Ultimate Guide to Teaching Composing to Piano Students

This post about teaching composing to piano students is a consolidation of posts which were originally published in April 2015, March 2016, May 2016, February 2017, May 2017, April 2018 and April 2019 and updated in September 2020.

Does the idea teaching composing to piano students make you nervous? Are you not sure where to start, or perhaps you struggle to find the time to fit it in? I hear you. But if you think about composing the way I now do – you’ll have the drive to include it in your piano teaching.

Ultimate Guide to Teaching Composing to Piano Students facebook 2

When we write our own music, we take ownership of our craft. We are understanding the why and how, not just learning to regurgitate pieces.

Music makes so much more sense when you see it from all sides.

Why include composition in your piano lessons?

Is it so that your students can become composers if they wish?

Partially, yes. But it’s so, so, so much more than that. Teaching composing isn’t just about composing. It has so many other benefits.

Composing isn’t just about composing. It’s a fabulous way to engage piano students and get them to think about music in a different way. It gives you an opportunity to teach them music theory, allow exploration, and really get into the bones of the music.

Creativity and Exploration

This is probably the first benefit of teaching composing that comes to most people’s minds. And it’s a good one, especially since “creativity” is often cited as a reason for taking piano lessons.

But there’s nothing creative about reading and performing music exactly as it is written. Nothing creative at all.

Creativity is about freedom.

Giving students the opportunity to write music means they can explore the whole keyboard – long before they would be able to read music in such a big range. This freedom to investigate all the sounds the piano has to offer will also, in turn, give them more confidence when it comes to reading adventurous music.

Teach your students to compose and you’ll be giving them a true means of creative expression.

Incognito Theory

Do you ever struggle to get your students to do their theory work? Well, composition could be the answer.

When students have to write their own creations down, they are motivated to ask for the theory knowledge. They’ll come to you with questions about notation. How great is that? For instance:

  • If they want their piece to start at the very top of the piano, they’ll need to know about the 8va and 15va signs.
  • If they want the loud section to sound dramatic, they’ll have to make the part before it soft to contrast.
  • If they come up with a syncopated rhythm, they’ll need to understand how that’s constructed.

Obviously, in order to write notes down they need to know where they belong on the staff.

That’s not to say I make all of my students write down all their composed pieces. My younger students are welcome to draw a picture or write letter names to help them remember. But when it’s beneficial, you can bet they’ll be writing it down and getting some incognito theory into the deal.

And what better way to understand the importance of paying attention to dynamics and articulation than trying to convey a feeling in your own music?

Understanding Scales

If you’re sick of telling your students to…

“Practice your scales because you’ll need them one day!”

…then it’s time for that one day to arrive!

When she sees that she can use that scale to build a melody, scales don’t seem so irrelevant. When she understands the chords which will go best with it to create beautiful music, that’s when something goes *click* and theory isn’t boring and old-fashioned anymore.

Real Connections

Writing your own piece is a much more involved and well-rounded process than some arbitrary exercise. It allows you to get under the skin of the music. To gain real understanding.

This greater insight doesn’t stop at the notation, either. Composing music means students will have a better understanding of other composers, too. They’ll start to see the why behind all the little choices a composer made in the music they’re reading and learning to play.

When students understand music on this deep level, they can better interpret and absorb it. They can see inside it, underneath it and read in between the lines.

Practice Motivation

If you went to the trouble of writing your own piece, you’d want to be able to play it well…right?

That’s exactly it. Self-composed pieces are some of the best practiced pieces in my studio. Students love showing off their piece to friends and family at every opportunity.

Piano students will also push themselves to learn to do things technically that they wouldn’t otherwise have reason to do. My students often end up composing pieces which include a glissando, or an acciacatura, or chromatic scales.

Most of all, I love the motivation and enthusiasm uncovered by teaching composing to piano students. That alone is completely worth any wrangling of lesson time you need to do to fit it in.

Psst…If you’re convinced that incorporating composition in your piano lessons is the way to go, you might want to check out the other composing and improvising articles on my page devoted entirely to Teaching Creative Skills.

Piano Composing Projects

Hopefully I’ve convinced you by now of the value of teaching composing to piano students. Now it’s time to get started!

Composition Templates

Some structure is a good idea even with creative tasks. If we don’t provide a framework, many of our students will be lost at sea. This is why I use a step-by-step process for my students to follow.

There are many places to begin a composition, but the annual projects in my studio start with the melody. Students start by composing an A motif and a B motif based on a chosen theme. The motifs are then plugged into a simple musical form, tweaking as we go.

Fantastic fiction composing project for students

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After we have the melody composed, we work on harmony. I encourage my students to take inspiration for the harmonic structure and patterns from their own books. This has the added benefit of them paying attention to harmonic sequences that they often wouldn’t notice otherwise.

Finally we add the details: Articulation, tempo marks and dynamics. You’d be surprised how much more attention students will pay to these in the pieces they learn after they have carefully deliberated over and chosen markings for their own music composing project.

This system is simple and adaptable to almost all of my piano students. For my students who are not yet reading using the grand staff, I use a modified version with a single staff and a keyboard map.

Every single student can get in on the creative composing fun!

