My guest writer today is British composer and teacher Jenni Pinnock, who is based in Cambridgeshire. Jenni is a busy composer and her works have been performed worldwide. She also runs a private teaching practice, and here, she offers teachers and students a few inspired ideas for incorporating composition into lessons. Over to Jenni…
The above quote is a highly divisive one. For those that aren’t fans of composing it can seem like a rather daunting prospect. Some musicians will admit to dabbling it and maybe even enjoying it. Others go wide-eyed in fear and recant the difficulties of composing pieces for their GCSEs, A levels or even degrees. To instrumental teachers the idea of encouraging others to compose can seem equally daunting, or even pointless. I’ve approached instrumental teachers before who have talked about how much they hated composing – why should their students like it? Why when they should be working on new notes, expanding their repertoire and taking exams would composition be of benefit to them? It may come as a surprise to some, but composition can actually be a very useful tool to integrate into lessons, especially for certain students.
Let me explain. I’m not suggesting you should take up entire lessons composing (though you may want to!), but it can be a highly effective part of a teaching toolkit. My degrees are in composition, but as many composers do, I teach alongside writing music. I first began using composition as part of my teaching process when working in a special school in London. An autistic student I was working closely with was amazing at improvising, but lacked confidence when it came to using weaker fingers and notation. Through writing and ‘formalising’ some of her improvisations we improved their notation reading (through writing!), got them using all fingers and confidence sky rocketed. All these factors improved their playing tenfold. When I started my own teaching practice, I was already spending the majority of my time working as a composer, and incorporating composition into teaching seemed natural. It’s worth remembering that as formally trained adults with the history of musical composition on our shoulders we may fuss and worry over every note, wondering how our music will fit into the contemporary world and analysing every note. Students don’t have this fear: They’re writing for them, and for the joy of music. In fact, it can be far more freeing than playing normal pieces, with no rights or wrongs – ultimate freedom to play around and create something that’s theirs!
With younger students and beginners, I find the idea of composing can free them up from the constraints of notation, which can be a source of anxiety or simply involve a lot of brain power! They can play around with their instrument, find patterns and listen to what they’re creating. The process of recording their pieces (even just bits of them!) in a written form can help you identify how they feel most comfortable reading at that stage (note names, fingerings, stave notation) and help you identify weak areas to zone in on later. Some can benefit from writing graphic scores and assigning symbols to notation patterns they know rather than worry about writing it all on a stave, while for others the process of cementing their music on staves makes it feel more ‘real’ whilst simultaneously boosting their notation comprehension skills. Composing can happen with one note or dozens of them – it can be integrated at any stage.
Assigning a composition task to help get to grips with a technical exercise can also be useful for more established students. You can assign something with the challenge of including a current exercises (e.g. a mini chromatic scale or a certain hand position, incorporating alternative fingerings or specific interval jumps), writing in a particular scale or mode or using a particular technique. As musicians we know we often develop a skill faster by processing it in lots of different ways, and the creativity of composition is a way of doing just that.
How do you know if your student will be open to the idea of composing? Well, the easiest way is to ask, or naturally flow into it during the course of a lesson. Rarely do I find I say “Right, let’s start writing a piece” to a student, or present a formal brief – it just happens naturally. I often find that students spend time playing around with favourite phrases or patterns on their instrument while I’m writing notes or switching pieces – this can be an excellent way of getting into it. What do they like about that phrase? Can they play it in another octave? What does it make them think of? How could they follow it, or accompany it? Often when I then suggest expanding it into a few bars (2 or 4 to start with!) they’re often keen on the ‘fun’ homework task – and it goes from there. One particular favourite of mine is to ask piano students to write a piece incorporating whatever their current left hand challenge is, such as fully formed chords, broken chords or Alberti bass. Students sometimes find these tricky to master when it comes to putting both hands together, but if I suggest them writing a simple tune over the top of it often they practice so much that the left hand becomes second nature.
Some of my instrumental students have recently taken the jump from writing their own mini pieces to submitting compositions into competitions or using them as their third exam piece (where allowed). That’s a phase where you might want to seek support from a composer, but you can use pieces they’ve learnt as references – or introduce pieces they could use as inspiration (for example, exploring different genres, styles, or structures).
The most important thing to remember when introducing composing to students is to remember that, initially at least, nothing is wrong. Self expression is key, and whether there are parallel fifths or constantly changing time signatures, a graphic score or fully realised notation, none of that matters. What matters is that it’s theirs, and has encouraged their musicality to grow and be explored in different ways while helping to develop or cement some technical elements of their performing or theory knowledge too. Make sure students take ownership of their pieces – try to get them to title them, and where possible record them too – even just on a phone or tablet so it can be shared and stored.
As teachers, we all have a toolkit of techniques we use. We have our favourite tutor books, favourite study pieces, improv structures and exercises that we pull out at various times depending on students’ preferences and requirements. Composing can be a useful tool in that collection. It won’t be right for all students, but for some it could be that shining light that helps them unleash their creative potential and connect both to their instrument and the wider musical world.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.