Composing with Grade 5 and 6 children

As I have mentioned previously composition is at the heart of my philosophy when it comes to music education. It is also what starts to make your music classes exciting and moves them beyond the some times mundane experience of teaching skills or singing songs.

With the grade 5 and 6 students this term we are focusing on a number of compositional styles.

These include

1. Composing with Melodic Instruments

2. Minimalism

3. Chance compositions

4. Composing soundtracks

5. Composoing with Text

5. Composing Machine Compsitions

These are all styles that are very accessible to children and there are lots of great examples on you tube of composers using these ideas as the basis for their own music. Composers like John Cage and the concepts he introduced always fascinate children.

The first four weeks were spent on Composing With Melody and to do this we used our diatonic instruments. Initially to children almost everything sounds good when composing with diatonic instruments so it gets things rolling quickly and gives you a chance to help them refine their ideas.

I always get them to write four parts into this composition. A bass line a melody line a chordal accompanyment and a percussion part and initially explain the roles of each of those parts. I then get them to add a B section which we decide to be something different to the A section and something short. A chance to provide a point of difference in the music. At the end of each week I film the children and one quick viewing at the start of the next week is all that is required for them to remember where they were up to. Depending on your philosophy regarding notation you could get them to notate but I find that childrens ears are generally pretty good and notation merely slows the composition process at this stage.

In the following weeks I will blog about how I go about teaching the other musical styles and upload some video.

But here is a video of a couple of completed Melodic Pieces

teaching compsoition to kids

Over the term Andrew and I have been working with the level four kids devising their own compositions for mixed percussion groups.

The key concepts that we taught were:

1. The need for a bassline and its role – to hold the piece down harmonically and rhythmically.

2. A Melody line and what it does – adds character and individual taste to a composition – it’s the thing on top that gives spice.

3. An accompanying part either using a counter melody or chords and what it does – it enhances the melody and provides some substance.

4. An A section and a B section for interest sake – to provide variety for the listeners ear.

5. A Rhythm part.

The kids all worked in small groups of 5 and co-composed all the parts and then each person performed one part. Finally we filmed all the performances and did some quick editing using Final Cut Express

The kids love this and are all very confident in their ideas and with the idea of being able to compose. Marimbas and basic metalaphones are great to use when composing with kids because they are generally diatonic (all in the same key center) so allow kid to instantly play and sound quite good.

I often just encourage them to hit a couple of notes and decide if they like the combination of sounds and then they are off and running.

Children’s Compositions

Over the term Andrew and I have been working with the level four kids devising their own compositions for mixed percussion groups.

The key concepts that we taught were:

1. The need for a bassline and its role – to hold the piece down harmonically and rhythmically.

2. A Melody line and what it does – adds character and individual taste to a composition – it’s the thing on top that gives spice.

3. An accompanying part either using a counter melody or chords and what it does – it enhances the melody and provides some substance.

4. An A section and a B section for interest sake – to provide variety for the listeners ear.

5. A Rhythm part.

The kids all worked in small groups of 5 and co-composed all the parts and then each person performed one part. Finally we filmed all the performances and did some quick editing using Final Cut Express

The kids love this and are all very confident in their ideas and with the idea of being able to compose. Marimbas and basic metalaphones are great to use when composing with kids because they are generally diatonic (all in the same key center) so allow kid to instantly play and sound quite good.

I often just encourage them to hit a couple of notes and decide if they like the combination of sounds and then they are off and running.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10744543&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

Grade 6 Original compositions from Kynan Robinson on Vimeo.

Getting grade 5/6 kids to compose using dissonance and consonance

Over the space of a term (ten weeks) Andrew Williamson and I work on a number of composition ideas with our grade 5 and 6 kid.

The ideas are both conceptual and practical

The first idea we look at is the notions of dissonance and consonance in a musical perspective.

As a listening exercise I play the kids two obvious examples such as Penderecki’s Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima to emphasis dissonance and Erik Saties Gymonpedie Number 1 to to look at consonance. These pieces can both be found on youtube  Penderecki . The Penderecki piece always starts great conversation with the kids on the role of music, why the sounds have to be so harsh, what is dissonance (clashing) when and where it is necessary, when it is to much, how does music effect our emotions, why do some sounds make us feel certain ways and others make us feel differently.

Following this I move the lesson into a class composition piece. It’s important to model this to the kids, how you want them to compose as the idea is for them to break into small groups and replicate the processes in the coming weeks.

