Compose Yourself! – the online piano composition festival is back for a second year, providing an opportunity for all UK-based young pianists to be creative. We’re delighted to welcome composer Alison Mathews as our guest blog writer to introduce the festival.
When the festival was co-founded by myself and Lindsey Berwin, we had the aim of inspiring creativity in young students and encouraging teachers to include composition as a natural part of their student’s learning. From our first-hand experience, both Lindsey and I know the huge benefits for students when improvisation or composition is a part of their learning journey, but we also know that students can lack confidence (and sometimes teachers too!) or that it can be difficult to fit things into lessons when time is short.
I’d like to suggest two practical steps you can take towards including composition into your lessons, with the focus on playing together.
# IDEA 1
One of the best ways is to have a creative approach when introducing a new concept – whether that is staccato or legato; contrasting dynamics; step/skip movement or a new rhythm. Use these as an opportunity to include improvisation! Start a conversation – “can we play some staccato footsteps, or hopping sounds?” “What creature would make loud, low hopping sounds?” etc. You could then have a musical conversation with your student, perhaps at different ends of the piano! In this way your student can explore the piano freely, using their imagination, listening carefully to the sounds they create and make their own musical choices.
By all means guide your pupil. For example, you may like to use a particular hand position or scale, but let them know that there are no wrong or right answers. By having a conversation and letting your student discover different sounds (taking the lead if they are confident enough to do so) and making their own choices you will show how much you value their creativity and confidence will grow. The ideas created by your student may well be the springboard to a composition, growing naturally out of the concepts they are learning.
# IDEA 2
Another practical step is to use a duet as the basis for improvisation, which in turn can then lead to a solo composition. Playing with your student can support them by providing a steady pulse to work with; a structure or framework; a style, mood or even sound-world to inspire them. This type of collaboration can give them a type of musical ‘safety-net’.
There are many books which include a teacher accompaniment looping a particular chord progression, but I’d like to use a specific example – ‘What’s that Lurking in the Cave?’ (Here is a link to a pdf – full score and student’s sheet). This provides a young adventurous beginner with plenty of material to inspire them. It covers several musical ideas and teaching concepts, all of which are suitable as the basis of a composition, within a framework that allows for free exploration:
- Call and response or question and answer phrases
- Chromatic/semitonal movement
- ‘Sound effects’
- A theme or storyline
- Using lyrics or words as rhythmic stimuli
This duet is meant to be learnt by rote – the student’s part that introduces the piece is a simple ostinato pattern describing steady footsteps. Once a steady pulse is established the teacher joins in with a melody that can be sung along to – “what’s that lurking in the cave?”. The student then answers by improvising sounds such as flittering, slithering and even roaring in different registers of the piano! Here you can watch Nia and myself play a version of the piece. It’s 2019 and at that time duets at one piano were a normal part of our lessons!
FROM IMPROVISATION TO COMPOSITION
To make the step from improvisation to the composition of a solo piece you could start with a similar storyline or choose something different – whatever appeals to your student. Take the idea of a musical conversation by having your student create a melody, perhaps using a hand position they are familiar with. You could use words to help create the rhythm or it may be a melody that expresses the feeling of exploring. This melody could use something that the student is working on, perhaps a range of intervals, or chromatic movement depending on the mood of the piece! The first melody would then form one part of the conversation which could be answered by ‘sound effects’ in different areas of the piano, or by a contrasting melody in the left hand. Depending on the level of your pupil you could even use a simple ostinato or chord in the left hand against which the melody is set. Having a storyline is very helpful as it provides a structure for the composition and an outline for your pupil to work with. As the music begins to take shape it’s important to encourage your student to consider dynamics, articulation, tempo – all of the performance details that bring music to life. They should have plenty of ideas from learning the duet! As you can see, the learning of the duet and then using it as the basis for composing is something that will take time to achieve but can be worked on gradually over several weeks. The benefits of putting time aside in the lessons to be creative can reap huge rewards for your students!
COMPOSE YOURSELF! FESTIVAL
I hope this inspires you and your students and perhaps to consider entering the festival. We welcome both competitive and non-competitive entrants aged 5-18 by the submission date of 1st July 2022. Please visit composeyourself.net for full information on registering for the event, for further resources and to meet the adjudicators and our featured composers. We are proud to be supported by Trinity College London, Editions Musica Ferrum and Faber Music.