Sunday, December 29, 2013

How can Non-Composers Teach K-12 Composition?


• How do you teach and encourage your students to compose if you have little or no experience composing?

There was a round-table discussion of “creativity in the classroom” at the 2013 Newfound Music Festival, moderated by Professors Andrea Rose and Ki Adams. The audience included music education students and others interested in this topic, and the remaining panel participants were multi-instrumentalist and improviser Paul Bendzsa, ethnomusicologist and "soundsinger" Chris Tonelli, and myself.

This was the ninth consecutive festival with a session on this topic, and the objective every year is to discuss ways in which creativity can be developed and nurtured through teaching music in the public school system, from kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12). As Dr. Rose reminded us, composing is one of the “specific curriculum outcomes” for K-12 in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador (if visiting this link, see page 20).

Therein lies the challenge to be explored in today’s blog. Many school music teachers lack a background in composition; how do such teachers cultivate and facilitate composing and, more generally, creativity in their classrooms?



  • Is it possible to be a good teacher of something in which you have little experience? 
  • Is it possible to be a bad teacher of something in which you are highly skilled?

If you're in a hurry, I'll give you a hint: The answer to both questions is yes.

If you wish to continue reading, then consider this:
  • Teachers are sometimes not experts in the things they teach. Example: About a week before he started his first teaching job, a friend of mine was asked/told to teach physical education, something for which (a) he had no specific qualifications, and (b) no specific skill set. As a child, gym teachers routinely gave up on my friend because he was considered physically unskilled, and, for the most part, he was okay with that; his attitude was he knew it, and they knew it, so why pretend otherwise? Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I understand he became a very good phys. ed. teacher. He researched the best ways to teach and motivate students in kinesiology (also known as human kinetics, or phys. ed. if you prefer old-school terminology), established fitness goals, and found fun ways for his students to reach them. He found ways to encourage and empower kids who had been written off by previous gym teachers, precisely because he had been one of those people.

  • School wind-band teachers are required to have some knowledge of all the instruments of the wind band, but teachers can't necessarily play all (or even any) of the instruments well. They are of course proficient on their main instrument, and they may well be competent in a few others, but for most instruments, they have had very little training or experience. And yet, there they are, teaching our kids how to play these instruments! Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Good teachers find a way to teach basic skills in band instruments, and less-good teachers, for reasons that probably have more to do with pedagogical shortcomings than any lack of proficiency on these instruments, are less successful in this

  • Many school teachers and professors have found themselves in a position of having to teach something in which they had very little training, and some have gone on to become very good at teaching that subject. This is analogous to parenthood, in that nobody has any experience before embarking on it, but some become very good parents despite this, while others don't. One of the ways many people learn best is by doing. 

  • On the other hand, most musicians either know first-hand, or have heard of, cases where a virtuoso performer turned out to be a rather poor teacher of their instrument. Sometimes, the more you struggle in learning something, the better you understand how to teach it, and vice-versa

  • Experience and proficiency in something do not necessarily make you a great teacher. Overcoming obstacles and struggling to achieve proficiency can make you better equipped to helping students overcome their own struggles.
If you are a school music teacher, and you buy into the argument that you don't need to have achieved mastery in something in order to teach it well, here are some ideas that may help in teaching/encouraging composition and creativity, even if your confidence in this area is not high:
  1. Everyone is creative. We too often think of creativity as a "special" thing, a gift, which is bestowed upon some, but not others. This is wrong; we are all creative, but in different ways. In a recent study, 70% of respondents in the United States said they believed the education system stifles creativity. Some people may be more creative than others, but if true, this may be related to the encouragement or discouragement of creative activities experienced while growing up.
  2. “One of the myths of creativity is that very few people are really creative,” said Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. “The truth is that everyone has great capacities but not everyone develops them. One of the problems is that too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we're draining people of their creative possibilities and, as this study reveals, producing a workforce that's conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.” ["Study Reveals Global Creativity Gap"]
  3. Encourage creativity.  Hypothetical situation: A child makes up a tune and plays it for her teacher; consider two different responses:
    • Teacher 1 response: "Well, I guess it's okay, but I've got to be honest and tell you that it really sounds too much like a Justin Bieber song, which makes it unoriginal, and a pretty poor choice of somebody to copy! I'll give you a C-plus for that, 'cause I'm feeling generous today!" The child is discouraged and embarrassed, and either never tries making up a tune again, or if they do, they know enough to not show it to the teacher.
    • Teacher 2 response: "Wow, that's good! And it kind of sounds like Justin Bieber… but better! You should write more songs!" The child feels encouraged, and keeps at it, keeps improving, and eventually finds their own original voice, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be nothing like The Bieb's.

