Encouraging Music Students to Write their Own Music
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
Applause fades to a reverent hush as a violinist under the spotlight with a fixed expression on her brow raises her instrument to play. Her sweet melody wafts through the hot air of the performance hall and is received by the packed audience with awe and respect. The performance is completed to thunderous applause as the soloist curtsies and giggles through a toothless grin.
The player in this beginner student recital is a freckled six-year old in a Ninja Turtles overalls, the audience is made up of peers and parents and the piece was her own composition, curiously entitled, "Farts."
It's not exactly the Vienna Mozart Festival.
But it's music played from the heart.
I'm a professional musician and violin/fiddle teacher who works with beginner to intermediate students of all ages. I encourage all my students to create their own music. Composition opens players' minds to whole new levels of musicianship, creativity and understanding of theory. Besides it's great fun and something the player can take personal pride in playing.
Some students take to writing music naturally. These are the players who, within the first couple weeks of lessons, will improvise a two- or three-note ditty of their own. These players are born composers who've just been waiting for an instrument to work with. They come to lessons beaming with pride as they play their new piece. (Yes, even the adults do this, though they try their best to act cool about it).
Other students of mine are exposed to composition near the end of a lesson in which there is spare time or the student needs to break routine and try something new and interesting. This is an ideal tactic for waking up sleepy teens who were up late partying the night before or gaining the attention of a hyperactive youngster who's about to have an after-school sugar crash.
I go about introducing composition in a variety of ways. Those who are less intimidated by improvising or even playing in front of their teacher alone are asked to play a simple series of notes which I notate via a music notation program on my laptop. (I use "Noteworthy Composer.")
Improvising allows the player to really know their instrument and which notes work for their tune. Players who make up their own tune on their violins also develop fantastic ear-training skills and intonation (playing in tune).
Other players, who I believe would be more comfortable writing the piece simply by notating it first then playing it. I ask them to name a note as played on the violin. I then ask how they want it, setting parameters that would be musical, such as "do you want four short notes or two long ones?" We add more notes to the melody, speaking "violinese," which would sound like a Bingo hall to a non-violinist; words like "G3, "A2" and "E1."
Using a notation program allows the student to see the notes clearly on the screen and easily make corrections to the music. We can also use a playback option in synthesized instrument tones to hear what the piece sounds like on, say, an electric organ or a gong. A big hit among the kids is to speed it up to an impossible tempo, such as 400 beats per minute, and watch the notes dash across the screen.
A simple technique is to ask the student to write a theme, the tune of the song. I then copy and paste it so the theme is written twice, becoming the "motif." The student then writes a secondary theme and I close the piece with the original motif at the end. Sometimes, to give it a blues feel, we play the same theme again but on a higher string on the violin. Thus the theme is in, for example, the key of D then the dominant key of A. The violinist has an easy time of it as the fingering for both themes is identical and easy for a beginner to play.
The student will sometimes come up with new melodies and the tune will take on a direction of its own. Other times I step in and suggest a new direction for the song to take. The only time I do compose is when writing a difficult teacher's harmony part to accompany the melody. But even here the kids are not shy to say, "I don't like that" or "you're doing it wrong!" I have momentary glimpses into what Lennon and McCartney would have felt working with each other as co-writers of a song!
My assistance otherwise is to provide options that would help the piece along. The student is given choices such as an ascending or descending scale to link two sections and other suggestions that I think would suit the piece. My interjections serve to teach some basic laws in music composition but to allow the student choice in where the piece goes.
Once the tune is completed I print out the sheet music on my laser printer and place it ceremoniously on the music stand. Here is the masterpiece on paper with the student's name in bold below the title. We play the piece and hear it as played by the composer. By now it is the end of the lesson and the student shares the music with their parent with great pride.
I encourage further composition at home between lessons by providing interested students with staff paper and teaching the basics of notation, or music note writing. Pitch is fairly simply to notate for violin students to whom the fingerings are learned early on, but most players struggle more with getting the rhythm right.
Here I suggest most players start in 4/4 time and work with rhythms varying from half to quarter notes, or long and short. The rhythmic choices being limited, (long-short-short, short-short-long, long-long or 4-shorts) it helps the player to keep the tune simple enough to notate correctly and with confidence.
From there players can develop the pieces further with added knowledge of theory and composition. Some of my younger students have gone on to enter their compositions in music festival and earn high marks. Others perform their tunes in recitals and fiddle contests to fantastic reception.
Whether it's a simple two-note ditty or an epic composition it is a musical creation and an original piece of work. I remind students that even Beethoven made up his own ditties when he played violin as a child. His father scorned him for this and told him to play "by the notes" as he had been asked to practice. But, thankfully, he kept on goofing around with his own music and developed into, in my opinion, the finest composer our world has ever seen.
He just didn't name his Symphony in D minor "Farts."
**Violin teacher Rhiannon Nachbaur operates award-winning Fiddleheads Violin School & Shop in Kamloops, BC. She also offers sales of violins, bows and accessories in-shop and online: www.fiddleheads.ca