Do you have piano students who enjoy being creative? This week on the blog, we are delighted to welcome composer Alison Mathews to talk about Compose Yourself! the online composition festival for UK pianists aged 5-18. But first, a little about Alison and co-creator of the festival, composer Lindsey Berwin…
Alison is a classically trained pianist and graduate of the Royal College of Music (BMus Hons), London, UK. With the philosophy of music at the heart of her studies, Alison then completed a masters degree at Surrey University, Surrey, UK. She was then awarded a scholarship by Surrey University to pursue a Doctorate in Music, however, starting a family intervened.
A desire to provide her students with imaginative music to play fuelled Alison’s interest in composition; she wanted them to have music that would allow them to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Since publishing her first book in 2016, Alison has gone on to write a varied portfolio of educational books.
Her works include ‘Treasure Trove‘, ‘Doodles‘ and ‘Landscapes‘, published by Editions Musica Ferrum as well as collaborative books such as Piano Paintings with the composer Barbara Arens. She has contributed to many educational anthologies, such as ‘Mosaic, Piano Star Duets as well as being included in the ABRSM, Trinity and RIAM syllabi. We featured one of Alison’s works, A Snowy Owl Takes Flight, in our 10 Mood-Lifting Piano Pieces Your Students Will Love To Learn and Play webinar.
Lindsey Berwin studied piano for seven years with Rene Waterman. She is a graduate of The Royal Academy of Music, holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Education from Durham University, and taught classroom music for two years. When Lindsey settled in Leeds, she decided to refocus her attention on piano teaching. She has thirty-five years of experience as a piano teacher and performer.
Lindsey is well-known for her innovative approaches to improving key skills, including sight-reading. FunKey! is a series of books designed to improve piano students’ sight reading skills using jazz based material. All The Fun Of The Fair, is a suite of piano pieces suitable for intermediate and advanced students. Jazzagility!, is a series of graded piano technique books in the jazz idiom. Keen to support all types of composition, Lindsey and her pupils have regularly won prizes in the annual European Piano Teachers Composers’ Competition.
ONLINE COMPOSITION FESTIVAL: COMPOSE YOURSELF!
Compose Yourself! is a new and exciting online piano composition festival which reflects mine and Lindsey’s passion for encouraging creativity in students from an early age. Our teaching experience has taught us how beneficial composing can be, and in a variety of different ways. For some students it provides a means of developing self-confidence in a way that playing never has, for others a means of self-expression. Most importantly, it brings together different aspects of musical learning for all students. Composing can lead to a deeper understanding of music for students at all levels in a creative way.
why this composition FESTIVAL?
We aim to provide students with a goal, and a way to share their music. More than that, we want to encourage and support teachers, especially those who feel less confident or have little experience in introducing composition into lessons. We are offering resources and guidance in the form of free printable activity sheets, an animation ideal for a soundtrack project, and a growing list of books and articles. These resources are created from our direct experience of teaching composition – they are tried and tested!
As you may have experienced, some students are natural “noodlers” and love the chance to improvise or compose. However many lack confidence, or believe they can’t compose. Natural improvisers often need guidance with shaping and connecting the flow of ideas – moving from improvisation to composition. For those who lack confidence taking that first step into the unknown is often the hardest part!
6 IDEAS TO HELP YOUR STUDENTS COMPOSE
1. PROVIDE A FRAMEWORK
Exploring a musical form will give an overall structure. Ternary form is a simple form to begin with, as it is suitable for many themes – for example a journey or an adventure that begins and ends at home. Storylines or even a musical conversations between different characters can also give a framework.
2. PROVIDE STIMULI
Choose a theme that appeals to your student. One of the most popular themes for my younger students is favourite foods, with ice-cream songs a firm favourite! They may enjoy making up stories, or have a favourite character from a film/book. Using a video to create a soundtrack works well. Alternatively, you could use a particular style and a favourite piece of music your student may have learnt as the basis for their composition.
3. FOCUS ON A TECHNIQUE OR CONCEPT
Rhythm can be an excellent starting point, especially if you are introducing something new. You could explore a particular scale or key. Developing melodic motifs in simple ways or using harmony and exploring chord progressions can be good building blocks. Use staccato and legato or contrasting dynamics to develop articulation and awareness of performance details.
4. LISTENING AND REFLECTING
Make sure ideas are written down or recorded quickly in any format, so that your student can return to them later. You may well do this as your student plays! Play back what your student has created – even the smallest melody, so that they can focus, listen, and make choices about the sounds they are making and the direction they are taking. Demonstrate ideas to them too – give choices for them to listen to.
5. EXPLORE THE INSTRUMENT
A student will feel secure within a certain hand position or key, but do encourage your student to explore all that the piano or keyboard has to offer. Use of different registers provides different atmospheres or moods. Pedal, glissandi, or harmonics can provide interesting effects, or if using a keyboard, different voices and sounds.
6. BE FLEXIBLE!
You may start off with a printed sheet and a step-by-step plan, but your pupil may well take a different direction on a new path! It is good to have an overall plan in mind, providing boundaries for those free improvisers or plenty of achievable steps for those less confident. Be prepared to adapt and be aware of the pace at which your student works well.
I hope you find these tips useful; have a look at this video where I demonstrate how to use a favourite piece and 3 chord progression as a starting point:
HOW TO ENTER AND FIND OUT MORE
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This guest blog post was written by composer, and co-creator of the Compose Yourself! online composition festival, Alison Mathews.