Patti P., Hawaii
Let me preface this by saying that I’m a new Simply Music teacher with a lot of students who transferred into SM within my studio. The students are universally enjoying the program. Most of my students participate well in the composition process, but I have one little 8 year old girl who always says she doesn’t have anything. I have them come up and get them started with 3 or 4 notes (no getting out of composition time by not doing it as homework!) and tell them to add to that during the week. I never give any kind of correction or criticism of compositions.
At yesterday’s class, this girl’s father said she had told him before class that her composition wasn’t good enough. In spite of tons of reassurances from the class, she just freezes up. She seems to be completely terrorized at the idea of creating her own music. In terms of learning the foundation pieces, variations, and arrangements, she’s the quickest one in her class. Both parents are teachers, and I think there are really high expectations of this child, even if they are unspoken.
I’m hoping for some ideas to help get this girl more comfortable with exploring the piano and not worrying about being “right”.
Dixie C., Washington
Perhaps have her play on just the black keys (the pentatonic scale). The beauty of improvising/composing on just the black keys is that anything that is played will sound very musical. It’s almost impossible not to sound musical.
You might find a simple poem or story that engages the imagination & demonstrate improvising music to go with the poem as you, or a parent or student, reads the poem, again using just the black keys. Then send the story home with her to play it in her own way as her parent reads it.
You might, before ending this activity in the class, engage the whole class, including parents, in playing the story.
Stephen R., California
I’ve been going through the same thing with some students. I’m a new teacher myself. I have some students that love to make stuff up. A couple of girls I have, have been reluctant to start the process (i.e. forgetting to do it). The hardest part is probably starting. Now, I’m having students do the 5 note, white key project. Hopefully, the guidelines will help. I also told a student I’m going to do it too! It might help in your situation if you composed something for the girl so she sees that anyone can do it, including the teacher. Also, maybe coming up with a theme or story for her would help get her started. Best of luck!
Karen G., Tennessee
I generally play Honey Dew with all my new students improvising on top of that. For some reason, that is far less intimidating than being asked to compose something. From time to time I will have a student who is reluctant to even try that and I tell them to just play one note… repeatedly, if that is what they need to do. If I get tired of hearing that same note, I’ll tell them to play a different note. It is generally no time at all before they are improvising. From there, most feel comfortable working on compositions.
I have a few who need additional coaxing to try things, but the Honey Dew duet at least gets them creating at the keyboard. It is so lovely to see the looks of amazement on their faces when in their first lesson or two they are able to come up with something that sounds really good (as is almost always the case). It is also interesting to watch the process… even those who start out just hitting random notes without any attempt to make ‘music’ soon begin to find patterns that they like and soon are creating beautiful sounding pieces.
Elaine F., South Carolina
I was reading information from Brainology last night– fascinating stuff for educators.
They say that words like: I really like how hard you worked on this! vs I really like your song! might help reduce anxiety. In our lingo it might help her see that it’s the process, not the event we are paying attention to.
Sheri R., California
Yesterday my reluctant 8 year-old composer/improviser was asked by me to sit at the piano, foot on pedal, and just play Am and Dm in her left hand and any white notes. I told her not to stop until I told her she could. Her two brothers, mom, and I just did some other stuff, talked about playlists, etc. and tried not to really pay much attention to her. Very tentatively she started to play and after a while she started getting into it, being very dramatic with her arm coming up in the air and down. I just let her go on. It sounded great!
When she was done I asked her if she had fun and she said no! Hard to tell as it did look as if she was truly enjoying herself. I told her to just keep doing it at home in spite of the no fun factor. (And maybe she just didn’t want to let on that finally it was fun!) I hope it loosened something up in her. She knew trying to wiggle out of it wouldn’t work so she couldn’t really get out of doing it in the lesson, easier to come back and say it was too hard to do at home. If she comes back saying that again, I’ll just keep having her play in class until the switch goes on. Everyone is different. Try having your student say 5 random finger numbers and then have them play it on the piano. If they don’t like the sound tell them to try another combination. Away from the piano first so they don’t really have to worry about the sound immediately.
Marg G., Australia
I’m not sure if this is relevant or could be the issue. But one sentence that caught my eye was the comment that she told her father her composition “wasn’t good enough” and it reminded me of several students I have had over the years. These students were PERFECTIONISTS, and unless they were ABSOLUTELY SURE they would be GOOD they would not start to play. I had one child who was extreme and I had lessons with her when it took me 15 to 20 minutes before she would even put her hands on the piano. She just kept asking me questions and all sorts of diversions to avoid having to play. When she eventually played it was beautiful.
Your “Reluctant Composer” may not have this issue but it’s worth considering just in case. I thought the suggestion of having that child at the piano while the rest of the group are ignoring her and doing something else my help a child like this as she could think no one is listening and that would take away the fear of failure. With perfectionists it doesn’t matter how many times you tell them, they can’t be wrong and anything they do will be correct because it’s their composition, they just don’t believe it….
Joy V., Texas
I had this situation last week — kids who can do it, but for whatever reason don’t.
Came back the next week with nothing. So I had them choose a note — now put five fingers over five consecutive white notes — now tweak it until it sounds good (getting them by their own ear to get to the scale in that key). Okay, now compose a song using those five notes.
Next week, they came back with a bunch of numbers written on a piece of paper and played in that order — not exactly what I was hoping for. So then I had them go to the same place and figure out a phrase (only 3 to 5 notes) that sounded like a part of a song. When they had come up with one, I took over and played that phrase over and over again, but playing broken chords with my left using I, IV, and V. Their eyes got really big. “Think you can make one more phrase for me by next week?” “Uh-huh.”
Patti P., Hawaii
I’m sure that she’s perfectionist. And she enjoys being able to play everything from the foundation program well right off the bat. I know it’s feeling scary to her to do something without precise directions. I have another student like her, but less extreme who is in a private. I find it easier to get her to at least make an attempt in class, probably because her only “audience” is her mom.
I started the composition stream off in this girl’s class with improvising in Dreams position, then Night Storm, etc. So they all know to use any position they are comfortable with, that it’s OK to base a composition on a LH they already know, or only do 1 hand. They have total freedom, and other children in her class take to it well.
Both of these two girls (one in the class & one private) seem to just have a very strong need to be given precise directions so they won’t “make a mistake”. These kids often are excellent students, very conscientious about getting their work done, but also very, very difficult to encourage out of their self-imposed limits.
I’ll try having her improvise over my Honey Dew, and send her home with just 2 LH chords to make up a RH. I can imagine her just playing the 2 chords and saying she couldn’t think of anything (part of the issue with these kids is that they want to think everything through first rather than experiment).
I really want to help her get past this, even if she never actually enjoys composing. At the same time, I don’t want to make her so stressed out that she stops lessons!