Everyone Wins When Students Choose!

Everyone Wins When Students Choose!

The Title I building where I work set a school-wide goal to increase student motivation and engagement. We hope that improving grades and content retention will decrease the learning gap revealed by state and national tests. As part of our Title I training, we were given Eric Jensen’s book “Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind.” We were instructed to meet in groups of 4-6 teachers, once a month, to read, answer specific questions, discuss, and record our responses. We could choose the day of the week, time of day and members of the group. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the goal and the process, I felt empowered, in part by being given some choices.

Students similarly feel empowered when they feel like they have choices.

In addition to the school-wide goal, my personal goal was to incorporate the (National Association for Music Education) NAfME Standards into my teaching. Feeling curious, I did a search for the words “choice” and “choose” in the Ensemble portion of the NAfME standards. I found the following:

Essential Question: How do musicians make creative decisions?

The Enduring Understanding: Musicians’ creative choices are influenced by their expertise, context, and expressive intent.

Choose music appropriate for specific purposes and contexts.



Giving Students Content Choices

Chapter 5 in Jensen’s book talks about content choice and offers a few non-music examples. As music teachers, what does content choice look like in the band or orchestra rehearsal? Keeping the NAfME standards in mind, let me share what I do.

I have wonderful conversations with students regarding the order of our program. We typically work on 4 or 5 selections per quarter. Before the concert, I have the students vote and give their rationale for their choice of 3 of the 4 or 5 pieces to appear on the program. The students must explain their preferences. I provide information on the history or tradition of the piece but ultimately majority rules.

I make every effort to pick great literature that coincides with the concepts I want to teach. The 4 or 5 pieces the students choose from have been preselected by me with my goals in mind. No matter what they pick, my goals are being met.

When explaining their vote, the students talk about their state of preparedness (or lack thereof). Sometimes they mention confidence level and esprit de corps. Often this leads to a conversation about effort. Other times students talk about their emotional response to music and want to end with something “upbeat.” This is a great time to talk about contrasts. 

Everyone Wins When Students Choose! 2

Empowering Students with Creative Choices

In my program, the students and I also select one piece as a basis for improvisation. I try to encourage students to pick melodies that fit concepts I want them to experience. For example, in the 6th grade I usually start with Tonic/Dominant in Major.

We frequently work with tunes in our lesson books. Sometimes, they need help identifying the choices that are appropriate, so I might ask them to pick from a list I have developed. Other times they suggest appropriate options from outside the lesson book (they might, for example, select from tunes they learned in elementary school).

In the large ensemble, I have all students learn the melody first, and then harmony parts. Here’s how the harmony parts might look:

  • Group 1 alternates between Do and Sol
  • Group 2 alternates between Do and Ti
  • Group 3 alternates between Mi and Fa

In the key of F, that might look like this:

To start, Group 4 can simply double any other part. Next, they can play the melody. After that, they can explore composition and improvisation (more choices)!

The improvisations start out with one note per beat and chord tones only. At this point, I have students write down their improvisations (composition). I give them a choice of either writing note names, like  F A C etc. or using traditional notation on staff paper. The 2nd improvisation I have them incorporate big and little beats. When written, it usually is in 4/4 time quarter and eighth notes.

Once these skills are developed, I assign each student a number 1-4. I change the numbers until each group has played all the different parts. Over the course of several rehearsals, other options may be included.  

All groups learn all the parts.For variety, groups could be divided by instrument, range, type, color clothing, birthdays or anything they or you can think of.

When students are asked to play their improvisation, they can choose the 1st (Big beat option), the quarter- and eighth-note option, or improvise a new one. Some choices work better than others. This discovery is a little messy. When unusual sounds happen, students can get a little silly or freeze up. It is important to create an environment where the students are safe to make mistakes. When students finish playing their solo, I typically say “Thank you” in a positive tone of voice. Sometimes I have them pick another option or give time to edit previous responses.

There are many fun ways to give students choice while maintaining rigor and quality. Jensen explains it well when he states, “The feeling of control is at least as important as actually having control.” I give the students carefully selected options. I am empowered and encouraged by choice. Students are encouraged and empowered by choice as well.

James B. Karas Ph.D. is a master teacher and clinician. He specializes in Title I strategies, music improvisation and creativity techniques for all learners. He has been a guest educator for the Midwest Clinics, the Ontario Music Educators convention, the MENC convention in Kansas City, the Royal Corps of Engineers Band in Brompton, England. He’s also been a clinician at state conventions, colleges, school districts, and summer band camps in Nebraska, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Connecticut. Dr. Karas teaches at a Title I middle school in Lincoln, NE and is the William P. Foster Project Midwest Division Chair.

Get the best from SmartMusic

Discover practical music education tips, delivered directly to you!