Thomas J. West

By Thomas J. West

Over the past two years, I have endeavored to add more opportunities for students to create their own music, both in improvisation and in written composition. It is definitely a slow process, taking a long time to build into my program, but that’s why I know it is going to be very impactful over the next several years. I am finishing my fourth year teaching in my current school setting, and as in any newer setting, it takes time for the youngest students you have who have received only your instruction matriculate up through to graduation. My current group of eighth and ninth graders are my lead group, having been with me since fifth grade, and the results of this training are most obvious there.

The overall structure of my program looks something like this:

Year 1: wind instrumentalists learn and become proficient at concert Bb, Eb, Ab, F, and C major scales and tonic triad arpeggios by rote with letter names. String instrumentalists do the same with the C, G, D, A, F, and Bb scales. In the third marking period, they improvise using their most proficient scale over a class ostinato using primary chords (I, IV, V, I). In the fourth marking period, they compose their own original melody written for their primary instrument with chordal accompaniment on piano.

Year 2: Students learn the remaining major scales and arpeggios in the circle of fifths (which involves side key and chromatic fingerings for the woodwinds and shifting to 2nd and 3rd position for the violins and violas). They do some more improvisation in marking period 1 and compose another solo melody piece in marking period 2. Marking period 3 is mostly concert preparation, and marking period 4 is their first exposure to writing two part inventions for their primary instrument without accompaniment.

Year 3: Students begin to learn and perform natural minor scales and dorian and mixolydian modes. They begin improvising over more complex chord progressions, including simple jazz standards and show tunes. They make their first attempts at writing three-part and four-part pieces for their primary instrument.

Year 4: Students continue studies from Year 3, venturing into writing projects with mixed instrumentation, including electronic music and online distribution systems.

Sound ambitious? That’s because there are only a handful of music programs in the US that are doing something similar, as far as I have been able to determine. There are, of course, students who need longer than 2 years to learn the beginning content as well, especially string players.

How can there possibly be time to do all that and still have public concerts? Simple: public performance is not the solitary focus of the program. Public concert repertoire is kept in the grade 2 and grade 3 range, focusing on quality music-making with mastery and expressiveness as the goal rather than complexity that the average musician struggles to understand and become technically proficient in performing.

So how are the students reacting at the end of year two? There are a few who do the composition begrudgingly, just as there are always those who do the improvisation and solo and small group performing begrudgingly. The majority of the students, however, relish the opportunity to be musically creative and in many cases expand their study beyond the scope of the outline above. I have second year composition students who are already writing for instruments beyond their primary one, students who are writing for full ensembles, a student who is a Frank Zappa acolyte writing in 11/8 time, and students who have already written over 30 scores.

As an instrumental music teacher in a unique public cyber school setting, all of my students have access to the internet at home, so after starting their compositions initially on manuscript paper, we are making full use of Noteflight Classroom. Students can work on scores from any computer. Several of them asked me if they would have access to their accounts over the summer and plan to do some recreational writing of their own. To quote Hannibal from The A Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Eventually, the plan is for our public concerts to be primarily featuring student compositions performed by the students themselves, with students able to write, perform, edit, mix, master, and distribute their own creations via the internet. In this brave new world of technology and communication, music students have fantastic opportunities their predecessors never had. Teaching the internet generation to create and share their own music not only will enrich their lives, but will validate and legitimize public school music education for the 21st century.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

How much does this differ from the long term plan you have for your students? Do you use any unique techniques to get your students to start composing?