Sunday 5 March 2017

Teaching composing to children: Q&A with Frances Balodis

My students of all ages, even the three-year-olds, have spent the last few months lovingly creating their own musical compositions. The impetus for this is provided by the Music for Young Children (MYC®) International Composition Festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Thousands of MYC students from around the world have sent their compositions to be played and reviewed by a panel of teachers and composers who are charged with the difficult task of deciding which compositions will make it to the final round and be given first, second, or third place ranking, or an honourable mention.

I recently spoke over the phone with Frances Balodis, the founder of MYC® and chair of the MYC Composition Festival.

TG: Why do you think it’s important to teach composition to young children?

FB: It helps them understand what they’re playing. It helps them memorize. When they come to memorize something you can say, “There’s the motive, and now it’s repeated, but is it repeated exactly the same? Now listen to the sequence.” So when they go to play by memory, and they falter just a little bit, you can support them so nicely by referring to the compositional techniques.

Also, when they are composing, you can talk about the need to have dynamics and tempo markings. You can ask them, “Would you like the whole piece to be allegro, or is there going to be a ritardando?”

I have noticed that many children really improve in their playing after studying composition, and they improve in their understanding. After we’ve done composition, then the children will look at a song that they’re going to play, and say, “Oh I see the motive.” I think that by teaching composition, it really opens up their eyes to what they’re playing.

TG: What do you think is most challenging about composing for the students?

FB: Keeping the whole map in their head, because sometimes they will start out with a really good idea and then they kind of go off on some side trips and they have a little trouble getting back home. It’s important for them to understand how to take a trip and explore lots of really interesting things, and come back home.

TG: What makes a good composition?

FB: I like to see an interesting motive. And you can have an interesting motive even if you only know C, D, and E. And coming to a good conclusion, a conclusion that makes sense. I think variety is also important. Sometimes you get a composition where the left hand is all broken triads, too repetitive. I was looking at Facebook this morning and saw a darn good composition that someone had posted. They had a nice waltz pattern, and then they changed the left hand pattern so they had a nice little broken chord. That contributes to being a good composition. A good composition also has nice phrasing, and sensible cadences. 

TG: For the composition festival, the children write out their compositions in their own handwriting. How important is that?

FB: Honestly, some of the compositions that my children wrote, I did not have them spend hours and many tears recopying them. I think that’s a mistake, and it makes me sad when people send their compositions in and they look spick and span. And I think, “Hmmm… I hope the child didn’t cry when they had to recopy it.”

What I used to say to my students is that writing a composition is like writing a letter. When I send you a letter, in my handwriting, as long as you can read it, the communication has been successful. It is not successful if I send you a letter that you can’t understand. You have to be able to look at the letter that I’ve sent you and understand what I’m trying to tell you, and it’s the same thing with a composition. When we make our composition and we send it off, we’re sending a musical letter.

I always tell the reviewers of the compositions, if the treble clef is backwards, if the stems are on the wrong side of the note, it’s okay. Sometimes the winning composition looks like a chicken walked across the page.

TG: What is the best way to introduce composing to young children?

FB: I like the concept of teaching composition through art. I got the idea of doing that and then people kept saying, “Oh gosh, I wish this was written down.” And then Frederick Harris published my Young Composers Notebooks for quite a number of years.

With the youngest children I just use coloured circle stickers. You can move the circles up the page, you can move the circles down the page, you can make the circles go backwards, which sometimes is enough — just to teach the children the compositional techniques of repetition, sequence and retrograde.

Bach is such a wonderful example of these techniques: there it is, there’s the motive, there’s the repetition, there’s the sequence. Bach was the master of sequence. So sometimes when children or parents say, “That’s too easy,” I say, “Really? Take a look at the masters here. It’s not too easy.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.