February 28, 2021

I wish I could take credit for this autistic student’s composition skills, but it’s all him. 

Every part of this came out of his head and fingers – I was just the scribe (pardon my rudimentary transcribing – that wasn’t the point of this exercise). 

I mean, how cool is this piece??? The way it wavers back and forth between two keys, the catchy rhythms, the way the B section contrasts the A section.

Here’s a clip of him composing part of it in our Zoom lesson:

For reference, he’s playing in Alfred’s Basic Piano Library Level 3, so this composition is way beyond his formal piano skills. 

So how did he do it? Well, he has perfect pitch and an incredible auditory memory. He not only remembers everything he hears, but he’s learning to pick it apart and improvise on it. 

I’m not explicitly a “composition teacher”, but I do work on basic composition with students as often as possible. 

How can we help students channel their compositional ideas into coherent pieces?

Here are just some of the ways:

  • Name the key and point any modulations. For example, “Wow, that melody you just made up is in the key of g minor. Let’s play the g minor scale so you can get oriented to that key.” Or, “Hey, it looks like you moved into the key of e-flat minor!” 
  • Encourage them to develop ideas further. Sometimes, especially when students have a prolific ear, ideas spill out of them faster than they can organize. Take smaller motifs and show them ways to expound upon them (“Try playing that same thing, but a 3rd higher” or “how it would it sound if all the note values were cut in half?”)
  • ENCOURAGE TRIAL AND ERROR. This is huge for perfect pitch/neurodivergent students who may want everything to come out perfectly the first time and get discouraged when it doesn’t. Remind them that it’s okay, no, it’s GREAT, to experiment with several different ideas until they find one they like.

Do you use composition in your lessons?

About the author 

Selena Pistoresi

Selena is a lifelong pianist and piano teacher of over a decade. She owns a studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where she specializes in working with students with special needs. She equips teachers all over the world with the mindset, tools, and curriculum to teach students with special needs and help their studios flourish.

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