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Composing With A Purpose

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I did not compose in high school and only composed ONE song in college. The emphasis was on playing or singing the compositions/songs with a director or conductor. The only creativity was the practice order of the director, no creativity on my part, it really wasn’t discussed. If you wanted to be creative, learn jazz. It wasn’t until I was involved with the “Vermont MIDI Project” that I realized I could and should compose.

I have always felt that composing was way too difficult and involved. Why, because my first exposure was music theory. I learned “how” music works before I experimented with  making melodies. All those intervals and the I, IV, V chord structure. Music theory was the starting and ending point, not the simplicity of melodies and chords. There was no freedom, just music theory; if you follow the rules, then you are composing like a musician. The only problem, my compositions were very programmed, uncreative, and unemotional. Not very inspiring, no wonder I felt I could never compose, it wasn’t my voice, my creation or passion.

That has completely changed…


I can remember my first day sitting in the room with all those composers in Vermont. I was excited my students were going to be a part of these wonderful composing tool, l didn’t realize that I was going to have to compose as well! I sat there for forty-five minutes, I managed to get three notes on the staff. I was so stressed out and completely overwhelmed. In all my years of music education at the age of forty-six, no one had let me just compose, with no direction, but just compose, with no rules, no form, just make it sound good TO ME.  The freedom was so powerful. Over the course of the week, I composed faster and faster with passion.

So, here I am years later, composing is the central most part of what I teach to my students. It is creative and I feel the way ALL music education should be taught. I just let my students compose and let them listen to sounds and notes. As they progress they slowly add chords and learn about theory, so music theory is not the main ingredient. Creating songs with purpose and making music is the main thread. Making is sound good TO ME.

I know this is the way that music should be created. Just ask any of my students from the non-musicians to the students with years of piano. They all are on the same journey,   just on different locations on the journey. The delight of seeing the students share and listen and it never gets old within the music classroom.

There are always those students that rise to the top, I want to talk about three such students. They have moved me to tears and are the reason I continue to pursue teaching composition within my classroom.

First, a little over a year ago while I was on sabbatical, Sandi McLeod, the director of the Vermont MIDI Project contacted me. She needed some Sibelius (composition software) files from students. Fourth graders they have to be able to PLAY the song they compose. Well, she needed the files presto, so I told the students, “Just compose anything you can, I need it in one week.” One week passed. Jack was concerned he couldn’t play the song. I replied “Dr. McLeod just need some files, you don’t have to play it!”  He had managed to have nine different instruments in his “An Adventure.” It was twenty-six pages long. As I began to listen, I was overcome and sat down on the rug and cried. Yes, cried, for I realized I had a “Mozart” in the making. To make a long story short, “An Adventure,” was submitted to MENC/NSBE which won runner-up in the elementary division. He soon will be studying composition privately because composing has become his passion.

The second student had been a part of the Vermont MIDI Project in fifth grade and was going to another school the next year. He and his parents wanted to continue his music composing so we set up a skype conference on Sunday nights. Well, out of that came his website. Clay and I would have discussions about music and how it works.  It is so amazing to see his development of his compositions. He has inspired me to compose more and be a better listener, musician, and a better teacher. As I talked about music theory and music form, he was quite interested how music works. He slowly began to study music theory, using musictheory.net,  but still experimenting with sounds. When he got his keyboard hooked up to his computer, he experimented more with jazz and various chord progressions. At the start of sixth grade, he had quit piano lessons and was taking drum lessons. Soon he began to see a purpose in piano and started piano again, along with drum and guitar lessons. He currently is taking composition classes.

Finally, I had a fourth grader, Henri, he slowly became fascinated with GarageBand and composing. One day he knocked on my door and a flash-drive in his hand. To see the excitement of sharing his file and the pride of accomplishment of his composition was my joy of the day. He expressed his love of music and how much he enjoys creating and being in the MIDI lab, and has carried that on at home by composing every day.

These three students have attacked composing quite different ways. Jack sees music as various melodies, Clay see music as chords and rhythm, and Henri sees music as a release. That is also the beauty of allowing students to find their voice and create.

I personally want to thank the parents for allow them to pursue their creativity. Who knows where it may take them. Let the students compose.

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4 Comments  comments 

4 Responses

  1. Carol- You are an inspiration to even the veteran teacher. The part where you said you cried about your student’s work reminded me why we do what we do and why we put up with what we put up with! This time of year can be painful and upsetting. (yes, I still have 5 days of classes, finals week and those end of year PD days that are oh, so productive!) Thanks for sharing your experiences, inspiring your students and fellow teachers and for being a true pioneer in music education.

  2. Great post! I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. I’m totally on board with composing next school year. The successes I had with my advanced instrumental music students this year have only made it more obvious that I need to be doing it with all my performance classes.

  4. Wow. I am inspired by these stories. I have become interested in composing music later in life and get helped quite a bit with new music technologies available to me; I have become more creative. Please continue to share these experiences. I feel that as a student f music, I am constantly learning from others experiences.

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