Teaching the Beginning Songwriter

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Fostering Creative Composition in Your Music Student by Abraham Levitan

Most music students don’t write songs. Is this because they have no interest in writing, or because composition is not usually encouraged in music education? It may be a bit of both.

Music students can certainly get a great education without composing. While some students have a natural inclination to write, others do not— and those students may go on to be wonderful musicians.

But every music student should at least try their hand at composition. Why?

Why Every Music Student Should Try Composing

When we learn a new language, it’s a given that we learn how to write. By constructing original sentences, we learn the language’s intricacies: its vocabulary, its rules, its structure.

When we write, we internalize. We feel a deeper connection to language. Songwriting is a deep, personal way of speaking the language of music. It sharpens technical understanding. But perhaps more importantly, composition teaches students that music can communicate something personal, something powerful, something unique to them and their experience.

Today, entertainment is customizable. Our internet experience is responsive to our personal taste; we live in a “because you previously viewed…” culture. Now more than ever, we must raise a generation that can create, not just consume. Consuming is passive. It may inspire, but that’s just the first step.

Creation is active. Music lessons that include composition are an opportunity for our students to experience the energy, joy, and struggle of creation, which is the joy of life, whether we’re creating art, relationships, or community.

All music students should be given a chance to write. But especially with those who display creative urges in other facets of their life—if they’re writing short stories, making videos, improvising dances around the house, or even seeking out music outside the mainstream—we owe it to them to say, “I bet you could make up a song.”

How To Approach Composition with a Music Student

When approaching composition with a beginning student, it’s best not to dwell on stories of Mozart composing concertos at the age five. Keep it simple.

Composition can be something as simple as expressing an opinion: which of these two notes sounds better as the next note in a sequence? Does everybody have the ability to express an opinion like that? I think so.

Instruction evolves from there. First the student decides which note sounds better, then which chord progression sounds better. Next, perhaps, they take three chords and arrange them however they want. Or use only three chords for the next sixteen measures in a sequence of their choosing.

As the student’s ingenuity and interest grows, the teacher sets more complex tasks. Like any aspect of instruction, teaching composition involves setting goals that are appropriate and reasonable. Focus on small victories. Keep simplifying the task until songwriting is something your students feel they can embark on. They will want to learn more, and to keep doing the exercises— or more complex versions of them.

Of course, there is a spectrum of interest and ability. One of my former students, Katie, loved the chord sequences of Coldplay songs and wanted to write using those sequences. So together we did chord analysis with Coldplay, but also with Beethoven. We searched for common threads, and we sometimes decided to use Beethoven chord progressions in a pop setting.

It’s rare to have a student with that kind of interest and passion, but if you encounter one, think “big challenges” rather than “small victories”. Create complexity in your lessons to keep the student growing and interested.

In Katie’s case, engagement meant learning intricate chord theory and analysis, and challenging her not to use—or to cleverly manipulate— the clichés of songwriting.

For gifted students with a definite interest, teachers and parents can create and/or seek out a nurturing environment for growth. For Katie, regular performance opportunities at recitals and school talent shows motivated her. If performance opportunities are scarce, students could be motivated to perform at a family recital in the living room. You could make up programs and make it seem like a big deal—because it is.

Most students will not be like Katie. They may give composition a whirl and decide it’s not for them. And that’s okay. As teachers and parents we open doors and close them as necessary. (Or leave them open just a crack.)

Staying Sensitive to the Process

It’s always good practice to support whatever our students bring to the table. As a musician who’s written albums and performed often, I sometimes forget how delicate writing and performing is—especially when trying it for the first time. Remember that vulnerability. It can only help your student’s compositions (and your own).

Respect your students as a peer no matter their age. A little bit of praise can make the difference between them giving up and persevering.

One of my crowning teaching moments was when, after hearing Katie play an original song at a recital, another student wanted to learn it. Lily practiced Katie’s song for six months, and after she performed it at recital, Katie, who was in the audience, brought her flowers.

There’s nothing like seeing one student inspire another through the gift of songwriting. It’s our responsibility as teachers to make connections like that possible. And to know that, for some, finding their voice is just a matter of finding the right notes.

Want more music teaching advice? Check out Teaching the First Piano Lesson.

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