Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Composing: Easy Holiday Activity

I didn’t warn my students they’d be composing. I was pretty sure they’d feel intimidated, so I simply asked them for favorite holiday phrases. When they asked why, I said, “You’ll see.” And once they heard the glimmer of a secret, they were hooked.

Here’s what we did.

STEP 1

“Think of one or two short holiday phrases .” (Three or four phrases for older students.)

“What’s a holiday phrase?”

“A word or group of words you hear around Christmastime. It could even be words to a song.”

Some might want an example, such as “Merry Christmas!” Or show them this.  I heard “Ho, ho, ho!” “Open up the presents.” “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” In addition, one came up with “Hark! How the jingle bells rock!” Another said, “Elf on the shelf.”

This exercise provided both rhythm and lyrics for the composing activity. But it only took about five minutes.

STEP 2

We listed the phrases and spoke them in rhythm one after the other. We switched the order until they liked the flow. Then I had them tap and clap the rhythms. If they gave too long a phrase, I said “We need it shorter.” Or if the first phrase was in three but the next in four, “Try another.”

This took five minutes or under.

STEP 3

The melody of their composing came next.

The earliest beginners played the black keys, while others went to Middle C position. Of course, they could use any scale they had learned. A couple ventured into minors.

“Are your fingers in place? Go!”

A common problem in beginners’ composing was for a student to play many (even all) syllables on one pitch. Some defaulted to the melody of whichever carol’s rhythm they’d borrowed. So I suggested they try doing something utterly different, even opposite. Or they could use a different finger on each syllable. I wouldn’t let them settle for the very first thing they tried, since this was time to experiment. Match the notes not only to the rhythm, but to the mood.

Once they had one phrase figured out, the next came easier.  These were short pieces, so I suggested repetition. “What might you want to emphasize by repeating?” “How could you make it longer without adding new phrases?” Some of them repeated a measure, some the whole thing. Others added an intro and an outro. One asked, “What’s that thing you do when your fingers go all the way down the keys? I want that.” (glissando)

Surprisingly, this took a mere five to ten minutes.

STEP 4

As soon as they seemed happy, I notated it on Sibelius, which only took a couple of minutes. When I played it back, they could tweak it.

Most were astounded to hear something they had created.

On the bottom: Copyright 2016 by (student’s name). All rights reserved. “That means no one can copy this without getting your permission.”

Wow!

STEP 5

Print.

Place it in front of them to play. Add a snowflake sticker. Say, “Just like a snowflake, your song is completely unique.”

Tell them they are free to play it for their families or even give it as a present.

Here is a piece by one of my earliest beginners, and it’s sure to bring a smile.

Title: Merry Christmas!

MER-RY CHRIST-MAS! RED  JELL-O.  ELF ON THE SHELF!

C       E      F       G      F       G     G    D    E     E    C

(All are quarter notes except the second F, which is a half note, and the two E’s near the end, which are eighths. It ended with a quarter rest, then a staccato quarter note in each hand. One high C and one low C.)

Can you see how easy it would be to adapt this for other holidays? Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s, Easter, Mother’s Day…

Why not create your own studio composing holiday? Post the pieces on your Music Teacher’s Helper website or on Facebook. You’ll make proud students, excited parents and some good buzz for your studio.

About the Author

Robin Steinweg has found music to be like the creamy filling of a sandwich cookie--sweet in the middle--especially making music with family.
A great joy is seeing her students excited to make music for themselves. From her studio in Sauk-Prairie, Wisconsin, she teaches ages 4-84 piano, guitar, voice, woodwinds, ukulele and recorder.
Musically, she composes, arranges, performs, directs, consults... [Read more]

4 Comments

  1. Maggie

    This looks like fun and really quite an easy way to get students into composing a quick tune.
    Thanks Robin
    Happy New Year!

  2. Robin Steinweg

    Thanks, Maggie! Yes, it’s a no-pressure start. Happy New Year to you, too!

  3. Paula

    Thank you for sharing this story about an easy activity around something complex (composing). How cool that you broke it down into a fun activity for your students!

  4. Robin Steinweg

    Paula, I’m so glad you read and commented! This Christmas my studio focused more on various performances than on composing, but we’ll have another composing holiday soon. Have fun with your young composers!

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