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#1941292 - 08/12/12 08:41 AM Seeking advice for teaching composition  
Joined: Feb 2012
Posts: 53
Mrs. Akers Offline
Full Member
Mrs. Akers  Offline
Full Member

Joined: Feb 2012
Posts: 53
I'm new to this forum, so I hope I'm not asking you to repeat yourselves.

I am a piano teacher and would like to do more with my students in composition. I already do a lot of theory. The students who might be interested in studying composition range from around age 12 to 18.

1. Do you advise group composition classes, or is composition better taught within the context of the private lesson? I can see where students might be stimulated by each others' ideas and can also see that different ability levels might hinder progress.

2. Can you recommend a composition text or method? I have dabbled a little with composition and have done a lot of arranging, but would struggle somewhat if I had to teach it without some direction.

3. Would it be necessary to have classes weekly? Would monthly be too seldom? How long do you recommend classes last? If I offer group classes, I'm thinking about one hour every other week. If I add it to private lessons, I'm thinking about increasing lesson time by 15 minutes and doing composition 15 minutes each week. Any comments on those ideas?

4. Anything else I need to consider?

I know that there is a piano teachers' forum also. I might consider submitting my questions to them at a later date, but first I'd like to hear from folks who have experience and interest in composition specifically.

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#1941392 - 08/12/12 11:47 AM Re: Seeking advice for teaching composition [Re: Mrs. Akers]  
Joined: Nov 2007
Posts: 6,516
Nikolas Offline
6000 Post Club Member
Nikolas  Offline
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Joined: Nov 2007
Posts: 6,516
I'll start by introducing myself to you, and offering a tiny bit of general comments prior to commenting on your numbered points.

I'm a composer and a music publisher.

And I'm wondering on one thing. Do you compose? And if so at what level? I know that I'm entering some dangerous water here, since somehow 'composition' seems to be the right of everyone, but somehow, at the same time, we cringe when a piano teacher comes along who actually doesn't play the piano, or never had proper lessons at the instrument. See where I'm getting at?

Your questions show that it could be such a case, not to mention the 'I have dabbled a little with composition'. If not forgive me for this little rant.


Now, to reply to your questions.

1. No, no, and no. No group classes.

I've never seen a composition group course that worked even moderately! The reason is simple: Each student might have a different style, and most importantly a different aesthetic, that will be impossible to bridge. Even at post grad classes (M Mus) where you are forced into classes of a few people (4, in my case) it was obvious that it was not working, and we all were waiting impatiently for the time to come for one on one lessons.

You could do some 'masterclasses' or maybe some 'workshop' in order for your students to get the necessary peer feedback, and see/hear their works performed, or get outside comments, but this is not the core of the lesson.

2. I would imagine that there are some composition methods but I'll be honest that I'd place very little trust to those...

I believe (<-notice the specific word. There's no factual backup to this) that composition cannot be actually taught. You're either born with it, or acquire it through your life, or you don't. You don't get to go to college and pick it up at a later stage.

What you can, on the other hand, learn is compositions techniques, aesthetics, orchestration, etc. After all if you think about it, however 'basic' it may seem (and it's NOT, in my not so humble (lets face it, huh?) opinion) that harmony and counterpoint are compositions techniques.

That said, I've always appreciated the persichetti book about 20th century harmony. It sheds some very detailed (almost too detailed) light to some semi-contemporary harmony (considering that it's not such a new book anymore). Quartal harmony, cluster harmony, twelve tone harmony, etc... It's all there. In chapters, little by little, so one could use it as some kind of a method book.

Someone somewhere else in the forum, mentioned a book called 'Composition for dummies' or something to that end. I haven't had a chance to grab it just yet, but I can't say that I appreciate this whole attitude to '101 for silly students' approach that these kind of books seem to offer.

3. Hmmm... Composition is a private matter mostly. My own students usually get more than 1 and 1/2 hour through our skype lessons, but then again they are all adults and this IS through skype. Personal lessons (from students who are on skype weekly and come to Greece to visit) end up multi-hour, because of the so many things we have to talk about.

It largely depends on how much your students will like it. A 13 year old won't have the same attention of an 18 year old, that's for sure, so you have to differ your arrangements from person to person.

One thing that could work, for the shake of both your and his/her convenience is to start with lessons within the piano lesson and if things progress take it outside the piano lesson in a different hourly arrangement.

The group lessons (workshop, masterclass, etc) should probably end up being longer, since they should probably include the performance of the works, and discussion between the various students. Then again I don't know if we're talking about 2 or 9 students...

4. The one thing that could be worth mentioning is the absolutely necessary need to use notation software. Apart from the convenience of actually looking at a score that works, it's skill that is worthy A LOT (just see what's going on here). So you could also be working along the students in learning the software of your choice. Finale and Sibelius are two choices that are pro, but expensive. Musescore is quite good and free, while there might be other choices as well.


After all the rumble above, I do need to mention that despite what I've said earlier (and I know that I'm contradicting myself) it's commendable that you're taking the extra effort to offer more to your students. Obviously a 13 year old won't need so much, so your level of ability in composition shouldn't play too much an important role. But it will at some point, and you need to be ready for that.

Sheesh... that took a while to write down...