    The act of sharing something you create with someone else makes you vulnerable; you can never be sure how people will react, and for most of us, others' responses matter. Compounding this is the self-doubt that many of us feel when trying something new. Encouraging creative activities for your students is vitally important because it assuages these self-doubts, which in turn makes it more likely that students will want to continue creating things. I think that people who self-identify as "not creative" would not be limiting themselves in this way if they had been encouraged more in their creative activities while growing up.

  4. Originality is overrated, at least in the early stages of learning to compose; avoid over-emphasizing its importance to your students. Sounding like someone else when you start composing is a normal part of the process. Indeed, part of the training that many composers received throughout history was to learn to write music "in the style of" some other composer (Palestrina, Bach, Chopin, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, etc.). In doing this, we learn different techniques, and we may choose to recombine aspects of these techniques in any way we wish when writing our own music. Everyone will find their own voice if they keep at it, but they won't keep at it if they are discouraged. If your students like pop music, then you could make a class project where everyone writes a short song (or even just one verse of a song) in the style of an artist they admire. Students can work in teams if they like, and then perform their songs for one another.

  5. The creative process is often messy. Things we make are usually not very good before they become good. Anyone who composes knows this, I suspect. However, there is a myth about the creative process in which genius composers get their ideas in a flash, or at least relatively effortlessly, perhaps as a gift from the Almighty, and all the genius composer has to do is to take dictation feverishly quickly in order to notate the genius composition. Movies such as "Amadeus" reinforce this absurd notion. It is important to make sure your students know that every "genius" composer that ever lived had periods of struggle during the creative process, especially when they were starting out, and often throughout their creative lives as well. "Amadeus" is entertainment with some factual content, not a documentary. .

  6. Self doubt is normal, both for students and teachers, when attempting something new. Self doubt can be an important part of the creative process: A person attempts to create something, but comes to the "realization" that the thing they are creating is not very good. "This sucks!" they might say to themselves, or to you.

    This "realization," however, may be (a) flawed; it may not "suck" at all, although it could almost certainly be improved, and (b) is a normal occurrence in the creative process, even for experienced creators; it's an illustration of how our perspective can change from day to day on things we create, and an indicator that we need to keep working on our creation in order to improve it. I have written several posts in which perspective is discussed in relation to the creative process, including this one, should you wish to read further.

    As teachers, we can try to ensure that our students know it's okay to doubt ourselves at times, and we can encourage students when this happens. As more experienced musicians than our students (hopefully!), we can suggest some concrete ideas for improvements, such as simplify (texture, harmony, ideas, etc.), repeat, vary earlier ideas, use a simple form like ABA, modulate, try an exotic scale, identify and clarify foreground and background (beginning composers often do not distinguish between the two, making the music sound confused), make it more idiomatic for the performers, and simplify. And simplify. And… Okay, you get it: Simplifying ideas is often a key to improving them!

  7. Critique carefully, and sparingly. I think that people who are just getting started in composition or in any endeavour primarily need encouragement, and, while the role of a teacher typically includes critical assessment, often what we as teachers intend as constructive criticism is received by students as discouragement. I would therefore suggest that any critiquing we offer, which ideally can be very helpful to students, be presented in the most encouraging way possible. Students should feel that they are free to take or leave any suggestions offered.

  8. Don't be afraid to admit you are not an experienced composer; there is no need to present yourself as an "authority" or "master" of composition, even if you are! Students, even at the university level, often respond well to a comment such as: "I really like your idea there, but I was hoping to hear more of it! Do you think that section could go on a bit longer?" On the other hand, a comment such as, "That section is too short and needs to be extended; what were you thinking?" is likely to alienate people, in part because it sounds like the person saying it is very full of himself. Music is generally written for audiences of non-experts (Milton Babbitt's, "Who Cares if you Listen?" notwithstanding), and non-experts can have very insightful and helpful comments too.

  9. Ask the student if there is any part of their composition that they would like to improve. Or you could ask, "on a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about your piece?" Questions such as these can make the student feel empowered, and they contribute to establishing your role as a helper. Ideally, a student would feel comfortable enough to identify at least some aspect of their composition that could be improved, because that builds a bridge between your role as a helper and their desire to improve their piece; you are both on the same side, and the student needs to know this. If the answer is that the student is fully satisfied with their work, this suggests that the work is either really good or the student does not want to hear anything negative or even constructive about it. In this case, it is best not to press the matter; there is little point in attempting to help someone that does not want help. If you continue to build trust with your students, you may find that some students that were initially closed to your suggestions will gradually become more receptive to them.

