It was time for a little chromaticism this week. We composed with this worksheet I worked up and all the students enjoyed it eventually, though some of them gave me some doubtful looks at the beginning.
The basic instructions are all on the worksheet. The only variations I did were to what rhythm I gave them for the right hand. Beginners got only quarter notes and half notes. Older students got something more advanced. For the most part, I did all the writing and most of the playing. I find that for most students the actual writing and playing is so difficult, it gets in the way of their free composing and ruins the creativity of the experience.
Other variations would include having the more advanced students continue on with more measures. Or transposing it to another key.
One of the most basic compositional techniques is a sequence. It happens when composers use a basic idea and then they repeat it starting on a different note. Beethoven uses it here:
The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” uses it here:
This week my students used it to compose their own songs.
What You Need:
A copy of this worksheet for writing out their song. Print one out for each student.
A method of choosing start notes for each sequence (optional)
I used a toy catapult to lob small balls at different targets. It was a big hit, but anything will work. Dice, bits of paper to draw from a bag, shuffled cards, anything.
Alternatively, you could just tell the kids what notes to use. Or have them choose themselves. That’s easier, but less fun. I gave my students this option instead of the catapult. None of them took me up on it. As one student said, “When in doubt, always go with the medieval weaponry.”
None. (Unless you have chosen an elaborate method of choosing start notes.)
How to Compose:
Explain what a sequence is. I used the examples at the top of this post.
Start by writing their name up top as the composer. They can also give it a title, but my students all preferred to save that for last, after they’d heard their song.
Starting on C, compose two measures in 4/4 time. Write it down on the first staff on the worksheet.
Older students could write it out themselves, but I found it saved a lot of time if I just did it for them.
Some students need a fair bit of help thinking through the timing so that they end up with eight total beats.
I did not allow black notes, and I encouraged most students to stay within a five-note pattern. It just makes the next steps simpler.
I did insist the first note had to be a C to establish the key in our ears. Technically, this is not required, but again, we were trying to make it work for them. The theme does not have to end on C.
Make sure the student can play back the main theme. If they’re unsure, they should do it several times.
Choose the starting note for the first sequence using whatever method you’ve chosen.
If you’re choosing for the student here are some common chord progressions from C:
Write the starting note on the blank line for Sequence 1 and have the student play their main idea having moved their hand so that their first finger is on the new starting note.
There is space on the worksheet to write out all the notes. I usually didn’t bother. The students can do it without that.
Depending on the melody, the note we moved to, and the ear of the student, some students objected to the way it sounds in the new key. If they did, I made some suggestions for slight modifications to make it sound better. The theme sounding minor is not a bad thing. It actually adds to the interest of the piece. But if they are starting on F, they may want a B-flat instead of a B. Or if they’re starting on E, they may want an F-sharp instead of an F. We played that by ear. With the older students, we talked through why those notes sounded wrong to them.
Play the song so far.
Repeat those steps for the next set of sequences, until you have filled the page.
The final sequence should be a repeat of the main theme in C. If the melody does not end on C, add a whole note C at the end to finish it off.
To finish it off, we played the whole song with me improvising an accompaniment below their melody. All of my students were very pleased with how it sounded once we had an accompaniment, and they had very little trouble coming up with titles once they’d heard the whole thing.
If you’re using a spinner, arrange the Halloween pictures in a circle with the spinner in the middle. Don’t include the cards that say “A” and “Coda.”
How to Play:
The student spins the spinner. Whichever card they end up with becomes Theme A, the one that will be repeated in their rondo. If you’re not using a spinner, just shuffle the cards and have them draw the first card.
The student should compose two measures in 4/4 time to be the A section, which the teacher transcribes onto the staff paper. (I thought about making the kids do this, but it would just take way too long.)
I recommend placing the hands with the lowest finger on an A. That way they are automatically playing in the key of A minor, and it will sound spooky without much extra effort on their part.
Depending on the picture, we talk about how to represent it in music. Should it be fast or slow? Loud or soft? Legato or staccato? In a high octave or very low?
I do insist on exactly two measures in 4/4 time. Part of the reason for doing this is to learn to compose reasonable phrases.
When the A section is defined, put it on the music stand, and spin again. The next card becomes section B, which should also be two measures of 4/4 time.
When the B section is written down, put it on the music stand to the right of the section A card. Afterwards place one of the cards that says “A” to the left. For example, you might end up with this sequence: Jack-o-lantern, Witch, A. The cards are there to remind you and the student that the Jack-o-lantern measures come back after the Witch measures have been played.
Spin again for section C. Continue as before until you run out of cards or out of time.
Every rondo should finish with a Coda. The coda can be as simple as a long low note quietly fading away or a loud, high note to represent a scream or it can be a further two measures just like all the others.
Play the final composition for the student and enjoy. Most of my students were not actually capable of fully reading and playing back their compositions themselves. There is nothing wrong with this: Composers who write symphonies certainly can’t play every instrument themselves. It’s good to have an imagination that stretches beyond our current abilities.
You can listen to my students’ creepy compositions here.
A rondo is any piece of music, in which the opening section returns again and again. Great composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and my piano students have all composed rondos.
Unlike their more famous counterparts, these kids had only about ten minutes in which to perfect their rondo. All of them captured the creepy sound we were going for. These will sound best if you imagine you are walking through a haunted house while you listen.
Jacob’s “The Scream of a Ghost”
Sarah’s “Creatures of the Night”
For more details on how we composed these, check out this post.