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Do you teach composition skills?

Student Compositions

Student Compositions

Do you teach composition skills in your studio? Many teachers tell me teaching composition is something they would like to do, but never seem to get around to doing. There are many reasons given: no time, not sure where to start, student hasn’t shown an interest, not sure how to teach it.

I would not really say I “teach” composition, but more that I “encourage” composition. This is the level of intentionality that I have found to be comfortable for me in this area. Hopefully you can find one or two ideas for your studio in this blog.

The biggest help I have found is to start early, before the student thinks it might be hard! Composition grows out of improvisation, so I include improvisation at the very first lesson, and give it a little time every week for the first year. Just 3-4 minutes is enough to keep the spark alive. Emphasize that there is no “right” way, and that the student’s ideas are just as legitimate as yours.

There are so many ways to do improvisation with young children. Start improv on the black keys so that everything sounds harmonious. Model ideas for the student, and encourage them to listen for interesting textures and sounds. Make the improv tell a story. Sometimes I make up a story line that matches a bass duet improv pattern, such as a “cowboy” theme. Put animal stickers on index cards and have the student express what the animal might sound like. Create question and answer phrases. Use one of Christine Schumann’s improvisation Flip charts to provide structure and inspiration. (

Ask the student if they have made up any new songs this week. You might be surprised at what they have done! Take a few minutes to listen to their ideas and ask questions about the work. Praise highly any efforts in this area! Value all insights and opinions.

Sometimes students have their imaginations sparked right in the middle of their piece for the week. This can be good or bad. It’s good that they have such an awesome imagination. It’s bad if they never find time to notice the details of how the original composer wanted the piece played. I usually take the individual student into account when this happens. Sometimes I say, “I like your version better.” Other times I say, “That was interesting. After you have learned this piece the way it is written, I’d love to hear more of those ideas.”

Another way to spark composition ideas in your students is to point out composition elements in their pieces. “Oh, look! The composer inverted the melody this section. That is something composers do often. You could try that in your composition too.” If a student is showing a strong interest in composition, I do this more frequently, while teaching the vocabulary of each element.

Teach scales and chords early. Having the feel of each chord under their fingers allows students to explore more easily. Work through the circle of fifths with the major chords, then minor, then a combination that includes augmented and diminished chords. Practice a I-IV-I-V7(V)-I cadence in all 12 major and minor keys. Play arpeggios and chord inversions too. Point out the scale degrees and the quality of the chords on each step. Have them try substituting a minor chord from the scale for one of the major primary chords. Show them how to improvise through a progression of 3-5 chords. If a student has a bent for composition, this knowledge can be all they need to take off running.

Give incentives for composition efforts. These can include teacher praise and feedback, or extra points or prizes. Help students write down their work by hand, or enter it into a computer notation program for a more professional look. Search for contests the student can enter. Post compositions on the bulletin board in your studio. Include your students’ pieces in your recitals and at achievement days.

On different years I have had my students study a style of composition and then create their own version. We have done 12-bar blues, minuets, waltzes, and Medieval modes. We have also done variations on well-known favorites, such as Happy Birthday and Twinkle, Twinkle. I put all the compositions together in spiral book with a cute cover and give each student a copy at the end of the year recital.

Invite a specialist in to give a composition workshop to your students. This can spark more creative ideas and continue to build an emphasis on composition. I have encouraged some parents to add an extra lesson each month with a composition teacher if the child shows promise and needs the extra time. A summer camp is also a great time to teach composition.

Use technology. Kids are so quick to pick up on the latest programs. If they can layer keyboard voices, use notation software, play with Garage Band, etc., they pretty much can turn on their own creativity. My students participated in a Yamaha Clavinova Festival this year, and they loved creating their own orchestration.

Take students to visit a modern-day popular composer like Melody Bober, Dennis Alexander or Martha Mier if they come to town. I have had a student completely changed by this experience, from wanting to quit piano, to wanting to major in music.

Teach students to play from a lead line and chords. Especially with modern pop tunes, this is great practice for them to build the tools needed to create their own songs. This skill will also help them in jazz band or playing for a church worship team.

Use a composition method book along with your other lesson materials. There are many good books to choose from, and the best choice is one that inspires your student at the right level and interest. You can more easily add a book like this during the summer when pressure is not on for other events.

I keep an iPad by my piano for many uses. I use it to look up listening samples and historical searches, and I snap a quick photo of my notes in the student home assignment book at the end of each lesson so that I can refer to it when I reconcile my lessons on MTH later in the evening. I also use it to video record a student when they have a great composition idea that we don’t have time to write down right away. This way we can come back to it later and not have lost it.

If you have a composition “success story” have that student talk to the other students about their experience. I have a former student who is now working on a career as a singer songwriter, and after she came and talked to some of the younger students I had a whole new crop of creativity emerge.

The most important thing you can do is value composition in your studio, and your students will value it too. Admit you are not an expert (if you aren’t). Rejoice in creativity. Shepherd each child according to their individual bent and needs.

Please comment on this blog and share your ideas for encouraging composition so that we can all add more to our list of possibilities.

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  1. Robin Steinweg

    Sandy, this is a great post! I encourage composition in my studio, too. New to me are your ideas of a sticker on a notecard and Q&A phrases. I’ve never created a notebook of the year’s compositions for them, either–I love that idea!
    I have focused recitals on students’ compositions. I’ve gotten permission from a few to use their pieces as teaching tools for other students–this practically blows them away, to think a piece they wrote is good enough to use in my studio.
    I have a question: what comp. books do you like best?

  2. Lisa Barwell

    I enjoyed reading this! I encourage composition in my studio also, mainly during the summer when we have more time, but periodically during the school year also. I like to use ‘Music by Me’ (FJH) as well as other guides.

  3. Christine Schumann

    Hi Sandy! Great article! I was referencing the MTH blog in preparation to give a program for LAMTA this week, and was so excited to see that you are blogging here now! It is awesome that you are such an encouraging teacher, all around, but also in the area of music creativity!

    I wanted to say “thank you!” for sharing about my Flips for Improvisation books, and mention that my website has changed:

    The composition method books my students like best are:
    Young Composer’ Notebook, Volume 1, 2 & 3 by Frances Balodis (Frederick Harris Music)
    Creative Composition Toolbox, Books 1, 2, & 3 by Wynn-Anne Rossi (Alfred)
    FJH carries a nice beginning improvisation primer, Discover Beginning Improvisation, by the Faber and Faber, and Edwin McLean.

    Now I’m off to read some of your other posts, Sandy!

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