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.
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).
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 –
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!