“You Composed This!”

Guest Post by Garreth Brooke

Those of us who grew up hearing stories of the young prodigy Mozart composing his first music aged 5, or Beethoven composing the 9th whilst already deaf, may be forgiven for sometimes assuming that composing is something rarified and mysterious, inaccessible for us ordinary folk.

But if the recent explosion of wonderful original solo piano compositions from the likes of Barbara Arens, June Armstrong, Alison Mathews and Nikolas Sideris and many others that have been featured on Pianodao teaches us nothing else, it is that composition is not reserved just for the transcendent few.

What’s more, there are many resources available that you can use to guide you through introducing composition to students.

These resources, combined with an encouraging attitude and a sense of humour, can make composing a really fun and educational activity that both you and your students will enjoy. Best of all, none of these resources require you the teacher to be a composer. All you need is an encouraging attitude and a willingness to experiment.

Below you will find a list of resources that will help you to introduce yourself and your students to composing, as well as some tips from Barbara, June, Alison and Nikolas.

Why compose?

Before exploring the resources, let’s first address a big question:

Why should we encourage our students to compose?

Successful educational composer Wendy Stevens addresses these points brilliantly in a video presentation, in which she lists several ways that composition is useful for teaching music, including:

  1. “When you create something that’s a part of you, it really boosts your confidence and self-esteem, especially for children.”
  2. “If you give a student a music theory concept and you ask them to create with it, their retention of that music theory concept is going to be so much greater than if you just tell them what it is, how it sounds, and where it is in the music.”

Why not?

But if composing can be a useful tool for teaching music, why do so few of us use it?

My theory is simple: most piano teachers do not teach composition because they do not believe they can compose – and they do not believe they can compose because they have never been shown how.

This leads very naturally to a self-fulfilling cycle: if you have not been shown how to compose, you grow up thinking you can’t compose, and when you then become a teacher, you do not know how to teach your students to compose.

This is actually very strange when you take the time to analyse it, for what is music if not a type of language, albeit an abstract one? And where would language teachers be without creative writing assignments? The difference is that where many music teachers doubt their ability to compose, most if not all language teachers take writing as a perfectly natural activity, and believe that everyone has the potential to write something.

Language teachers understand that writing is an extremely effective way to teach their students how to use the language. They may have to accept that their students will not necessarily be the next Shakespeare but, even so, they will get their students writing.

Indeed, when we dare to teach our students to compose, we are following in the footsteps of the greats.

In a recent blog post, composer and improviser Forrest Kinney encourages teachers to think outside of what he describes as the “19th century performer model”, pointing out that Johann Sebastian Bach,

“taught students figured bass (the lead sheet of the day) near the beginning, and his students learned to improvise, arrange, and compose. He was preparing his students to be working musicians in the community. To give an example: at the audition for the organist position at a church in Hamburg in 1725, the keyboardist was required to do six different things – five of them had to do with improvisation in various forms. …

“If you want to help your students to improvise, arrange, and compose (and learn yourself), you are not ‘breaking tradition.’ On the contrary, you are rediscovering a much longer tradition that was swept aside in the 19th century. You are not leaving tradition, but deepening it.”

Getting Started

So what is it that gets people composing?

I asked the composers Barbara Arens, June Armstrong, Alison Mathews and Nikolas Sideris how and why they began to compose. Their answers varied widely, but there were a few common threads.

Firstly, most of them were encouraged to do it, either at home or at music lessons or later at university.

For Nikolas Sideris, this encouragement came very early on. His father, a professional cardiologist, loved to create in his free time and would write fairy tales, compose music, and draw illustrations for his sons. Nikolas says,

“it only felt natural for someone to compose.”

He explained that he,

“started composing my own tunes with a single idea in mind: to compose something more interesting for myself to play. So something a bit more edgy, more epic at times, definitely more dissonant, etc. At the same time me and my brother got our first computer (an Amstrad 1512), so I started tinkering with coding as well and as such computer game music came into my life.”

Nikolas said he was constantly being encouraged by his parents and brother to explore his interest in computers and music, and combine the two, which led to an interesting career composing music for computer games, and his subsequent work setting up Editions Musica Ferrum.

The second common thread was a realisation that composing music is exciting.

As June Armstrong said:

“I was introduced to composing whilst studying music at university. It was just part of the course.  I really loved doing it because of the way it made me feel – totally absorbed, focussed and exhilarated.  When you have written something that really excites to you, it is immensely pleasurable and satisfying.  It is unlike any other experience I can think of in terms of personal satisfaction and contentment.”

