Monday, February 11, 2019

Anyone can compose music!

Composing Dice? How do I use these? Why are there notes missing?


These are the most common questions I get at conferences where I have my music dice for sale. I wish I could easily and quickly convey how cool these dice are and they are the very reason I started making music dice in the first place.

Composing Pentatonic Dice do not have every note in a scale because there are only SIX SIDES! I commonly get the question why I can’t have every note, but please remember, my friends, there are 7 notes in a scale – 8 if you put the tonic on both ends. The solution is to make it a pentatonic scale (pent=5, 5 notes, plus the tonic at the end.) The notes are these dice are scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 1 (omitting scale degree 4 and 7). There are four different dice available.
  1.  A Major in treble clef – perfect for violinists (A, B, C#, E, F#, A) 
  2. C Major in treble clef – perfect for pianists and general music (C, D, E, G, A, B) 
  3. C Major in bass clef – perfect for pianists and general music (C, D, E, G, A, B) 
  4. G Major in bass clef – great for cellists (G, A, B, D, E, G) 
  5. Here is a set of 1 of each dice.
Now, let me tell you why I decided to make pentatonic scale dice and why they are so great for composing. Often Jazz music, hymns, and folk tunes are composed using the major pentatonic scale. It is the best scale for improvising and composing simple tunes. The more I know about this amazing pentatonic scale the more songs I realize use this very scale and notes in their melody. Think of the following pieces:

My girl (opening introduction), 

Oh Suzanna, 

Amazing Grace 

The notes in a major pentatonic scale gives a nursery-rhyme like quality and is easily remembered. It has a pleasant sound that works great with many chords. It’s easy to compose a pentatonic melody because you don’t have to worry about what to do with the leading tone or the tricky 4th note of a major scale.

Here is what I do with my students to help them start composing:
  1. Start with four measures of music. Use staff paper, white boards, I personally like using a paper cut into 4ths and using each piece as a measure and then connecting them at the end. 
  2. Add a clef (treble or bass, depending on which dice you are using) and a 4/4 time signature. You could use ¾ or 2/4 as well, but let’s just make it easy and use 4/4 this time. 
  3. Before you start rolling let’s end the melody on the tonic, so write a half note tonic note at the end of the piece – a C if you are using the C scale dice, and A if you are using the A scale dice, etc. 
  4. Now, let’s add a dominant half note at the end of the second measure. The dominant is the 5th note of the scale, so for C scale it would be G, for A scale it would be E. 
  5. It’s time to start rolling and fill in the measures with quarter notes with the notes your roll on the dice. 
When are your measures are filled up, voila! You have a simple melody. ANYONE can do this – your most beginner student, your smarty-pants high school student, ANYONE!





Take it to the next step:
  1. Now, let’s add another 4 measures to your piece. In measures 5 and 6 copy what you wrote in measures 1 and 2. 
  2. Add a tonic half note at the end of measure 8. 
  3. Fill in measures 7 and 8 with quarter notes rolled with the dice. 
Voila! You have a phrase.

And now…
  1. Here is where you can fancy things up a bit with passing tones and neighbor tones. 
  2. Are any of the notes next to each other? Make the first one a barred 8th note with the note above it and create a neighbor tone. 
  3. Are there any notes next to each other that skip a note? Make the first note a barred 8th note and pass the tone to the other note. 
  4. There are lots ways you can doctor your melody by adding rhythm, dynamics, articulations, etc. See what you can come up with. 
If you want to try something fun with your students – see if what happens when you compose a “duet” to a common melody. For example, Jingle Bells. Do the same steps as above, but make sure you are following the same rhythmic pattern as Jingle Bells. When you play Jingle Bells in the key you are composing you have just made a simple duet to your common piece.

Here are several downloads that you can use when composing your own melody or teaching your students how to compose:

Basic Composition 1 - 4 measures
A Major (treble)
C Major (treble)
C Major (bass)
G Major (bass)

Basic Composition 2 - 8 measures
C Major (treble)
A Major (treble)
C Major (bass)
G Major (bass)

Basic Composition 3-coming soon

Jingle Bells Composition-coming soon
Jolly Old St. Nick Composition-coming soon

Little Composer - this is a great little handout to use to help compose different rhythmic passages.  You could follow the same principles and use it to compose rhythm with your melody.
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Monday, January 25, 2016

Prepping Students for Recitals

It's that time of year when I'm preparing my students for our big Spring solo recital.  This is the biggest recital of the year for my students and a lot of preparation goes into getting ready.  I was excited to see an idea from an amazing piano teacher, Karen Hunter, who gave me a lot of great ideas for my violin students as well and I've asked her to write today's post:


The week my students choose their spring recital pieces is (by my students’ own admission) a highlight in my piano studio.  I teach 70 students in three teaching venues, so I begin the music “vetting” process in summer.  Two of my three recitals have themes, so the selection process is slightly easier for those recitals.  Students spend much of their first lesson of the new year listening to me play recital piece options and, ultimately, they select one.

The Saturday morning before lessons resumed in 2016, I spent some time perusing piano teaching ideas on Pinterest.  Something I read triggered the thought that if students are to spend 12 l-o-n-g weeks working on a single song to perform at the spring recital, perhaps it would be beneficial to have the students get familiar with the song and its composer before learning to play it.

That thought morphed into the creation of the “Recital Piece Hunt” worksheet which students were to complete for the second lesson of the new year.  Reviewing students’ responses with them provided many teachable moments.  For example:
  • Younger students discovered that songs have a “form”—a kind of map of a piece.
  • Many students were reminded that a song without sharps or flats may not necessarily be in the Key of C Major.  This resulted in a review of relative major and minor scales.
  •  Students became acquainted with the various “articulations” used in their pieces.  What exactly is tenuto?
  • Students googled “rubato” and other unfamiliar performance instructions.
  • We discussed metronome markings and googled the definition of circa (as in ♪=ca.60).
  •  Younger students were skeptical that a quarter note could receive two beats (in 3/8 or 6/8 time). 
  • One student couldn’t wait to tell me that her composer (Robert Vandall) had a wife whose name was Karen!  Same as you, Mrs. Hunter!


Download here


As my students proceed with learning their pieces, I’m confident that they have adequate background into their pieces and their composers.


To provide students with a “visual” of their progress in learning their pieces, I created “Scoops to a Great Performance” contest cards.  As students move from hands apart to hands together, from slow to performance tempo, to adding pedal and dynamics, I mark another scoop on their 7-scoop cone.  When the piece is performance-ready and (hopefully) memorized, the student receives a token for a free scoop of custard from our local custard stand.  Prepping a piece for performance is a step-by-step process.  I hope this contest encourages my students every step of the way!

Download Here


Monday, January 18, 2016

Another Way to do Repetitions

This is a great idea that is perfect for smaller repetitions, like playing a whole piece or large sections of a piece....

Today when we were practicing I felt like my daughter needed to break down her piece into three main parts and practice them 5 times each.  I oversee her practice and help her when she needs it, but she is responsible for doing the bulk of the practicing on her own so this is how we decided to keep track of her repetitions each day.  We put 5 post-it flags on her music and she just moves them for each repetition.  Easy as that.