that I was simply too tired to do much else.  I was aware of a few ensembles in a nearby town, but the thought of adding another commute to my arduous workweek disgusted me.

A year later, I moved into a studio about a half hour away in order to be closer to work. Much of my commuting time was eliminated, and now I was closer to the groups that I was already aware of. At the same time, I realized that in the year since I graduated, I had practiced and composed much less than I had wanted to, and few musical opportunities had materialized. Also, I felt as if I had made very few new friends, especially in music, and without frequent performance opportunities, there was little motivation for me to practice.

Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people.

Reflecting on this made me put aside my ego and join the Redlands Community Orchestra that fall. The lazy part of me was reluctant to give up 2-3 hours every Sunday night for the greater part of the year. However, even greater than my laziness at the time was my excitement to have ongoing, regular rehearsals like I did while I was in school. Joining an ensemble meant that I could get to know not just music but also people over a long period of time. Since I wanted to learn how to better write for large ensembles, rehearsing with an orchestra on a regular basis would keep me aware of what compositional choices are effective for performers of varying abilities.

In my second season with the group, I took on the role of librarian for the orchestra. Since I had little previous experience in orchestra administration, I thought it would be a great way to acquire some hands-on training. Renting scores and parts has given me some insight into the way publishers work, which is helpful for me to know as an emerging composer. Preparing and organizing parts has also taught me more about the needs of the musicians throughout the orchestra.  As one who currently self-publishes her music, it made me realize that studying scores alone won’t give me examples of formatting and page turns, for example. I need to also review parts on occasion to learn what notational choices communicate best with various sections of the orchestra and make their jobs easier.

The bass section of the Redlands Community Orchestra

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about the RCO is that in the past three seasons, we have premiered several pieces by local composers. Because our ensemble is committed to providing free concerts to the public, it felt inspiring to know that people in the community who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak about their work. Although many of the musicians are from different backgrounds, my impression is that most look forward to the opportunity to read through and vote on compositions from the call for scores as well as interact with the composer during rehearsals. The result is a production that educates not just the audience but also musicians whose backgrounds may not be in the conservatory.

People who might have little previous knowledge of contemporary classical music could witness it live and hear composers speak.

Now that I am nearing the end of my third season with the orchestra, I can say that my involvement in the group has led to a variety of other opportunities, both paid and volunteer. One highlight in particular was an opportunity to play in a local new music concert series started by a fellow composer and member of the orchestra.

If I had to go back in time to give advice to myself as a graduating senior, I would tell myself not to hesitate to make time to find at least one group to join right away. Though finding time to practice or compose in the midst of a busy schedule can be a struggle at times, even the tiniest blocks of time in which I choose to stay connected to my art would continue to uplift me and encourage me to pursue my aspirations even more.