Tag Archive for Composing

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

Composition — a NON Composer’s Perspective

It’s been really productive and busy in the Humperdinck workspace!  Our composers have been working tirelessly with our students to hammer out the melodies that will make up our opera.  I recently had a chance to sit and watch some of what they’ve been doing, and it is really impressive.

Even though I’ve spent quite a bit of time with modern composers, the process of composing itself has always seemed mystical elusive to me (as I imagine it might seem to most people).  Do you just sit at the piano and simply plunk out different sounds until something ‘clicks?’  Do you create some kind of structure and then try and work within that?  What does this process even look like?


Flute composing



Luckily, our composers are both experts at their craft, and can also reshape that craft into words, games, and questions that are perfect for the Humperdincks to explore.  They are also starting with lyrics our students have already written (see Eva’s previous blog post here).  As a result, they have quite a bit to work with, and so they started by asking the kids a series of questions.

– What’s going on in this scene?
– How would you describe the mood?
– What does that mood look like in terms of body language?
– What does that mood sound like?

Today, nervousness was displayed through quivering lip, quivering voice, or seeming frightened and in a slightly crouched stance.  We say so much more with our bodies than we do with words, sometimes.


Evelyn with composing cards


Since we’ve been writing about, drawing, and acting these characters for a while now, our kids have really concrete ideas about what the characters look like, act like, and sound like.  They’ve been rolling these giraffes, lost girls, and ice spiders around in their minds for quite a while…and it shows.

Our composers also worked with the kids using their Composer’s Toolbox – a set of cards developed earlier in the season that had all sorts of musical choices.  Should this song sound bumpy or smooth, loud or soft, should it have a rhythmic pattern?  The most popular cards were then used in the piece.

While this was fun to watch and take part in, I want to emphasize that the process our Humperdincks are working through is often difficult for college-age students!  This is high-level learning, melding ideas about characters, emotions, sounds, rhythm, and language into something cohesive and entertaining.  Our Humperdincks are filling a tall order, and I couldn’t be more excited for what comes next – dance, staging, and learning the songs we’ve just written.

– by Ariana Strahl
Partner Teaching Artist, 2014-2015

Building Compositions, One Slide Whistle at a Time

Ideas at Little Opera are often contagious. When you’re surrounded by dangerously clever kids and adults for hours at a time, strategies for opera-making are abound, and it’s easy for the best of them to rub off. This has certainly been the case with composing this year – music composition, which, as my teacher once said, normally falls into two schools of pedagogy: “it can’t be taught!” and “it shouldn’t be taught!”

Like myself, fellow Little Opera composers-in-residence Alex and Jenny disagreed with this statement, and set about finding a way to give our younger operatically inclined friends the know-how to write their own music. Almost immediately, I latched onto a two key concepts imparted by my composerly comrades:

1. Limitations are your friend.

2. Composing, more than anything, is about having the right tools in your creative toolbox.

 With these nuggets of wisdom in hand, I sought out how to work with my group (ambitiously dubbed the “Wagners”) to prepare them to become smart, savvy music makers, ready to tackle the daunting challenge of opera composition.

Since we are only a few months into our musical journey, I can’t claim to have perfected my recipe for composing success. However, I’d love to share with you a few of my recipe’s key ingredients at the moment: a few sheets of paper, post-its, and… of course… slide whistles.

Let’s start with the paper. It occurred to me early on that there are a LOT of ways to describe music, and even a single note: loud, soft, long, short, high, low… and when you add even more notes, a whole new can of worms is opened. How is one to make sense of it all, much less decide on parameters to choose when composing? It then occurred to me that when we decide to sing a note, we’re making a choice that rules out its opposite – a note can’t be loud AND soft, short AND long. When thinking in binaries, the task of deciding which musical traits to choose becomes easier: “AND” becomes “OR.” To illustrate this, I made five cards with opposing musical terms on either side:

music cards

        • Treble (high) – or – Bass (low)
        • Piano (soft) – or – Forte (loud)
        • Staccato (short) – or – Legato (long)
        • Allegro (fast) – or – Largo (slow)
        • Major (bright, positive) – or – Minor (darker, negative)

Suddenly, the treacherous pile of descriptive terms became a veritable flip-book of musical possibilities for the Wagners. A familiar song like “Brother John” could go from an impish jig to a somber dirge with just a few flips of our handy cards. Indeed, the limitations imposed on us by these simple musical “OR” decisions gave us more flexibility than ever before!

After testing out these new creative tools on a tune, we tried applying them to an important operatic concept – emotion. From a previous exercise, the Wagners had amassed an array of post-it notes with a different emotion listed on each. Drawing one at random, each Wagner was challenged to pick what they felt were the appropriate musical qualities for their emotion.



Later, we tried putting our tools to a different test by composing music for two scenes from the Orpheus myth using our new favorite instrument: slide whistles. With our cards in hand and previous work with emotions fresh in our minds, we figured out the musical qualities that would accompany each of these scenes:

1. Orpheus in the underworld: bass, legato, largo, piano

2. Orpheus in the forest, lamenting his loss: treble, legato, largo, forte (it was decided that the forest itself, unaware of Orpheus’ pain, continues about its business in a treble, staccato, allegro, piano fashion)

In the end, our creative tools not only helped us paint these scenes with ease – their restrictive “this OR this” nature actually made it easier for us to make interesting decisions on the fly. Had we not been able to musically articulate the contrast of, say, Orpheus in the woods with the indifference of nature, we would have ended up with a far less magical result. After all, what else is composing but a little know-how, practice, and magic?

I look forward to keeping you updated as the Wagners and I continue our creative journey together!

– by Danny Clay
Resident Composer, 2014-2015

Shapes, Rules and Melody

There are many different ways to approach writing music. Sometimes you start with a rhythmic idea, or an interesting chord progression. Often the first step is a to write a little bit of melody. No matter what element you start with, you end up filling in the blanks later, and in most cases you end up juggling all of these elements simultaneously. When teaching composition to kids, I find it helpful in the beginning to focus on each of these elements separately.

This past Tuesday, we focused on the ingredients of a good melody. Our challenge: How to you take seven notes and arrange them in a way that makes sense? The answer: Give them an interesting shape (melodic contour) and use a combination of repetition and contrast (form).

Below are the step we followed to create our melody.

1. Sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd“— Identify different sections(A, B, C). How many times do we hear A? Are there different versions of A?

2. Create the melodic contour by mapping a melody, using the same method as story arc.

• We will begin by creating a short A section.
• You have seven (eight, counting the octave) notes of a major or minor scale to work from.
• You are allowed only one climax. The highest note can only be used once.
• Indicate which notes are approached by step and which are approached by leap
• If you approach a note by leap, you must follow it by a step in the opposite direction.
• Once you have sketched the shape of your melody, indicate exactly which notes lie where (the lowest being 1, the highest being 7)
• Sing through these notes several times, and listen to them on the piano. Which notes should move quickly or slowly? Which should be held for a long time? Which should be staccato and. legato?

Here is the melodic contour map that Susanna (age 11) created

9.30 Susanna composition shape

As we worked, we thought about a few additional things:

• As in drinking gourd, we can have two slightly different A sections: the first is like a question, and ends on some note higher than 1 (probably 2). The following A section (A’) provides the answer and ends on 1.
• Can we identify any melodic patterns that we can repeat on different notes? These are called sequences.
• When we write a B section, we can use the same collection of notes, but start and end slightly higher or lower. This will give us some contrast between the A and B sections, as well as a different climax note.

Here’s what Susanna’s melody sounded like at the end of the process


– by Alex Stein
Resident Composer, 2014-2015