A successful high school composition programme

Teaching composition to New Zealand high school students has changed hugely over the last 10-15 years.  Around 2005 many schools across the country embraced the Sibelius (or Encore) notation application as a way of notating student compositions.

However, this quite quickly became what students considered to be composition.  They couldn’t really ‘do’ composition apart from Sibelius.  And it meant that those from orchestral/classical backgrounds had a huge advantage over non-music readers when it came to composition.  If everything had to be notated all the time, then the success of a student’s composition was directly related to how well they could understand and use notation.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m a firm believer that all musicians should have at least a working knowledge of notation and score conventions.  It is how we communicate in many contexts.  But, if a student is not using notation regularly as part of their performance practice (for instance, if they’re a singer/songwriter or they play metal electric guitar) then no matter how much we try to force music theory down their throat, they are not going to embrace it and find a use for it.

As an electric bass player who developed a love for jazz I was able to see the point of theory and harmony and embraced it because it made me a better improviser and meant I could play in Big Bands.  But if other musicians can’t find the ‘why’ for notation, then we shouldn’t force it on them.

But anyway, I digress from what this blog is supposed to be about…

In the ‘old’ days (I’m talking from around 2005-2012) we were able to use applications like Guitar Pro to assist guitarists to ‘compose’ (notate) their pieces but this was largely pointless.  A guitarist of a rock or metal genre song (for example) doesn’t really expect other guitarists to learn the piece from notation/TAB.  Most of the time they learn it by ear.  Students were just doing it because a teacher told them to (who were often doing it because they thought NCEA told them to).

However, with the advent of free software like GarageBand, and the huge reduction in price of Logic Pro, world class recording software is within reach of the average BYOD high school student.  This now means that students can compose on instruments (I know… amazing! lol).  Students can record their ideas into Music Memos, GarageBand, Logic or other software and then develop their ideas into cohesive and convincing pieces of music – without the requirement to notate their pieces.

The synths, samplers and effects plugins in the software can be used to spark creativity.  DAW’s haven’t become a substitute for Sibelius – they have enabled students to go deeper in their musical composition and production.

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Workshopping ideas with guitar and recording into Garageband on their laptop

So how do we teach composition with a DAW?

I’ll discuss how I teach composition to NCEA classes (students with at least 2-3 years experience on an instrument).

  • No unit plans or formal class teaching – students just start.  All students with at least 2-3 years experience are able to find a basic musical idea.  They can use their DAW to record this idea (along with a click or a looped sample), develop their own beat to go with it (depending on the genre) and add harmony.
  • As long as they are getting constant feedback from a teacher all students manage to come up with an idea and then start to develop that idea through repetition, sequence, altering the texture/timbre, harmonic accompaniment, etc.
  • Every week all the students have to play where they are up to to the rest of the class.  This fosters a sense of competition (for those students that respond well to this) but it also means they have public deadlines they have to stick to.  They become accountable to each other.  Students are given the responsibility to feedback to each other with positive and negative feedback.  This also forces students to think critically and give quality feedback within the context of talking about the musical elements.
  • Analysis – students don’t know what they don’t know.  And to figure out what makes a good piece of music in a certain genre they need to do plenty of quality analysis.  I get them to listen to pieces of music and comment on the structure, melody, harmony, use of instruments, texture, etc

This process may sound messy but it’s great to own that with the students.  To be a teacher that is constantly adapting and responding to individual and unique student need means I never get bored! It means my students are also constantly teaching me as well.

But it means as a teacher I need to be adaptable.  Sometimes to move some students forward I may need to do a few lessons on harmony, or Bach choral voice leading to assist with their writing for strings, or how to construct a beat in electronic genres, or how to use the arpeggiator functions of synths… but this means I can grow with the students and use these ideas to influence my own composition.

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The result?

The result is that my students find their ‘why’.  They grow, and are proud to share their growth.  My ‘classical’ students still do well and move on to University composition study, but now the music department has grown through the addition of the electronic composers, the singer/songwriters, the rock guitarists.  They all respect each other and learn from each other.

A couple of students that may not have done well in the ‘Sibelius’ era but have ended up producing fantastic compositions (and have been recognised by Play It Strange) can be heard here.

Logan:

https://playitstrange.bandcamp.com/track/normandy-logan-mcallister

George and Bella:

https://playitstrange.bandcamp.com/track/holding-on-bella-ford-and-george-white

One thought on “A successful high school composition programme

  1. Duncan thanks for this thoughtful analysis of your process. Your approach very similar to what I did in my doctoral research on NCEA group composing. In the last few years the opportunities for students to work across multiple styles, forms and literacies, using media like never before, have just mushroomed. Thanks very much for sharing these ideas. Vicki Thorpe

    Like

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