A great artist has to come from somewhere

First of all, apologies all around as I have been away getting the school year started, meeting some deadlines, attending to PMEA business, and just got done hosting our 14th Annual Band Show at Mercer.  Throw in 5 credits at Kent this semester, and my free time is nigh non-existent.

So three weeks into school, I have been challenging my middle school band students with a little project that is outlined by Standard #4: Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.

If you follow out this parallel, the importance of taking time to have students write is pretty important.  In English they read great literature (Shakespeare).  They discuss great literature.  They analyze it from its intrinsic meaning to the structure of each sentence.  They re-enact it with their peers and teachers to give it new meaning.  They are asked to write about it. They are asked to compose their own stories based on prompts.

So in music…read it? Check. Discuss? Hopefully check. Analysis? Another hopeful check. Re-enact (Perform)? Check. Write about it? Check. Compose? Maybe not a check here.  For many programs, the large ensemble (band, chorus, orchestra) is sometimes the only music elective offered to students outside an appreciation class.  Allowing students to explore composition, arranging, and orchestration doesn’t need to be left to college coursework.  What I am presenting today are some ideas how to do it within the daily structure of the instrumental ensemble rehearsal.

During these opening sessions and introduction, I have asked each student to write for their own instrument.  In the case of the percussion, I have been using this to make sure they are acclimated to writing (and eventual reading and performing on pitched percussion) for battery, timpani, and mallets.  I am using only students in grades 7 & 8 in these assignments.

The first thing that you need to keep in mind is outlining specific guidelines to govern the students work.  For example, the assignment due during tomorrow’s rehearsal used the following guidelines:

1) B-flat concert and Common Time
2) 8 measures in length.
3) Assigned notes per measure (notes listed in concert pitch)

m.1                        m.2                        m.3                        m.4
(Bb, D, F)             (Eb, G, Bb)            (F,A,C)                  (G,Bb,D)

m.5                        m.6                        m.7                        m.8
(Eb, G, Bb)            (C, Eb, G)             (F,A,C)                   (Bb, D, F)

In addition to the notes listed above, they may choose to use one beat of non-assigned notes per measure (For example, in measure 1 they could utilize an Eb or G as long as it does not exceed one beat within the measure).

4) The Winds may use any of the following note values so long as it equals four beats:

Rhythm values for Winds in Composition Assignment

The percussion may use any of the following note values for the snare drum part as long as it equals four beats:

Rhythms for Percussion in Composition Assignment (Snare)

The mallet percussion are only required to use two half-notes per measure (as my percussion did not have experience using mallets, this assignment had two objectives for them: 1) Familiarize students with reading treble clef, and 2) Have students begin performing on mallet instruments).  Depending on the skill level of the mallet players, they may be able to write with as complex rhythms as the winds.

5) Consider developing a tonal or rhythmic sequence throughout the eight measures to establish connectivity within the melody.  We spent some time analyzing our current pieces looking for sequences by other composer, I shared some ideas in pieces on which I am currently working, and we explored several examples in class.

6) Though optional, students were encouraged to begin including expressive elements within their melody including varying dynamic levels (piano through forte), accents,  slurs, and also make use of crescendos and decrescendos.

Within these early exercises, I have some additional “unwritten” guidelines for their work.  The first of which is that you shouldn’t be afraid to mess up – I have a whole folder and sketch book of mistakes from my earlier writings, and in the past 3 months they have contributed to helping me find a better solution.  Another rule I have is that they should consider playing first, and writing second.  My final rule is that if you write it, you better be able to play it.

The results will vary based on the students’ motivation, their current level of skill on the instrument, and their general working knowledge of the theoretical components involved in the assignment.  It is definitely a departure from the standard rehearsal schedule, but it gives the students an opportunity to become the name in the top right hand corner and make some meaningful decisions about music.  I am interested to see whether or not students who engage in composition will improve their skill sets in performance on their instrument.  I will be updating the project as it progresses, and I hope you can borrow this idea for your groups.  If you have thoughts on how to expand the project, or questions let’s ask away and make music education better!

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  1. Travis,

    Great idea! I know that I have often struggled with how to work this standard into our daily routines. Giving these guidelines to the students is a great place for me to start. Thanks for the idea!

    PS – Great show the other night…thanks so much for inviting us!


  2. I love the rationale and the idea for this project, and I hope you’ll keep us posted on how it turns out. Those who know my passion for creativity-based projects and learning know I could discuss this topic for days on end (!), but suffice it to say that I think your students are lucky you’re taking some risks, teaching “outside the box,” and giving them this learning opportunity.

  3. Hi Travis,
    I am said friend of Dan’s. I love your project. What a great way to set it up so the students can be successful by giving them the right tools. How do you plan on assessing this? Are you going to be giving students a grade based on participation, or do you have a rubric that will judge students’ success. How do you see them them knowing the level of their work. I love this idea, and I would love your thoughts on these other issues!

  4. Hi Doug, Dan, Andrew, and Scott,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and your interest in the project. The early returns from the students have been good – a couple of really good ideas have been generated. The one thing about setting rules and working with kids – they do figure out how to be creative!

    As far as assessment goes with the project, I do have a rubric that checks all the objective points (i.e. correct notation both tonal and rhythmic, use of expression elements, staying within guidelines), but the rest of it is a work in progress. I am developing a series of open-ended questions for the students to reflect on their work and complete a self-critique. Ultimately I want them to write music for themselves, and not necessarily writing music just to please me. I am also hopeful that I can develop a way for them to critique each their peers’ work.

    For our next assignment, they will be writing a piece for a duet with percussion accompaniment. Writing the duet won’t be difficult – I imagine the real fun will start when they ask one of their peers to perform one of the parts.

  5. Great post! And a topic that many of us have difficulty incorporating into performance classes. But for those of us who have never taken formal composition lessons (and for many of us who took composition lessons but beginning at an aspiring-professional level), finding strategies to guide young people through the huge range of options can be daunting. In fact, most new composers are more intimidated by the endless freedom that anything else!

    Breaking the task down into smaller discrete tasks is the only way to go. Not just limiting the measures, but limiting the pitches available (as you did to only three options per measure) is very helpful for newbies. I actually start my kids at just one measure, three pitches and set rhythm to begin with; we gradually open up the possibilities over the course of three-four years before the students are required to compose an entire original melody with variations.


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