How to Guide Children’s Improvisation and Composition

How old do you have to be to compose music? 18? 12? 5? Younger?

Mozart was only five years old when he wrote these first compositions.

My son isn’t yet five and he writes compositions, too… but he’s no musical prodigy. He is not as proficient in music playing or writing as Mozart was. He can’t yet articulate his musical thoughts on paper, but he can improvise musically with words, rhythm, and melody.

Everyone who has been around music and is allowed to experiment with music has the ability to do this. With proper encouragement, every child can improvise. So, how did we get to this point?

  • SING. All the time. Play instruments or just play rhythms by clapping or patting or beat-boxing. What you will find is that your child will start repeating the things you do at different times.
  • Let them experiment, even if it is annoying. Sometimes they will sing loudly or sing the same word over and over. Try to put up with it. You can try to redirect their efforts or ask them to try it more softly, but don’t tell them to stop!
  • Start by giving them ideas to riff on- start a silly song about what you are doing and give them a turn to improvise. They will probably start by changing the words to a tune they already know, which is ok.
  • Provide an accompaniment for them or have them provide an accompaniment for you. Beat-boxing is a fun way to do this. This shows them you can improvise something without words and is an easy way to practice ensemble singing/playing.
  • Make any time a good time to improvise! Do it in the car, in the bathtub, at dinner…
  • Let them play at conductor and tell you what the song or piece should sound like. Have them try to describe it to you as best as they can and try to make their composition come to life.
  • As they get older, start introducing technology to record themselves. They will spend so much time playing back their songs, and with programs like the iOS’s Garageband, they can add drums or other instruments to their recordings and have fun making it sound new and different.
  • As children progress in their musical learning, they can make composition maps- that can be anything from crayon drawings of what it sounds like, to prompts like “high, major, duple, du de du de, soft, fast.”
  • When your children learn music reading and writing, you can have them compose on free printable staff paper, like that found on this webpage: http://www.blanksheetmusic.net/

The most important thing is to find time to make music together and have music-making be fun and feel judgement-free. Perfecting a composition or figuring out how to express verbally or visually what you hear in your head can be frustrating. Make them feel safe and not on-the-spot when composing and improvising. Allow them to see you make mistakes and laugh it off. Music-making at home doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyable.

How do you improvise or compose with your family?

Boating Songs

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In the summer my family loves kayaking. We started taking my son when he was only about six months old, so he is very comfortable on the water, and so is our daughter. Like all children, however, sometimes they struggle with the b-word- boredom! When they were each very little and got uncomfortable in their vests or too cranky to enjoy being out on the water, I would sing to them while we paddled. It helped calm them down, gave me something to listen to besides their wailing, and often with the combination of the gentle rocking of the boat, put them to sleep.

Now that they are old enough to really enjoy being on water, observing nature, and learning about boating, they spend less time asleep and less time crying, but we still sing! Can you guess what their favorite boating song is?

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” lends itself to repetition, and also apparently, shouting at the top of your lungs to scare away all of the fish that Dad is trying to catch. We also enjoy “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” and “My Paddle’s Keen and Bright,” as well as non-boating-related songs.

The great part about “My Paddle’s Keen and Bright” is that while my children (2 and 4 years old) are still to young to sing in canon, they can sing the ostinato of “dip, dip, and swing” while I sing the melody:

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip, and swing

You can hear the round and the rest of the lyrics here.

Try this one at home. It is a lot of fun to sing while pretending to row. In class, I use a big rubber band to have the children feel the beat with their torsos. You can use scarves to make rowing motions by rocking back and forth with a partner.

Let me know which songs accompany your favorite summer activities! Do you have beach songs? Pool songs? Car-ride songs?

Musical Dialogue

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Yesterday I posted about how making music together was great for social learning. Music is inherently social, but there are ways to make the music itself social! So, here’s the challenge: have an exclusively musical dialogue with your little music-makers!

Just a warning: some children will rebel against this idea, so it may take many attempts to get them used to the idea of conversing with you musically. Find the way they are most comfortable expressing themselves musically. For one child that may be through movement and dance, another with instruments, another with chanting, and yet another with singing. Keep at it until you find what works. This is a great exercise in working around individual differences, a skill that is useful for all those early childhood battles, like potty training.

You can use this rhyme from the James T. Callow Folklore Archive, which has been modified for this purpose.

