How to Compose With Students During Online Piano Lessons

Composing opens student’s eyes to what music really can be.  Not just from an emotional point of view, but also a technical point of view as well.  So, what is the trick to composing with students during online lessons?  It just takes a few tweaks from what you might do in an in-person lesson!

Writing music has been amazing outlet for me personally.  It has helped me celebrate the wonderful times in life … & it’s helped me work through grief in my darkest times as well.

For our students, the realization that they too have the ability to create music is a light bulb moment.  You mean to say that isn’t something reserved only for the incredibly talented!?!  I can create, with practice, music as good as anything I’ve seen written out there?  Yes!

​Composing With Students During Online Lessons

Like every other aspect of teaching online, a little preparation goes a long way.

Before getting into the steps, keep this as easy as possible.  There is no need to place stress on either you, your student or parents that may need to be involved.

Step 1:

What is the purpose of this composition?

This may seem like a no brainer.  To have your student write their own piece.

But, it is more than this.

Do you want your student to explore:

  • Chord progressions?
  • Accompaniment patterns?
  • Creating a melody line using the pentascale or pentatonic scale degrees?

Or do you want your student to have a practical application in writing out:

  • Grand staff?
  • Key & time signatures?
  • Notes & rests?
  • Music markings?

Step 2:

The two goals above, explore or practical application, would lend themselves to different notation approaches.

What is the best way to get the music notated?

If the goal is exploration, the best approach would be:

  • Improvisation activity that may or may not be written out OR
  • Teacher writes out final student decisions for each part.
    • I recommend Noteflight.  It’s free, easy to use, plus you can save the PDF’s of the scores anywhere.

Exploration needs the mental space & time to develop.  Give this to your students & they will surprise you with what they create!

If the goal is a practical application of writing out musical symbols, the best approach would be:

  • Flexible notation that suits the student level: letters vs. notes, lines or symbols that show patterns, etc.
  • Use something the student is already very familiar with:  motif & chord progressions they have experimented with for weeks

Online lessons require a lot clarity in every aspect of lesson.  Being clear what will happen as you are composing with students during online lessons gives everyone the freedom to enjoy the moment.

Step 3:

Let parents & students how the composition will be added to & practiced each week.

For example, my students know that I am writing out what they are creating each week. 

These are the steps we take to share the music back & forth while composing during online lessons.

  • I write out the new music during lesson by hand
    • You could do this digitally right away, but I find it takes time away from lesson time.
  • The day after lessons I digitally notate the new section & anything we have agreed the student will work on in the upcoming week.
    • For example, chord progression written out in an accompaniment pattern so students are already exploring during the week.
  • Place the updated music in a shared Google folder, then email or text the student or parent that their music is ready for them.
    • Notifying the student/parent means no one can say they didn’t know it was ready.

You could easily use another online platform to pass on the music to the student.  I chose Google because it is free & my students are already familiar with it.

The program you use is not the important part.  The consistency of how the music is shared with your students is.

Brand new to online?

If you are wondering how to create a shared folder in Google Drive, watch the tutorial below.  It includes how to share a folder with your clients.

What to Focus on While Composing

Composing with students during online lessons can be incredibly rewarding.

However, there are a few considerations to keep in mind:

  • Audio:  Online platforms find it difficult to successfully send the audio of complex music.
  • Video:  Depending on the angle of webcams for your piano & your student’s piano may help or hinder the process.
  • Keep it simple: Clarity is all important during an online lesson.  Trying to add too many elements all at once may lead to long conversations about what is going on, rather than composing.

Tips for composing with students during an online lesson

  • Get really good at listening! 
    • You will not always have access to the best camera angle.
    • We continually ask our students to work on ear training, but can you determine which note your student is playing without seeing the specific note?
  • Focus on one thing at a time.
    • Key of the section
    • Chord progression
    • Accompaniment pattern
    • Melodic restrictions (i.e. only pentatonic notes)
    • Dynamics
    • Articulation
    • Pedal vs. no pedal
  • Give options & ask for clarification as you go.
    • Play a section two different ways for your student.  Ask which they like best.
    • Ask a student whether they want the section to include [add element].  If they aren’t sure, ask them to try both.
  • Go through a section multiple times as you add each element.
    • The bonus is that your student is practicing playing the section without overloading everything all at once.

Composing with students during online lessons can seem a little more work … but I promise it is well worth it!

Online Music Activities Freebie

There are so many options for assignments online!  It just takes being open to the possibilities.  Much like when we are creating our own interpretation of a piece as we play it.

If you would like more ideas for online music lessons that are free, easy to use & don’t necessarily require your student to be at a piano, click below.

FREE Online Music Activities PDF


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