Carol Matz is well known in the piano teaching community for her Famous and Fun series, and more recently for her Interactive Piano Method. She’s also an experienced piano teacher herself and she knows what works when it comes to great arrangements.
We are super excited to have her presenting today’s guest post, all about how to get your beginner piano students composing music.
You might remember Carol as she recently joined Tim on his podcast as well. Check out her conversation with Tim on piano teaching and arranging.
Many teachers would think that composition is best taught to more advanced students, but today’s post proves that isn’t the case. Carol will show you that in fact, even beginner piano students can and should compose music. Take it away, Carol!
I think that having students compose is a wonderful teaching tool at any age, but especially for beginner students. It’s a great way to reinforce recently learned concepts.
For example, suppose you have a student who has just learned 3/4 time. A great way to reinforce that is by having the student create a short piece in 3/4. The same applies if the student just learned a new key signature, scale, or interval.
With young students, I initially like to work on composition in the lesson. Furthermore, I like to have the student be “pencil-free” at first and simply allow the student to be creative. You can even start with familiar five-finger patterns.
I feel it’s best to start with creative experimentation right on the piano itself. Let students experiment as you gently guide them, and be sure to count aloud as they play to get into a steady rhythm and establish a time signature. Then (at this early level) you can jot down what they played.
Here’s something important to keep in mind: we don’t want students worrying about how to write down their idea, while they’re using a different part of their brain being creative.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of the two hemispheres of the brain. The “left brain” does all the analytical thinking: calculations, measurements, and most things involving numbers. This would include music notation, since the student has to think about how many beats should be in each measure, what direction the stem should be, etc.
Until that is second nature, it’s best to allow the student’s “right brain” to take over. This is the side of the brain that’s creative and can come up with musical ideas.
I think it’s essential to start teaching notation to students as early as possible. One of the ways to do this is to start with easy rhythmic dictation. After students have learned their basic note and rest values, and know how to draw stems properly, then you can start with some simple rhythmic notation work.
It’s the rhythmic part of notation that’s the most difficult aspect for the majority of students. Writing the note on the staff is the easy part; the hard part is figuring out how to express the rhythm. So starting this skill as early as possible is essential.
To work on rhythmic notation, tap out a simple rhythm one measure at a time while counting aloud, and have the student write it out on either notebook paper or even blank paper. After they’ve successfully written the first measure of rhythm, tap and count that measure plus the next measure, and build from there. Doing four measures at one sitting is fine.
Obviously, the easy workaround to notation early on is using a recording device, whether that’s a digital keyboard that can record, or even a mobile phone. If a student has digital capability at home to record their ideas, they should obviously use that as a tool.
Remember that writing music requires the composer to convey their ideas to others, so it has to be notated at some point, either by hand, with an app, or by using software.
The best thing to do is separate-out composing the melody and then adding harmony. By teaching and exploring these two elements separately, the student has fewer things to process at one time.
First, have the student compose only the melody on the treble staff. Give the student a pentascale (five-finger pattern) to work with, as well as a time signature. Then, write small “rhythmic cues” above each measure:
By doing this, students have a bit of a guide as they’re choosing their notes within the given rhythm. This is the least daunting way to get young students to feel comfortable composing.
Second, have the student compose just the harmony on the bass staff. At this point, it’s easiest for the student to just choose either the tonic or dominant note of the pentascale, using their ear. You can play the melody while the student experiments to see which note sounds best in each measure.
It’s really important that you start teaching composition within a framework.
It can be scary to stare at that blank page, wondering if anything is going to happen! So you’ll want to provide students with a framework by choosing a set number of measures, a pentascale or key signature, and a time signature.
Also, try composing the first two measures as well as the last measure. This way the student has a sense of where they’re starting, and where they’re ending up. It’s like driving with a GPS; you know the route is mapped-out for you, so you feel more secure about driving to your destination.
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It’s good practice to have students explore composing with various left-hand (LH) accompaniment patterns. You might go ahead and compose a simple melody in a key the student is familiar with, and then have the student write-in the harmony for each measure.
Instead of students just “plunking down” a chord for the whole measure, encourage them to explore using different LH accompaniment patterns such as harmonic and melodic intervals, a waltz pattern using root position chords, some type of ostinato (a repeated pattern) while holding the pedal, etc.
If you’ve tried working on composition with students and find yourself asking, “How can my students compose more interesting pieces?”, I have a few tips:
These are all my “go-to” techniques that I use myself when composing.
With my youngest students, I have a method for composing little eight-measure pieces.
For students not yet comfortable reading on the staff, you can use blank paper instead of manuscript paper. In place of a five-line staff, simply draw one horizontal line for each line of music, and then divide it into measures. Write the LH notes below the line, and the RH notes above. You can do this similar to other “off-the-staff” pieces the student is learning by writing only the note value (whole, half, quarter) with a letter name next to it.
Work with the student on the first four measures. When you get to measure five, copy the music from measures one and two into measures five and six. This is a great little trick to make the student’s piece have some form of cohesion, so there’s a repetition of a theme and doesn’t sound random.
I also like to ask the student to add a title to their piece. Ask your student what they think their song sounds like. If they used staccato, does it sound like rain tapping on the roof? Or a jumping kangaroo?
For students who like to draw, I put the eight measures on the bottom half of the blank page, which leaves space for the student to add some artwork if they choose.
What are your go-to tips when it comes to teaching beginner piano students to compose? Have you had any success using some of these techniques I mentioned today? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you’re interested in getting compositions templates to use with your students as well as some other fun ideas for creating Composition Notebooks, please email me at email@example.com.