Most piano students struggle with similar issues – problems with hand position, issues with playing legato, falling wrists… most piano teachers encounter these and more with our piano students on almost a daily basis.
And while good teaching can fix these, a composition lesson can as well! Here’s how:
How to Teach Piano Kids to Compose… With a Twist
My composing lessons can look one of two ways 1) like a composing lesson; we’re learning how to put a piece together or 2) like a technique lesson; I’m using a sneaky way to fix an issue. Sometimes the two combine. The result is always a pretty fun piece to take home to practice.
The key is in creating a reason for your piano student to pay attention to your good teaching. You know how to solve the issue, but it’s getting your student to a) care and b) remember, that is the tricky part. This is where the composing comes in.
I use a “choose your own adventure” type approach to composing when my goal reaches beyond just creating a fun piece. For example, if we’re working on having a correct hand position (and read this post if you need help knowing how to teach this) then I’ll give my student a choice of two bits of compositional material that both have hand gestures meant to help them angle their thumb correctly and curve their fingers. Or, if we’re working on a stiff pinky finger, I’ll give them a choice between two bits of material that require their 5 finger to be “ready and present”… and so on.
The Fix It Formula
The trick is knowing how to put these bits of “tricked-you-this-is-actually-technique” material together.
Try this formula the next time you’re working on a specific issue and watch your kids a) care and b) remember with ease (okay, with a big smile actually!)
Step 1: Pick a really rockin’ name. This is the “a) care” part. The title of your students’ piece should be witty, unique, imaginative, hilarious or inspiring. It needs to speak to them. Have your student choose a topic and guide them in a fun direction. An example? A piece about the ocean would become “The Sand Flea Shuffle”.
Step 2: Pick a great sounding motive. This is the glue that will hold your piece together to make it actually sound like something. This should also be the “meat” of what you are attempting to fix. Choose an exercise that you would normally have them do either on a single key, on a boring set of notes, or away from the piano, and instead incorporate it into a funky rhythm and an interesting combo of 4-5 notes.
Step 3: Keep. It. Simple. This piece is going to be ABA (because it cuts your time in half by doing so). This piece is going to have a healthy dose of a repeating motive (because, after all, the motive is your teaching moment in this case). This piece is going to be super simple (and it won’t matter to your student one little bit).
Step 4: Try following this format to “put your piece together”
Section A: Motive, Motive, *their choice of 2 measures* Motive, Motive, *a single held note*
Section B: 4 measures where you elaborate on what you are teaching in terms of technique. It can really be anything – even scale-based drills will sound okay!
Section A: Motive, Motive, *repeat their same choice of 2 measures from above*, Motive, Motive, *an ending*
The parts *inside these* are where your student has complete freedom to make their own choices. Everything else is guided by you and your teaching goals.
Will this be a masterpiece? Probably not. Have you just created ample opportunities to drill, fine-tune and hone a certain aspect of your piano students’ technique? Yup. Will they practice and fully remember what it was you wanted them to do? Absolutely.
Spend one evening this week deciding how your own personal “fixes” for flat fingers, falling wrists, lack of legato, collapsing knuckles, stiff pinky finger etc. etc. could be transferred into a small bit of music, and if you need some assistance be sure to check out our “Piano Technique Bootcamp” posts.
Didn’t realize that composing with piano kids could be laid out so easily? Yes it can! It can also be taught with a hilariously engaging story line and two characters that involve your students in the composing process; getting them composing from the very first lesson! The Curious Case of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff is 12 lessons of composing awesomeness that has teachers emailing to say “I have always wanted to compose with my students, but never had a clue where to begin! Mutzzart & Ratmaninoff is exactly what I dreamed of, but could never find! Mutzzart is my new hero!”