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