This article was originally published in the Fall 2011 Harker Quarterly.
Reading and writing go together in academia, and an innovative program is helping musicians learn to write as well as read music.
“Usually students learn to read music and to play it,” said Louis Hoffman, lower school music teacher, “and that’s it. But that’s only half. They should be learning to write it as they’re learning to read it, just like with language.”
Until then, he argues, students are not musically literate.
With the musical literacy goal in mind, Hoffman started the Young Composers program and extended an invitation to all students at the lower school to study composition, no musical background required.
Two students, Paul Kratter and Aditya Andrade, both now in grade 3, took part in the program last year. They wrote pieces for orchestra and jazz, respectively, that were performed at the lower school’s orchestra and choir concert in May. Both students also conducted their pieces, another skill learned in the Young Composers class.
Conducting is one of Kratter’s favorite parts of the program. When asked about his experience at the concert last year, he said, “It felt good to conduct my own music in front of so many people.” His other favorite part of the program, he said, is the composing itself, and because of that, he’ll be continuing with it this year.
Andrade said of the concert experience, “It did feel a little odd playing my own piece. But it has always been a dream of mine, to conduct and play my own piece.” He is looking forward to writing a short symphony for the program this year.
The young composers learn different strategies for composing while also studying everything from musical theory to arrangement (deciding the instrumentation) to orchestration, meaning which instruments will play which parts.
“If you write a note for violin,” Hoffman says, “it has to be something the violin can actually play; you have to be sure that instrument goes that high or that low. Or let’s say you want to write a part for a recorder in an orchestra, an instrument not usually in the orchestra. You won’t be able to hear it; the other instruments will overpower it.”
Another important skill Hoffman wants students to learn is improvisation. He started jazz ensembles at the lower school to encourage students to master this skill. “In jazz,” he said, “you’re expected to understand what’s happening in the music, and then to change it and make it your own.”
With all these new tools in hand, students learn how to prepare the score, which lays out all the parts for the conductor, so he or she can see, measure by measure, who is playing what. And when it’s ready to be played, the students take it to rehearsal and see how their music really
Hoffman knows firsthand the importance not just of seeing your notes on paper but of learning to change and revise them based on the style of music being played. His own background is in composition; he worked for 13 years in television and film, writing scores for everything from
Disney cartoons to full-length films.
“Doing this in the real world where you have to meet the expectations of somebody else is actually very challenging,” he said. Learning to compose in the face of those expectations is an important lesson that Hoffman wants to pass on.
In terms of other challenges he’s faced with in teaching composition, Hoffman said, “There are none. Composing is a very natural thing. Whenever new students start, I tell them, ‘You know much more about music than you think you do.’ My job is to prove it to them.”
Once a student has written a piece, Hoffman said, “I don’t change a single note. We talk instead about stylistic expectations. If a student wants to compose something in the style of, say, Duke Ellington, there are certain things people expect to hear.”
Hoffman has taught composition at other schools and said teaching children composition is actually easier than teaching it to adults. “With adults, if after five minutes they aren’t
Beethoven, they throw up their hands. Kids come into composing with fewer judgments and expectations, and because of that, get into it much easier,” he said.
The important thing in music teacher teaching kids to compose is to not “confuse intellect
with experience,” Hoffman said. “Kids can learn anything adults can. My job is to find and use a strategy that makes sense to them. You have to make it make sense within the context of their own experiences.
“I think people hear about it, about younger kids composing and conducting music, and almost can’t believe it,” Hoffman said. “But we should expect musical literacy from all students studying music. It’s just like writing. Just as we expect kids to learn to write paragraphs as they learn to
read them, we should expect kids to learn to write music as they learn to read and play it.”
Hoffman called composing “the missing component” in musical education. “Being able to recognize what you’re hearing in music and then freely create it is what makes you musically literate.”