Finding Our Groove With Composition

My classes have worked on their composition projects a total of three class periods. Groups worked independently while I was at all-state clinic, and then worked on it again last Friday.

 

My 6th grade students are also working on composition projects (making their own arrangements of Silent Night, since it’s the 200th anniversary this year!), so early on in the day my anxiety started creeping in:

“Did I not prepare them enough? Some of them aren’t getting that their melody shouldn’t sound like the Silent Night they already know.”

 

“I don’t think that group over there is really working at all.”

 

“Is this gonna crash and burn?”

That's right, I'm using my favorite Leslie Knope gif again. What are you gonna do about it?

But then as I went through the day, I started noticing little things happening in the room that made me feel better. Every group was working in their own way. Sure, there was a lot of socializing, but there also seemed to be a lot of excitement. When I was absent the previous week, I asked everyone to send me a video or recording of the ideas they came up with. (Don't worry, I'll butter some groups up so that I can post their videos...)

 

You guys, some groups already had their sections written!

I was worried I hadn’t provided enough structure within the guidelines of the assignment. I was also second-guessing that my students didn’t have enough background in music theory yet for composing. But all they really need is their imagination. And let’s be honest, Chrome Music Lab as an aide certainly helps speed up the process!

 

The day before, we were out for a hurricane (again), so I had some time to do random things around the house. While doing said random things, I was listening to an Eric Whitacre playlist on Spotify. Did you know he wrote an arrangement of Goodnight Moon?

 

Mind. Blown.

Apparently, there is and SATB Choral arrangement, as well as a solo arrangement. Both of these I found with a quick search on YouTube.

I wasn’t even looking for, and didn’t know I needed in my life. I shared this piece with each class before letting them get to work. I was hoping to provide a little inspiration, while also showing that what they come up with doesn’t have to be terribly complicated to be beautiful.

As I was wondering around the room, trying to be hands off, while also simultaneously offering guidance where needed, I noticed that most groups used the following strategies as they were figuring things out:

Ostinatos

The guide that I got from my professor (who got it from another teacher), suggested alternating between full group instruction and small group work. I started our lesson on Friday by going over what an ostinato was. We then identified some ostinatos in our own music, and discussed how they could be used as a simple tool for composition. I asked the classes to analyze their text, and decide as a group if an ostinato might be appropriate for their section.

Creating Motives With Melody Maker or Song Maker

Melody maker allows you to compose a single melody line, which simplifies things a lot. There’s no worrying about making chords, etc. If a group got stuck on something and couldn’t figure out what to do, I would direct them to melody maker. Then, I would tell the group that I wanted each individual to make their own melody using the app. Once everyone in the group did this, I asked them to go around and share what they made up. The group could then decide what ideas they liked, didn’t like, or wanted to do more with. Once the group found a pitch pattern they liked, they played with combining words in different rhythms to each pitch pattern.

The crappy part about Melody Maker is that we can't save our work. So, I just tell everyone to take a screen shot of their melody, because it's fairly simple to re-create. Song Maker actually allows you to save a link, so that you can return to your work later. But, I actually think Song Maker provides too many options for some. As in, I walk over to check things out, and the entire screen is filled in. I proceed to have a discussion about how we as a middle school choir probably can't sing 15 parts at the same time...

Sound Effects and Rhythms

To go along with the nature of the text in “Twas The Night Before Christmas", many students started by experimenting with different sound effects, body percussion sounds, and even some movement. Groups that began with rhythmic motives then went back and added pitch after.

Experimentation and Play

At the end of the day, it seems like the best compositional moments within groups happen when they seem to be just playing around. I’m all for self- discovery!


 

Needless to say, after working with each class, I was feeling pumped about this project again! I actually think we are about ready to start wrapping up the composition aspect of this project so that we can begin putting it together.

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