  10. Ask class members for suggestions or reactions to each others' pieces. Do this before you say anything about the students' creations, because once the teacher speaks, some students might not wish to say anything if their opinion differs from the teacher's, while others can be swayed by the teacher's words. If no students wish to offer feedback, you could …

  11. Ask specific questions, such as,
    • What do you think of the opening? Does it work for you?
    • Where are some places where the music expresses the meaning of the text really well? 
    • Are there places where the music could better express the meaning of the text? (Possible follow-up: What are some ways of making this happen?)
    • What do you like most about this song/composition?
    • How many different musical ideas are there? Do they all work equally well, or can any be improved? Can any be eliminated?
    If you ask the right questions, many students are happy to give their opinions on things, but they need to know that their opinions are understood, acknowledged, and respected. They also need to know that it is okay for others to disagree with their opinions; different class members might have diametrically opposed opinions on the same question, and that's okay (in fact, it's great!) as long as opinions are expressed as opinions, and diplomatically, e.g., "Maybe I just didn't get it, but I didn't hear a connection between the mood of the poem and the mood of the music," versus "that sucked!", "that was LAME," or "I just didn't like it," etc. Obviously the age and experience of students has a bearing on their ability to articulate specific musical concerns, so if someone says, "I just didn't like it," the teacher could try to follow up with questions to try to narrow this down, such as "what didn't you like?" or "was it too loud?" or "were there some chords that you thought didn't work very well?"

  12. GarageBand. This is perhaps the greatest facilitator of composition for untrained music-lovers ever invented, and I say this as the least-hyperbolic person in the history of the universe! ;)  If your school has Macintosh computers, the computers should already have GarageBand installed. If your school has iPads, GarageBand is available as an iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch app (or sometimes it comes bundled with the iPad). I had this program on my computers for years but never used it until a few years ago, and I quickly came to realize that it is easy to use, even for (especially for) non-musicians, fun, and remarkably powerful.

    Briefly, GarageBand allows multi-track composition by combining any of thousands of pre-recorded (or pre-created) loops in its library (organized by categories, such as drums, guitars, basses, orchestral, country, jazz, world, cinematic, experimental, etc.), each of which can be edited, abridged, or repeated, as desired by the user. It also allows mutli-track recording and editing of live instruments or voice(s) along with these loops, or on their own, and has guitar-amp modelling that "simulates the sounds of famous guitar amplifiers." It can do a lot more, but the exciting and empowering aspect of it for me is that you don't need any knowledge of musical notation, music theory, or even how to play a musical instrument, in order to produce surprisingly-sophisticated compositions.

    My suggestion here is that if your school has access to this app, spend some time fooling around with it, and then get your students working with it. Alternatively, spend no time getting to know it and get your students to figure it out and explain it to you!


  13. Do not force the issue.  Some people insist on defining themselves by their limitations, e.g., I'm not creative; I'm lousy at art (or sports, or math, etc.); I could spend 100 years studying music and never write anything that was any good. Like the old adage, you can lead a camel to water, but you can't make it drink, you can offer choices to your students, but it's up to them to select them or not.

Wow… yet another tome-masquerading-as-blog-post… apologies for the length! :-$

If you would like even more-specific suggestions, consider reading (or referring your students to) a series of posts I wrote on the nuts and bolts of composition from a few years ago called Composition Issues. There is a lot of information available elsewhere on the Internet as well.

And if any of this is helpful, or if you have further suggestions or disagree with any of these suggestions, please leave a comment!

7 comments:

andrew vatts said...

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Kelly Perchard said...

As a music education degree hopeful, this blog was very informative. There are many aspects I didn't think of before, like finding ways to encourage kids drawing on your own short-comings or personal experiences. One thing that comes to mind with this for me as a private piano teacher is how one of my friends in piano lessons was forced to play only classical music, which in turn made her end up hating it. As a result of this, when I am teaching I encourage my students to come to me with any songs they would like to learn, while still incorporating some more technically challenging pieces.

Another point made in this blog that I identified with was the idea that "not everyone is creative". In high school music class we were given a composition project, and there were several people in the class that said "I'm not that creative", but once they got past this they actually had some very good compositions. This mentality of only some people being creative is definitely one that should be abolished in a classroom setting, and overall.

