Incorporating Composition into the Applied Saxophone Pedagogy in Higher Education

April 14, 2017



A composition project within the saxophone pedagogy in higher education can serve as a tool to engage students in new areas of musical exploration that can be beneficial to their saxophone growth. Practicing compositional skills through basic composition projects can create context for compositional perspectives and compositional problem solving skills that can then be used by saxophone students in higher education to understand compositional decisions in saxophone repertoire, thus enhancing their artistic development. Incorporating a composition project can also directly improve fundamental saxophone issues and foster an understanding of saxophone repertoire and can help to produce a comprehensive educational experience for students as it demonstrates and creates awareness of how performance, composition, history, and analysis all work cohesively in the complete musical process. This article will serve as an introductory practitioner’s guide to the higher education saxophone community about the numerous benefits associated with incorporating composition into the applied saxophone pedagogy. It will discuss specifics about why implementing a composition project can be useful to saxophone pedagogy, types of projects that can be implemented, ideas about assessing the projects, and ideas for fostering compositional growth, all from the perspective that saxophone instructors are capable of implementing a project of this type.

Considering the general youth of the saxophone’s repertoire, especially with the abundance of popular works from the newest generation of composers, it is not at all surprising that saxophonists are often considered the ambassadors and champions of contemporary music. Commissioning and seeking out new composers in which to collaborate with and, in some cases, introduce to our instrument has perhaps even become a recognized aspect of the professional (and aspiring professional) concert saxophonist’s life. Indeed, there are excellent examples and role models of this in entrepreneurial artists throughout the field. For example, during the recent 2016 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance (NASA) held at Texas Tech University there were 246 pieces performed that were composed after the year 2000 with more than 260 pieces presented by living composers, 102 of which were by emerging composers born after 1980.1 At NASA’s 2014 Biennial Conference held at the University of Illinois, there were more than 250 pieces performed that were composed after the year 2000 at least 90 of which were world premiere performances.2 In an article published on NewMusicBox (, composer, Stephen Lias, suggested that the 2012 NASA Biennial Conference held at Arizona State University was actually more of a “festival of contemporary music”3 due to the sheer amount of new music programmed. None of this is news to saxophonists as we are very much connected to the field of composition. Yet, there is still a facet of composition that we can explore pedagogically: the actual act of composing. It is my sincere hope that this article will serve as an introduction to the saxophone community about the numerous benefits associated with incorporating composition into the applied saxophone pedagogy of higher education.

Asking students to create their own music and do more than simply play back the notes will not only ensure more exciting, interesting lessons and rehearsals, but will also engage students in more than one kind of musical thinking.4

This excellent quote by Dr. Maud Hickey, Associate Professor of Music Education in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, brings attention to the intuitive perspective that composition can have a broad and positive effect on musical development. The notion that composition is an important and crucial aspect of a musical curriculum is even recognized in the National Standards of Music Education (Standard 4 – “composing and arranging music within specified guidelines”) published by the National Association for Music Education.5 Offering an excellent rationalization on behalf of composition in education, Donn Mills, Music Director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra6 from 1959 to 1963,7 wrote (in an article discussing his experiences introducing composition into the curriculum of an after-school general music program in secondary education):

We refer to music as a language. We teach our classes to read that language, and to speak the language-through instruments and voices. We seldom get around to teaching the student to write it, even though written expression is considered essential in the study of any other language. Students are required to write themes, essays, and poems early in their studies of English or French or Latin. But we don't teach writing in music until the student is in college.8

Mills’s premise is quite valid, though progress has certainly been accomplished nationally regarding the inclusion of composition in the secondary education music curriculum since his article was published in 1963. In fact, many universities across the country do require a composition course in the academic curriculum for undergraduate music students and it is often students’ first experience composing. These courses, if required, are taught by experienced composers, educators, or talented graduate students; however, a composition project with the saxophone professor could produce compositional results that can directly improve fundamental saxophone issues and foster an understanding of saxophone repertoire. Additionally, a composition project within the saxophone pedagogy could help to produce a comprehensive educational experience for students as it demonstrates and creates awareness of how performance, composition, history, and analysis all work cohesively in the complete musical process. Composer, Mara Gibson, discusses this unified learning process in an article published on

