I believe that musical composition is a necessary component of music education. Too often, composition is left until the student has a strong knowledge of music theory, when in reality, the two should be taught alongside each other. Composition can also be used to reinforce new topics learned in the piano lesson or to provide some variety to the student. I decided that, in the fourth week of lessons, I would offer some of my students the option of writing a composition as part of their homework. This would allow them to explore the piano in new ways, and show me some of their own musical ideas.
The difficult question then becomes, how can my beginning students, who are just learning to read notes compose a piece? I was inspired by a lecture I heard at the 2009 MTNA Minnesota Convention by Dr. Kevin David Richmond, who was presenting on his dissertation which focused on the use of "non-traditional notation and techniques" for students. In short, this means pieces of music used for teaching that use shapes such as boxes, lines, and squiggles as well as a variety of other things to express music. Using these pieces, it is possible to isolate certain aspects of the music, as well as give students a chance to express themselves musically despite not having a full grasp of the musical language.
I gave the assignment to two of my youngest students. One decided it wasn't for her (I gave up trying to assign it to her after three lessons) and the other, a young boy, took the project on eagerly. Here is the result of his efforts:
He didn't have a name for the piece, but I've been calling it "Curkol", after deciphering his handwriting at the top of the page. I had given him very little direction besides showing him some sample shapes to use (he didn't end up using any of mine, which was fine) so everything he came in with was a surprise to me. He read the piece left to right, top to bottom just like a piece of music (or a page in a book) and had very explicit ideas of what each symbol meant.
His recorded explanation and performance of the piece are below the jump:
Performance of "Curkol"
Explanation of the symbols
My favorite part is that for the hexagon he actually outlines a hexagon on the keyboard and for the circles makes his hands into circles and bangs them on the keyboard.The first thing you hear in the recording is the hexagon, followed by the first circle, which is essentially a cluster tone. He then has an upward motion for the diamond, which he didn't explain to me. Because the flower is surrounded by circles he makes a cluster tone for each of the petals. Next is the finger, which was essentially poking at different keys. I really liked the next part, the stairs, which consisted of stepwise motion. The lower left-hand corner is a car, which was a glissando going up the keyboard followed by two more circles.
This project was really fun, and the best part was seeing how excited he was to show my his work. It was the very first thing he mentioned when he came in the door and he wanted to talk about it immediately.