Arranging and Composing for Beginners

Student literature is -quite- different from literature meant for the accomplished pianist.

My main concern with a piece at any level is that it is musically worthwhile. The musical content must at least equal (and, we hope, exceed) the amount of effort necessary to learn the piece. Many of the books out today - - especially intermediate books - - display this lamentable lack: the effort to prepare an acceptable performance far exceeds the musical content of the piece, quite aside from the pedagogical content. If the piece isn't interesting or takes too long to learn, the student will rebel.

Writing for beginners is even more difficult than writing for intermediates. First, the number of pitches beginners can command is limited. Second, their ability to count is also limited, especially if you withhold eighth-notes for your students until they are developmentally ready for them, as I advise. Third, beginners have mastered fewer interpretive tools, such as complex dynamics (crescendos, decrescendos), tempo changes (subito, ritards), and articulation (portato, feminine endings).

Remember that a beginner's dexterity and over finger control is at a very crude level. Even if he understood particular interpretive tool (ex.: portato) doesn't mean he will be able to carry it out.

A well-written beginner piece is really a marvel.

The best one I've ever seen is "Mysterious Procession" by Dnes Agay (found in The Joy Of Beginning Piano and considerably shortened, I think regrettably, in Agay's more recent beginner piano method). This piece uses one note in the RH and three in the LH and has a memorable melody, believe it or not. (Chopin's "Funeral March" does, too, and uses those same three melody notes!) A elegant economy of means!

If you've not heard this piece, please treat yourself. Even my students who are early intermediates go back and play this piece for pleasure because they love it so much. Adults love this piece, too!

Unfortunately, the vast majority of beginner pieces are not like this.

In fact, I believe many lack musical merit altogether. Of these poor pieces of music, 95% of them appear in method books. This is not all that surprising since they're pieces written especially to drive home a given pedagogic idea. (I have found that I can drive home the same pedagogic points using masterworks and folk songs and haven't used a method book since my first two years of teaching.) And that the pieces are generally by one (or two or possibly three) different people. Naturally, they all will have the same "flavor." (What does this teach the child about diversity?)

Other beginner pieces display what I call "mixed level": notes within a limited range, say, but eighth-notes (or even dotted-quarters and eights!), phrase slurs, Italian directions, and a key signature. Argh!

So, among the types of things and kind of music beginners need, which we as teachers can address when we compose and arrange for them, are:

Writing successfully for beginners means we must *think* like a beginner. This is the secret of success.

The beginner needs an uncluttered score that tells him only the things that he is able to process and execute -at that point- in his training.

Unfortunately, what we as professional musicians -expect- to see on a score (and/or take in with our peripheral vision and process automatically) hinders us when we sit down to write beginner material. We expect all those details. The score "doesn't look right" without them. And we -need- all that extra information because it helps us give a musical performance of the piece. We feel that a "proper" piece of music must have all these annotations and directions. That's fine for us.

Therefore, sometimes with all good intent, we write a piece for beginners and without thinking add all "the stuff" that "ought/should/must" appear on a "proper musical score." We're really writing the piece for ourselves! Or are we trying to impress colleagues or parents?

To a beginner, the presence of all those items is overwhelming. The beginner -wants- to read every single bit of notation on that page and to do exactly what it tells him. His heart is pure. If there's too much detail, however, the beginner shuts down and starts ignoring the excess because he can process only a small amount. This is the beginning of the very bad habit of ignoring instructions in the score (and it's usually -selective- omissions, too, such as key signatures!). We all know that it's easier to teach something right in the beginning, even if it takes a long time, than to have a student un-learn something wrong and re-learn whatever is correct.

Excess notation also scares the beginner. The page looks very "black" and forbidding if a lot of directions are present in the score.

Introduce new pitches methodically.

They should be next-door to pitches the student already knows.

And, I recommend only one new pitch per song. Reinforce the new concept with five or so songs that do not depart from this note range. If possible, write songs that have repeated, side-by-side occurrences of the new note. Don't use the note in a harmonic third until it is recognized confidently when standing alone, especially when there are no other notes the student can use to step (second) or skip (third) to it. An example here is the first phrase of Yankee Doodle (starting on middle C); does the student know small G without question when it appears alone (on the word "town")?

Here's the order I use for teaching pitches. You may find some of this information helpful.

I use the same sequence for adults, though often I can compress. For example, I might teach B-C-D as a unit; or even A-B-C-D-E (three fingers in each hand).

Don't jump around in the number of pitches required from song to song.

Build methodically and with a logic that is obvious to the student.

Songs that require four pitches should precede those that use five.

