Vince Gassi
By Vince Gassi

Creating music is fun. Creating music that others enjoy is even more fun. The Word is a very simple project that students at any level can have fun with today. It doesn’t require any theory and you don’t have to be a composer to introduce them to the wonderful world of creating music.

Assign a descriptive word, such as evolution, time, or plasma, to each student. Be creative. Choose words that are evocative. The clearer the concept, the easier it will be for students to generate ideas. The mission, should your young composers decide to accept it, is to create a one to two minute piece based on their word. The only rule is to have fun being creative. Encourage them to push beyond the limits of their imagination. By thinking beyond the obvious, to imagine options they had not previously considered, they will be taking the first steps to developing a critical skill that will serve them in everything they do.

They can use MIDI software or real instruments. Either way, they will be creating a soundscape. Anyone can quickly learn how to load an instrumental sound in applications such as Cubase or Logic. With a few simple instructions, and a little experimentation, your students will be editing and combining sounds in a jiffy.

It is critical that you thoroughly convince your students that there are no wrong answers. I cannot over-emphasize this enough. Students are often inhibited by the desire to give their teacher the “right” answer. They are afraid of being wrong and may be thinking “I’m not a composer” or “I don’t know what to do”. This fear shuts off pathways in the brain that lead to the generation of creative ideas. Be patient. They’ll need lots of encouragement to not give up. Their first efforts may not seem like much, but you must see them as potential gems, so be effusive in your praise. Assure them that high marks are guaranteed before they start.

Outline the following steps in the creative process: conceptualization (what’s the story or main idea; a written description may help as the concept will evolve as students continue through this process), brainstorming (generation of ideas often through improvisation), experimentation (playing with or modifying your ideas), refining and polishing (repeated listening, clipping and pruning). (By the way, Brainstorm is a great word to use!!)

No computers? No problem! At my middle school, I arranged the percussion instruments in a circle. We didn’t have much, just a bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, and bells. After teaching the proper grip for sticks and mallets, I demonstrated how a group of students could construct a soundscape. Soft hits on the bass drum (two seconds apart) establish an ostinato. A cymbal roll (soft mallets) begins quietly and gradually gets louder. Bells strike Bb and F at regular intervals like a clock chiming. Other instruments, such as rattles, shakers, and tambourines are added gradually. The possibilities are limitless. Stress that composition is essentially organizing sound to create a dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid to add winds, brass, strings, and voices. All groups should include one of each. Sustained clusters,random pitches, spoken words, repeated syllables, whispers, finger snaps, and tongue clicks can all be effective. Remember, this process can last one period or one week. It’s up to you.

Demonstrate how to create a graphic score. Draw a timeline from left to right across the top of the page (landscape) and list the instruments down the left hand side. Sustained notes can be indicated with a horizontal line, shorter notes with X’s at the desired timecode. Let the notation be whatever is needed to clearly indicate the composer’s intent. Each group could even have a conductor.

Use the opportunity to discuss instrument choices and the use of musical elements such as tempo, rhythm, volume, etc. A culminating activity could include performances for other classes. Call it “Two-Dollar Tuesdays” and raise funds for your growing MIDI lab (which will become popular as The Word literally gets out about the cool things happening in your course). My senior students invited the English class from across the hall. The English students welcomed the diversion and completed an evaluation rubric which included comments on the how well the music depicted the word. All comments must be positive. Peers must find something that worked to share with their composer colleagues. Positive feedback definitely builds confidence. One more thing; it never hurts to invite your principal.

As your students feel up to the challenge of engaging in more ambitious projects, you can introduce more theory. Learning theory as needed is much easier than trying to digest books full of it with no concrete end in mind. As you develop other great projects, your students, by repeatedly going through the creative process, will mature and begin to think of themselves as composers.