Sunday, January 19, 2014

So Can 5th Grade Students Compose?

Too long ago, I wrote a blog post posing the question Can 5th grade students compose?
By "compose", I was testing if 5th grade students could use traditional notation to write an original work with some level of harmony.  These are students I have had since Kindergarten, so it was as much a test of my own teaching as it was their knowledge.  We took about 5 weeks (ten half-hour sessions) on Noteflight, with students working in pairs.
Students in pairs on

The answer is  YES!  and no ...
Yes - Students can craft a theme, notate it well, add a few instruments, and create harmony within guidelines.
But No - after a good start, most become a quagmire of notes because although making music is natural, the organizational principles that makes a composition successful are not always natural.

What students did well:
• Computer skills (logging in/create scores/input notes/copy & paste notation)
• Treble clef notation
• Writing a "theme"
• Identify and resolve dissonant harmonies
• Sequence a theme (copy & paste original theme, then transpose it up or down)

What students had trouble with:
• How to keep a theme short and interesting
• Keeping rhythms simple (not filling measures with notes)
• Bass clef notation
• How to use percussion notation to enhance/support a melodic line

I quickly realized we needed to develop some "Rules" or Criteria to guide student work.  Through a variety of assignments, we developed these rules together:
Rules or Criteria of 5th grade composing (please excuse the chalkboard, tech friends)
Rule #1 - We LOVE patterns in music (it gives our brain something to hook onto)
Rule #2 - If one part is slow, the other can be fast (we need contrast)
Rule #3 - Scales move stepwise up or down
Rule #4 - Chords stack notes (teach whole note chords in root position to support a melody)
Rule #5 - Leave some empty space (we don't eat Thanksgiving dinner every day)
Rule #6 - A Theme is short and to the point (like a topic sentence)

If you want students as young as 4th or 5th grade to be able to compose on Noteflight, here are some ideas I suggest you build into your elementary program.  These are the things I plan to enhance in my own program for the future:

• Teach students about the concept of a "theme" early.  We do a lot of program music in elementary school, but instead of just identifying themes (Peter and the Wolf, the Nutcracker or Firebird Suites, Danse Macabre, etc.) we need to investigate what makes a theme successful.  My 5th grade students did better when we defined a theme as a "topic sentence" - short and to the point.  John Williams music is great for investigating what you can do with just a few notes.
• Do MORE composing early.  We already do inventive notation projects in 5K, single line staff in 1st grade, 2-line staff in 2nd grade, progressing to traditional notation in 3rd grade, but I need to do MORE in each of those grades, incorporating the six rules above.
• Sing and identify the various types of harmony with students.  We learned at least one song in each of these categories: round, partner song, descant, homophonic (which we called "true harmony" rather than homophonic).  I wrote a blog post about teaching harmony in 5th grade earlier this year.  I will move this up to 4th grade.
• Bass clef notation.  I know ... it can be difficult enough to teach treble clef some years.

Have fun!  I hope to return to Noteflight with the 5th grade students after our Spring concert!

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