As a composer interested in collaboration, my teaching naturally encompasses a variety of musical skills, including composition, performance, theory, and history. I believe that without the merger of all these ingredients, the language of music is unbalanced and can potentially sway toward the overly intellectual or creatively unchallenged. In music education, instructors frequently separate these elements. However, as musicians, we draw on these various musical experiences in tandem, recognizing how each subject reinforces the other. To prepare students for the rigors of making music, I hope to encourage simultaneous thinking about the multiple aspects of music. Through the fusion of skill and creativity, the student (and teacher) gain insight, and can begin to discover that nothing is truly ‘separate.’ Performance, composition technique, historical context, and theoretical understanding are all vital in cultivating a creative and thoughtful musician. After all, as artists, we learn through doing.9

While it may be easy to understand broadly why composition can be an important element for developing the comprehensive music student, when considering incorporating composition directly into the applied saxophone lesson pedagogy the subsequent questions are raised: exactly what are the possible educational outcomes of composition for our saxophone students and how exactly do we incorporate composition into saxophone pedagogy? The study of composition within the applied saxophone curriculum could produce three basic results:

1) It would generate the environment for students to begin practicing saxophone repertoire with the critical thinking skills that the composer may have used while writing their artistic works. This approach creates an understanding of compositional tools like form, phrasing, and contrast that can lead to a more complete and authentic perception of performance repertoire. In other words, when students begin to think like a composer it could make it easier for them to understand the compositional decisions found within the saxophone repertoire and, therefore, perform that music to a higher artistic level.

2) It would produce musicians with a sense of open-mindedness especially when exposed to new styles and genres within the saxophone repertoire. This type of student is not biased, afraid, or intimidated to explore new creative experiences and new areas of artistic expression and can approach musical challenges with flexibility and creativity. It can also provide a more personalized aesthetic experience for both the audience and performer with students who are able to produce fresh interpretations and perhaps even perform personally composed compositions/cadenzas.

3) It would create awareness of the difficulty of the craft, thus allowing students to develop and hone the ability to distinguish (using their newly learned skills) between compositions of poor substance/craft and compositions of high quality/construction. Not every piece written for the concert saxophone will necessarily become a lasting and essential contribution to its core repertoire. It will be the next generation of saxophonists which may decide these issues making a basic knowledge of compositional tools a valuable asset.

Since it is not the goal of this undertaking to create master composers or compositional masterpieces, it seems prudent to limit the compositions to small projects in order to preserve the time necessary for the teaching of saxophone fundamentals, repertoire, etc. Moreover, small projects will take less time away from the students’ personal practice routines. Furthermore, the concepts necessary to prepare students for an assignment of this type could be explained in a single lesson or a single studio-class (while revisiting the concepts when needed) and composition faculty could even be invited to assist with the project in a lecture/laboratory setting. When the work is complete, with any necessary revisions, the students should have an opportunity to perform their projects for their peers in a studio-class setting (if they feel comfortable doing so). Some small composition projects that would easily fit into the saxophone pedagogy are listed below. (The following list should be assigned to students based upon their experience, need, and interest on an individual basis at the discretion of the instructor):

1) Creating new and unique etudes. This can be particularly helpful as the student could be instructed to compose a new etude which directly addresses the fundamental areas (as identified by the professor) in which the student needs improvement. Students may even practice this etude more diligently as they are slightly more invested in its success. If the etude is effective it could even be shared with other students as a pedagogical tool for improving saxophone fundamentals throughout the studio, perhaps compiling etudes from several students to make a studio resource.

2) Composing new cadenzas for traditional saxophone repertoire. While these cadenzas do not necessarily need to be performed (although they certainly could be) they might serve as a means to understanding musical style as cadenzas should be representative of the compositional elements found within the complete work. This can force students to critically consider the entirety of the selected piece, allowing them to recognize important motives that should be emphasized during performance and creating understanding of how motivic elements are developed throughout a given work. Although there is a historical precedent for this practice, it may not always be appropriate to rewrite a cadenza and the professor’s thoughtful judgment should be employed.

