Teaching Composing in the Classroom

My own composing efforts began during my middle-school band classes in the early 1960s. Along with many other youngsters, I was given classes with a young composer named R. Murray Schafer, who documented our experiences and conversations in The composer in the classroom (1965). Here is a follow-up documentary of a similar program that Schafer offered in 1969 in a 7th grade classroom in Canada.

Although I was not aware of “democratic teaching-learning principles” then, this is what Schafer modeled (see, too, Schafer’s thoughts from 2006).

But he was not unique, by any means. Composing and arranging projects, with mutual teacher-learner respect, and dialogues, were also regular parts of my secondary school curricula (1963-1967), punctuated with occasional visits by professional composers.

What I valued then, and what I advocate and teach now, is that to learn composing effectively, intelligently, and joyfully, students need continuous opportunities to interact with their peers as fellow music makers and listeners, and to hear their efforts interpreted and performed musically (not merely “produced”).

In addition, Music Matters emphasizes opportunity-finding and formulating, rather than just carrying out musical assignments. By this I mean encouraging students to research and generate their own innovative pieces to perform on their own, or in peer ensembles; generate multiple approaches to interpretive, improvisational, and/or compositional problems; plan innovative interpretations; generate plans and sketches of musical arrangements; edit given compositions or arrangements—all of these in continuous relation to music listening so that students gain understandings of the style frameworks in which they are creating or “crossing over.” All of this can be done in relation to composing pieces about important moral, political, and ethical problems in students’ lives and in our contemporary world. Doing so is common in visual art and English literature classes where students create paintings, poems, and stories for these same reasons. I suggest that all these strategies align with James Mursell’s concept of democratic teaching and teaching for democratic citizenship.

Music education for musical creativity requires sustained periods for students to generate, select ideas, rework, and edit their interpretations and arrangements. During these processes, I state that we need to avoid undermining our students’ motivation, thinking, and enjoyment by gushing-over, hovering-over, or taking-over while students work at producing creative musical results. I state that guiding students toward creative achievements calls for a music teacher-as-coach, advisor, and informed critic; not teacher-as-proud-mother, stern father, or “know-it-all big brother.”

Teaching musical composition and creativity is worth doing for the sake of the self and others. As we say in Music Matters:

The internal goods and values of musicing are not abstractions. Through the progressive development of musical understanding with musical and educative teachers and facilitators, all students can achieve human flourishing, communal well-being, an empathetic sense of self-and-other, as well as a sense of meaningfulness, enjoyment, and a creative way of life.