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Unleash Your Child's Inner Composer

By Belinda Takahashi, Ph.D.

Parents don't need to be experts in child development to know that children and music go together like peanut butter and jelly. We've all seen babies light up and smile, toddlers shake and wiggle, and preschoolers get up and sing to their favorite songs. But, children can take their natural enthusiasm for music one step further by actively participating and making their very own music, becoming composers themselves.

Creating original music is not only empowering, it can be a wonderful springboard into a world of creativity promoting self-expression, problem solving, good communication skills, teamwork, and an appreciation for the arts. As Leonard Bernstein once said, “Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.”

Here are ten suggestions to help your children unleash their inner composer.

1. Put Hands and Feet To Work
Put on some music and have your children express their reactions through drawings or dance. Ask them to paint what they hear or dance in a way that best reflects the mood of the piece. Interpreting music through art and dance, areas they are most likely very familiar with already, will help them to become more thoughtful listeners and active participants in the musical experience.

2. What Do You Hear?
Is the songfast or slow? Is it happy or sad? What types of instruments do they hear and are the sounds low or high? Deconstructing a piece of music will allow children to have a better understanding about the compositional processand serve to demystify it.

3. What Story is the Music Telling?
Put on a piece of music that is instrumental only. Have your children make up their own scenario or story based on the music that they hear. For example maybe the pizzicato strings are raindrops and the quick flute lines are butterflies flying from leaf to leaf. Maybe a low tuba sound is a hungry bear in a forest searching for food. Composition is about telling a story and expressing ideas through sound.

4. Join the Band
Break out the drums, pots and pans, or hum and sing. Put on some music your children love and encourage them to pretend they're on stage performing with the group.They will feel more directly involved in the music making process.

Noises5. Musical Expressions
Have your child come up with a word and have them express that word through music. For example, the word "cat" might conjure up a playful rhythm, the sound of a meow, or the quiet of an afternoon nap. Whether on a piano, tambourine, glockenspiel, kazoo, or even a wooden spoon and a pot, allowing children to express their ideas through sound is a wonderful way for them to communicate —regardless of their instrumental abilities.

6. Hum About the Zoo
Composers find musical inspiration from their own life experiences and interests. Have your child canhum a tune or create a rhythmic pattern on a drum about what it felt like taking a trip to the zoo or how she felt on their first day of school.

7. Pattern a Performance
To start, have your child sing or play a three note musical pattern. Repeat it back to your child. Continue with a new musical set, gradually increasing the length of the pattern.This will help establish your child's musical idea. To encourage thoughtful listening, reverse the exercise and have your child play back or sing your musical pattern.

Bell Tower8. Peanut Butter-free Jam Session
Sit a group of children in a circle, each with his own instrument. One person should lead by playing a brief musical idea alone. One by one, each person in the circle can add to the piece until everyone is playing simultaneously. See where this leads and decide how the piece should end. Encourage players to listen carefully to each other and build a composition together.

9. Melody Makers
Begin with a musical idea - a familiar melody or an original. Then, by changing the rhythm, dynamic, tempo, instrumentation, and/or pitch see how differently you and your child can make that melody sound. The possibilities are limitless. What makes composition so interesting is what the composer does with an idea not just the idea itself.

10. Music is Everywhere
Like pioneer twentieth century composers John Cage, who believed that music exists everywhere and can be made from anything, and Harry Partch, who created his own set of unique instruments, encourage your child to start noticing the sounds and noises around her. Whether it be barking dogs, honking horns, rustling leaves, or even brushing teeth, sound and music are everywhere. Have your child become more aware of the patterns, dynamics, rhythms, and melodies that these sounds create and how they can be woven together like the instruments of a symphony orchestra. Help your child come up with untraditional ways to make music like flipping pages in a book, shaking a bean in a can, or zipping a zipper. These are ways for your child to create music without any training and to start them on the road to becoming the next generation of pioneer composers.

What Charlie Heard
All illustrations appear in:
What Charlie Heard
By Mordicai Gerstein
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Copyright © 2002


About the Author
Belinda Takahashi, Ph.D. is a mother, an award-winning composer, educator, and co-founder of the children's media company, Juno Baby. Originally from New York City, she now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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