June’s answer points to something that Simon Reich has written about in another post on this blog: composition can be a great activity for students who are in danger of losing interest in music. For many people learning to play music by other composers is pleasure enough but for some of us, it can occasionally feel – dare I say it? – a bit boring.

Simon theorises that there are two main types of musicians: “Creative ‘Right Brain’ Musicians” and “Analytical ‘Left Brain’ Musicians.” It’s worth reading his article in full, especially if you have a student that currently seems bored in their lessons. If they fit even some of the following characteristics (which I quote directly from Simon’s article), it may be worth introducing them to composition:

  • can’t use sheet music or not always good at reading notes
  • keen to push boundaries to the detriment of those wanting order in their music
  • may not react to teachers that well
  • tend to stray from strict guidelines – sometimes from boredom with consistent repetition

The Chance to be Creative

My own experience is that most apparently bored students respond really well to being given the chance to be creative.

Barbara Arens notes that composition can be used as a good

“lesson-filler for the times when the students forget their music, haven’t practised, etc.”

Lack of practise can sometimes be a symptom of boredom, and Nikolas Sideris echoed this, saying:

“I will scold a student if they’ve not studied continuously, but otherwise I will steer the lesson in a different direction.”

I try to do one at least one composition activity with each new student in the first 3 months that I work with them. My experience tells me it’s generally more successful when the students are primary school aged than secondary school aged, because they are usually less self-conscious about mistakes and more willing to laugh at themselves; but there’s no simple rule.

Some students instantly love composing, some are indifferent, some clearly dislike it. Nikolas agrees:

“it largely depends on the student: [some] live to create something new, others can’t compose to save their lives (even seasoned pianists).”

The most important thing is not to put students under pressure to do a “good job”, but rather to encourage them just to try it out and see what happens, and then point out all the good bits. Nikolas says he teaches composition, “with a VERY (extremely) positive attitude”, and Alison Mathews echoes this:

“I make sure that composing and improvising are accessible and a normal part of lessons. Many of my younger pupils are not afraid of jumping right in and improvising or experimenting, but so many pupils are worried or overwhelmed at the thought of pulling an idea out of thin air!”

The key to getting students enthusiastic about composition is helping them recognise when they’ve done well – when they’ve created a good melodic motif, or an interesting rhythm, or even just made an interesting mistake –  and then to help them to take what’s good and guide them as they shape it into a final composition. Alison advises:

“Provide a ‘safe’ environment that allows for creativity but gives boundaries to start with. This can be very helpful for those who lack confidence. It’s important to emphasise there is no right or wrong, only what they think works. You can gently guide a pupil by suggesting things.”

Resources for Creativity

The first resource I use with younger beginners is almost always a set of improvisation cards from Teach Piano Today, a Canadian site which has many free and paid resources. The improvisation cards I use are totally free to download, and are useful not only for stimulating creativity but for teaching or reviewing basic knowledge of rhythm notation. They are an ideal way to finish a lesson with younger students, especially those with shorter attention spans.

There are a few different sets of cards themed for various seasons or activities, including going back to school after the summer holidays, Hallowe’en, Winter, St Patrick’s Day, Valentines Day, and the summer holidays.

These cards have a phrase related to the season (e.g. “Hallowe’en is so fun!”) with a matching rhythm. Your student claps all the rhythms, saying the words as they do so. They then select their two favourite cards, place their hand in a particular 5 finger position (for example C minor for Halloween) and then experiment with playing notes in the given rhythm.

If they seem to be confident at improvising, you can accompany them with the provided accompaniment. For students who are less confident at improvisation I guide them through the process of creating a composition by helping them identify their strongest experiments, helping them write them down, then asking them about the structure – “which bit should go first?”, “How should we finish?” – and articulation/dynamics –  “Should this be legato or staccato?”, “Should this bit be loud or soft?” At the end of the session I give them their score and tell them “you composed this!”, which invariably makes them beam with pride.

Five Note Improvisations

Both Barbara Arens and Alison Mathews agreed that improvisation in a 5 finger position can be an excellent introduction to composing.

Barbara writes,

“with totally uninspired students, who are reluctant even to TRY composing, I ask them to choose between 3/4 and 4/4; major or minor; what key we’ll be in. Say they choose 3/4, D Major, they then place a hand in the D position, I play an “oom-pah-pah” bass, and they experiment with the notes they have under their fingers. When I hear something fairly usable, I’ll praise them for their compositional abilities (!) and notate their melody or help them to notate it. With a little luck, the student is then encouraged enough to extend the melody, build symmetrical phrases, add a minor development, add dynamics etc.”