#1941527 - 08/12/12 04:04 PM Re: Seeking advice for teaching composition [Re: Nikolas]  
Joined: Feb 2012
Posts: 53
Mrs. Akers Offline
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Mrs. Akers  Offline
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Joined: Feb 2012
Posts: 53
Thank you for your time, Nikolas! I appreciate your comments.

I have a Master's Degree in Music Education with emphasis in piano. In my studies I had one course devoted to composition. My extensive theory classes included composition as well.

Part of the reason I'm considering this, is that a few of my students have expressed interest. Some of them will come to lessons with little original pieces written down, eager to play them for me. I'm trying to figure out the best way to keep those fires burning.

#1941663 - 08/12/12 08:39 PM Re: Seeking advice for teaching composition [Re: Mrs. Akers]  
Joined: Aug 2012
Posts: 14
AndyMc Offline
Junior Member
AndyMc  Offline
Junior Member

Joined: Aug 2012
Posts: 14
I'm afraid I don't have much practical advice to offer, but I wanted to chime in because you mentioned your students bring original pieces for you to hear. I first became interested in composition as a 15 year-old guitar student. My guitar teacher was not a composer, but he took a lot of interest and encouraged me as I was just getting started. He showed me how to write my music down, how to record it and he would even improvise with it, which I thought was really cool. Long story short, he took my music seriously, and that gave me the confidence to keep writing, though it would be 10 years later before I even took my first "official" composition course in college. So I guess I'm saying a couple of easy but meaningful things you can do is keep encouraging your students to write and take their beginning works seriously (which it sounds like you are:) All the best with it. Andy

* * *
"And the night shall be filled with music..." -Longfellow
#1941752 - 08/13/12 01:44 AM Re: Seeking advice for teaching composition [Re: Mrs. Akers]  
Joined: Mar 2012
Posts: 1,365
Sand Tiger Offline
1000 Post Club Member
Sand Tiger  Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Joined: Mar 2012
Posts: 1,365
Southern California
I am self taught. Certainly some basics might be helpful, such as tonic, tension, resolution, resonance and dissonance (Circle of 5ths). However, I did not understand those terms when I started piano five months ago, and still felt myself to be a competent songwriter before piano. There are a lot of roads to Rome.

I am a fan of ABC notation, especially for those more interested in songs with lyrics and chords, rather than instrumental works. I don't know about classes, as I am self taught in music and songwriting.

For me, immersion (Internet songwriting group 50 songs in 90 days) was what got me going. I don't know how immersion would work with a group class or even if it would work.

On the adult beginners forum, they have mentioned two books:
William Russo's Composing Music and
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Composition
I don't personally know anything about the books, but they got several mentions on a recent thread.

I am a fan of process. Play, record, refine. Play and experiment, perhaps trying to capture a mood or feeling. Record as much as possible. Refine the best of what you have. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If a piece isn't working after a certain time, toss it, and start fresh. Keep the best of the recordings to listen to again in a few days, weeks, months. They might sound more interesting then. A novice aspiring composer that follows this process for an hour a day for a month will make progress.

I can tell two anecdotes:
One prose writer says the secret to writing is glue. As in gluing one's behind to the chair until they have written something each and every day.

The other may or may not be true, but makes for a good story:
An aspiring young composer attended a concert and the great Mozart was there. The would-be composer went up and asked for advice. Mozart responded: focus on simple pieces. The young man was perplexed, and said, simple pieces? But, by my age you were writing complete symphonies. Mozart nodded, yes, but I never asked anyone for advice on composition.

Last edited by Sand Tiger; 08/13/12 02:09 AM.
#1942346 - 08/14/12 02:05 AM Re: Seeking advice for teaching composition [Re: Mrs. Akers]  
Joined: Dec 2010
Posts: 1,304
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member
LoPresti  Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Joined: Dec 2010
Posts: 1,304
New York
Originally Posted by Sand Tiger
An aspiring young composer attended a concert and the great Mozart was there. The would-be composer went up and asked for advice. Mozart responded: focus on simple pieces. The young man was perplexed, and said, simple pieces? But, by my age you were writing complete symphonies. Mozart nodded, yes, but I never asked anyone for advice on composition.

Sand Tiger - I loved this!

Mrs. Akers - Nikolas mentions the Vincent Persichetti text, which I agree is excellent. I would also like to recommend the Paul Hindemith CRAFT OF MUSICAL COMPOSITION published by Schott. These are probably not appropriate as text books for your students, but they will be excellent guides for you as teacher. I also concur that the “Become a Composer in Five Easy Steps” style of book is worth all that the titles imply, and probably much less!

One other suggestion that comes to mind in working with budding composers is to focus upon FORM. It is all too easy to get caught up in the mechanical tools and techniques of imitation, mirroring, retrogrades, etc., and forget that a piece ultimately must have a shape - a characteristic that is severely lacking in many novice pieces.

Sand Tiger recommends a process of Play -> Record -> Refine :|| Repeat || While it will be natural for your piano students to, at first, be composing “at the piano”, for those who seem able, it will be a good idea to get them thinking “away from the piano” as soon as possible. Composing for a single instrument (yes, even piano!) is limiting for obvious reasons.


In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.

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