On the electronic whiteboard I would bring up a picture of a haunted house that has the obvious connotations and leads well to a combination of dissonant and consonant sounds.

This picture has been taken from the Music Express Series

A discussion would take place about the intention of the picture. It is to scare the viewer or leave a dark feeling. How has this been achieved? Through the use of dark colors, through the various elements in the picture, where they are placed, at the front or at the back. These are all concepts that can be transported to a musical setting. Do the elements clash or flow freely.

Placing a number of instruments in front of the kids they would choose instruments that they think might match the various elements they would see in the picture. They would then be given a  short time to come up with a quick pattern that they could teach to a small group who would all be assigned to that instrument. Once five or six different parts had been composed and groups of 4 had been formed around those parts I would place those into some sort of visual arrangement on the whiteboard.

This is where the piece gets fun because the kids can now try and change the various arrangements to see if they were effectively achieving their original stated aims, to musically replicate the picture, to have some definite dissonant sounds involved. To get a sense of darkness in the music etc. When inventing the melody you will notice in the video the kids had a simple melody and each new part comes in mimicking the same melodic shape but moving it away by a semitone creating a fairly obvious and easy to hear dissonance.You will also notice there is a mixture of melody, rhythm as well as some textural elements to the piece. We also spoke of how tempo changes a piece, originally the bass  was quite fast but we found it was much more effective to slow the whole thing down. This class should take no longer than 2 lessons. Following this the children would have a class to compose their own piece in groups of no more than 5. Because we have worked on these ideas for an number of years with the kids they feel completely comfortable in their role as composers.

Finally we filmed the whoe class performance and here is an example.
http://fnps.fliggo.com/embed/gVxr6kO9

Space Compositions

In Grade two we have been working on vocal compositions. This is where you draw shapes on the whiteboard and find appropriate vocal sounds to match (an early form of notational teaching). We also invented shapes to represent loud and soft and duration. We then incorporated some of this learning into the theme of space and added some sounds from the marimba that could be translated into variouse movements. Finally we made masks to make our short performance look cool and filmed it.

This is a great way to introduce children to the concepts of composition – using their voice, using sounds that can be made on the instruments having some simple notation and finally performing.

Heres the video

http://fnps.fliggo.com/embed/BFb3PDBs

Music Education

In my role as a music teacher Im a big believer in teaching children to be composers. All children intrinsically have the ability to compose music just as they do draw a picture. All that needs to happen is they need to be given some very simple starting blocks and off they go. These starting blocks never need to be traditional western notation.
Here is an example of a piece written by a group of five, elevan year olds. They were given 45 minutes to write and perform this piece. They have been composing in my classes for about 4 years now so are very used to that sort of task expectation. You can hear they have written a four part piece of music including an A and a B section. It totally rocks

Play Song

Heres some more venue reviews

The Powerhouse – BRISBANE, QLD

Cool room Uncool people running the show – they take a cut of the door, cut of your merchandise, cut of your rider,anyway to make money of the band they will – and I got a paper cut as well

Joes Waterhole – EUMUNDI, QLD
Strange town strange pub. It’s like your in the set of a 1980s cliched Australian soap opera, complete with a meat raffle, dog, men with beards down to their knees that look like the dog, rugby shorts, blue singlets, photos of old school boxers and fights in the crowd.

Lake Kawana Arts Theartre– CALOUNDRA, QLD
0/10 I loved this joint but don’t recommend it to anyone

Students as composers

remy-ruby-and-saskias-piece As a very good example of children as composers here is a composition written and played by 5 grade six students. They were given a one hour class to come up with this piece and then performed nd recorded it at the end. You can hear it is written for four parts with both an A and a B section. These children have been with us for the five years I have been teaching at Fitzroy North PS so are very used to the idea that they are composers, an idea that myself and fellow teacher Andrew Williamson really believe in and try to teach . It was exciting for me to hear this composition as it justified alot of the philosophy

My Music teaching philosophy

Fitzroy North Primary School

The music programme at North Fitzroy is an incredibly rich, exciting and stimulating programme that embraces composition, creativity, participation technology and fun. The main emphasis behind almost all our work is to empower the students with a sense of belief that their compositions are worthwhile. The role of the composer must be demystified and children’s compositions need to be highly valued. If our music department can do this it will create a lifelong love of music in children but rather than just being observers of music these children will go on to be participants and most importantly creators.