Following Barbara’s advice requires a certain amount of willingness on the part of the teacher to improvise, which may make those of us who are used to carefully following the score feel uncomfortable.

Luckily there is a wonderful series of books called Pattern Play by Forrest Kinney, which guides teachers through the process of creating simple improvised duets with their students. You can currently download a sample from the author here – highly recommended!

‘Happy Accidents’

Another resource I use is one that students very frequently generate themselves: mistakes. We’re accustomed as piano teachers to viewing mistakes as problems to be fixed, but sometimes these mistakes can lead to very interesting places.

For example, when a student of mine was learning to play a simple arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy chorus written in C major, he accidentally placed his hands two keys too low, and transposed it almost instantly to A minor. Once I had helped him add a couple of appropriate sharps, he wanted to write down his new piece, which he called “Ode To Sadness”. I came back the following week and he proudly showed me a set of hilarious lyrics he’d written for it, which I then sang as he played. In the 18 months since this happened this student has become a proficient transposer.

A similar example comes from just a few weeks ago when one of my students was making rhythmic errors when playing a piece called Scale Praeludium by Manfred Schmitz. She had a tendency to swing the quavers, which was most definitely not what was written. We corrected the mistake, discussed the difference between swung and straight quavers, then finished the lesson with some rhythmic work so that she was able to play the piece with both swung and straight quavers.

When I came back the following week she had created and memorised a whole new version of the piece, a rhythmic variation of the original featuring dotted quavers and semiquavers. The following week I came back armed with my laptop and we entered the music into an online notation programme called Noteflight, which led to a further discussion of rhythm notation.

These illustrations were largely the result of my students’ own creativity, but both examples were facilitated by my own attitude of “that’s wrong, but it’s wrong in an interesting way, so let’s explore it together”, which I think is key to introducing students to composing.

As Miles Davis would put it,

“Do not fear mistakes; there are none.”


The final resource is Noteflight, the music notation software mentioned above.

This  is software that runs through a web browser, so it should work on the vast majority of computers, and best of all it is totally free to use. Admittedly, it is not without its flaws (those of you who are used to software like Sibelius will need to dramatically lower your expectations) but it is a useful tool for music teachers.

Apart from its accessibility, the great thing about this software is that you can instantly play back what you have entered, so students can experiment with notation and see what the resulting music sounds like, which is excellent for improving a student’s understanding of notation.

Another free alternative is MuseScore: I use both, but I tend to begin with Noteflight.

My approach is simple: I inform the student that it exists, I show them how it works, and I give them ten minutes to play with it at the end of a lesson. Usually they just experiment with it (by which I mean “mess about”) and the majority of my students don’t take it much further than those first ten minutes.

This is fine, because every now and then I get one who simply falls in love with the process of composing from notation. One such student now regularly asks me for composition assignments.

My current favourite of this student’s compositions is called “Banjo Melody” – it literally makes me grin every time I hear it. I try to relate these composition assignments to what we are studying. For example, if we’re working hard on the Eb major scale, then he will be asked to write a piece in Eb major.

Several of my correspondents mentioned a related idea: composition can and should flow naturally from an analysis of the pieces that students are learning. Alison Mathews wrote,

“another starting point, perhaps for older pupils or more advanced ones may be to take a piece they have learnt and particularly enjoy. We would look at structure, the key, phrase lengths, how the harmony works or the shape of the melody. We would then take something from the piece as a starting point. For example, improvise using the harmonic progression or take a part of the melody and begin to change and develop it. Again this works well as a way to have an initial idea and provide a comfortable space to start from.”

On a related note, June Armstrong noted that it was a good idea for the teacher to encourage the student to,

“try and be as economical with your ideas – motif, melody, rhythm etc as possible.  Let the composition evolve out of your original idea.”

Some more helpful tips

If you’re feeling inspired to give composition a go, Alison Mathews has some excellent tips for you. She writes:

  1. Be prepared to adapt, change direction or pace. It’s so important to meet the pupils needs. Give ideas, but provide options for them to choose from until they feel more confident themselves. Let them listen to your ideas and how you explore them – demonstrate!
  2. Give them something concrete to go away with if they are going to do this independently. Give clear instructions. For example, record what you have done in the lesson – as a video or audio so they can refer to it during the week. Or write it down in a way that makes sense to them – that may be as a chord progression, or letter names for a melody, general description or notated.
  3. Make sure you know a variety of styles of music yourself. Knowledge of different genres of music means you can try out a whole variety of things and offer your pupil something that they enjoy and are inspired by.
  4. Be positive and encouraging no matter what they do!”

