Language as a Prompt for Composition and Improvisation
The English language is extremely musical. Much of the meaning of our words is formed through the interpretation of the speaker’s use of inflection, tone, rhythm, and timbre. Without these important elements of speech, it would be difficult to discern statements from questions, playfulness from anger or when to interject in a conversation. As music teachers, the musical elements of speech opens many doors for our students’ comprehension of music – especially composition and improvisation.
Poetry and Music
Poetry and its playful use of rhythm and words is especially appropriate for the music classroom. After choosing a poem, I typically begin by discussing the musical elements of the poem with my students. Dependent on the poem, this may include meter, rhythm, phrasing, or specific elements of the poem that will dictate the musical accompaniment, like onomatopoeia or the mentioning of a rabbit hopping.
After our discussion, each student is then assigned a line or multiple lines of the poem that they will compose to. When their line is read, they perform the musical accompaniment they have created. This offers an opportunity for individual composition and performance, but also operates as a way for the group as a whole to arrange each member’s role and then perform one by one as each line of the poem is read. Students are able to contribute to a larger work while simultaneously facilitating group interaction and management themselves.
For example, take the poem below, “Every Thing On It” by Shel Silverstein. We can assign one student to perform the music for first line. Maybe the student will perform an inflection at the end and phrase their accompaniment like a question to reflect the line “asked for a hotdog with everything on it” and musically portray the narrator asking for a hotdog. Or, maybe they’llcreate an entirely different approach to the line that is unique to their own interpretation. I allow students time to think about their line and to compose and rehearse individually. The students typically will select one instrument to perform on and usually play just a few notes. However, this could easily be extended depending on available time and student skill levels. Following individual composition and rehearsal time, we rehearse and perform as a group. When performing, we will perform each line one by one. Following the completion of the first line, the next student will perform his or her musical accompaniment to the second line and so on until the completion of the poem. Typically, this is performed in one class session in my classroom, but it can easily be expanded and worked on in greater depth for a longer period of time.
While doing this type of work, our role as the teacher is to help guide the student(s) through their creation of a soundscape for the image in their head and assist them in arranging each member’s contribution to the performance of the poem. However, do not be afraid to question students’ musical portrayals. This questioning usually unveils more about your students’ interpretations than you may have recognized from simply listening to their performance. I encourage you to search for and help to foster genuine, well thought-out musical portrayals of the words.
Another fantastic element of language is the arrangement of words. Paragraph structure showcases the importance of form for constructing cohesive and coherent ideas. This can provide a starting point for using this same approach to creating coherent form for a musical composition or improvisation.
To contextualize this, allow me to offer a model for application of this approach. Following a discussion on the relationship between the structure of words and music, we can guide students through creating an introductory sentence — in our case, an introductory theme, phrase or lick. This opening sentence will provide an overview of the material to come and sets the tone. Next, we encourage students to provide some body and extend on the ideas that were suggested in the opening sentence. Following this development of earlier ideas, we show students that they can conclude the work by tying together elements that were heard or suggested in the previous sections of the piece or solo.
By using this layout, we can easily guide students through creating their own works without extended study on musical forms. This can prove to be a very simple way to start students composing, and is also a great way to teach the difficult subject of improvised soloing.
Conversation is also highly musical. In any conversation, there is a balance between speaking and listening. This balance between speaking and listening can change dependent on the topic, the the ideas presented, and the roles of the members of the conversation.
The very same is true for a musical composition. Different ideas are suggested by different sections of the ensemble. These ideas could become themes of the conversation (musical work) or they may have simply been quick interjections to the conversation. The themes are either supported, denied, echoed, or ignored by the rest of the ensemble — just like the ideas and sentences in a conversation. As the composer of the piece, it is your job to control the conversation. You decide the themes and what members of the ensemble are suggesting them. Are they supported by the rest of the group? Denied? Who does most of the talking? Does the conversation stay on one course or does it change topics? The discussions and comparisons that you can create with your students only go on from there.
In the jazz setting, this is also easily applied in discussing and perfecting the art of comping. When comping or soloing, the conversation between the soloist and accompaniment must remained balanced and relaxed. Certain ideas will be thrown out and rejected, others will be welcomed warmly and supported. No one person dominates the conversation. The soloist and the accompaniment are interacting and propelling the motion of the solo forward, just like in a robust conversation. By offering this analogy to our students, we help to contextualize difficult elements of music that can take years to effectively grasp.
The English language is extremely reflective of Western music traditions and as a result, it offers a gateway to musical study. By discussing poems, structure, conversation and other elements of language and words, we can create connections that lead to understandings and starting points in composition and improvisation. These elements of music can be extremely difficult, but by offering this simple analogy and pairing it with facilitation and discussion, we can help our students to successfully grasp these challenging skills. Try embracing the art of language in your music classroom and see what types of knowledge it unlocks for your students.
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