Circus Collective Composing Project

For my studio-wide projects, I like to pick a single unifying theme each year. This helps to promote a sense of community in the studio, as each student is working on their own contribution to a bigger project.

Brainstorm about different themes you could use, or ask your students for suggestions – the sky’s the limit! If you’re a VMT member, you can access ready-made project templates from a variety of themes:

Not a VMT member? Join today and get instant access to these 4 composition project templates along with even more awesome composition resources you can use in your studios today!

How to Use These Projects

  • Use with all students in a studio-wide project, or just with an individual student or group.
  • Adapt to each student’s level by exploring or ignoring the articulation, dynamic and form suggestions.
  • Allow pre-readers to notate in their own style, and re-write for them on the staff as needed.
  • Complete each section together in the lesson, or assign as homework where possible.
  • Encourage your students to take their time and try out many options before deciding on their final composition.
  • Optional extras: Record your students playing their compositions and put them together on a studio CD or SoundCloud page, or notate them digitally and create a book of your students’ pieces.

How to Help Students

When teaching composing to piano students, don’t try to “help” too much; the piece has to remain their own. If your student is stuck, give them choices rather than telling them what to do.

No matter what a student comes up with, I will assist them in taking that seed and growing it into a complete piece.

With early beginners, I prefer not to prescribe how they write things down. I just tell them they can write it whatever way will help them to remember.

The most important thing to keep in mind if you’re new to teaching composition is to be encouraging. This really isn’t about creating the most sophisticated, original music ever.

It’s about building confidence and inspiring.

Making the Most of Composing Projects

It’s absolutely fantastic to see so many piano teachers starting to embrace composing and bring it into their lessons. But have you ever wondered how we can make the most out of our piano composing projects?

Composing projects for their own sake are great. But with a few tweaks, we can use them to create even more learning opportunities for our students.

Reveal the Puzzle Pieces of Music

Composing is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about what makes music music. What goes into writing a piano piece?

Take some time at the start of your next composing project to discuss (at least) these 4 components with your students.

Melody

Perhaps the most obvious element, but many students can’t really define the word.

For simplicity and clarity with young students I sometimes explain the melody as “the part you would sing if it were a song”. That usually seems to get the message across.

Harmony

Breaking this down for my beginners, I describe it as “the stuff that goes underneath the melody”. Perhaps not the most accurate definition, but I find it works for my students.

Rhythm

Most students know this word and can explain it pretty well, but they underestimate the importance of rhythm on how a piece sounds.

Try playing a familiar song with the correct notes but the wrong rhythm and see if they can guess it. Probably not.

Then play it with the correct rhythm but the odd wrong note thrown in…can they guess now?

Magic (Articulation & Dynamics)

Now for the pixie dust. When my students compose their own pieces, it really takes their engagement up a notch with articulation and dynamics because they suddenly see the point of them.

These things they used to see as one more thing to remember while they’re playing are now essential elements of their story.

Approach From Different Angles

Try mixing things up and doing some composition from different starting points.

The composing projects I share on the Colourful Keys blog normally start with the melody. But of course that’s by no means the only way to start.

In fact, in the 10-Week Composer Cultivation Lesson Plan (exclusive to Vibrant Teaching Members,) I show you how teaching composing to piano students from 4 different starting points helps them see see how each approach influences the final result.

Check out the introduction video from that course so you can see how this fits together.

Become a Vibrant Music Teaching member today to access the full Composer Cultivation course and download the step-by-step plans to use in your lessons for 10 weeks, plus hundreds of other resources to make your lessons engaging and effective.

Make Connections to Repertoire

When you’ve chatted about these four aspects of music (melody, harmony, rhythm and magic,) make sure you connect this to the repertoire your students are learning. You could:

  • Take out some pieces and analyse how each of these things affects the sound.
  • Experiment with altering the rhythm, melody, harmony and magic in these pieces together and see how it changes things.
composing project

Continue to come back to their repertoire throughout your composing projects. This helps your students gain insight into the composing process and relate on a deeper level to the pieces they’re learning to play.

Do you include composition in your piano lessons?

How do you go about it? What resources or approaches have you found the most effective? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers group on Facebook.

14 thoughts on “Ultimate Guide to Teaching Composing to Piano Students”

  1. Thanks Nicola, for the 30day refresher course and the composition pdf. I hope to use some of these ideas with my students this year! Coposition exchange sounds fun !

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the composing worksheets. My students like to improvise. We will take on the project next month. I found the 30-day refresher course to be encouraging, inspiring and practical! Thanks for sharing all your hard work with us!

    Reply
  3. I will add these ideas to some others I had to incorporate composing this year. I’ve done very little in the past, but am adding all kinds of new things little by little, with lots of ideas from your 30 day studio refresh! Thanks so much for offering your ideas to us teachers, it’s much appreciated!

    Reply
  4. Hi Nicola, Thanks for sharing this composition activity. I think I’ll actually save it for summer so it will be a while before I “exchange” anything, but I think that’s a GREAT idea. The kids will get to see what other student from around the world do with the same beginning “toolkit.”

    Reply
  5. I have not received my email to get the composing project and the young beginners version. When I get the confirmation email, it sends me back to this page. I sure would love to have them. My students love composing.

    Reply

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