Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Melody Makers: Connecting Student Composers with the Community

Natalie Williams, Australian National University (Canberra)


Engaging student composers with a musical community is a critical part of the skills-development of emerging professional musicians. Such compositional experience for training composers is usually gained through performances by college-level performance major peers, or readings and workshops with established ensembles at their school. In 2016-17, I directed a creative project that instead connected undergraduate student composers with the musical communities around them, engaging with school-level music students and performing ensembles outside the university.

Modeled on the “Kids Compose” program run at my alma mater, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (and with their blessing), I developed a new project entitled “Melody Makers” for composition students at the Australian National University. The project invited “kid-composers” from local schools to write short melodies. These melodies were assigned to undergraduate composers, who would then develop and arrange them for a large ensemble. The collaborative pieces were then workshopped and performed publicly at a major concert hall. Witnessing the creative and educational benefits of the Jacobs School program, my aim for this new project was to connect undergraduate composers with a musical community outside the university. I partnered with Music for Canberra, a not-for-profit community music organisation and the home of the Canberra Youth Orchestra. “Melody Makers” therefore involved creative and collaborative input from musicians at three different educational levels: school-age music students, undergraduate composition students, and a semi-professional ensemble. This multi-tiered approach shaped a strong community musical network that we hope to build upon in future years.


Melody Makers

The ANU School of Music is home to the Music Engagement Program (MEP), a community outreach unit specializing in pedagogical relationships with schools in the local community. The dedicated MEP faculty and staff worked with university faculty to identify five Canberra schools to participate in the project. The MEP staff scheduled multiple visits with each of the five schools and worked with music teachers and their students to create a simple melody of 8-16 measures. Some schools provided a melody written by a single student, but the majority of schools worked in creative groups, producing “committee melodies” or “group melodies.”

The five new melodies—one from each school—were transcribed and collected by the MEP faculty during their visits. Each melody was separately assigned to a college student composer by the university composition faculty for development into a longer piece for string orchestra. The five completed pieces were then presented to a public audience in a professional setting by a large ensemble—in this case the string section of the Canberra Youth Orchestra.

This project was creatively driven by young people and for young people. Aside from the few project directors, all participants were younger than 23 years old, including the performers within the youth orchestra. The timeframe for this project lasted 12 months. Initial university grant funding was secured in May of 2016 and a performance date planned for April of 2017. The project timeline unfolded in quarterly steps:

Stage 1 May - Jul 2016: planning and creative direction from university faculty

Stage 2 Aug - Oct 2016: school visits for workshops with students and melody creation (Music Engagement Program faculty)

Stage 3 Nov 2016 - Jan 2017 (summer break in Australia): arrangement and development of kid-composer melodies into pieces for string orchestra (undergraduate composers)

Stage 4 Feb - Apr 2017: score preparation and rehearsals with the Canberra Youth Orchestra strings

Stage 5 Apr 2017: public performance in a large city concert hall (Llewellyn Hall)

During the score preparation and rehearsal stage (stage 4), each undergraduate student was provided a consultation hour on their new piece with the Canberra Youth Orchestra conductor. For many student composers, this was their first experience with the public presentation of their music and also their first encounter with a conductor who would suggest changes, require musical alternatives, and ask for bowings, page turns, cues, and other professional tools intended to assist performance. The students reported that this step was their first experience with the professional musical world outside the borders of the university.

The undergraduates were also sent into schools with their completed pieces, where they met their kid-composer(s) and played a MIDI rendition of their works in the music classes. These visits allowed the grade-school composers to see their melodic works transformed into larger pieces. The undergraduate composers were encouraged to present their compositional techniques to the school classes, putting their music theory and compositional skills into action and highlighting developmental techniques in their scores such as fragmentation, transposition, repetition, augmentation/diminution, interpolation, fugal design, and genre manipulation.

At each step, faculty from the School of Music Engagement Program and the classroom school music teachers were involved as guides and mentors; however, the entirety of the creative process derived from the students. In each case, the kid-composers were simply asked to “create a melody” with no parameters given that might narrow their creative approaches.

Relationships with Schools

Participating schools were chosen by the directors of the Music Engagement Program at the ANU School of Music. Building on extant relationships with schools in the greater Canberra region, participants were chosen from a variety of schools, including: those located in disadvantaged areas or those with little/no access to performing ensembles; those hosting stronger music programs seeking external opportunities for their promising students; and those seeking to engage with a wider musical community. This outreach was a vital step in building a strong musical network within the city, linking musical practitioners from three sectors—school, university, community—in a populace of approx. 380,000.


The deep pedagogical benefits to all students involved were apparent throughout the project. To the undergraduate composers, this work felt as familiar as their compositional assessments for degree coursework. However, the stakes were a little higher in that these particular pieces were not simply assessed for grades but were guaranteed a public performance in the largest concert hall in the state by a semi-professional student orchestra. In retrospect, this was an excellent vehicle to introduce student composers to the professional world where pressure existed but was applied at a lower level than stepping in front of a symphony orchestra for the first time. All participating composers were provided with a recording of their piece, feedback notes from the conductor, and a participation certificate.

