Refining the Process of Student Composition in the General Music Class Setting

In addition to the study of non-syntactic music elements, the curriculum at Holly Academy (HA) uses other elements or dimensions of music in a similar way. Using a synthesis of the concepts from Teaching For Musical Understanding (TMU), Ed Sarath’s pioneering work on the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP), and my own ideas, music students explore similar problems involving meter, form, texture, theme and variation, other tools of the composer, the 12 Bar Blues, melody, harmony (diatonic triads and 7th chords), and rhythmic study.

My own struggles as an improviser informed the learning experiences at HA. I realized that all too often I was playing a seemingly never-ending stream of unrelated musical ideas in my improvisations. With this realization, I found that my students through no fault of their own were having the same difficulties. I hadn’t taught them enough about creating and developing ideas, because my own ideas on the subject hadn’t matured. As I continued to study the language of jazz masters through the transcription process it became clear that master improvisers, as well as composers, were always developing melodic material. I went back to the story telling metaphor (In a previous blog post), and discovered what Leonard Bernstein called the “1, 2, 3 Method.” In a nutshell the “1, 2, 3 Method” is as follows:


1)    Create a main idea.

2)    Repeat the main idea with a change.

3)    Repeat the main idea with a change “blasting off” as Bernstein refers to it into a new main idea.  I have broken step 3 into two pieces, like this:

3a) Repeat the main idea with a change.

3b) Compose traveling music, which is what Lenny refers to as the “blast off.” This is music that is not the previous main idea, or the new main idea, but is traveling towards a new main idea. 


The “1, 2, 3 Method” has become a prime focus in the music curriculum at HA, regardless of whether the musical problems involve non-syntactic music elements, or the dimensions of music such as form, meter, texture, 12 Bar Blues, melody, harmony, rhythm, etc. This method works on multiple levels, providing a practical musical strategy that can be used for both improvisation and composition.

In traditional musical terminology we would use motive, theme, motif, pattern, melodic fragment (what else?), but the students already use the term main idea in writing class. As much as possible I try to connect to the language they use in other classes. Storytelling provides a wonderful metaphor for improvisation and composition. I suggest to the students that they think of the main ideas like characters in a book or movie. The details about the characters create interest and drive the plot. We don’t want a never-ending barrage of characters that enter the story, have nothing to do with the plot, and leave without be heard from again. The concept of adding more details is another concept that is shared with the writing curriculum. It is the process that is of main concern. If the students can understand the process of creating, it won’t matter whether they are writing a poem or story, composing/improvising a melody, or painting a picture.

The fundamental concern is to make sure the students are developing melodic material while telling a story. The 5th Grade music curriculum at HA includes a unit on Theme and Variation, and that is where I begin to hold the students responsible for terminology like motive, theme, variation, etc. Depending on the time allowed I also teach a unit called the “tools of the composer.” In this unit we study specific ways to develop melodic material, such as octave displacement, rhythmic augmentation/diminution, note alteration, etc. As you are building a curriculum, remember that the goal should be to create problems for the students that are process oriented and authentic to real life practices of music. In the next blog post, I will discuss my struggles with teaching the students how to notate their work.