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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 in my education was on playing or singing the compositions/songs for a conductor. The only creativity was the practice order of the director, there was no creativity on my part as composition wasn’t discussed. If you wanted to be creative, you had to 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 difficult . Why? Because my first exposure was music theory. I learned “how” music works before I experimented with  making melodies, using 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. They weren’t very inspiring, so no wonder I felt I could never compose. It wasn’t my voice, my creation or passion.

My approach completely changed when I attended the summer workshop in Vermont.

I can remember my first day sitting in the room with fellow educators in Vermont, as part of the Vermont MIDI project. I was excited my students were going to be a part of this wonderful composing tool. But I didn’t realize that I was going to have to compose as well! I sat there for forty-five minutes and 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, 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.

Composing is the central most part of what I teach to my students. It is creative and I feel it is the way ALL music education should be taught. I let my students compose and let them listen to sounds. As they progress they slowly add chords and learn about music theory, but music theory is not the main ingredient. Creating songs with purpose and making music is the main idea. By making the composition sound good TO THEM creates an authentic voice.

I feel this is the way that music should be created. If you 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 never gets old within the music classroom, when students are allowed to be free to compose.

There are always those students that rise to the top and I would like 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. In fourth grade, they have to be able to PLAY the song they compose. She needed the files as soon as possible, so I told the students, “Just compose anything you can, I need it in one week.”  Jack was concerned he couldn’t play the song. I replied “Dr. McLeod just needs some files, you don’t have to play it!”  He had managed to have nine different instruments in his “An Adventure,” and 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 and won runner-up in the elementary division. He soon will be studying composition privately because composing has become his passion. Another one of his compositions was performed at Ravinia as part of the Midwest Young Artists contest.

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. Clay and I would have discussions about music. It was so amazing to see him develop his composition skills. He has inspired me to compose more and be a better listener, musician, and 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 http://www.musictheory.net/,  but still experimented with sounds. When he got his keyboard connected 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 lessons again. He has pursued additional composition classes at the local music store where he has started taking guitar. All of this resulted in the creation of his website. http://cmusicmaker.com/

Finally, Henri, a fourth grader, slowly became fascinated with GarageBand as a result of the MIDI lab at Sunset Ridge School. One day he knocked on my door with 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. He has carried the excitement of composing home and creates compositions daily.

These three students have attacked composing in 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 the beauty of allowing students to find their voice and create.

I personally want to thank the parents for allowing them to pursue their creativity. Who knows where it may take them.

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3 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Ruthmann, Alex Ruthmann and Brian W, Murray the Robot. Murray the Robot said: From @musictechie: Purpose before Technology http://bit.ly/9smhqt […]

  2. Yes, Carol! I run into exactly the same problem. You hit the nail on the head with this sentence: “Using the tools for ‘what you want to do,’ is the ultimate question”. It seems teaching teachers tools isn’t enough–many get ‘seduced’ by the tech itself. “Isn’t it cool!” they might (and do say) and then structure lessons around IT (the tool) and often use “it” in limited ways.

    Your point here is one that bears repeating.

  3. I saw you present at IMEA in Peoria last January as was “seduced” (to use Andrew’s term!) by everything you and Brenda had to show us! I was on fire! I started using Skype regularly with my husband (also a beginning band teacher) and each of my bands skyped with a composer at the end of the year. I started using Google Docs a TON and it’s really made my life easier! I’ve had so many ideas my head is just spinning every which way! But I agree, it is hard to get going after just a few sessions. I want to learn more because I find myself in this same trap you’ve blogged about. Finding the best way to do things is time-consuming and frustrating! I look forward to going to more seminars and taking more classes so that I can integrate technology into my curriculum more and more.

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