Every child gets to participate in a generalist music class once a week. It is in this class that the core understanding of composition is taught to the child. We try to cover a huge range of concepts and presentation styles to allow for as many different learning styles as possible. These include sound sculptures, movie soundtracks, abstract compositions, loops based composition, recording techniques, traditional notation, rap and hip hop and rock music. By teaching through composition you can teach the basic concepts such as pitch, rhythm texture and melody in a way that has personal relevance for the students and therefore will remain with them for their life. In their generalist class we have also done lots of work in instrument making, singing and African drumming. Almost every class starts with a listening session where the children listen to a variety of music and are encouraged to make comments on the compositional techniques as well as a personal judgement on whether they like it and why. A lot of these “listening” exercises are now done using DVDs and a data projector giving children a greater visual awareness of the music. On top of the generalist lesson children are encouraged to participate in the ensembles that we provide. We run a mixed percussion ensemble for each year level. This uses xylophones, glockenspiels, djembe drums, marimbas and hand percussion. . Each part is sung to the children and the learning is done by ear encouraging the children to learn all parts (a piece might have 5 different parts to it ranging from bass, middle, high melody lines as well as different beats). The students in collaboration with Kynan and Andrew compose most of the pieces we play. Improvisation in this ensemble is encouraged. We also run a couple of rock ensembles and a choir. As much opportunity as possible is provided for these ensembles to perform within the school at music assemblies, at the school concerts and outside the school. Strong links have been made with the local high school and region where groups have been invited to our school for mutual concerts and we have taken groups to other schools and community events. Finally we also run an EYT (extend your talents) programme for children who show a very keen interest and ability. In this programme they form their own groups to perform, record and look at other areas of the music industry such as advertising and management. They can also make their own short movies and animations using programmes such as imovie and istop motion. In this creation process they are required to score all the music for their movies and animations.

We believe our programme is innovative in a number of areas. Our core philosophy of valuing the idea of students as producers rather than just receivers of information, is what drives all our innovation. We have fully embraced technology as not only an important learning tool but we see it as merely being another valuable platform to allow for meaningful learning. A lot of our teaching revolves around understanding the role of music in various situations but to fully learn this children need to create those situations. With this in mind the children work on a lot of multi media projects such as film making, animations, the creation of radio shows and podcasting. Through programmes such as radio waves we have been able to podcast a lot of the children’s work on the internet thus forming valuable relationships with other schools and community groups throughout the world. By doing this we are allowing the children to produce work that has wings out side of the classroom. No longer are they producing work for merely one person, the teacher, they are now producing it for vast communities found and created by the internet. Technology is intricately woven into all aspects of children’s lives and therefore should be woven into all aspect of their school life. All of the children’s work is recorded and given back to them in the form of digital portfolios or uploaded onto the internet. This recording process is also handed over to the students in many instances.
One of our major innovations however is to integrate the music programme into the classroom programme. If you are able to do this your programme is no longer viewed as a marginalised idea falling into line well behind literacy and numeracy but rather it becomes valued as a nessasary aid to those things. We have done this by pushing the value of multimedia projects because they work with visual literacy. We have run many PDs teaching the classroom teachers various music programmes such as garageband, imovie etc. By doing this the fear of music has been removed from the teachers and they are confident to allow the students to integrate music into many of their projects. We have encouraged teachers ideas and tried to provide the infrastructure for them to do this. All classrooms have 5 computers in them and we have a Mac lab of 20 Computers as well as a small recording studio.
The impact we have is an exciting one. On a very grass roots level many of our students gone into high school with the innate believe that they are creators and their creations are valuable. They are not content to merely play a role but want to have a very personal involvement in the creation of that role. A number of our rock bands, which were formed when the children were only 10 years old, have maintained and are now gigging professionally. We have developed significant relationships with local community groups such as the Old Colnialist home for the elderly and the Croxton Special School. A special project is being run with the Croxton Special School where 10 of our students are working with 10 of their students every week for a term playing music and ultimately leading to a performance. This is being filmed by the kids and will be turned into a DVD for the performers. This has been a very valuable experience for all involved. Our programme is fortunate in the way it has been terrifically supported and valued by school leadership. This has allowed us to develop our programme. To pass on some of the skills we have learned we have been running PDs for our cluster groups to help share some of our information as well as learn from them.