Birth of a Song | Jay Albert

One day Hans (eight years of age) came to his lesson with a song he had written on his guitar (I use the term “written” to mean composed and remembered, not necessarily put down on paper). Hans has been playing the instrument a little over a year, currently strumming quarter note patterns, chords and reading simple melodies. He created his piece out of a chord he was assigned to practice. I showed him the E major chord and though I often do assign him composition, this time I did not. During his repetition of the chord at home something must have caught his ear, drawing him in. That was where he began making aesthetic choices, following his ear. When he was done, it was a song.

To create his composition, he used a fast strum pattern (much faster than anything he had played previously, a technical innovation), and continued to explore this rhythm throughout the piece, playing with its effect on pacing and form. He found new pitch material simply by plopping another finger down where it seems to fit. I find many student compositions have this kind of pragmatic approach. The physical and intellectual tasks at hand can be very solid limiting factors so children just play what they are able and change and add new sounds in ways that are accessible to them. The realization of this puts me constantly on the lookout for items to give to them that offer quality sounds, bits and tasks that yield something that might interest them.

Here is a recording I made of Hans playing his piece:

What exactly are we hearing, and how did Hans invent it?

  • It begins with an alternation between an E major chord and its suspension (created by adding one finger to remove one note and substitute another), strummed with the thumb. The chord includes a lower note, almost certainly unintentionally (he just hit another string while strumming). The official name for the chord this yielded is irrelevant but it is important to note that he created a new structure with several components that were not present in his palette previously. I’ll refer to this as the E-plus chord.
  • The strumming moves quickly in groups of four, coming to an abrupt halt. The ensuing pause establishes the foregoing as a segment and sets up a new segment to come, thus turning a simple strum pattern into a song.
  • A new chord enters as abruptly as the other ended. This one I helped him with since he had expressed the wish for a new chord but didn’t know how to create one. I suggested he keep one finger where it was and add another finger on the adjacent string. I presented this in terms of finger pattern as it would be easier to see and feel that way and he could see the relation between the E-plus chord and the new one. I also knew what it would sound like and that it was likely to be pleasing; he liked it and kept it.
  • The song moves in one or two bar segments, several with pauses between them of varying lengths. The stops are abrupt and rather dramatic, and some are accentuated with a light slap of his hand, creating a percussive whap.
  • The form is five segments beginning with the first E-plus chord, alternating to chord two twice and finishing with the first one again. It is symmetrical, with tonal center established by chord one, movement away from that and a final return to it.

Somewhere in here is the intersection of two educational approaches: putting facts in versus drawing creative inspiration out. The traditional role of the music lesson teacher is the former, my passion is the latter. If I give them the right material and a context that catches their curiosity they get interested in practicing (thus increasing their capacity to create music). If I then ask them to make up some songs for themselves I invariable find that their limited sonic palette is used ingeniously and that their individual voices show through clearly.

I don’t guide much, I just set the stage for them and let them go. That is enough, that and the fact that when they bring in their work I end up exclaiming and fist pumping and high fiving them. They know I’m not exaggerating either; I am overjoyed with what they have done.

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