Category Archives: Today In Class

Improvising & Composing in Music+STEM


As I mentioned in my last post, teaching kids to compose and improvise FullSizeRendercan be two of the hardest standards to address.  In it, I explained how my classes composed the blues by laying down the 12 bar blues chord progression and adding a melody based on the blues scale. When the kids finished this, they moved on to creating a background track they could improvise over.

When we start learning to play the blues on ukuleles I use a background track to beef up our sound and fill in the holes we’re not ready to play yet.  (You can read about how I introduce the blues on ukuleles in this post – just scroll down to Day 3.)  Because of this the kids have an idea of what a background track is and what it’s used for.

We again used Noteflight to create the background track – starting with the 12 bar blues chord progression and adding a drum part. Students were encouraged to create a rhythmically interesting chord progression and drum line.  They loved working on this because DRUMS!

There are several percussion instruments that can be added to a Noteflight score.  I had my students stick to “Unpitched percussion/Percussion 1 Line”.  The variation you see in the percussion “pitch” indicates low to high drum sounds and cymbals.

Here are a couple of examples of student work:

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The final piece of the students’ “Blues Portfolio” was a performance to improvise with the background track they composed.  When I was a young trumpet student I was terrified to improvise.  I’m sure it was because my teacher just said something like, “Ok, your turn, improvise!”  I had no idea what to do, because as we know, while improvising means you make it up as you go, you still need some rules and structure to follow.

The approach I’ve arrived at over the years is to provide a beginning structure with the fewest decisions possible.  That mean improvising a rhythm on one note.  When kids are comfortable with this, we move on and add another note.  In the key of C, this usually means we start on C and add E flat when they are ready.  As students progress they can add the rest of the notes in the Blues scale.  We used ukuleles to improvise but you could also you keyboards or even Orff instruments.  The Orff instruments are great because you can provide only the notes you want students to play.

The blues scale on the ukulele follows a simple pattern.  I learned how to do this from “Ukulele Mike” on youTube.

Mike teaches you how to improvise in the key of D.  To use the key of C you just shift everything down 2 frets.  So instead of playing frets 5-3 on the A string, you play 3-1 on the A string, then 3-1 on E string, and 3-0 on the C string.  I use this picture to help students remember the pattern.

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Finally, students performed their improvisation for me as their background track played.  Some students even performed for the class.

Improvising is a great way to individualize instruction for students.  As I said above, students can add notes as they are ready.  Some will stick to one or two pitches but many will challenge themselves to use all the notes of the blues scale.

I’ve learned that students need LOTS of modeling to learn to improvise.  They also need time to experiment and figure out what they can do – often without an audience.  This was the first time my students improvised.  It’s definitely something that we will spend more time on to develop their skills.


By the way, I was able to take a few of my students to demonstrate their learning for our district’s senior citizen luncheon.  They played the 12 bar blues and improvised!


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.

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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).

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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 –


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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 Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

What characteristics describe YOU?

This is the question students in Music+STEM started with this past week.  Students created lists of physical and personality traits in their journals. They used words like tall, athletic, friendly, helpful, freckled, blonde, strong- and a multitude of others.

This activity not only gets students into the mindset of describing characteristics, it also gives insight into how students see themselves.

After this journal exercise, we talked about where these and some other traits come from – your genes.  We spent a very short time on DNA, genes, chromosomes, and genomes – just enough to understand their relationship to each other and to remember that characteristics reside in genes and these genes string together into chromosomes. The chromosomes then group into genomes. (There are certainly much more scientific explanations but these basics provide the basis for our lesson.)


Then the big question:

What does this have to do with music??

Enter Pandora’s Music Genome Project.  This is the name of the technology music streaming services like Pandora use to create playlists.  It equates a piece of music with a genome – that collection of chromosomes that contain the trait-filled genes.  Just as a genome contains traits of a human, a piece of music contains many “traits” – or elements – that can be described.  (Pandora describes up to 450 traits for a piece of music.  We narrowed that down for our work in class.) Streaming services look at the characteristics of the music you like and find other music that has the same traits to put in your playlist.  When you “like” a song, it continues to collect information about traits to make more informed choices.

Students brainstormed the traits that might be used to find music for a playlist.  As they shared their lists, we categorized them into most of the elements of music – tempo, dynamics, rhythm, melody, timbre, form, tonality, and texture.  We also added categories like style/genre and place/time of origin.  We listened to a variety of examples to practice identifying these characteristics.

Then came another big question:

Have you ever been listening to a playlist when a song comes on that doesn’t seem to fit?

How can this happen?  Most likely, there is a characteristic that matches something you liked, but it’s buried in other traits that don’t match your usual playlist.  It’s almost like a puzzle – what is the hidden trait in this one “oddball” song that matches the other songs I like.

I created “Pandora’s Puzzle” to see if students could figure this out. We listened to three very different pieces of music and completed descriptions of their traits. When we were done students worked in groups to figure out the one common trait – or the hidden link – between all three.

Take a listen to see if you can figure it out ….

Did you figure it out? All three use string instruments!

To wrap this project up, students created their own puzzle.  Groups of 3 or 4 students decided on the hidden link they would find in a set of otherwise very different pieces of music.  (The one characteristic students couldn’t use was style as that would end up making the music too similar.)  Students were reminded to find music from different styles and time periods – and they were reminded many times that the music needed to sound like it didn’t fit together – except for that one hidden link. Most groups started with a song they knew and then faced the challenge of finding music they didn’t know.  Students used chromebooks for research on youTube and Google.

Every group completed a “genome”, or description of the traits in each piece of music, and a google slide with links to each song.  We’ll be using these slides in the future to see if the class can solve each group’s Pandora’s Puzzle.

Groups researching music for Pandora's Puzzle

Groups researching music for Pandora’s Puzzle

This lesson is a great way for students to practice using appropriate vocabulary to describe a variety of music and to tie in current technology in music.  It also incorporates higher order thinking skills as they have to discriminate and synthesize information to create their puzzle.