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7 fear busting strategies for composers & their teachers

Woman conquering fear by rock climbing

I have a degree in music history and I took every music theory course offered at my university. I've performed in 8 countries and I run my own successful music studio. According to the world's standards, I'm a musician who made it, but composing original music still terrifies me. You might ask why I decided to start teaching it then? That's a good question and the short answer is, because I had to.

Many years ago I began teaching a program called Let's Play Music. As a requirement for graduation from the program, my students had to compose an original piece of music in their third year. I had never composed anything before, other than a failed attempt to write an opera when I was thirteen, so helping my students was scary. Enter my group of 6-8 year olds and I was sold for life!

These kids, including my sons E and L, shocked me. During the course, they learned how to play I, IV, and V chords in their inversions, how to transpose, how to switch from major to minor easily, solfege singing, and musical form. We sang and danced our way through the three years of Let's Play Music in a cloud of joy and laughter. When I tentatively brought out my notation software in our first one-on-one composition session, these kids didn't hesitate. They created melodies, chord progressions, articulations, musical jokes, and programme music like they'd been doing it since birth!

In my pride, I was a bit miffed. How could these kids, who only had three years of music lessons compose so easily when I couldn't even come up with a single melody line without breaking out in a cold sweat? I had a degree, for crying out loud! And that's when it hit me, along with that degree and thousands of hours in practice rooms and masterclasses, I had forgotten how to "play" with my music. I had a terrible case of imposter syndrome, as many artists do, and it was time to find the cure.

Ten compositions came out of my studio that season and the following year, I decided it was time to start composing with the rest of my students. Over one hundred original compositions are now part of our studio portfolio and I've learned a lot about composing and fear. Here are seven things I do every year to stomp on that fear and get to work:

Count from 1 to 7
  • Start small - When I plan my studio schedule, I include three composition projects. The first one is a group project where every student contributes a short phrase or melody. Andrea and Trevor Dow at have some fabulous fill-in-the-blank resources. You can also use a short story or classic children's book. Imagine opening a door or going up a flight of stairs described with rhythm, dynamics and melody. You can even feature it in your next recital!

  • Master the two-note motive - In the second week of my Composition for Teachers Course, we cover the magical two-note motive in detail. If you don't believe in the power of two notes, I have two words for you, für Elise. I apologize for the ear worm, but it's an excellent illustration. How many ways can you repeat or manipulate two pitches? Here's a few ideas: invert them, play them backwards, build a sequence, echo them in octaves. Experimenting with just a few notes is much less intimidating than composing a four measure theme.

  • Start improvising - My favorite resource for improvisation is the Circle of Fifths Odyssey from Vibrant Music Teaching by Nicola Cantan. I started using this set of lesson plans last January as a warm-up exercise and my students and I LOVED it! We improvised our way through all 12 major keys. It was a great way to learn scales and gain confidence in melody creation in a variety of styles. If you've never improvised before, look up a four-chord backing track on YouTube and try it out. You might surprise yourself.

  • Get familiar with notation software - Gone are the days of expensive, clunky notation programs. As a teacher, I'm so grateful for free resources! I use MuseScore almost every single day. It's completely free (not the iPad app) and user friendly. They have a great online handbook and many educational videos to get you started. I set up a 16-measure template with custom formatting to make the printed product look professional at the beginning of the year and "Save As" with each new student. This cuts out wasted time preparing a new score in every lesson.

  • Start in measure two or even measure ten - I know this sounds crazy, but there is something monster-under-the-bed scary about the first measure of a new piece. By starting somewhere else, you take the pressure off. You can even ask your students if they have a lucky number and start there. The more I work with my young composers, the more I realize there is no "right" way to compose. Some of my students write their pieces from beginning to end. Others start with a single chord somewhere in the middle and work their way around it.

Original Owlet Music student composition
  • Let them be weird - Let's face it, sometimes kids are strange. When I was a kid, my cousin and I thought it was hilarious to race down the hall and then smack our heads together...on purpose. That sounds like a trip to the hospital now, but 6 year old me loved it! Compositions don't have to be perfect. Have you listened to any movie soundtracks lately? Lots of them are weird. The Harry Potter score breaks so many theory rules, I'm sure my professors would have failed the whole thing, but it's awesome! My rule for my students is they have to have a reason for anything that's really out there. You want creativity? Ask your student why they're running augmented fourths all the way down the piano. Prepare yourself for the story of your life! (Excerpt from Kimmy 2024. All rights reserved.)

  • Hold a composition masterclass - I'm lucky enough to be friends with some pretty incredible musicians, including the remarkable Sarah Quartel. If you've never heard any of her pieces, please look them up on YouTube. She's fabulous. Last year Sarah attended one of my masterclasses that featured student compositions. She answered their questions about her life as a professional composer and gave them feedback on their pieces. It is hands down my students' favorite masterclass of all time. Bringing in a guest artist to discuss composition, even if they're not a composer, will expand your students' horizons. If you don't have someone to invite, talk to your local university, music teacher association or online teacher community.

I could go on forever, but I hope these seven suggestions will help you take the leap and "play" with your music again. I'm a better performer and teacher after taking the plunge and you will be too!

PS. If you'd like more information about Let's Play Music, my favorite program for group lessons, click here. I loved teaching it and my sons adored this comprehensive music program for 4-6 year olds.

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