Empowering Teenagers to Compose: A Guide for Educators

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.

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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.

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.

  • 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.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Students need activities that empower them to make their own artistic choices and explore music creation at any stage of their development.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • Just as there are no right or wrong notes in a composition, there is no right or wrong way to compose a piece.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • I encourage 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.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • If students feel insecure about their ability to make creative decisions, this paralyzing mindset can be carried well into adulthood.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • 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.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer
  • 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.

    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer (Photo by William Vasta)
    Sakari Dixon Vanderveer

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources

  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.