Tag Archives: Composing

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!










Theme & Variation


This week in Music+STEM we learned what a Theme & Variation is.  dc7j9jMGi

Then we created one. Like a composer.

After listening to an example, students logged into Noteflight.  This is great web-based notation software that anyone can use for free. If you get a subscription you can create classes where students log into your “site”.  With this feature, the teacher can see all their work.

This was the first time my students used Noteflight, so part of this assignment was set up to teach them how to use it.  They started by transcribing the first four measures of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  I limited it to the first four measures to keep the task manageable.  I walked them through entering the pitches and assigning rhythms as they worked on chromebooks and I projected my screen.  Some students caught on very quickly while others needed a bit more guidance. Many students were able to offer help to others – a great way to reinforce their learning.

After creating their “theme”, students created two variations. One in which they doubled the value of each note and another where they cut the value of each note in half.  Again, this was prescribed so students could learn to use the features of the software.  If they completed these tasks, they were able to create their own variation.

One of the great features of using Noteflight is that students can immediately hear what they are composing. I noticed that several students found mistakes in their notation first by listening, then went back and found the incorrect note.  Below you will see that one student even figured out the rest of the song on her own – just by listening to the notes as she entered them.

A note to teachers who might think they need to teach students note names and rhythms before using this – some of my students knew these but most did not.  Many, however, learned note values (and some pitch names) by the time we were done. What better way to learn the difference between a quarter note, half note, whole note, and eighth notes than by using them and immediately hearing them?  As my grad school professor continually preached, create a context and a need to know and students will learn.  This is the perfect example of that strategy.

So here are some of the results…

The basic assignment (with a not so basic title)

The basic assignment (with a not so basic title)

This student changed the register of hers by changing instruments

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This student added some extra elements to hers …

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This student not only changed the register but added a reprise

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This student harmonized AND figured out the rest of the song on her own

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I’m excited to continue to use this as a composing tool for students – their work the first time around was impressive!

Finally, we finished up the week with some bucket drumming. Students created a variation to a rhythm pattern and we did some fun ensemble playing.

Here’s a peak …

And what do you do in the last few minutes of Music+STEM? See if you can stack the buckets to the ceiling of course 🙂