Teaching Composition to Piano Students


by Jane L. Viemeister


o compose is a very much a human activity no more mystical than any other creative act. If we, as music teachers, can let go of our sense of trepidation about encouraging our student's compositional efforts, we can enter into a mutually satisfying exploration of creating music.  The student will benefit greatly by the change of pace, and the teacher will benefit from freshening up the usual routine with their students. This article gives piano teachers a brief overview of how they can incorporate composition into lessons. A subsequent article will deal with the "nuts and bolts" of composing in the piano studio.



Unless students have been severely restricted, many will have attempted to pick out a favorite tune that fascinates them, from the radio, a musical, holiday carol or even something original, just as most of us have known the joy of losing ourselves for timeless moments "noodling" around on our instrument. Perhaps that is as far as it ever goes, especially when a voice calls from another room and says "Quit messing around and do your practicing!" This kind of improvisation is a first step in the creative process called composing.

Many method series include some composition exercises that can be a jumping-off point for the novice student and teacher. For the older student, analyzing their pieces (both original and within the repertoire of the student's instrument) can give the older student an initial sense of confidence and ease about their efforts. The important thing in teaching composition is remembering that it is an art and a craft. For each student, it represents an unfoldment of their creative impulse.

In approaching the act of composing, the improvisation or noodling can take the most attention at the outset. The sheer joy of coming up with great tunes and engaging rhythms and harmonies can dominate the initial conversations about a piece. After this initial period of euphoria, though, what occurs to the mind is, "well, this is good, but how do I remember it for tomorrow so I can share it with someone else??" This question leads directly to the issue of learning notation.

For the younger student, they may be just acquiring reading and writing skills, while the older student may be having problems deciding what the meter of their piece is, exactly. One resource for young or old student that is invaluable is Essential Dictionary of Music Notation by Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk, Alfred Publishing, 1996. While not the most definitive, it does contain most compositional situations one would encounter from the student level to the professional. Of course, being aware of the particular level of musical literacy for the student will enhance the level of success that student finds as they begin to notate their musical creations. For example, in deciding the meter of a piece, the student sharpens their listening skills when they detect what the overriding pulse and its organization into patterns. What an opportunity! Likewise for a younger student: in writing down a beginning piece, the younger student sharpens their skills in listening to melody (shape and direction) and rhythmic patterns.

Compositional content is closer to the creative act but a bit trickier to explore as a teacher. Asking questions like, "where do you want this to go", or "what are you intending here", "do you think this could be extended/cut in some way?", can cause the student to begin to develop their craft in composing, to begin to have the student listen and inquire into their piece of music whether or not each note is necessary. Terms like phrasing, proportion, melodic material, texture, harmonic rhythm begin to be thrown around with abandon!

In the end, the value of composition for the piano teacher and student, setting aside the positive effects of indulging creativity and spicing up lessons and practice, is that the process of composing forces the student to learn structure and phrasing in a way that might be difficult to understand simply from playing the works of the masters. The result is that the student can become more musical in their playing, because they have learned from first-hand experience with their own works how to read and understand the musical language of the masters. The result is a pianist who can read and play music more effectively and expressively, while interpreting music in a way more unique to the student.

Dr. Viemeister is a faculty member with the University of New Mexico Department of Music. She is a pianist, piano teacher with a private studio, and composer of several published works.

Page created: 10/31/98
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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