Tag Archives: General Music

Composing the Blues…with tech!

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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.

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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 Ukulele Like A Pirate

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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 …

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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 –

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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.

Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

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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.)

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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.