JKM Turns Four!

So...I haven't written since January (my god) and my only excuse is that I am genuinely insanely busy, but the real reason is probably I'm just not that great at staying on top of my blog, but I do always pay my phone bill on time and you can't have everything. 

So let's ignore all that and start with yay! JKM is four years old! To be fair, JKM turned four some time back in July but the aforementioned busyness distracted me from the fact. I think in the grand scheme of things, four years isn't that long but then again I've never run a business for that long before so why not celebrate?

Some of my students I've had the whole four years, some from before I started working for myself, and I'm lucky enough to find new students every year. I've just recently booked in my Spring concert and I'm going to have almost twice as many students performing as I did last year. Underneath the stress of planning (will there be enough chairs??) I am quietly very proud of myself and loudly exceptionally proud of my students. 

One of my favourite things about the concert is the number of compositions my students perform. The students who generally perform at the concert are between 5 and 16 years of age (I can never convince my older students somehow...) and almost all of them this year will be performing at least one of their own compositions.  

I've spoken before about how composition and improv are two disciplines of music that are very close to my heart. My most recent thing is to see how close I can come to composing in the style of some of my favourites (Yann Tiersen, Einaudi, Philip Glass etc) and improv is always just the easiest way to express everything all the time. I used to only compose for myself (fastest way to improve your notation theory, trust) but with such a broad student base I find it hard to find music, especially for my younger students, to fit everyone's taste without giving everyone the same songs. Add to this tailoring music for an individual student's level and abilities? That's a tricky biscuit my friend.

Thus (love using thus) last year I really got into composing for my students. I can shape a piece around their current skills and also sneak in a bunch of theory without them realising. It's also been a huge help for myself when it comes to understanding genres. I'm a contemporary soul but my 5-year-old students just aren't here for a melancholy cry-whilst-playing moment. They need bounce and sass and songs about unicorns and junk food (actual requests). Being the super-harsh Miranda Priestly-esque critics that they are, I've quickly learned what they like and don't like, but - and here's the important bit - so have they.

From there it's a real short jump, a fall if you will, into making their own compositions. When a student tells me 'I like it but in this bar it should do this' I just say 'show me'. They figure it out by ear and with a little nudge they've made 4 bars of their own composition. We notate on the laptop (MuseScore you're my hero) and they get very excited to see their songs all official looking and their names in the top right corner. 

I once had a parent ask me if composition was that important. They were worried that their child wasn't learning much from 'mucking around'. I genuinely understand how it could sound like that from a distance but there is so much theory involved that it would be a whole other blog post if I went into detail so let me just list you a list, we've got:

  • Chord theory - all songs are based on chords, and chord progressions, and understanding which chords go with other chords and why and oh my god it's just such a huge world and you guys know how I feel about chords so I'll stop before this becomes yet another love-blog to chords.
  • Rhythmic notation - it's all well and good to think of a melody or a rhythm but if you don't understand what it's made of good luck trying to write it down. 
  • Melodic dictation - humming a melody and playing a melody are two very different things, figuring out where a melody goes whilst you're making it up is harder than it sounds.
  • Technical skill - I have a rule for my students, they have to be able to play what they write, so they often push themselves out of their comfort zone because they want to keep the cool rhythm they just wrote. 
  • SO MUCH OTHER STUFF: time signatures, key signatures, articulation, dynamics, arrangement, lyrics (oh yeah we do that too), endings and lions and tigers and bears oh my. 

I hope that's given you a small idea of what these students are learning, all this on top of whatever else we're doing in the lesson. Point being, I write a lot of songs for my students (seriously, I'm thinking of releasing a series of books) and they write a lot of songs, with fun names like 'Jazz Frogs', 'Bouncing Baby Beetroot Blues', 'Origami Ghost' and my personal favourite 'Sad Angry Unicorns'. As an added bonus, once a student has written their own piece, they're 10 times more likely to practice it than something they didn't write, because it's interesting! They want to show it off! And inevitably, they have an idea for their next song as soon as the first one is finished. 

Thus (yessss) ends this ode to composition. My dream is to one day host workshops so that everyone can discover for themselves how easy composing can be. Which isn't to say it can't be difficult, it really can be, especially if you have a specific vision (what's the aural version of a vision?) but after teaching composition to a very broad student base I've discovered a whole bunch of nifty tips and tricks. 

So to sum up: composition is great, JKM turned 4 sometime back in July and I'm not amazing at writing consistent blog posts. But I do write a mean unicorn song.