Build methodically with rhythmic values.

Keep rhythmic values basic and simple.

In the beginning, keep it very simple, such as all quarter-notes. Then quarter- and half-notes. Very logical. Next add dotted-quarters and last whole notes. Introduce one at a time. Don't put half- and dotted-half notes in the same song if they're both new count values.

Use unit counting. For example, a quarter-note followed by a half- and another quarter- is counted 1 - - 1 2 - - 1. In metric counting it would be 1 - - 2 3 - - 4. It's hard enough for the beginner to remember which little white or black circle (with and without a stem! And the stems go up -and- down!) gets how many counts. Focus on cementing this skill by using unit counting.

I like to reinforce rhythmic concepts with games (rather than flash cards or verbal drill). (1) Some of the old favorites are card games: Crazy Eights, Hot Potato (what used to be called Old Maid), and __ is a Star (a star card is substituted for the potato card, and the child's name inserted in the game title). (2) I also have devised some board games, and we use the note value cards as draw cards. (3)Another game I use is called Deal-a-Rhythm, where the student deals himself four cards from the deck (to start) and arranges them in order; he then claps the rhythm he's dealt; increase the number of cards as he gets better at it. (4)Copycat Game is another and most students ask to play this even when they don't "need" it anymore. I think the great attraction is playing a tambourine or a drum. I tap a rhythm, and the student repeats it. Then the student plays "teacher," and I tap their rhythm and ask if I did it correctly. After the student is adept, I add accents.

Look to public-domain material to convert for your students.

If you don't feel up to composing for your beginners, arrange pre-existing music. Luckily, the material on which it is easiest to draw is in the public domain (copyright free). This treasure house includes compositions by the masters and folk tunes.

You may have to alter some notes slightly to arrive at a cadence, although usually four or eight measures in a "real" piece translate nicely to sixteen measures written in double note values.

Some pieces resist transformation into a beginner piece. A good example is the opening to the first movement of Beethoven's fifth symphony. It doesn't have a cadence until measure 122! This lack of cadence is one of the devices Beethoven uses to create a sense of urgency. Anyway, I have never been able to convert this exceedingly popular and much-requested tune gracefully into a beginner piece. And I haven't seen anyone else do it successfully either, even at the intermediate level! Skip Beethoven's fifth; there are lots of other things to choose from!

Double or quadruple note values. Or reduce complex rhythms to equal values.

When converting these compositions to beginner songs, it's perfectly ok to double or quadruple (or more!) note values. Yes, it looks weird to us. And doubled/quadrupled note values mean the downbeat is entirely hidden! What happens to the pulse in the measure?!

Nothing. It's still there. Beginners, however, really have no concept of downbeat, I promise you. Nor, at this stage, do they need it. Forget metric counting!

A song with six quarter-notes per measure isn't going to bother your beginner. A song with eight quarter-notes will make a long measure, visually, and therefore may be clumsy because the student must "track" for quite a while before having the visual boundary a barline offers. You might want to break it into two four-count measures.

Even though the music may look a bit strange to you because you are used to seeing it in original form and use the downbeat of each measure to establish the pulse, your beginner will be perfectly happy with two four-count measure that used to be one full measure of eighth-notes. It's going to sound the same, of course, no matter what note value is used as the basic metric unit. We're not worried, at this point, about the idea of pulse in a measure (how three-four differs from six-eight). This is why two measures of four-four is perfectly acceptable for the beginner rather than one measure of the clumsy eight-four (that is, there were 8 eighth-notes in the original).

Even material without barlines is no threat, especially if you teach unit counting. There are lots of terrific plainsongs (such as Dies Irae) and medieval/Renaissance compositions (Ru Ru Chu; Renaissance dance tunes; Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming; In Dulci Jubilo; etc.) without barlines that you can use. Keep the note head spacing consistent with the beginner's other material. Point out the lack of a time signature and barlines, and off you go with no problems!

Use ties for large note values.

For a six-count note, tie a whole and a half-note, rather than use a dotted-whole.

It's also good to use the same or similar note values when you can. For example, for five counts, select a dotted-half tied to a half-note, rather than a whole note tied to a quarter-note. Certainly, you would not want to use a dotted-half tied to a half-note at the first instance of a melodic bit and a whole note tied to a quarter-note at its next appearance.

When adding a new arrow to the student's quiver, scale back the other demands of the piece to below his current level.

Your student will feel intimidated if several new ideas are tossed at him at the same time.

