The Dos of Composing for Middle School

I have talked about how we can help young and emerging composers get the tools necessary for writing for young players, but what about helping those composers that are mid-career and beyond? Many, if not most of them, also lack the training and experience of composing music that is for the blossoming musician. How can we entice our mentors, our former teachers, into exploring this uncharted territory, so to speak?

The American Composers Forum has found an ingenious way to approach this issue. A few years ago, they started the BandQuest program. The premise behind it is to integrate into the middle school band literature music by top American composers, composers that have traditionally not written for this medium. The process is to commission a composer for a short work for middle school band, and then place that composer in residency with a specific school for whom they will write the piece. After the work is premiered, it is published and distributed by Hal Leonard, along with an educational CD-Rom that gives teachers suggested curriculums to follow while learning the piece. The result has been that over a dozen top-quality pieces for young bands have been added to the repertoire, with most of them getting numerous performances. Composers from Alvin Singleton to Judith Lang Zaimont have participated in the project, composing their first pieces for this student level.

So, what tricks did these seasoned artists learn? Recently, I have been corresponding with another participant, Michael Colgrass, about his experience with BandQuest. A Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, he nevertheless says that his piece for middle school band, Old Churches, was the hardest work for him to ever compose. However, he came out of the experience an ardent supporter of composing for young players and now does workshops helping others do the same.

Below is a summary of the dos he gave me as guides for composers writing for young ensembles. (You’ll have to wait for the don’ts!):

  1. Find a middle school band, choral, or orchestra conductor/director who would like to work with you and who is willing to give you access to his/her ensemble(s).

  2. Attend that director’s rehearsals. Listen to how the kids play, not only when they are playing their written music but also when they are warming up on their instruments. That’s where you can see how they really play, and you might be surprised that they can play things that are never asked of them. Make a note of these warm-ups, and utilize them in your writing.

  3. In consultation with the director, chart very carefully the ranges of each instrument and of the rhythms and kind of phrases the children can play—meaning also, of course, what they cannot as yet play. Make a special note of what sounds good and what sounds bad on their instruments, and let that be your guide. Your goal is obviously to write a piece that you and they can be proud of and that works most naturally for them.

  4. Bring in samples as you write them, and have the kids play them. When something works, exploit it; when it doesn’t, don’t push it.

  5. Middle school children are right at the age where they feel most self-conscious. Therefore, solos and duos need to be written with care. You can expose an individual if you make it somehow safe for him or her. By “safe” I mean that although they are exposed, what they do is comparatively easy, in fact “goof proof,” if possible. Solos are effective when couched in a setting that is attractive to the soloist, so be very mindful of the accompaniment at such times. Consult with the director on solos as you write them and also about which specific kids you can write solos for.

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2 thoughts on “The Dos of Composing for Middle School

  1. mdwcomposer

    Belinda

    Based on my own experience working with treble voice choirs (either junior high or high school level), I think your second point deserves special emphasis. I have really learned an incredible amount just by being present at rehearsal(s). Not only of my own music, but watching how the director rehearses pieces by other composers that may be at different stageds of being learned.

    Even when I’ve been spoiled by working with very advanced groups (meaning I could’ve probably “gotten away” with just writing what I write), the ideas really get focused when I’m right there with the director, talk to the kids during a break, and both hear and see the process (and get beat on by the less shy when they’re working on something I’ve written).

    –Mark Winges

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  2. rfk

    It remains just so great to see you continue your writing about composing and K-12 students. There’s a particular voice that would be really great to hear on this topic, that of R. Murray Schaefer. Most people know him as a composer, period. But, Schaefer has written quite a bit on this topic, over a 30 plus year period, including a few books, compositions for students, guides, etc. I read his wonderful book, which is out of print: The Thinking Ear, on Music Education.

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