Imagine a world where schools require students to study literature only by rewriting the words of great authors—verbatim. Teachers dive into texts, analyze sentences, share tools of expression, and tell students why these texts are so beautiful; the students, however, are never asked to write their own words. Some of these students would find value in literature, but how many of them would see the bigger picture? Would they understand why writing is important? Would they learn how to better express themselves through words?
Society places a significant emphasis on learning how to write so we can better communicate. Both in academic and creative ways, students are required and encouraged to write through their entire education. Ultimately, our hope is that they will be able to clearly express themselves in both written and spoken words. Why, then, do we not place a similar emphasis on learning how to write music so we can better express ourselves musically?
If you were classically-trained like me, you probably weren’t taught how to express yourself through composing, improvising, or arranging. But, here’s the good news: you don’t need formal instruction in these areas to experience the freedom and knowledge they impart. You also don’t you need formal instruction to begin sharing this with your students! (That said, research on best practices is always a good idea.)
Simply including time for improvisation in your music ensemble is a great way to begin exploring these ideas. If you want some further ideas for students, here are three tips for fostering development of autonomous and thoughtful musicianship in your students:
Play with the Building Blocks of Music
We often think of composition and improvisation in their most advanced forms, like Coltrane solos and Beethoven string quartets. But, Coltrane and Beethoven had to start somewhere, right?
Consider creating small composition and improvisation activities that students could do in class, for extra credit, or even as small assignments completed at home. Students could:
- Write out different rhythmic values on index cards, shuffle them, and play a scale using a randomly selected rhythm.
- Transcribe melodies they know (e.g., Happy Birthday, nursery rhymes, or anything they hear on the radio).
- Make up simple melodies using only a few notes from a specific key signature.
- Play through pieces they know, changing them from major into minor (or vice-versa).
Learn by Ear
We pick up language skills by imitating our parents and our peers. Music works the same way. In class, you can help students to build better listening skills by experimenting with call-and-response. When possible, you can even tie call-and-response to your content. For example, improvise a short idea using only the first three notes of the major scale your ensemble is playing; then, have them play it back to you. Start slowly and simply so everyone can do it. As your ensemble improves, improvise ideas that use more notes or are longer. You can even find brave volunteers who would be willing to improvise a short idea for the class to play back!
Call-and-response is also easily explored in pairs or small groups, where students can practicing mimicking spontaneous creations back-and-forth. Have students partner with classmates who play the same instrument for ease. For a harder scenario, have them partner with classmates who play different instruments!
Encourage students to learn as many things as they can by ear, even if they aren’t learning pieces or melodies created specifically for their instruments or voices. For an added challenge, learn from different instruments and voices, then mimic as closely as possible—what if you tried to play your violin the way Beyoncé sings?
Collaborate without Sheet Music
Create opportunities for your students to work together covering pop tunes or other melodies they know and like. Don’t overcomplicate the process: the only materials needed are a melody, the chords, and rhythm. Once students have learned the melody by ear, help them tackle the chords. Search online for chords and then help them decide what notes they want to play from those chords. There is nothing wrong with only playing roots! In fact, any note (or set of notes) from the chord will do. Students could even mimic bass players or arpeggiate chords!
Once students know what notes to play for their accompaniment, then they just need to decide how they want to play those notes rhythmically: drones, rhythms unique to the original recording, or anything else groovy they can create. Arranging, composing, and improvising are entirely open-ended processes: students get to make all of the creative decisions about how and what they want to play.
In short, we should promote the idea that music-making doesn’t have to look a certain way, it can look any way.
The benefits of an open-ended mentality toward music-making are numerous (and could fill multiple blog posts). To me, the most important reason to play with music in different ways is that it allows more types of students to engage with music-making.
Additionally, it creates new avenues for students to feel competent or challenged. Students who struggle technically often seem to excel at improvisation; alternately, competent technical players usually find themselves puzzled by approaching music flexibly. Flipping students’ understandings of themselves and their peers in these ways is illuminating, invigorating, and humanizing. Every student has musical ability, but limiting paths for exploration necessarily limits the number of students who feel like music is something for them.
Imagine a world like ours, where students study music by practicing and polishing the works of great composers. Teachers dive into notes, analyze phrases, explore creative uses of harmony and rhythm, and help students understand why these works are so beautiful. Imagine a world where all this happens, but just as a starting point: students are then encouraged to explore music-making in a variety of ways, finding numerable, valid, and varied ways to express themselves through music.
Wouldn’t that world be a lovely place?