3) Writing a short unaccompanied saxophone piece. This type of project is larger in scope than composing an etude and/or cadenza and serves as an opportunity to utilize larger musical forms. The more form is used/practiced compositionally, the more easily identifiable form becomes within saxophone repertoire which ultimately creates a broader understanding of a complete work. This is also a wonderful platform to incorporate the use of extended saxophone techniques; exposing students to the use of these techniques in creative ways and encouraging them to consider how they can be used successfully. Additionally, students will be confronted with the obstacle of discovering the compositional differences in performance-practice since playing unaccompanied music presents separate and unique challenges than performing with accompaniment. Therefore, it will be necessary for students to compose in a manner that is functional for the performance of unaccompanied music, thus informing and enhancing their preparation and practice of other unaccompanied saxophone repertoire.

After the initial discussion and introduction of the project, the composition’s progress should be assessed by the teacher occasionally for less than five minutes; enough time to notice progress and provide constructive criticism and not enough time to significantly distract from the traditional saxophone pedagogy. It is difficult to determine the quality of a composition as composing is intrinsically a subjective process. However, assessment is an important aspect of students’ compositional development. Below is a list of seven basic traits that successful composition projects might include:

1) The composition contains aesthetic appeal, is creative, and has craftsmanship10. (see Dr. Hickey’s excellent rubric for assessing general criteria in composition assignments in her article for the Music Educators Journal: 85.4)

2) The composition contains complete and coherent musical ideas as well as musical contrast.

3) The composition contains practical technical challenges not impossible for the composing saxophonist to perform.

4) The composition adheres to the style, genre, and melodic/rhythmic content of the larger work (cadenzas only).

5) The composition successfully uses any requirements assigned by the teacher (fundamentals, articulations, extended techniques, range, form, etc.).

6) The composition contains musically descriptive indications (dynamics, articulations, terminology, tempo markings, etc.).

7) The composition is well organized (digital notation, clean score, clear instructions, etc.).

Composer, Dana Wilson, who teaches in the School of Music at Ithaca College, suggests that:

A teacher's responsibility in the composing process is primarily twofold: to try to determine what a student composer's intentions are, and then to suggest ways that he or she might better achieve them.11

It is realistic to assume that saxophone instructors in higher education are capable of successfully implementing and incorporating composition projects into the saxophone pedagogy using Wilson’s idea as a guiding principle given that saxophone instructors have been thoroughly trained in the exact same fundamentals of music that are used to both perform music artistically as well as to compose music; i.e., concepts such as: phrasing, timbre, form, melody, rhythm, contrast, key, meter, playability, range, articulation, extended techniques, etc. Since saxophone professors understand, pedagogically, these musical fundamentals, why not use these tools to engage our students in new areas of musical exploration that can be beneficial to their saxophone growth as well? Below are eleven basic tips for fostering compositional growth:

1) Provide clear and reasonable expectations for students including: specific techniques/fundamentals to use, form, range, length, etc. While some students excel when given freedom, inexperienced students can often benefit from structure.12

2) Introduce basic forms such as ABA, AABA, AABB, ABAB, Rondo, Theme and Variation, etc., using examples when possible from within the existing saxophone repertoire.

3) Allow students to compose in the style of their choosing. Certainly discuss issues of style but do not be overly concerned with their particular aesthetic as it will develop and change with time13; instead, identify what they do well and encourage it, then provide constructive criticism for the areas of craftsmanship that need improvement.

4) Composers use many different and helpful systems during the compositional process including composing with a piano, composing with their principal instrument (in this case, saxophone), using digital notation software, and even singing into a recording device. Encourage students to try various methods of composing and to use the system(s) that they feel most comfortable with.

5) A great deal of composition begins with improvisation. This trial-and-error method of discovery is a normal process that should be utilized and promoted. Improvisation can, however, be difficult and uncomfortable for some musicians.

6) Discuss the differences between abstract versus programmatic approaches using examples from within the saxophone repertoire (e.g., exploring the program distinctions between Creston’s Sonata [abstract] vs. Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence [programmatic]).

7) Be nurturing as the teacher’s demeanor can greatly affect the process and product.14 Studio teachers can have a significantly positive and/or negative influence on their students’ musical development (particularly in a subject that is perhaps unfamiliar and new). Make the project fun.

