A Composer in the Making

Last week, I had my first lesson with a new 12-year-old piano student. Despite asking a few times, I couldn’t get him to answer what he hoped to learn. Did he have a particular style of music in mind, or a particular piece? Most twelve year old students I’ve taught have had an opinion on this. He didn’t.

He had taken clarinet for a year and learned some piano in a class at school, so I began to decipher what he already knew. I asked him about which clefs he could read. I asked if he knew what intervals are. He didn’t, but his curiosity was peaked.

I began explaining them, and he took off. I didn’t get past explaining a second before he was playing combinations of seconds all over the piano keyboard. I immediately had to explain dissonance, consonance, and stability. As I went through the sizes of intervals, he kept finding them on the piano faster than I could talk. He intuited, on his own, that a minor 2nd and a major 7th are inversions of one another.

Before I knew it, we were discussing chords, what makes a triad, and the different types of triads. When I played an augmented triad for him, he exclaimed, “Ooooh, that sounds ominous!”

“Aaah,” I mused to myself, “this kid doesn’t want to learn piano, he wants to learn music, and he won’t be satisfied until he is writing his own.”

He repeatedly showed me tunes he had tried to figure out by ear. I asked him if he ever tried making up his own songs. “Yes,” he said, “but I got stuck because I couldn’t write them down.”

Bingo.

He didn’t spend the lesson playing the piano; he spent the lesson playing with notes.

This kid exhibits many traits that I believe may “identify” a young composer in the making. What are those traits? In no particular order, these are ones I have seen in students, and remember from my own childhood:

  1. The desire to learn multiple instruments. While some students do become masters at one instrument (or more), the bopping around from instrument to instrument shows a fascination with the larger world of music and the intricacies of how different instruments make sound. Getting one’s hands on actual instruments and learning how to play, even a little bit, is of great value to a composer. It helps later on with orchestration and understanding some of the challenges performers face. The lack of focus on one instrument should not necessarily be seen as a flaw. It might be a signal that a child is a budding composer.
  2. A fascination with music theory. Some students just want to be told what to play, and how. Others want to know why. The endless curiosity signals that composition might be in the student’s future.
  3. Attempting to play songs they like by ear or write down their own songs. This demonstrates an internal drive and self-initiation related to #2 and #5.
  4. Describing music by how the effect is produces, or perhaps how it makes them feel. When my student used the word “ominous” to describe the augmented chord, he was tapping into a different kind of musical engagement than I see with most students.
  5. Experimenting with music and notes. Budding composers might explore how different note or rhythm combinations sound, or they might create “variations” on the music they are learning for lessons. They might also create instruments out of random objects and materials around the house. This may also extend into exploring electronic sounds on a computer or keyboard.
  6. Budding composers may complain that their instrument lessons are “boring.” In other words, they are restrictive. The student wants more; their itch isn’t being scratched. (This last one really only addresses kids that show other traits. Some kids simply find music lessons to be boring.)
  7. Expressing specifically that they want to learn music composition or song writing.

These traits are not age-specific. Some children might show them at a very young age; some might not develop them until much later.

What do you do if you have a child that shows interest in music composition? I believe that the best option is finding a private teacher who can teach both the student’s main instrument and composition, and incorporate those together into lessons. This makes it easier for students to be able to write music that they can play themselves. If you can’t find such a teacher, try to find a composition teacher. Unfortunately, this would add an extra expense to music lessons, because I do not believe instrument-focused lessons should stop. If you do not have a nearby teacher who can work with your student, there are some teachers who can teach over the internet. Online videos may also be helpful, though they are mostly geared towards older students.

Are there any other traits you have noticed in music students particularly interested in composition? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!

If you are looking for a composition teacher for your child, I have openings for in-person and online lesson. Contact me for more information.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

1 thought on “A Composer in the Making”

  1. Heather. I have sat in with Steve Johnson’s classes at State Street and was amazed to see that he was teaching composition/improvisational in classes..I would.have been so.thrilled.to get this 8n school.rather than in my 40s. THIS is great!!!!!

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