The college composers were led by university composition faculty through the developmental process. Beginning with a study of the string orchestra repertoire, composers were encouraged to read scores and learn about the string family. After being assigned a melody, each undergraduate composer worked with faculty in composition lessons on the development of the musical material. A final creative step involved the consultation session with the conductor and a rehearsal of the new works. Each composer was additionally asked to speak on stage at the public performance alongside their kid-composer(s). The undergraduates approached their melodic settings with consideration and care, leading to some highly creative interpretations.

The kid-composers not only created new melodies, but also grappled with aesthetic responsibilities associated with their work, particularly exploring the intersection of musical ideas with emotional concerns and public perception. In one school workshop, the class generated a slow, languid C-minor melody featuring stepwise descending motion, rising minor 6ths and frequent sospiro figures; the young class then struggled with a title for such a melancholic piece. “Deep Waters of Thought”, “Tears of Death”, and “Luca’s Funeral” were initially offered as potential titles (Luca was the main kid-composer). However, when the students were reminded that this was a public performance and their friends and relatives would hear this work in a live context, they collectively faced a previously unknown social responsibility for their creative work. The class was clearly grappling with the intersection of aesthetic and musical ideas, connecting their own visceral experiences of sadness, grief, and raw emotion with the removal of those feelings in a public and manufactured context of a concert performance. They then worked with their music teacher to determine if the title choices would be perceived by the audience as perhaps a bit strong. This process was a small taste of creative accountability that was encountered at a higher level by the college composers in their own musical settings. The class settled on “The Wake”, a more ambiguous title that could promote multiple interpretations (e.g., funereal or oceanic). The college-level composers each asked their kid-composer collaborators to name the resultant string orchestra pieces, as well, providing the classroom students with a sense of agency and ownership over their transformed melodies.

Skills Development

Musical skills for all participants were enhanced and enriched by every step of this project. For the kid-composers the benefits included:

  • Experiencing complete creative freedom in musical tasks
  • Collaboration with a class, creating melodic material as a group in small steps
  • Engaging their emotional responses to music
  • Transcribing their creations
  • Creating music for a specific purpose (public performance and enjoyment), encouraging an aesthetic responsibility towards their material and an awareness of its future life
  • Enhancing aural and theoretical skills, led by teacher mentors, as the new melodies were created and transcribed

The undergraduate composers were also challenged by this project, using their developing musical skills for a high-level public performance. They faced professional questions of:

  • Using compositional devices to create a three- to five-minute work from a short eight-bar melody
  • Re-interpreting pitch and rhythmic values to enhance syntax, where these may be incomplete or disjunct in the melody received
  • Considering orchestration techniques and properties of the string instruments
  • Creating a new piece in their own musical style, considering the influence of the source melodic material

Community Engagement

After the public performance on 29 April, 2017 in Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University, the community networking benefits became increasingly clear. This project enabled the creation of a multi-layered musical community, strengthened by interaction in a collaborative, creative endeavor.

The kid-composers increased their musical skills, developed community connections, and grew in cultural awareness and ability. Music teachers in schools connected with university music faculty and community musicians. Musical practitioners from all training levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary) worked together to create new music for community performance. From this project, young composers built valuable skills to develop life-long careers in music and the performing arts.

The strength of this network emerged in the sum of its parts, as each practitioner carried only a small task as part of a larger generative whole: school teachers worked on melodies with students for 1-2 classes, composition faculty mentored the college composers similarly to their regular lessons, and the youth orchestra programmed one concert as part of a larger season. When assembled, each of these steps built a unified and visionary creative network, linking over 50 professional and student musicians, enriching the development of young creators and providing an engaging community musical event.


This pilot program in Canberra was testimony to the success of network-building to achieve a collaborative outcome. Linking the three sectors of secondary school, university, and community was an efficient way of building an integrated network that has the potential of bringing together musicians of several age groups, as well. Tapping into the existing strengths of each institution, the public concert showcased each working group at its best.

The school teachers and students enjoyed working with the Canberra Youth Orchestra and its umbrella organization Music For Canberra. The orchestra thus developed relationships with school teachers and extended their recruitment and outreach through these new connections. The undergraduate composers stepped into the semi-professional world of musical performance, engaged with an ensemble outside their university circle, and provided mentorship to the kid-composers in schools. Parents and friends of all students involved witnessed the creative power of young and energetic musicians through a professional concert of new and dynamic works.

The positive impact of this creative project has the potential to transfer to other communities and cities where community music ensembles exist. Similar projects in even smaller cities could be run with just a small performing group of musicians. From community orchestras to youth music ensembles, church choirs or city bands, Melody Makers has the potential to build strong musical networks for innovative compositional outcomes. The project could also be tailored to genre or site-specific goals (e.g., a christmas carol project, anniversary celebrations of a town or community, a commemorative event or public project, etc.).

The secret for success lies in securing the goodwill and commitment of musical practitioners at each pedagogical level: school, university, and community. While this may initially seem an insurmountable task, when the musical and social benefits of such a project are so strong, gathering this collaborative momentum becomes a relatively easy and even delightful task. We plan to run Melody Makers again in the 2017-18 year and hope that it inspires other communities to engage in similarly rewarding endeavors.

This work is copyright ⓒ2017 Natalie Williams and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.