My mother, your mother
Lives across the way
Every night they have a chat
And this is what they say*

After the introduction rhythm, you can make up a chant, a rhyme, or melody and then the child can respond. Often, children will mimic exactly what you do, which is ok. Encourage them to make up something different. You’ll find as they grow older they have more musical ideas to choose from.

In my experience, sometimes children will refuse to respond “musically” -probably out of discomfort or embarrassment- but I have yet to see a child (or adult!) give a musical response that was inappropriate. For instance, in the audio examples above, I’ll chant the rhyme in its original duple (think “in two,” like a march) meter, then in triple (think “in three,” like a waltz). Once the meter is established, a child with enough musical experience in duple or triple will tend to stick with the meter provided. Their response may be longer or shorter than yours, and that’s ok, too.

You can be creative and change the words to suit musical movement instead of dialogue, with “every night they hang their clothes and this is what they do.” Instrumental improvisation, with “have a jam,” or even silly improvisation with “my doggy, your doggy…” You could go so far as to try to sing it in different tonalities, also. The possibilities are endless.

Let me know how your musical dialogue goes and how you found how your little ones were most comfortable improvising!

*I first came across this rhyme used to start improvisation at a workshop given by Wendy Valerio, so credit goes to her for the original idea! It’s just too good not to share!

My Child Won’t Sing…

Every child has preferred ways of expressing their musicality. My son’s happens to be with lots and lots of volume…P1000485

As a parent, we have a desire to know how well our children are meeting certain developmental milestones. New parents are going to check reference books and the internet to see what their child should be doing and when. Often parents worry about their child’s musicality. Just like other developmental milestones, musical milestones vary with each child, and sometimes the variance is even greater than with motor or linguistic milestones. A lot of this is because our culture doesn’t emphasize music the way many other cultures do, so children are simply getting less practice. Another factor is that sometimes we just can’t see what our child understands. If you are reading this blog and care about your child’s musical development, it is almost certain you had little to do with any delayed development. You can go to this PBS site to check out musical milestones.

However, this post isn’t really about milestones. What if a child can’t, doesn’t, or won’t sing? My son, the elder of my two children, obviously loved music from a young age, but he was well past two by the time he did anything that resembled singing. As a music teacher, I felt troubled by this. Didn’t I sing enough to him? He certainly got enough music in utero, as I was singing as an elementary music teacher, all day, every day until his birth. Now, he certainly does sing, but he has developed an insecurity around singing. Maybe he feels that because it takes him a long time to learn songs (especially the words) that he isn’t good at it. In fact, he’s said so. Hearing “mama, I’m not a good singer,” is heart-breaking. If you’re dealing with something similar (maybe your child asks you to stop singing, only sings when he doesn’t think someone is listening, or doesn’t sing at all, but loves dancing to music), I don’t have any magic answers for you, but I have some suggestions.

  • Figure out how your child likes to be sung to. Maybe they don’t want “background noise,” but want to be sung to, face-to-face. Maybe face-to-face is too much for an introverted child, but they will join in to music that is around. You may want to catch their singing on camera, but while some children will jump at the chance to perform, others will shrink from it.
  • Take out words, or slow them down. Putting words and music together is challenging, and not that natural for some children. My son often complains he doesn’t know the songs at class, but comes home and sings the melody without words or with made-up words. Sing with vocables (la, ba, doo, etc.) to make the child focus on the music instead of the words.)
  • Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. Variety is the spice of life, and you should sing many different songs, but children often take several repetitions in a row to become comfortable with a song and start to understand it. Even when it’s a song that they “know,” it might take several play-throughs for them to join in. This is why your child always shouts “again!”
  • Embrace Silence. Children need quiet time, just like adults. Our brains need a break to process everything they absorb. On a larger level, have time without you singing or listening to music, or TV. During your child’s quiet play by themselves, you might hear echos of songs you sung earlier that day or that week. You may even hear them make their first improvisations. On a smaller scale, pause between lines of a song for them to catch up or repeat what you just sang. For very familiar songs, slow down toward the end of the line of music and omit the last word or two for them to fill in, i.e. “Rockabye baby, on the… tree top, when the wind… blows, the cradle will… rock.

Try these tips, or you find more tips at How to Sing with Toddlers ‘The Hanen Way’

Please comment: What got your little one to start singing if they were reluctant?