Student Composers

Improvisation is the main focus of what I teach and write about mostly because it is the quickest, most enjoyable way to access creative music making. However, teaching composition is also near and “ear” to my heart. As part of a larger goal of helping music teachers integrate more creativity in their curriculums, I anticipate speaking and writing in more detail about the pedagogy of teaching composition in the future. In the meantime, I’ll just dip my toe in the water by sharing a couple of pieces written by two of my most exemplary students in this area of music making.

Julian Dittmer

Julian, now a freshman music major at Capital University (on a full tuition scholarship), honored me with a heartwarming gift at our last lesson. He wrote, performed an recorded an original piece based on the letters of my name.  Using a process detailed in an another blog post (Composing with Names), Julian translated the letters of my name to musical notes as follows:

Proud teacher and student
Proud teacher and student

Letter   Pitch

B      =      B
R      =      D
A      =      A
D      =      D
L       =      E
E       =      E
Y       =      D

S       =      E
O      =      A
W      =      B
A       =      A
S       =      E
H       =     A

Placing these pitches in order, he created this very sweet tune. (The melody enters at 00:28.) Thanks Julian!

Bradleys Song

Spencer Channell

I still remember the surprised expression on Spencer’s face at our first lesson several years ago when I asked him about his preferences for playing a particular piece. Having been previously trained by a very traditional teacher, he’d never been asked to consider how he wanted to interpret a piece. His Mom sent me an email the next day, “…It was like he walked through the wardrobe door into Narnia and discovered a world he had only dreamt of before! Just your statement that ‘There’s more than one way to play a song’ was enough to intrigue him.”

Spencer composing
Spencer composing

From there, his creative impulses and ongoing investigation of music theory led to an avid interest in film scoring. What to do when requests for soundtracks from major Hollywood directors are not forthcoming? Spencer decided to direct and score his own movie. Here’s the trailer:

YouTube Preview Image

When Spencer included this in his portfolio for his application to attend their school, the folks at Interlochen Center for the Arts recognized his skills and offered him a scholarship. What a great way for a bright and musical kid to spend his senior year.

Music Teachers

Are you teaching the creative skills of improvisation, composition, and/or playing by ear to your students? Please share your observations. How does it feel to teach these subjects? What are the challenges? What are the joys? What do your students report about learning to make their own music?

Further Reading

Here’s a brilliant article about why teaching all aspects of making music and not just reading notes is so important.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,


Bradley Sowash

Want to teach improvisation?

Learn about Bradley’s Creative Chords keyboard improvisation method.



3 thoughts on “Student Composers

  1. I used your new book this summer with many of my students. I used the Scaling the Chords exercise plus the melodic embellishment to the tune of Marianne as well as a 12 bar blues improv. It’s always interesting to see how students react. Some really disliked the feeling of having to create spontaneously. Especially my more advanced traditional players. But others, including adult students, love the freedom! I use summer lessons to work on functional piano skills and creativity so this summer was focusing on improvisation. Thank you for this book to make it so accessible for me and my students!

    On another note, my 6 year old is becoming quite the improviser at the piano. Sits down every day at her keyboard and just creates!

    • I’m so glad it’s working for you. It’s comments from teachers like you that keep me interested in developing more creative teaching resources.

  2. Bradley,
    Thank you so much for sharing this post. As teachers, we know the thrill of watching the faces of students when they have these “light bulb” moments. Jullian’s musical tribute is inspiring… and beautiful. He will be so far ahead of those who’ve had no ear training and practical application of music theory at the keyboard, making his university experience even more fun and exciting.
    Also, thank you for sharing Spencer’s interest in writing music for Hollywood soundtracks. I often tell students that for every career they imagine doing with their music there are probably a multiplicity of possibilities they’ve not yet dreamed.
    I want to go back and look at your blog post for using names in music composition. I have used the rhythm of names but not adapted it further into the actual pitch. Love the idea and interested to see how you developed it. Appreciate the great blog post and wishing Julian the best as he begins his new studies at the university.
    My students are enjoying Jazz I and I love teaching it!

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