Composing in the kiddie pool

How does one go about writing music?

The more I consider the question, the more clueless I realize I am. There are so many factors that come into play, from the macrocosmic (What am I writing about? How will the end result be performed? By whom?) to the microscopic (What note should this be? What was the note before it? Do I need to re-write all the other notes in order for this one note work?) — to make matters worse, there is almost no consistent order in which these decisions are made. Every piece of music requires a different order of operations, a different flow of creation all its own.

So how does one even begin to introduce a complex, multifaceted process like composing to a group of 2nd and 3rd graders? My teaching partner Eva and I were discussing this the other day as I was preparing to compose an insane amount of recitatives with our youngest group, the Humperdincks. Each recitative involved a good page of text. No meter, no overt rhyme scheme – just lots and lots of dialogue. We asked ourselves: Is it really reasonable to throw these poor kids off the high dive and compose all these pieces from the ground up?

A year or two ago, I would have answered “yes! Why shouldn’t kids experience how messy and non-linear the composition process can be?” – but now, I’m not so sure. Why can’t composing be broken down and simplified? Why shouldn’t composing be less of a chore and more like a game?

It occurred to us that this activity could be split into pieces that are in themselves simpler worlds of discovery. Perhaps it’s a little like the kiddie pool. Sure, swimming in shallow water is not the most rigorous workout – but it introduces your muscles to the motions and gestures of moving in the water, and prepares you as you move into incrementally deeper waters. With writing music, we can tackle a piece by addressing one layer of it – one “muscle,” if you will – at a time. Working with the Humperdincks that day, we approached our recitatives it this way:

humperdinck recits

    1. We read the text out loud. Every time we paused to take a breath, we’d mark a line in the text (/). Each slash/breath would indicate a new piano chord.
    2. For each line, we marked whether the piano chords we would sing over would be major or minor (color-coded) based on what the text seemed to convey.
    3. We sang the text over the piano chords, improvising on notes that felt right with that particular chord.

(we repeated #3 over and over until we arrived at something we liked.)

The results were not only beautiful, but the process was a blast for everyone involved – certainly less confusing than unstructured composing time can often be. Even if our next piece requires us to start in a different way, it is my hope that those young composers will at least have a set of tools that they can use to begin working on it.

I’ve always rolled my eyes at the thought of an artistic “kiddie pool,” but I’m starting to feel that maybe it’s a place worth spending a little bit of time. Within even the simplest tasks / challenges / games / experiments, there are these little universes of beauty and wisdom, and it seems that artists of all ages could benefit from taking a dip there now and again.

– Danny Clay, Little Opera Teaching Artist