What about you? How do you encourage your students to compose? What resources have I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the contributors:

Barbara Arens is a passionately dedicated piano teacher. She began her studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg at the age of 13. After a concert career performing primarily as harpsichordist and organist, Barbara Arens now puts her diverse abilities and experiences into composing for her piano pupils and publishes with Breitkopf & Härtel (One Hand Piano, 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces, Piano Misterioso, Piano Vivace/Piano Tranquillo and Piano Exotico), Editions Musica Ferrum (Rendezvous with Midnight – Nocturnes for Teens, All Beautiful & Splendid Things – Piano Songs on Poems by Women and Capturing the Spirit of Christmas & Capturing the Joys of Winter together with Alison Mathews) and Spartan Press (Scottish Collection). She presently lives near Würzburg in Germany, after living in Beirut, Dallas, San Francisco, Singapore, Salzburg, London and Munich. You can find her music at Breitkopf, Edition Musica Ferrum and Spartan Press.

June Armstrong started to learn the piano at age 6 and the violin at age 11.  She studied music at Queen’s University Belfast, graduating with a BMus and an MA in composition and twentieth century analysis.  After working as a peripatetic violin tutor with the City of Belfast School of Music, she moved with her husband to the Albany region of New York State, where she lived for six years and where her two sons were born. On returning to live permanently in Belfast in 1984, she began teaching her sons to play the piano, discovering a previously unsuspected passion for the piano and for piano teaching.  This quickly led to a diploma in piano teaching and a full time career of over 25 years. In 2011 she published her first three books of original compositions, Strangford Sketchbook, Causeway Coast Fantasy and The Nine Glens of Antrim. She has since published several more successful composition collections including Toy Box and Safari and has more scheduled to be published in 2018, including Six Little Preludes and Fugues. More information at https://www.junearmstrong.com/

Alison Mathews is a classically trained pianist and composer living and working in Surrey, UK. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, she holds both a Teaching Diploma and Honors Degree. Alison went on to complete a Masters Degree at Surrey University, with the aesthetics of music at the heart of her studies. This led to a wider exploration of the links between art, myth and music with the award of a scholarship for a Doctorate at Surrey University. Having a family intervened and a career in music education came to the forefront. Alison has been running a thriving private teaching practice for over 25 years along with workshops integrating art and music. Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide students at all levels with imaginative music to play and the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Editions Musica Ferrum publishes Alison’s solo and collaborative works which include Treasure Trove, and Capturing the Spirit of Christmas and Capturing the Joy of Winter with Barbara Arens. Several new works are planned for release in 2018. For more details visit http://alisonmathewspiano.weebly.com/ and http://www.musica-ferrum.com/composers/Alison-Mathews.php

Award winning composer and performer Nikolas Sideris has been studying music since the age of 5, and holds a PhD in composition from Royal Holloway, University of London. He received his Masters in Composition from the same university in 2005 with distinction and he also has a diploma in Piano with honors, and degrees in Harmony, Counterpoint and Fugue. His studies in the UK were funded by the National Scholarship Foundation of Greece (IKY). Nikolas, as a pianist has performed in concerts all over Greece, the USA and Syria. He is also active as composer and sound designer in the computer games industry having scored, amongst others, the game Privates by Size Five Games, that won a BAFTA for best Educational – Secondary Game. He co-owns North by Sound, an Audio Production company based in Norway and Greece and is the founder of Editions Musica Ferrum, a music publishing house. More information at http://www.musica-ferrum.com

About the author:

Born in Hereford, UK, Garreth Brooke moved to Wales as a child before going on to study music at the University of Oxford. He now teaches piano to a full studio of international students in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and releases original music for solo piano on 1631 Recordings using the pen-name Garreth Broke. His writing about suicide prevention has been published on Huffington Post UK.

For more details visit garrethbrokepiano.com

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

2 thoughts on ““You Composed This!””

  1. For the reluctance to teach the composition to students there may be more than one reason; but the main thing: the in-depth serious work on classical repertoire (when you can sit for one and a half hours on Mozart’s 4 bars) just does not leave time for the composition: or vice versa. Composition plus a piano game, if you wish for full value results in both areas, there is a minimum of one and a half load. It’s another matter if the whole process of learning begins with the stage of play-improvisation.

  2. Thanks for your reply Jazzman. I agree that to become a real composer requires many years of serious study but the point of the article was simply to introduce methods to include basic improvisational/compositional exercises in children’s beginner piano lessons. Young children have so much potential but if we restrict our lessons to simply teaching them to play repertoire, then we are limiting their potential.

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