If your students are anything like mine, they will have been playing Christmas carols for a number of weeks now. As it gets closer to Christmas and the carols are well known, my students use them as a basis for composing a theme and variations. This activity can either be improvised at their instrument or notated.
Before I begin this activity I make sure that the students have learnt at least two theme & variations as a part of their repertoire during the year. This gives us a familiar piece to analyze and provides the students with a model to work from. I also encourage them to listen to other theme & variations on YouTube to develop their aural analysis skills. The analysis is very simple. We look at the theme, and then each variation in turn, noting which musical elements are altered and which elements remain the same. The students then decide which musical elements they are going to manipulate in their own variations.
There are an infinite number of ways that students can manipulate the theme, and I make sure that I only offer a few guiding suggestions (accompanied by improvised demonstrations), so that the student has room to come up with their own creative ideas. Some examples of elements that might be manipulated include:
- Tempo: This is an easy place to start, because it doesn’t require much reworking of the theme. What would the theme sound like a half the speed, or at double the speed? What would the theme sound like if we began quickly and then gradually got slower throughout, so that the theme sounds as though it is disintegrating as the piece progresses? Or the opposite – so that the theme becomes more apparent through time?
- Meter: A simple time theme could become an asymmetrical meter such as 7/8, giving the theme much more rhythmic energy.
- Harmony: A major theme can become minor, and vice versa; or the theme could be reharmonized with different chords.
- Melody: Alter the melody using techniques such as sequences, transposition, retrograde, inversion and fragmentation.
Throughout the composing process, ask leading questions and encourage them to try all of their ideas on their instrument. For example, if the student is only using one register of their instrument, ask them how they think it would sound in a different octave. Or if they are playing everything legato, ask what it would sound like staccato. Then get them to demonstrate. This develops the habits of questioning, self assessment and refining that are vital to the composing process.
Lastly, I always make sure that the pieces are recorded in some way – either notated by hand or on the computer, or using audio recording in the case of improvisations.