Creativity, Teamwork, and The Vermont MIDI Composition Project

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • March 12, 2009

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The Vermont MIDI Project (VMP) is a community of students, teachers, professional composers, and performers devoted to infusing composition into the curriculum. More than 7,000 students from about 40 schools in Vermont, as well as schools in Illinois, Virginia, Oklahoma, Washington, and New Brunswick, Canada participate in the VMP. Did you know that your school can participate too?

Through the VMP, students in grades 2-12 are composing in all music classes, including band, orchestra, chorus, small ensembles, theory and composition courses, and general music classes. Many of the students’ compositions are destined for live performance. Students are writing for guitar, recorder, band and orchestral instruments. They create warm-ups, canons and songs for choral groups. Some write arrangements for Orff instruments or handbells. Their compositions connect music with multimedia and are integrated into other subject areas.

The project began in Vermont in 1995 as a response to Standard #4 when the National Standards for Arts Education were first introduced. Since then, teachers have improved and expanded VMP by further collaborating with professional composers, developing exciting lessons and projects for their own classrooms. The professional composers serve mainly as online mentors for students, but they guide teachers, as well, by assisting with resource development, providing workshops, and occasionally working in schools as artists-in-residence. With this crucial online mentoring, students post their work to a password protected Web site for feedback.

There is no project-wide curriculum, but rather a guiding set of protocols for online dialogue and a process for reflection and critique. Teachers participate from small and large schools and at all grade levels, elementary thorough middle and high school. Several high schools have theory and composition courses or offer independent study in composing and arranging. Schools often include composition in performing ensembles, keyboard classes, or multimedia production. Teachers create their own projects to match the needs of their own curriculum and integrate music technology to meet their needs.

At the heart of VMP is the all-important process of reflection and critique. Students regularly share their work with others, including classroom peers and the VMP community on the Web. In the past, traditional feedback was primarilyevaluation of a finished composition. At that point, the work was done and students simply moved on to something new.

With VMP, students receive feedback during the development of the work. This ongoing, embedded process promotes thinking about possibilities and new directions for the composition. This process helps students stretch and grow in their musical learning. Demonstrations of this dialogue can be found online (

Assessment is a major part of education today. The reflection and critique process provides evidence of student learning. Having students reflect on their own work, their intent, their process, and the changes that have taken place over time substantiates their musical learning. An eighth-grade student participating in the VMI noted, “What inspired me to write this piece was that I am very interested in history. This song represents two ships going into battle. I thought the name •Age of Sail’ fits the story. I decided to have the oboe be a frigate (the smaller ship) and the bassoon be the ship of the line (the bigger ship). Finally, the French horn would be the tension.” Two fifth-grade students wrote about the piece they created together called, “Snowshoe”: “We created a melody in a shape and then followed with its reflection as a mirror image.”

Whether composition takes place in a performance or general music class, it is important to ensure that students are given time to reflect and critique each other’s work. At first, this process may take a great deal of time, but students become more skilled at listening and communicating over time. Once the concept is introduced, teachers see students routinely asking for feedback. This culture of reflection and critique spreads beyond the composition activities to other areas of student’s musical and academic lives.

Composition in Performance Ensembles

VMP students report that they become better performers because they have experienced music manipulated musical elements. Here’s what one student confessed: “I’m a tuba player and… sometimes it’s a bit on the boring side, when you’re playing six whole notes tied together or something like that. I guess one thing I used to do, I’d be apt to maybe fancy up the tuba part a little bit during band and play whatever I’d feel like playing, using my ear to make it sound good. I guess now that I’ve composed, • you feel like you owe it to the composer to do what they told you to do. You realize how intentional every note is and every staccato, every tenuto, every dynamic marking. It wasn’t an accident. They put it in there for a reason.” He went on to describe how he began listening to all the instruments and figuring out how the notes he was playing fit into the overall scheme of the piece.

A sixth grader at St. Albans City School who composed in a general music classroom and also played in the band reported about her composition experience: “Mostly what I’ve learned is about intertwining different parts to make a piece. It’s how different parts come together to make a song. In band, all you hear is yourself you’re the closest thing. [Composing] helped me understand better how music gets put together.”

At Hazen Union School, a small grade 7-12 school, students are composing in band. They traditionally compose or arrange a public domain tune for the graduation ceremony. They also write for the annual small ensemble concert, which features original music compositions by students and works by professionals. Students often practice with more diligence when the composition is written by a peer because there’s a sense of ownership by the entire group.

At North Country Union High School, students in the composition and theory class write for the chorus, band, or other smaller ensembles. One student composition was posted to and picked up by a junior high band in the United Kingdom. The band director recorded the performance and sent a copy to the student composer.

At Mt. Abraham Union High School, composition is an integral part of a keyboard class where students begin writing for piano and then branch out and compose for small ensembles as well. At Hunt Middle School, students learn to play acoustic guitar in general music. They start their compositions on the guitar and then branch out and write for a variety of instruments.

