Monthly Archives: November 2015

Composing the Blues…with tech!


As a music teacher, I think two of the most challenging standards to teach are composing and improvising, so I was excited when I came up with a way to incorporate them into my blues unit.  This unit combines the history of the blues, the music theory behind the blues, and learning to play the ukulele.  This year I decided to deepen student learning (I hope) by extending the unit to include composing and improvising.  This post will discuss my approach to teaching composing.  I’ll address improvising next time.

I’ve taught composing before but it’s difficult to make it meaningful for students if they don’t have a way to immediately hear what they are writing.  This year I have access to chromebooks and student accounts on Noteflight making it possible for students to hear what they compose every step of the way.  They can create, evaluate, edit, and even experiment with changing instruments and tempo.  This is a huge plus for general music students – many of whom may not have a firm grasp on note and rhythm reading or the skills to play what they write.  What better way to learn what a half note is than to use it consistently in music?  Or to learn what a flat does to a pitch than to hear the change when you apply it to a note?


So how do you teach kids to compose the blues?

First, we started with the 12 bar blues chord progression.  This was a natural place to start because my students were learning to play this on their ukuleles.  We went from sound (playing the chords) to symbol (writing the chords).  Students created a “new score” in Noteflight and copied the 12 bar blues chord progression in C that I provided for them.  If you have time, you could also teach students to build a chord on the root provided.  I had students repeat the chord progression so that when they were done they had 24 measures.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 7.02.07 PM

Students were also encouraged to create rhythmic interest by using different note values for the chords (while still filling the whole measure with the correct chord).

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 7.19.50 PM



Next, students created a melody by using the pitches in the blues scale (in C).  I provided them with the notes of the scale and told them they could use the pitches in any order and any note value.


I reminded them of the AAB form of blues lyrics (learned earlier) and how that could be applied to their blues melody, too.  I also mentioned that if they are struggling for their melody to sound like it has a solid beginning and ending, it can be helpful to start and finish on C.  After that, it was all up to their creativity.

Overall, I was very pleased with their compositions – and so were many of the students.  Yes, there were a few who wrote their chord progressions using all whole notes and copied the blues scale in order, in whole notes.  But even those kids were able to listen to what they wrote – seeing the notes being played as they heard them.  Many kids, however, spent a lot of time editing and finding exactly the sound they wanted.

Here are a couple of examples –


Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 7.41.20 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 7.42.35 PM

I graded these using a very simple standards-based rubric.  If students demonstrated they understood the chord progression and blues scale (those boring but correct whole note compositions), they earned a B. Adding more creativity and decision making earned an A.  Mistakes in either the chord progression or blues scale rated a C, while compositions that lacked evidence of understanding the chord progression or scale fell to a D. Only a lack of work received an F.  Of course, you can grade this based on your own philosophy and administrative requirements.

Finally, here are a couple of students sharing their compositions. We post these on our class youTube channel so everyone can see what’s going on in our class!










Teaching Ukulele Like A Pirate


Kids love ukuleles.

Honestly, as far as I can tell, everyone loves ukuleles.

So when the time comes around to introduce our Blues and Ukes unit, I’m usually pretty confident things are going to go well.  But I decided to throw in something new this year to kick things off.

I decided to teach the ukulele like a pirate. 

And how does a pirate teach? Well, if you’re not familiar with Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like A Pirate, you should be.  It will change the way you teach.  It has the potential to change your whole school.  So check it out.

If you know the book you’ll remember that “hooks” are an important part of creating engaging lessons. Now let’s face it, it doesn’t take a lot of work to make playing the ukulele engaging.  If you check out the unit I posted previously you’ll find lots of ways to keep students engaged.  I also have some upcoming posts on how to incorporate technology into the unit.

But I wanted to grab the students attention this year with something new.  So about two days before we were scheduled to start with the ukes, I put up this sign …


I also posted the question on our daily agenda/goals board.  It raised some questions, which led me to ask the question – what could provide hours of fun and creativity?

The next day at the end of class I gave each student a coupon on their way out –


The kids were confused at first. What is this? What do I do with it?

Read it and bring it back tomorrow was all I said.

Now remember, I teach middle school.  They often don’t even bring a pencil to class.  But guess what – almost EVERY student brought that coupon back the next day.  They gave me their coupon, I gave them a ukulele, and we got started.  By the end of class they were playing along (well, one chord) to the 12 Bar Blues.  But THEY WERE PLAYING AND MAKING MUSIC!

I drew two coupons at the end of class for candy bars.  And yes, the few students who didn’t bring theirs back got to play – they just had to wait until last to get their ukuleles and didn’t get in the drawing.

A few days into our ukulele playing and the kids are practicing and learning on their own.

A few days into our ukulele playing and the kids are practicing and learning on their own.