A beginner learn new skills best when the other demands of the piece are much easier than the most difficult thing he can accomplish. If the new item is a new note, make sure the counting is very easy and the song has no accents, staccato notes, or ties. If it's sfz you're introducing, make sure there are no new notes or tricky counting places.

Simplify the time signature to the top number only.

Time signatures are completely meaningless to beginners, even though we fool ourselves that they -do- look at one and think, "Ah, yes! Three counts in every measure." (and even: "...and this means the strong beat is on one unless otherwise notated." Ha! In your dreams!!) Beginners don't care about the downbeat! Beginners dive right into the notes of the first measure.

You will not be surprised to learn that, to beginners, the bottom number of the time signature is -less- than meaningless. This is true, even if your beginner spouts by rote, "The top number tells how many counts in a measure and the bottom number tells what kind of note gets one count."

Therefore, I encourage you to trim the traditional time signature to the top number *and* to call the student's attention to it with each new song ("Tell me again what this number means" and "What's the counting rule for this piece?" . . . "And how do you know that?").

Another strategy to draw attention to the time signature is to write the piece without a signature. Then ask the student to figure out what number (what I call the "counting rule") goes at the beginning and write it in, explaining his choice. The fact that he -wrote- the number does wonders for his being aware that it's there. Don't worry that the number doesn't sit on the middle line of the staff. Encourage him to write it in the correct place, but let him write it anywhere after the clef. Do both staves, of course.

Mark a sharp or flat on -all- key signature notes and accidentals, even in the same measure.

Similarly, don't use key signatures. Write in the altered note each time it appears, even in the same measure.

With a typical 6-year-old beginner, in my studio, we don't get to "altered notes stay the same within the measure" songs until after at least a year of study. The third step, arriving at key signatures, maybe after two years of lessons, we start by circling all the altered notes with a colored pencil (red is good because it stands out). I don't worry that these are "crutches," as I've never had a student persist circling notes altered by key signature. After a couple of months, when I hand my student the colored pencil as we start exploring a new piece, the student announces proudly, "I don't need circles any more. I can remember now." This is very individual; follow your student's personal learning speed and don't fret. It takes a while for students to learn the "feel" of specific keys under the hands.

Similarly, don't choose keys that have more than two (three at most!) sharps or flats in the key signature. To do so results in a blizzard of non-notehead notation elements. (I don't know what problem William Buckley had. You may remember that he financed a music imprint in which all "black-key notes" were printed in red.)

Change the key with impunity.

In arranging pieces for beginners, after writing in double note values, removing notation from the score that does not have a direct bearing on beginner-level learning, and selecting a key that has notes of the song the beginner knows, you want to avoid keys that require accidentals. For example, you can write "Jingle Bells" in C or in F, starting on E and A, respectively. The key of C is a better choice because a B-flat is avoided ("Oh, what fun it is..."). Later in the beginner's career, present the piece in F. Now that student must extend the fourth finger, as well as process what the flat-sign means.

If you arrange pieces from the standard repertory, very rarely will you be able to retain the original key when you restrict the piece to notes within a range accessible to your beginner. If you have to change the key, do so without hesitation.

Naturally, when you do this -and- take into account the tessitura the student can command, you may find the piece is no longer a fit. What to do? Arrange it for a more advanced student: one who knows enough pitches that you can write the piece in a key such that altered notes are eliminated or greatly reduced.

Don't bother to put in rests in the silent hand in earliest beginner pieces.

Beginners concentrate on noteheads. Often they don't "see" even the stem direction!

This is because the student's eye travels from one notehead to the next. If these two notes are in the RH, he will not even bother to -look- in the LH part beyond ascertaining that there are no ovals there requiring his attention.

Therefore a beginner will not "see" a rest in the silent hand. (And what does this lead to? Right: selective attention to notation symbols.)

Rather than allow him to ignore the rests, leave the place/measures completely blank for the earliest songs. If you are using middle C position and have your student first learn the four other pitches on each side of it, about time he can read small G to one-line F is the time to introduce rests - - but first as part of the melody so he can "see" it.

Omit tempo designations unless it is vital to the composition.

A tempo designation is another thing beginners don't "see." If it's not absolutely necessary ("The Energizer Bunny is Stuck in Quicksand," for example), omit a tempo designation.

And ones in a foreign language are absolutely laughable for a beginner. Why put something in the music that he has no chance at all of following? Please use English (or whatever the native language is). There is plenty of time later to learn that vif, langsam, and allegretto are non-English names for concepts he already knows.

A beginner is naturally going to play approximately andante because this is how fast he can process the notation and send signals to his fingers at this stage in his learning. (Also because it approximates the human pulse.) Success for a beginner is getting the right finger to the right key at the right time and holding it for the right duration. How long or short that duration is relative to a given tempo is of no import for the beginner.

