Sometimes I think teaching composition is really easy, and then I try to teach my kids to compose melodically. The first time I did it, I didn’t give strong enough parameters, and the kids came up with everything under the sun, which was GREAT, except they couldn’t write it.
And that’s a big No-No in my book.
I thought I would talk you through what I learned with my mistakes.
1. Pick a length.
Make them stick to it. If it’s your kids first try at composing, set a length of 4 or 8 4/4 or 2/4 bars. Make it something simple that they can work with, be creative, but still fill it out.
2. Give them a pitch to start on and end on.
If you are composing with 3 notes, what do the end on? Sol? Mi? Let them know and set it up for them so they have to choose that note.
3. Limit what rhythm they can use.
I found that if you don’t set both the rhythm and the solfege, you will get a mess of rhythms even when they follow the solfege. And visa versa. For first time composers, it may even be beneficial to help them out by limiting them to quarter notes!
4. If you want the students to compose lyrics, let them chose a theme as a class.
Let them brainstorm ideas: animals, snow, books, bacon (yes, I’ve had a kid suggest that). Then they all have to write on that theme. Giving restrictions will help those kids who might not be able to come up with a theme on their own. (I don’t advocate using this step with first timers!)
5. Pick the notes they already can identify, write and read to be the notes they compose with.
This is the big one for me. Because of my past mistakes. Use solfege, not note names related to the boomwhackers. Don’t hand out a set of boomwhackers and say “here you go!” (I wasn’t quite that oblivious, but it was close…) If you are working with 1st graders, they can only use Sol-Mi, if its’s 4th grade, use the solfege they know, and can write WELL. There is nothing wrong with restricting them to a few concepts before what they have just learned. Composing is a skill they have to learn too, and restricting them to fewer notes will help them out.
I hope this gets you started!