Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

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Build An Instrument: Part 4 – Compose & Perform

Whew! Here we are at part 4 of the Build An Instrument unit posts! 20150910_120232-1

Let’s look back at what we’ve done so far …

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The Science of Sound

Part 3 – Building

and finally Part 4 – Compose and Perform!


Our principal came in when we were in the midst of composing and asked, “How do you teach a kid to compose?”  Luckily, I had an answer, but the truth is I taught many years before I figured out an approach. When I was in my undergrad theory classes and had to compose, the only guidance I remember is knowing some traditional chord progressions – and I wasn’t very successful.  I’ve found the key to teaching students to compose is starting with a very limited structure – the fewer choices the better.

For our middle school students, this meant composing in a modified Rondo form (ABACA) with 8 beats in each phrase.  Every student wrote a solo following this form.  They used traditional or non-traditional notation to indicate rhythm and where each note was to be played on their instrument.  Since we had a wide variety of instruments there were a lot of different sounds.  Another challenge was that most instruments didn’t play consistent pitches – so students notated pitches by labeling strings or making “fret” marks on their instruments and notating them in their music.

Once students wrote their solo, they teamed up in groups of 2, 3, or 4.  The group “sampled” their solos to create a new piece for their group.  This new piece also followed the Rondo form by adding “D” and “E” sections for the groups of 3 and 4.  Everyone agreed on a phrase for the group to play together for each recurring “A” phrase.  Then, each student chose their favorite composed phrase to play as a solo in each alternating section.  In the end, it looked something like this….

A – group

B – student 1 solo

A – group

C – student 2 solo

A – group

After a day of practicing with their group to perfect their piece, we celebrated with a day of performances!  Here’s an example …

Overall, the results of this unit were outstanding.  Students applied the science of sound to the instruments they built and more importantly, learned from trial and error.  Most students did not end up with the exact instrument they first conceived – but many of the results were even better.  Composing and performing was new for most kids, but many had very successful first attempts!  We’re looking forward to see what else they can accomplish throughout the semester!

2 responses »

  1. I love your ideas. I have also done a lesson where I talk about traditional and non-traditional notation. I had them develop a system of notating music written for their instrument (making sure they include a key) and then write their composition down. Once it was done, I surprised them by having them switch instruments/music with another group and seeing if the group could play what was intended. The students who were successful with their notation were really proud. Many students realized that they probably should’ve been more specific, or learned from the mistakes that the person playing had made. The downside of this is that some of the new players inadvertently damaged some of the instruments because they didn’t understand how it was supposed to be played. Still tweaking the lesson. I might try the rondo with this rotation of students.

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