If the song is to go a [very] different pace, don't even mention it until after the notes and rhythms are well learned: "Very nice work [applying sticker]! Now we have to add one more thing. I am going to write in fast. That means it needs to go faster than we're doing it now. How fast do you think you can play this piece and -still- keep it neat and clean?. . . . Keep playing while I find out what metronome speed that is." (Using the metronome is a good way to ratchet up speed in a painless manner: "Play this song two times at 120 and three times at 126. Tomorrow play it two times at 126 and three times at 132." And so on.)

Sometimes it's not worth the additional time spent to have the student learn to play faster. You time and attention might be better spent learning new material and concepts. Later, when the student goes back to play "old songs" and marvel at how easy they are now, the pieces doubtless be played at proper tempo.

If the piece should be played more slowly than is natural for beginner (that is, slower than andante), mark the piece "as slow as you can stand." Beginners are impatient! Even so, "as slow as you can stand" usually will produce a nice adagio or even a largo on a good day! And a grin every day.

Or the student will play sub-grave as a trick to see if -you- can stand it that slow! You sit patiently as though this is the speed the piece is to go. The student probably will tire of the joke soon. If the student loses interest in trying to get a rise out of you and actually plays through to the end of the piece, wow! Great practice playing slowly! (Another option: make snoring sounds and rest your forehead on the piano. Kids love this one.)

Omit "mood" instructions altogether.

Most young children (in fact, most beginners, no matter their age) will not be able to do anything about "dreamily" for at least one year! Get rid of these!

Omit phrase markings altogether.

Phrase markings are other things that beginners ignore. It's really more than they truly can understand. If -you- must have lifts between phrases, put a quarter-rest at the end of it. True, the phrase break is mechanical, but it's there! If the last note is a quarter-note, resist the urge to make it an eighth so you can put in an eighth-note rest to stand for the lift.

Using four-measure lines also fosters phrasing. Students learn to think in four-measure groups because their eyes must travel to the next system, which produces a visual "lift." You will be surprised at how this concept just creeps into their consciousness!

Omit dynamic changes until after no less than a month's study. Use articulation marks sparingly.

Dynamics are a questionable addition. It's probably ok to introduce easy articulation marks early on (use a programmatic work, such as popping corn for staccato notes), but I'd hold off on true dynamic markings (mf), etc.

Let beginners play everything "normal volume," which is mf.

After a couple months, beginners are usually ready to handle simple and obvious dynamic changes, such as f and p.

I introduce this concept with the German carol, "While By My Sheep," which conveniently has an echo for each phrase. First we learn the notes, and then we put the dynamics in. I have my beginner mark all the fortes with a red triangle and all the pianos with a blue one. (Purple will eventually be assigned to mp, and mf will be green. Accents and sf will be orange.)

Looking for dynamic changes and articulation marks is fun and teaches the student to be aware of even small pieces of notation. ("I win! You missed one!")

When you introduce piano and forte, beginners discover that it's quite a bit more difficult to play softly!

Note: "While By My Sheep" is a Christmas carol. Most hymnals will have it. It is also called "The Echo Carol," but usually not by this title in a hymnal. Depending on which key you use (I use A Minor and must recast the leading tone (G-sharp) as a B.

Keep the pieces short: no more than 16 measures for the first six months.

Short pieces are the order of the day with beginners, especially children. Short pieces may be "passed off" more quickly...and this means a sticker (or whatever other way you identify finished pieces for children). Long pieces seem an unimaginable hurdle to the beginner, even if they're exactly at the beginner's level and without even one new element.

For the earliest pieces for a young child, I recommend four measures maximum. Better four songs at four measures each than one 16-measure song. (Remember that also means four stickers instead of just one!). After a month or so, advance to 8-measure songs. (Many masterworks and folk songs have a lovely little phrase that can be cast in large-value notation to make an 8-measure song.) A month later, go to 16 measures, but liberally intersperse shorter ones. Two-page songs should be withheld until somewhere beyond mid-year for the typical early-elementary beginner.

Place a maximum of four measures per line on the staff paper.

A related idea is how many measures per line. I recommend four. Any more than this and the piece becomes too "dense" and thus "difficult-looking." So what if you write a 14-measure piece and you have two extra bars to put on line four? This is far better than squeezing an extra measure into two of the lines; and a darn -sight- better than squeezing the two extras into one line!

Maintain consistent measure width.

