The Composing Student

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One of the great joys of learning the language of music is discovering your own inner composer.

As scintillating as “World Symphony” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and other elementary pieces the typical student starts out with on their musical journey, nothing quite compares to music composed by ME!!! (And by ME, I mean YOU!!!)

There is actually a book series entitled “Music by Me” for the budding young composer. It has several levels which start out with basic exercises that are accessible to beginners, such as composing a tune built on three notes that sings the praises of your favorite ice cream and then working up from there – and who doesn’t like/relate to ice cream? The student is given a rhythm framework to build on, consisting of quarter, eighth, half, dotted half, and eighth notes, then encouraged to write a melody within a rhythm framework given, using just the notes of a simple C, F, or G Major pentascale, or perhaps even a simple A, E, or D Minor pentascale. The exercises progress slowly from here, incorporating more of the basic skills the student has learned, such as the complete C, F, and G Major scales, as well as A, E, or D Minor; more notes = more possibility!

Using a planning system for tapping into inner creativity seems a little suspect at first. I mean, doesn’t music just suddenly overtake you and you just have to write it down? Isn’t that what REAL music does??? Well, I know I sat in composition class one day in college while our incredible composition professor started writing single notes of different time values all over the chalkboard. He then asked us to call out different notes we could add in and to decide where the measure lines could go. When he was happy with that, he then played through the melody and we tweaked it together. (Apparently, it takes a village!) The class then discussed what style the finished composition should be. (We chose Latin jazz.) Next, he asked us to come up with harmonies for the single notes and to put in the chord symbols that would work best with them. By the time we were finished with our somewhat random beginning, we had an interesting new composition written in a Latin jazz style. Success!

Suddenly, my idea of musicians sitting in a cool, artsy loft/studio getting hit with inspiration like a ray from heaven and presto: out comes a well-crafted tune that ends up on their new album: shattered!!! – and perhaps for the better. Sometimes writing is just picking a simple technique like writing down notes, connecting them together, and then seeing what they inspire for harmonies: wash, rinse, repeat. Other times, it is just practising writing melodies every week for 3 months before you find one that has full song possibilities. And, sometimes, it is just writing out your feelings about life that day and keeping them in a musical journal to document the journey – and that is ok!

My hope is that every music student discovers the music inside them and commits it to paper, rehearses it, and then finds people who will not only listen to their unique expressions, but who will applaud their efforts and encourage them on their musical journeys.

Julie Boettcher teaches piano, voice , theory and composing.

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