Music composition in your ensemble rehearsal!

By Alexander Koops posted 11-19-2017 01:47


I am passionate about helping teachers and students engage in music composition.  The new National Core Arts Standards (2014) emphasize creativity, and leaders in the field of music education encourage composition because it allows students to express themselves in a personal way that is different from performing or listening to music. I believe composition is equally as important a musical activity as performance, improvisation, and analysis. The benefits of are many, including the development of musicianship skills, listening skills, an understanding of contemporary music and music theory, as well as simply providing training for the beginning composer and a creative outlet for all music students.

Although many would agree that being involved with the process of music composition is very important for young music students, many school music teachers away from including this field of study in their classrooms because of a lack of time, training, or performance pressure. In order to address these problems, I have developed composition lessons that may be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time (20 to 25 minutes) in the midst of a regular ensemble rehearsal or group music class. Any music teacher, regardless of their background, can teach these lessons. Teachers who face significant performance pressure may consider arranging their rehearsals and concerts with one or two easier pieces, or perhaps fewer pieces, in order to accommodate more classroom time for composing.

Another issue with many school ensemble settings is that students working individually or in small groups struggle to hear themselves amidst the noise and chaos of everyone trying out compositional ideas in the same room. I have developed lessons that allow the entire ensemble to work together as one large group rather than as individual composition projects. However, if facilities are conducive to having individuals or small groups work on composition ideas during the class time, this is recommended. Of course, teachers should never miss the opportunity to encourage students to compose music on an individual basis outside of class!

One way to introduce composition in your own classroom is with an “elements of music” approach, covering areas such as melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm. Personally, I love starting with a lesson on soundscapes. By encouraging students to create non-traditional made up sounds, it puts them all on the same level playing field, rather dealing with one student who might be very weak on their instrument alongside other students who are very advanced. I like to start with a piece of repertoire that the class can perform that has a soundscape built in it. Here are a few band and orchestra pieces that have some element of soundscapes embedded in them:


Blackshaw, Jody         Whirlwind (Grade 1)

Bukvich, Daniel          Dinosaurs (Grade 2)

Broege, Timothy         The Headless Horseman (Grade 2) (Introduction)

Jennings                      A Prehistoric Suite

Shapiro, Alex              Paper Cut (Grade 2.5)

Colgrass, Michael       Old Churches (Grade 3)

Duffy, Thomas            Snakes! (Grade 3)

            Smith, R.W.                In a Gentle Rain (Grade 4)

Pennington, John        Apollo (Grade 4)

            Whitacre, Eric              Cloudburst (Grade 4.5)

            Duffy, Thomas            Crystals (Grade 4/5)




Easy to Medium:
Earle Brown:               Modules 1 and 2

            Rands, Bernard           Agenda

Meyer, Richard           Ear-

Adler, Samuel             A little Bit . .Time   

Balmages, Brian          Creatures (Aleatoric)

Cummings, Walter      Water Reflections (Soundscape)

Reznicow, Joshua       Avian Dance (Soundscape)

McBrien, Brendan       Contraption (Band or Orchestra versions)


Medium to difficult

Punwar, Katherine      Follow the Drinking Gourd

Meyer, Richard           Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space


On my first composition lesson with I also like to engage them in a discussion of what a definition of music is, as well as what composing is. Building music vocabulary is an important part of our students’ education. When students understand that composing involves organizing sounds, it easily transfers to a soundscape lesson where students make up various sounds and then organize them. A good analogy is that composing is organizing and combining the sounds like a cook does with a recipe; we gather the ingredients, organize them, then combine them and cook them up for the final product! Here is a sample soundscape that works well as for getting students to compose their own soundscapes.

1.Say “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”

2. Laugh repeatedly until cued to stop

3. Snap fingers

4. tap pencil on stand

(optional: together, as conducted on cue)


This sample soundscape can be performed straight through in order, or as more than one box at the same since the conductor could point to two boxes simultaneously. Try different orders/sequences and repetitions to “create” different pieces, as well as combining different boxes and different orders. Have some students come up to be the conductor and point to various boxes (they LOVE this!) If possible, record and the composition (students LOVE this also!)

Teachers should attempt whenever possible to connect composition lessons to actual music the students are performing or studying in class in an effort to help deepen the learning experience. Think of teaching your “regular” repertoire as if you were the composer yourself. Ask yourself and your questions like “why is there a there?” and “what feelings is the composer trying to portray here and why?” rather just teaching to slow down when they see the word .
            In conclusion, my experience in teaching middle school and high school students composition in ensemble settings has been very rewarding and exciting. Students generally LOVE to engage in composition and it creates an entirely different feeling and level of learning and engagement that is a complete contrast to the typical performance emphasis of many of our classroom settings. If any of you want more information on teaching , I’d be happy to share the ten introductory curriculum I created, or visit your class and either talk through some of the composing lessons with you, or teach a sample lesson! Now, take a break from reading this article and go compose a joyful tune!

Feel free to email me