Thursday, May 13, 2004

Student Compositions

Today was the last day of classes. In my first-year music theory classes I had the students compose a short passage and orchestrate for instruments or voices found in the class. The exact directions offered a possible starting point (the first measure of a Haydn String Quartet) and required the students to use at least one secondary dominant chord and to compose at least eight measures of music.

This is a farily normal activity in undergraduate music theory classes, useful for ingraining aspects of compositional theory and the performances help the students to make connections between the classroom and the practice room.

The students choose quite different ways to express themselves in these compositions. Some write far more than they are required: today two students composed multi-movement works, albeit the movements were somewhat short (16-24 measures). Other students think of witty titles, like "Toccata and Funk in A minor." Some decided to borrow from some famous piece, and others composed lyrics.

What struck me was how differently students regarded this assignment. Some viewed it as yet another dreary homework assignment, perhaps skipping it all together. Others regarded it as a learning experience, but nothing beyond that. But the majority used it as a venue for their creativity. Students who did not speak up in class, suddenly shouted in musical formats.

I am now trying to think of ways to incorporate the act of composition in other ways. Hans Keller advocated analyzing music by creating new music that highlights the analysis (the background unities in Keller's case). The delivered analysis would be a performance that mingled the piece being analyzed with music composed by the analyzer. This would be an interesting experiment to try with undergraduate students. Perhaps they would be more enthusiastic about this means of analysis than writing a paper.

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