Text: Pasi Lyytikäinen
Alongside my work as a composer, I have been teaching composition at all levels of education in Finland since 2000, from comprehensive school to university, in one-on-one tuition and in various workshops. My youngest students have been under 10 years old, and the oldest have been adults well established in their profession. At the time of this writing , I am a part-time composition teacher at the Central Helsinki Music Institute.
I have also coached composition pedagogy students at the Sibelius Academy of Uniarts Helsinki in projects such as Hear this, I’m a composer!, a project for children coordinated by the Sibelius Academy, and Digitarina [Digital story], a project for arts educators and class teachers.
Student-oriented approach for beginning composers
Students entering composition studies usually have at least one small composition of their own, or several musical ideas for a composition. This is not always the case, however. Budding composition students may include children who have a keen interest in creating music but whose musical ideas only exist in a visual or verbal form at the time.
While involved in the project Hear this, I’m a composer! coordinated by the New York Philharmonic, the Finnish National Opera and Ballet and the principal occupants of the Music Centre in Helsinki [the Sibelius Academy, the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra], I coached several children with no musical background who had never previously written music. Despite this, every one of them had plenty of musical ideas. The project was first executed in Finland in 2011. Originating in the Very Young Composers (VYC) programme of the New York Philharmonic, the concept was imported to Finland at the initiative of Riitta Tikkanen, a lecturer at the Sibelius Academy.
Riitta Tikkanen and her colleagues developed a series of exercises called ‘Luomus’ (from a Finnish abbreviation of ‘creative music-making’), including a number of assignments and games based on sound, reactions, time and cooperation. These stimulate children’s musical inventiveness through playing, introducing their subject matter through relaxation and enjoyment. Even in these basic exercises, instructors can notice how a particular child responds to a particular sound or reaction.
Once a child realises that it is all a game and that every musical idea, even the ‘stupidest ones’, are acceptable and appreciated, a trust relationship emerges between student and teacher that can be used as the foundation for a customised pathway to composition teaching.
Playing as education
One cannot over-emphasise the connection between playing (in the sense of games) and composition. Playing around with musical material is one of the most important ways of testing it.
The ‘what if?’ exercise has proven to be a good way of fostering musical inventiveness. Let’s say a child brings a brief melody to the lesson. There is a huge number of ‘what if?’ exercises that can be derived from this scrap of music, such as:
- What if there were one measure of music before this melody? What would it be like?
- What if you wanted to ornament this melody? How would you do it?
- What if there were another voice playing at the same time? What would it be like?
- What if these note values were longer/shorter?
- What if you played this loudly/softly?
- What if you played this backwards?
- What if this melody went all wild?
The purpose of these exercises is not to make the child change the original melody. The melody may change in the process, but usually it does not. The point of these repeated games is to teach the child how to edit and improve on ideas in their following compositions.
Exercises of this kind are also good for the teacher for spotting the strengths of the students. Some have a knack for ornamenting melodies, others can easily turn their melody into something wild, while others can easily think of an extra measure to add to the melody. These observations are important for the teacher. They indicate which musical phenomena are likely to motivate the student best in their composition studies, while also revealing the areas where the student most needs practice.
Tips for student motivation
The key issue in student-oriented composition teaching is how to coach students in things that are particularly problematic for them or that they do not find motivating. For instance, a student who is adept at combining exciting harmonies may consider melodic arcs completely irrelevant. In this case, it is important to motivate the student to think about melody from the perspective of his or her strengths.
Continuing the above example the teacher may ask the student to play the harmonies as broken chords (or play them himself/herself). The student may be introduced to solo works where the harmonic dimension is clearly identifiable throughout, such as Bach’s solo cello suites or some of Berio’s Sequenzas. Here, too, the best exercise is to play around: to have the student pick out pitches in a sequence of chords – perhaps at random – and use these to sketch out a melody while the teacher plays the chord sequence as an accompaniment.
Being student-oriented does not mean that the teacher should accept carelessly made musical decisions or half-hearted music-making.
A similar approach is necessary for students who are melody-oriented and have trouble with harmony. A good idea here is to ask the student to sustain a note to underpin the melody, for instance in every measure or every half-measure
Playing around and trusting to chance are good methods when invention fails. Often taking random pitches can offer a solution for both melodic and harmonic problems. This does not mean that all music arrived at by chance should be accepted as the final product, but randomisation can bring up an interesting phrase or harmony that can lead the way to new inventions. The main thing is not to allow inventiveness to stall for too long.
About selection and quality
It is crucial in student-oriented composition teaching to focus on the student’s musical selections and the end result. Being student-oriented does not mean that the teacher should accept carelessly made musical decisions or half-hearted music-making. The student-oriented approach involves appreciating all of the student’s musical inventions and accepting the principle that all of them can potentially contain elements of artistic value.
Photos: Markku Klami