The Essentiality of Creativity - Composing in Instrumental Lessons
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
By Thea Martin
I use the phrase 'essentiality of creativity' in the title of this article for 2 primary reasons. The first is that creative activities are essential to my continuously developing method of teaching and I cannot imagine working without them as an integral part of my practice. The second is the underlying conviction behind the aforementioned reason - I truly believe that creativity must be at the heart of any music making and/or learning practice. Of course, when we meaningfully engage with music in any manner, we are in some way inherently being creative, but here I refer to creativity in the sense of making new music, or composing, which is a significant facet of the world of creative processes.
Composing music in instrumental lessons is a uniquely rewarding experience for students, as they are able to take greater ownership of their own sound, to access their innate creativity, and to see themselves as composers! Below I share my experiences creating pieces of music with 2, 9 year old violin students who have been learning their instruments for around 8 months. With both students, the goal of accessing their creativity more generally was consistent, however the use of the pieces for developing technical and specific creative processes was unique to the student's needs and interests.
The Queen's Day - Student A*
Our lesson begun with improvised call and response between student and teacher. I will usually start with various rhythms on open strings before adding other notes, gradually increasing in complexity. After students are comfortable repeating phrases back, I simply say "now it's your turn" or similar, and we will continue with call and response in reverse. If students are struggling or becoming nervous, I usually ask them to just play a short rhythm on an open string, and build their confidence from there.
With Student A, we then learnt the folk song Lightly Row from Suzuki Volume 1 by ear. This piece is significant in the sequential approach towards our composition, as the piece we would be eventually writing would follow the same ternary form.
In our next lesson, we again begun with alternating call and response, gradually extending the length of our phrases to reach 2 bars in 4/4 time. After landing on a motif of the student's creation that I thought would be a suitable beginning to a piece (relatively simple to play, establishes some kind of tonal centre, is memorable) I announced to the student without any prior mention of composing, that they had just created the first 2 bars of their new piece! We then played the 2 bars together a few times, with the student organically deciding to repeat the phrase twice, before attempting to write it onto the music stave. Developing an understanding of the meaning of sheet music was a significant focus for me with this student, and we had preceded this lesson with a series of visual-aural relation games and some creative exercises loosely based on the Colour Strings method. I saw this composition activity as an opportunity to cement their understanding of what we had learnt about writing music notation so far.
Inspired by a suggestion made in a talk US composer Thomas Cabaniss gave at the recent Lullaby Project Artist Training Day in Adelaide, I then asked Student A, "what do you think comes next?" Before trying to impart a specific compositional process, Thomas had suggested that by leaving the next step open, people can engage with their own, often unrealised, musical tuition. With both of the students I worked with described here, when I asked students this question, they immediately responded with either a verbally articulated idea, or confidently played something back. Student A fell into the latter category, and immediately played another 2 bar phrase - and just like that we had our 'A' section.
I then asked the student to describe what mood they thought their piece captured. After some deliberation, Student A remained unsure, so I instead asked "if your piece was the theme song for a character in a book or movie, who might it be?" The student then described how the music sounded like the Queen waving from her balcony in the morning - a lovely visual to which I then added some descriptive words such as noble, and march-like. I then asked the student to imagine what a new section of music that was really different to the beginning would sound like, to which they answered "long and flowing, maybe like the Queen has gone to sit on her boat on the river". I asked how we might create that sound on the violin, to which they played what can now be seen in bars 8-10. In our original version of the piece, we did not have the subsequent bar rest, but this was added by myself later to continue the 4 bar phrase structure. I then suggested that just like in the piece Lightly Row, to finish the piece we could now return to the beginning section to conclude the piece. We then practiced playing through Student A's creation.
To conclude the lesson, I took a photo of the manuscript paper on my phone which I told the student I would then type up on my computer so it would look "just like (their) music book!" of which was a very exciting prospect to the student.
You will notice that the above piece includes a duet line, which I added after the lesson to turn the composition into a collaborative process, building the bond of teacher and student. I have been reading about the benefits of playing duets in instrumental lessons, particularly about how they can "reinforce music as a social activity" (p. 7 Wetzel, 2007) as well as to help students to learn to detect non-verbal cues and to develop their chamber music skills, plus they are a lot of fun! Writing the duet line also allowed me to write for specific technical aspects of playing I wanted to address with the student, which in the case of Student A was transitioning from pizzicato to arco quickly (bar 16-17). Bringing the piece to our lesson, we discussed dynamics, pizzicato techniques, and also learnt the duet line so we could switch parts on the repeat.
Something's Coming - Student B
With Student B, the same process of call and response, creating a phrase, creating a contrasting section and finishing with a return to the A section was followed. It was wonderful to see this student's ideas forming, for example the idea to play the first 2 bars backwards to complete the 4 bar phrase. We discussed again the mood of the opening section, settling on the words 'exciting' and 'bold'. I asked the student what movie scene this piece might accompany, and after pausing to think, they declared "it sounds like a James Bond movie... like something is coming!" The idea for the rest of the piece was born. I asked the student to consider what our new section might sound like to depict something coming. Initially they were stuck, so I followed up with, "should we play high notes or low notes?" to which the student immediately responded by playing a repeated motif of G to A, the lowest tone interval on violin, gradually increasing in speed. I used this opportunity to talk about note values, and how we could create the same effect by halving the time the notes were held, moving from semibreves, to minims, and then to crotchets.
As this piece was a little below than the student's technical capacities, I wanted to create a more challenging duet line. The tonality of the melody itself was a bit ambiguous, so I decided to base the piece in D minor, which gave me the opportunity introduce a new concept, the low second finger on the D string. When Student B first heard me play the duet line simultaneously with their melody they were so excited, exclaiming how they loved the sound of the "spooky" low 2, and wanted to learn how to play it immediately. I feel that outside of the context of this composition/duet, introducing this new concept would not have been met with the same level of enthusiasm, and by introducing the concept through hearing it in a real musical context, a greater understanding of its function was formed. Another aspect of the duet line is the percussive effects in the B section, which were added to help build a sense of pulse, as well as to create a link to Student B's orchestral music which had introduced the idea of extended techniques involving tapping the instrument.
There are so many ways this compositional process could be extended, moving away from the guiding of the teacher into freer opportunities for students to create independently as their skills develop. I am eager to incorporate the idea of call and response motifs in sequence as another tool to build a piece or section around, as well as to have the students play their current duets with their friends and being able to proudly say that they created the music they are playing. I believe that to feel that the music you create is uniquely yours is a powerful experience, and I hope it inspires my students to continue creating and experimenting with sounds.
*Student names in this article have been removed for privacy reasons.
Wetzel, P. 2007. THE PEDAGOGICAL BENEFITS OF DUET PLAYING: A VANNETELBOSCH COMPANION. The Ohio State University.