The beginnings of great artists (Part 2)

So the artists work is now starting to roll in – between final rehearsals for our “Fright Night” Concert and (surprise!) getting a touch with the flu, we had a couple week hiatus from our composition work.  I sat down today with a number of the students to listen to their 2nd assignment: an 8 measure duet with percussion accompaniment.

Similar to the first assignment, they were given very specific guidelines to govern the creative process.  As they are writing 2 parts for their instrument, there were a couple of minor changes that would hopefully assist them. For example, the assignment due during tomorrow’s rehearsal used the following guidelines:

1) B-flat concert and Common Time
2) 8 measures in length.
3) Assigned notes per measure (notes listed in concert pitch)

m.1                        m.2                        m.3                        m.4
(Bb, D, F)             (Eb, G, Bb)            (C, Eb, G)                  (F,A,C)

m.5                        m.6                        m.7                        m.8
(G,Bb,D)            (C, Eb, G)             (F,A,C)                   (Bb, D, F)

The one thing I discovered is that I had to remind them frequently that there note choices for the harmony line were the same as the melody line.  In a couple of instances, we had some definite tension in the sound between the lines, but nothing that Stravinsky would say “wouldn’t work”.  In addition to the notes listed above, they may choose to use one beat of non-assigned notes per measure (For example, in measure 1 they could utilize an Eb or G as long as it does not exceed one and a half beats within the measure).

4) The Winds may use any of the following note values so long as it equals four beats:


The percussion may use any of the following note values for the snare drum part as long as it equals four beats:


After the winds finished composing, they would sit down with a partner and perform the duet for a percussionist.  After hearing the composition a couple of time, the percussionist would begin constructing a percussion part consisting of two different instruments.  While most used snare and bass, a couple of students chose to use triangle, tambourine, and woodblock to accompany the winds to which they were assigned.

Again though it was optional, students were encouraged to begin including expressive elements within their melody including varying dynamic levels (piano through forte), accents, slurs, and also make use of crescendos and decrescendos.

My rule of “If you write it, you better be able to play it” definitely clicked with a couple of students.  After playing through their initial melody sketch two different students looked at me and said “That’s not what I wanted at all.”  A couple more didn’t realize the awkwardness of what they wrote until they tried performing it – one clarinet in particular has new appreciation for going over the break!

One of the big concerns is evaluating each composition.  My biggest concern is not to pass artistic judgment, but find a way to evaluate their music.  There are some objective items that can be assessed, but also a number of subject ideas that may not fit so neatly into the assessment process.  For that reason, I am using a rating scale to show the students where they are standing with the assignment.

Mercer Middle School Band – Composition Checklist
3 – Good 2- Average 1 – Needs work
Notation – music is accurately notated tonally and rhythmically
Craftsmanship/Authenticity – music shows originality in tonally and rhythmic ideas, music possesses connectivity of ideas
Sensitivity/Imagination – Student explores multiple possibilities of available materials, student understands expressive capabilities of their instrument in their writing
Form & Guidelines – Student stays within guidelines provided
Total (12 possible):
Notes on student work:

Tuesday will be a mini-recital during band periods with the students.  I am in the process of developing a check list so they can do peer critique of the compositions they hear. Our next assignment on which we will embark will be asking the students to compose in 12 bar blues form.

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1 Comment

  1. Great project…I’m glad it’s moving along. It’s especially nice to hear that they are realizing the importance of composing from sound to notation, rather than notation towards sound. That and writing idiomatically are, I think, the first step in becoming a composer.

    On assessment – I like that you are using achievement levels rather than points. Keeping students focused more on the commentary you provide and less on the grade should result in better work. When the final drafts are complete, how will you translate that to “grade book” and “report cards”?


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