Live Performance a Goal
The Vermont MIDI Project has been praised for the goal of presenting student compositions in live performance. Twice a year, the project sponsors an “Opus” concert. The fall concert features brass, percussion and piano. The spring event includes woodwinds and strings. Professional performers are hired for the day so they can rehearse each piece with individual students before presenting the evening concert. The conversations are incredible learning experiences with skilled professionals asking students about their intent and their inspiration. One parent observed the rehearsal and remarked, “The performers could have been condescending to my fifth-grade son, but they treated him like a professional. What a fantastic experience for him! And then to hear the piece and how they performed it so well this was truly amazing!” There’s a great deal of new information and features on the VMP Web site, notably the flash presentation of the Opus events, beginning with Opus 15. The latest concert, Opus 17, was held in early December and brings a whole new set of music performances, student descriptions and bios, photos, and a short movie to The Web site also features a blog with updates from parents and students.

In addition to the Opus concerts, many additional opportunities have been developed. Regular “Calls for Compositions” involve a collaboration between VMP and performing groups including the Vermont Youth Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, and the Green Mountain Suzuki Institute. Student works are also presented in concert by the Constitution Brass Ensemble, the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival, and the Vermont Philharmonic. Local schools frequently arrange for live performance either by students themselves, a combination of older and younger students, or students and professionals. One student remarked, “Hearing my music performed live has given me a reason to compose.”

The Role of Technology
Since the beginning of the project, technology has been key in four areas:

  • Use of music software, computers, and sometimes keyboard/controllers
  • Construction of an online mentoring Web site
  • Expanded communication through Web conferencing
  • Development of resources: podcasts, videos and online resources, lesson plans with assessments and student samples.

Students are using music software and computers to notate their compositions. Although some of the original ideas begin with paper and pencil, the work eventually goes to the computer, at which point students enhance their work, sometimes adding harmony, countermelodies, and percussion parts. They can also extend the form of the piece and develop their composition. Teachers in the project firmly believe that technology makes composition possible for all students. The composition products vary greatly in style, instrumentation, and sophistication.

At the heart of VMP is the online sharing site, a password protected discussion board where compositions are posted. The key to this process is that students post their work early, rather than when finished. Research revealed that students who posted when their piece was complete were less likely to respond to feedback provided by professional mentors. Once the work was finished, most students were looking for praise and were reluctant to make many changes. Students who post early in the process, however, are just formulating their ideas and mentoring can support the development of the work as it expands.

Recently, VMP utilized Web conferencing to expand and support the mentoring. Workshops for teachers, master classes, and school residencies with composers are held through conferencing systems including Adobe Connect, Skype, and iChat. This method is particularly helpful in connecting the growing group of Independent Study Students. These students are either home-schooled or attend a school that does not participate in VMP.

Technology that facilitates sharing is crucial. This includes many examples of student work displayed on the public Web site, highlights of live Opus performances, and the dialogue on the password site between professional composers and students. Teachers regularly share their lessons and ideas for composition in the classroom. The project has developed a DVD: Young Composer’s Series: Writing for Brass Instruments. A new podcast series is in development with the Connecticut Composition Project. This series will feature composers discussing specific aspects of composition and interviews with students and teachers.

Professional Development for Teachers
Each summer, a Music and Multimedia Summer Institute brings together project teachers and others interested in learning more about composition and music technology. At this four-day residential summer institute, every participant composes and engages in reflection and critique. A professional composer works with teacher-composers throughout the week. Some teachers compose a work to take back to their students in the fall. Participants from this past summer included teachers from 10 states and two Canadian provinces.

Another aspect of professional development is the online mentoring site. Teachers remark that it’s like a 24/7 resource. Mentor comments provide composition lessons for teachers, since most have never had formal training in how to teach composition. Teachers use examples of the mentoring discussion threads with their own classes. Students write responses to other students and provide suggestions about the work.

Additional Resources
VMP project coordinator, Sandi MacLeod, has edited a new book due out in early January published by Avid Technology: Plans for Success: Sibelius Student and Groovy Music Projects for the K-8 Classroom. This publication features 55 lesson plans and projects from various authors including many that originate from the Vermont MIDI Project work. For information on obtaining a copy of this publication, visit

VMP and the Connecticut Composition Project ( coordinator Rich Wells have collaborated on a new podcast series. The first few include composing basics presented by professional composer mentor Erik Nielsen and are designed for young composers and their teachers. Later, the series will expand to highlight teachers who are teaching composition and feature some successful student composers.

Any school interested in online mentoring for music composition is encouraged to browse the VMP Web site’s many resources. Teachers who are interested in joining VMP should contact project coordinator, Sandi MacLeod at Pilot schools from outside Vermont are encouraged to join for at least two or three years to build support and involve their local area or state as they create a music composition project. Four years ago, eight schools from Connecticut became members of VMP and now they have established their very own Connecticut Composition Project. Their project features online mentoring by professional composers, live performances and the development of resources to assist teachers as they embed composition in the curriculum. VMP students have won awards for their compositions including the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award, MENC Young Composers, and the NSBA Electronic Music Composition. Sandi MacLeod says, “Folks who’ve observed us over the years remark that student work just gets better and better. I guess we’re all learning how to teach composition and how important the process of reflection and critique is in that development.”

You Can Join VMP!
The fee for participation for a pilot school outside the state of Vermont is $300 per year and allows a school to post up to 10 compositions. The online conversation about any composition can continue as long as a student revises and posts a request for feedback. Most compositions have three or four revisions and receive comments by multiple composers throughout the composition process, most of which arrive within 48 hours of students posting revisions. When you think about private composition lessons, this is a great value!

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