8) It is not necessary to grade the composition as the process and experience are ultimately more important than the quality of the final product.15 However, periodic assessment by the instructor, which leads to student revision, is still important to ensure that students have opportunities for growth. Revision is critical to the development and success of the composition project as well and should be encouraged throughout the process; not just at the completion of the project. Students can also seek out advice/feedback from their peers who are going through, or have gone through, the same project.16

9) Compose an etude, cadenza, and/or a short unaccompanied piece on your own to begin to familiarize yourself with the compositional process and to understand what you will be asking of your students. Take notes during the process to remember any challenges and successes you experienced and use these notes to prepare to work with your students. Perhaps share your composition with your students after they have completed their projects.

10) Not knowing the answer to a question is okay. Do not be afraid to ask for advice from composition faculty at your academic institution. Utilize the expertise of your colleagues who do this professionally and be willing to learn from your students.

11) Do not overdo it. The point of this project is not for saxophone teachers to become composition teachers. The point is to create an opportunity for a meaningful and useful musical experience that transfers into and positively affects your students’ saxophone playing. Perhaps one project per year is sufficient; maybe even one project every other year allowing an entire semester for completion.

By no means has it been suggested that composition is easy and that everyone can do it to a highly artistic level but perhaps these early ventures into the act of composition as amateurs will provide valuable musical insight that can transfer into the performance and educational aspects of our students’ experiences and professional aspirations. We may also encounter creative students that will use this project as a starting point for further exploration of composition; perhaps finding ways to combine their interest in saxophone and composition professionally, making them more marketable in an already oversaturated and challenging job market. Indeed, many successful jazz performers have been employing this skill since the beginnings of jazz itself. Why not do the same in contemporary concert music? Finally, it might even provide a fun and substantive educational detour for saxophone professors and expand our instructive tools as innovative educators.


1NASA 2016 Biennial Conference Program Booklet.

2NASA 2014 Biennial Conference Program Booklet.

3Lias, "Blogging from NASA: Day 1."

4Hickey, "Teaching ensembles to compose and improvise," 17-21.

5"National Standards for Music Education",Oct, 2012.

6About the CSO,Sept, 2012

7Charleston Symphony Orchestra, July, 2013

8Mills, "Teach Composition in Your General Music Class," 43-44.

9Gibson, "Framing Your Voice, Part 2."

10Hickey, "Assessment rubrics for music composition," 26-33.

11Wilson, "Guidelines for Coaching Student Composers," 28-33.

12Hickey, "Assessment rubrics for music composition," 26-33.

13Harris, "Curriculum for Composers," 112-117.

14Wiggins, "Fostering Revision and Extension in Student Composing," 35-42.

15Hickey, "Assessment rubrics for music composition." 26-33.

16Wiggins, "Fostering Revision and Extension in Student Composing," 35-42.


About the N.P. Web. 11 July 2013.

Charleston Symphony N.P., 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 July 2013.

Gibson, Mara. Framing Your Voice, Part 2New Music Box. N.p., 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 3 July 2014.

Harris, Donald. "Curriculum for Composers." College Music Symposium 21.2 (1981): 112-117.

Hickey, Maud. "Assessment Rubrics for Music Composition." Music Educators Journal 85.4 (1999): 26-33.

———. "Teaching Ensembles to Compose and Improvise." Music Educators Journal 83.6 (1997): 17-21.

Lias, Stephen. Blogging from NASA (North American Saxophone Alliance): Day 1New Music Box. N.p., 16 Mar. 2012. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.

Mills, Donn. "Teach Composition in Your General Music Class." Music Educators Journal 49.5 (1963): 43-44.

National Standards for Music Education. National Association for Music Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.

“North American Saxophone Alliance 2014.” Biennial Conference Program Booklet of the North American Saxophone Alliance (2014).

“North American Saxophone Alliance 2016.” Biennial Conference Program Booklet of the North American Saxophone Alliance (2016).

Wiggins, Jackie. "Fostering Revision and Extension in Student Composing." Music Educators Journal 91.3 (2005): 35-42.

Wilson, Dana. "Guidelines for Coaching Student Composers." Music Educators Journal 88.1 (2001): 28-33.

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