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9 things my students taught me through composition

Being a musician has brought me so much joy and I love sharing that with my students. I work hard to make my studio a place they love to be. But my students give me so much more than I give them. They've made me a better more resilient person and this is my message of gratitude to all of my Owlets. Here are nine of the many things they have taught me.

#1 Be afraid and do it anyway - Composition is easy for some students, especially my youngest kiddos, but for others it's so scary that big emotions sometimes come up. I've had students cry in composition lessons. Those emotions pose a real barrier to their creativity. I've learned to pivot when I come up against fear that makes me freeze. Sometimes I intentionally make mistakes when I feel a lot of pressure, just so I can get that out of the way and press forward.

#2 The story matters - Have you ever had a child tell you a story that seems to go on forever? When my sons were young, they were really into transformers (because I'm an 80s mom). I learned things I never knew I needed to know about Starscream. Kids can tell stories about anything and that makes for some interesting compositions. Gabi composed a piece called "Harry Potter's Button is Rolling Away". You can hear Harry chasing after this button as it rolls down a flight of stairs. Who knew someone would write a piece about that?!

#3 A solo line can be beautiful on the piano - I always encourage my students to add harmony to their pieces, but every now and then I get a student that just wants the melody and nothing else. And why not? If an oboe or a french horn can play a beautiful melody line as a soloist with no harmonic support, why not a piano? Parents still beam with pride and kids still freak out when they see their composition in a book. Let those solo lines shine!

#4 Don't be afraid of dissonance - I don't mind an augmented or diminished chord here and there, but in general, music that is dissonant for a long time is not something I enjoy. Enter Margarida and Carol. These two LOVE dissonance. Carol puts an augmented chord in every piece she composes, for Margarida it's a diminished chord. In 2024, Margarida composed the most challenging piece that has ever come out of my studio and it is full of dissonance. Turns out, I love it!

#5 Nature speaks to everyone - I can't count the number of pieces that my students have written about nature. I grew up in the country, but I live in a big city now. The Greater Toronto Area is home to 6.4 million people. That's a lot of noise and traffic for a country girl to handle. My students start their compositions in January of each year. When they write pieces based on thunderstorms, mountains, or fields of flowers they remind me to get outside (even when it's really cold!) and get back to nature.

#6 Hemiola is cool - Kimmy always calls hemiola a rhythmic hallucination and she's right! I love that my students can keep a steady beat within a given time signature, but it's even better when they can stray for a measure or two to throw the audience for a loop. That rhythmic variety keeps audiences moving and their teacher guessing!

#7 Beauty is a blessing -Occasionally, a student writes a melody line or chord progression that brings me to tears. Parents are always amazed that something so beautiful came out of their child. I still tear up when I think about the first time a parent hears a piece like this. There's just a different look of awe and pride in their eyes. That beauty brings families closer together and makes my other students want to learn that piece! You can listen to one of these pieces here:

#8 It's ok to rework the past - When I started composing, I remember thinking that every note had to be new and inspiring. Forget the decades of experience I had playing music that was repetitive and still great. Hello Beethoven! When my students are stuck, we return to the beginning and they use what they've written as the foundation for something new. Talk about a lesson in building on your past to reinvent yourself or your business!

#9 You don't have to apologize for the left turn - Horizontal continuity is just as important in a piece of music as vertical theory. But if you really want to make a shift and you think it will do something good or surprising for your audience, go for it! I made a huge shift in my studio this year. I cut back on my teaching hours and really started focusing on teaching other teachers how to introduce composition to their students. I truly believe that this is the missing ingredient in modern music education. My students gave me the courage to make the switch and dive in!

These are just a few of the things my students teach me. Thank you Owlets for being my inspiration each and every day. You are a blessing to me and my family. I couldn't do what I do without you. See you in the studio!

If you're a teacher or a student and you had to write a letter of gratitude to the musicians in your life, what would you say? I'd love to hear what brings you joy!

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