“Playing the Whole Game” of Music: Students Compose and Perform to Master Music Theory

What does it mean to be an “educated musician?” What should musicians know about music beyond technique on their instrument? What knowledge and skills prepare students for college or lifelong learning as musicians? University Prep Orchestra Teacher Thane Lewis embeds music composition skills in his performing classes to give students a complete view of the subject of music. This fall, his students composed in this historical tradition of counterpoint. Along the way, they had to work in music history and theory as well as performance to create a complete musical experience.

Analyzing and writing musical intervals is an important concept in music theory, and is crucial for advanced music study. It’s also a skill that can be challenging for students to engage with. Lewis wanted to give this skill context for his students, inspired by the school’s reading of Making Learning Whole by David Perkins. In particular, Lewis thought about a metaphor that Perkins used to describe how some skills are often taught. Perkins suggests thinking about learning activities as playing the whole game of baseball versus taking endless batting practice. The traditional rote instruction for recognizing intervals seemed a lot like batting practice. What would it mean to take those skills in the field rather than drill them in isolation?

Each year, Lewis asks his students to compose as part of their work in orchestra. This year, he combined the composition project with interval study through counterpoint. Counterpoint is one of the oldest forms of Western art music. This method gives composers a framework for creating beautiful melodies and interacting lines. In college, it is still a widespread way to teach composition. Because it uses a lot of interval analysis, counterpoint is usually taught after students have mastered that skill. Lewis flipped that idea, having students start with the applied task of composition.

Using counterpoint also let Lewis pair the students’ work with a fully-developed composition. The orchestra was already learning “Fantasia on a Theme of Greensleeves” by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Using that piece as inspiration, Lewis challenged students to write their own Greensleeves composition. The students’ work and Vaughan Williams’ were placed on the winter concertDirector of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast rewrote the traditional Greensleeves melody into a cantus firmus, the traditional prompt for writing counterpoint. Students each created their own variation on this theme using the rules of counterpoint. This required them to apply the skill of analyzing intervals to a larger goal.

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A student cantus firmus written in Trinket.

“Playing the whole game” from composing a piece to performing it put interval study in context. Students were constantly measuring intervals as they composed and peer-edited each others’ work. Lewis noticed that students were more engaged in this work than they had been in years past. By “hiding the goal in the cover of interesting projects,” he says,  “the whole process felt more complete and more contemporary.” Working within the traditional compositional method presented an new challenge for students. “The rules of counterpoint really gave them a box to work within. Some students fought against those confines,” Lewis explains. “It was really helpful for them to have the rules, because you could engage with them at different levels.” Lewis used those different levels to differentiate the experience for students. Those who were more experienced musicians could progress to more complex melodies. Students with less experience got extra practice in games such as Musition and Teoria.

Composing music can be daunting to students learning an instrument for the first time. Beginning students may not be able to play the pieces that they compose to hear and revise their work. Lewis often has students use composition software to let them to hear their work as they compose it. The quick feedback lets them practice composing in, as Lewis puts it, “bite-size chunks.” For this project, Lewis and Tillinghast had students use software called Trinket. This website allows students to compose music through text entry rather than notation.  Using markup language and text entry, students weren’t limited by their music reading skills. Beginning students who had less music-reading experience had a more intuitive way to compose. “Many students definitely had an inclination towards text-entry,” Lewis notes. Also, the electronic format let students share and peer-review each others’ work. Students passed the work from Trinket through Schoology, U Prep’s Learning Management System website.

Students peer-review their compositions using Trinket and Schoology.
Students peer-review their compositions using Trinket and Schoology.

Lewis has traditionally taught interval analysis as an individual skill. After the project was complete, he found that his students performed better on an interval recognition test than in previous years. He also saw that students retained that skill longer than in the past. More importantly, their melodies were “more musical” than past composition experiments. The musicians learned about one element of music theory and history. By applying it to their performance, they followed the great tradition of composers turning theory into art.

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