03 Feb 2014

I’m pretty lucky to have a group of students who are fascinated with writing their own music!   I’ve found that out of my more advanced students, the ones who have stuck with composition over the years are the ones who had a very creative start when they first approached it.

I’m well aware that composition is as much a science as it is a spawn of creativity, but the younger ones don’t always take to the Rules First approach to composing.   Composition comes from a unique place of passion.  You can love playing music, but still have no desire to create your own.  It all starts with a little spark.  Once you’ve started the fire, don’t stomp it out just to build a better one later-  let it grow, add to it, monitor how big it gets, and tame it if it gets out of control!

I realize there’s a danger to this way of thinking in general, and composition is pretty much the ONLY area where I’m OK with it.   If that first spark grows into a fire, then you have something to coach and work with.

That being said, I thought I’d share one of the tools I use to get the creative juices flowing during the Composition Workshops that I offer for very young students.  It’s also a great practice tool to use for youngsters who are just getting acquainted with the keyboard and names of the keys.

Meet Composition Caterpillar.
A.k.a. two pieces of green card stock, a pack of Velcro dots, foam sheets from the dollar store, a Sharpee, and a Saturday afternoon when I had already practiced to my heart’s content.   (And the famous colorinmypiano.com die makes an appearance once again!!)


I start by asking the student if I could have the honor of choosing their first and last note to get them started.  If it’s their first time using it, I choose C so their melody comes out major in tonality and has SOME structure to it.  In some rare instances they’re timid and get hung up on what note to choose, which is why I have the dice on hand just in case.  I prefer not to use it here if I don’t have to, as to not instill in them that note choosing is completely at random.


I have a whole collection of letters mounted to Velcro for them to choose from- usually more than one of each letter so they know it’s OK to repeat the same notes.


Depending on the level of student, I could go 3 different ways with it.  For really young first timers, we ditch the papers and just use the caterpillar.  As they add each note, we use counts of 4 to test out the whole chain to make sure they like it.  (This progressive approach comes in handy as a reference when later we need to repeat sections of music little pieces at a time to get it right all together)

The more basic paper encourages students to write their songs down so they don’t forget them.  They can also choose which note duration to use for each letter.   The second paper is for students who already have some staff notation experience and can copy their letters down on the staff.

DSC_0800  DSC_0803

To keep the fire going, I have 3 copies in my Music Library that students can sign out to take home with them.   Print your own Music Library Cards here if you’d like.

I know it’s a simple concept, but you have to start somewhere!
Please share your thoughts and ideas about the activity!

About the Author

Amber Staffa is a performing arts graduate of Rowan University. She holds a BA in Subject Matter Teaching for K-12, and a BM in Instrumental Music Education with a Piano Concentration, and is currently licensed in the state of NJ.

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