Also remember that we all use the physical width of a measure as a clue to duration. Narrow measures say, especially to the beginner, "speed this up." Keep all measures the same width, even if there is only one whole note in a measure.

Four-measure songs are perfectly fine for the first month or two of lessons. The shorter the song, the less intimidating the page looks and the sooner a sticker is earned!

Beginners need large music, even adult beginners. I like four staves per page, which is especially handy for a 16-measure piece. Four staves per page keeps the notes large enough to see easily (especially for children who have an as-yet-undiagnosed visual problem) and also keeps the score uncluttered because everything is so spread out. For very young students (ages 3 to 5), I use three staves per page.

Use staff paper that results in oversized notation.

Most notation programs allow you to "size up" the score. In Finale, try 120% for beginners. You can still get 4 staves on a page.

Use tunes.

People like tunes. That's why 12-tone music has only a small following, even among adults (-and- trained musicians!).

People like to leave a concert with a tune or two floating around in their memory. Kids are especially fond of tunes. They can't appreciate structure, so the melody is the organizing factor.

One of the reasons masterworks and folk materials remain popular is because they have good tunes. Therefore, arranging almost any of these will be fail-safe.

Beginners really love tunes!

Beginners also like words.

Words are commendable, too, especially if you or the student makes them up. If the words are clever or funny, so much the better.

Need a tune for Groundhog Day? (Don't laugh; I was asked for one on several occasions, until I finally wrote a tune and each student added his own text.) If you don't want to compose something brand new, take a tune you already know and put appropriate words to it. For example, let's use "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and convert all the dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms to quarter-notes. Therefore the pick-up beat will be a quarter-note. As to words, let's use: "It's Groundhog Day tomorrow, and the groundhog will wake up. He'll jump out of his bed and put some coffee in his cup...." and so on.

Don't use eye-rhymes. Use aural rhymes.

Puns are good (but they have to rhyme if they're at the end of a line).


And now, after that very long list of suggestions and rules, what -do- you do?

(1) Well, you look over my ideas and evaluate them, with an eye toward that you think fits your students and the way you teach. What works may vary with the student. Toss out what doesn't work.

Don't toss out your ideas. They might work for another student. Or might work for many students if you revise them somewhat. It may be that the idea must "percolate" in your brain a year or two. Put your "failure" pieces in a folder - let's call them "sketches," ok? That's what other composers do! Drag out your file every so often to see what might be done with any of them now.

(2) You go ahead and take a shot at arranging or composing. Pieces you write at a student's lesson are especially prized; be sure the mark the top "For ___" and note the date; your student will be thrilled. So will the parent. ("Mrs. Smith recommended you highly. She says you write music just for her daughter!")

One very happy outcome of writing pieces at lessons is that students are not afraid to write their own pieces because they see you doing it. They will bring you their creations as a surprise from time to time.

(3) You save a copy of each thing you do, thus building a teaching repertoire from which you can draw the next time you encounter the same problem. After the student passes the song, borrow it and make a photocopy. If it's tidy, make copies from that. Chances are, though, that you'll want to recopy so you can incorporate some of the changes to the layout, etc. that were necessary as you taught the piece the first time. (My file cabinet full of these things started when one beginner wanted to play "Fr Elise." I pass the initial theme between the hands, starting on one-line E and using six quarter-notes in a measure. Write it out and see if your students don't love it, too.

(4) You discover hidden talents you had no idea were lurking in your brain.

(5) You discover a new interest and perhaps take some advanced classes at a university.

(6) You start being on the lookout for pieces that can be converted to beginner songs. (After over 50 years of teaching, I still listen to a piece with a eye toward how that tune might be arranged for a student.) For each new piece you study yourself, examine it for its "beginner potential." There are many more than you might imagine, especially if you double or quadruple note values, as noted above.

(7) You eventually submit your materials to a publisher.

What a nice thing to put on your resume or in your studio brochure. And parents know you're a special teacher because your ideas were liked so well by a publisher that the company thinks it can make money with your material. Parents who see obvious value in a studio program are much less likely to balk at a fee increase. Make sure you announce your new publication(s) in your studio newsletter (print or on-demand online).

(8) You pat yourself on the back because you're making special efforts for your beginners - - efforts that most teachers do not make. They're content (or don't know any better) to use pre-packaged beginner materials that may or may not be consonant with the way they teach or the pace at which they introduce new concepts. Meanwhile, your students see music in action as you write songs for them, are motivated to try composition, too, and learn melodies from masterworks, which they subsequently will recognize, even in cartoons and kiddie shows/movies.

copyright 1997-2014, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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Last updated August 2, 2014.