Becca Spurrell said...

Your point about originality was interesting. The idea that "sound like someone else is part of the process" is something I never thought of before. I've often written songs, and would get really frustrated with myself and my ability to write when I mother or brother would walk by and say "That sounds like a Pink Floyd song" or something similar. But the whole "it's part of the process" really makes me feel better about myself! Like if I keep writing music, even if it does sound like someone else's music, it will still give me experience and practice with writing, and eventually, it will sound more and more original.

Something else that this blog entry made me think about. My uncle is a song writer, and he often asks me for my opinions when he's working. I'll come over or he'll send me clips. At first, I found it very difficult to give constructive remarks. Especially knowing that I was not an experienced composer at all. Everything sounded fine to me. After some time, I got comfortable making comments about his work. And after being in this class, I found things I could actually give opinions and suggestions about. Once I started making suggested based on what we learned in class, I got more comfortable giving him comments, and it went even past things we talked about in class. I was able to think of my own suggestions and opinions. This actually helped me in my own compositions. While listening back to my own music, I would be reminded of something I told my uncle, or something I heard in one of his pieces, and I would try my suggestions in my own music. It was very helpful.

Josh McCarthy said...

My first and foremost dream would be a composer, but I can really see myself teaching high school, perhaps composing on the side. I have friends that tell me I'm really good with kids, and the people I talk to that don't know a whole lot about music say they get realy inspired when I talk about it, so I'd like to have that effect on younger generations, to kind of guide them along until they find the path that I chose, which was music school, I'd love to be the reason why people went to music school, that feels like it would be such a magical moment for a teacher. I laughed out loud at the Justin Beiber part in your first point, but I do agree that creativity needs to be encouraged to your students, or else what would they have to go by, why would they write? For themselves? No, not usually. People that age are usually looking for some kind of attention and to be noticed by their talents and this is one great way to boost their confidence about it. A very important issue with composition students is confidence. You have the respond the right way to their music, in your seventh point, you talked about a nicer way to say things (not really the point of your point, but it made me think of this) and not to be mean about something you think is wrong or could use work. You should play with your words until you find the right combination that will both make the student think about what you said, and they won't get their feeling hurts. Helpful blog, thanks.

Anaïs Siosse said...

For me an artist is someone who can create, and as I think that everybody can create, then everybody is an artist. I totally agree that the word creativity is an important word for teachers and students and that everybody should encouraged and be encouraged to create and develop their creativity. I totally understand that a teacher can be stressed out to teach something new. I guess the hardest thing is to know how to start. But from there, but from there, the students and the teacher learn from each others. What is great to teach art is that is can be approached by different points of view, there are no rules. We all have something to learn and something to teach, I guess the most important is to be very curious and to share the love of teaching.

Sarah Bartlett said...

This is such a great post! When I was still in high school, I was determined to teach piano lessons, figuring that I would be able to teach, since I already know how to play. I was very, very wrong. I quickly learned that I did not possess the gift of teaching; I was a very poor teacher. Just because someone demonstrates a higher skill level in a certain area does NOT mean they are fit to teach in that area. Communicating effectively and demonstrating concepts, as well as providing relevant learning materials and ample encouragement are key elements to teaching that not everyone can accomplish. Teaching is very challenging, and we often undervalue the work teachers do since so much of it is often behind the scenes. The opposite is also true: someone may be a naturally gifted teacher and may not need much previous knowledge in the area which they are teaching. Not that knowledge of the subject isn't important, but a skilled educator can learn material and more easily synthesize and pass the knowledge on to others.
Thanks for a great post, it had a lot of great points that I hadn't previously considered!

Jack Etchegary said...

I would say that the ability a teacher has to teach composition to grades K-12 depends on their ability to teach the fundamentals of music, the teachers knowledge of these fundamentals, and the existing knowledge of the student with regards to these fundamentals of music. Of course, the success rate in which a teacher can teach composition to younger students will vary from student to student as different peoples' creativity is shown in different ways. Some students may also not be as interested in this subject and therefore it will prove more difficult to garner good results from the teaching. However, in all cases, as is mentioned in many bullet points of the blog post, a positive attitude and deliverance of feedback is essential in succeeding in teaching composition (and really anything) effectively. I have not really put much thought into the process of teaching composition, however now that I have this on my mind, I am realizing how much different it is from other forms of education, since in many cases there are no right or wrong answers, and critical yet constructive/positive feedback is essential. I will definitely be thinking about this more in the future as I consider education as a potential career choice.