Concert Band Turned Composer Band
Create, Perform, Publish to the World!
Elementary general music curriculum has a strong compositional and improvisational background through various teaching methods. In addition, music technology electives are popping up in many middle and high schools which usually involve music creation as part of its natural being. But in concert band, a time and place which has trained instrumentalists ready to perform, we usually leave the creative touch to those students who are in the jazz band. Students who want to dig deeper into music might take a theory class filled with vocabulary and drill. What if there was a way to marry the performance ability of concert band students with their untapped creativity by channeling their understanding of music through composition?
My journey and questioning of how to run a successful rehearsal began a few years ago. At that time I faced my band’s biggest weakness: poor intonation. To help solve this, I read all the books on the market written for how to run an effective band rehearsal and even posted messages on the Band Director Facebook group to see if there was a consensus around the country. This profound moment in my teaching career helped our rehearsals become more efficient with a solid warm-up routine which included daily singing, breathing exercises, chorales, and guided listening. I was on cloud nine and thought the only thing that could get us to an even better spot would be having a bassoon and oboe in our ensemble. Yet, I was wrong. (It’s okay to be wrong sometimes!)
Last year I was part of Pentucket’s District Determined Measures task force, aimed at creating an avenue for teachers to show student growth through project based learning. When questioned about what activities we do in band to provide personal meaning, I gave the typical “Well, we’re music. Everything we do has personal meaning.” Everyone pretty much agreed with me. However, after looking at the Bloom’s Taxonomy diagram, I realized I was still missing the mark on what brings a higher level of thinking and meaning in music making. I had to admit that my students did not create music in concert band. They were able to connect that a note on the music staff meant they could make the intended sound on their instruments but they were not put in charge of deciding the order in which the notes were placed. It is similar to reading books for years, understanding what is in the books, but never writing down your own sentences for others to read.
During this reflective time period I was leisurely reading Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. Pink was able to bring case studies together to show that students and people in general are more motivated and productive when they have bits of unstructured creation time, or “20% Time” as Google named it for its own workers. He states that “for artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren, and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation—the drive do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing—is essential for high levels of creativity.” In my opinion the “20% Time” in concert band is composing. Based off of feedback from my music technology course, it was pretty clear to me that students enjoy making music to animations and so I created the composition unit below.
The How (resources found at www.composinginband.weebly.com)
The Students will:
- listen to composers talking about their compositions and process creating.
- complete small compositional tasks and then perform them in front of the class on their own instruments. The tasks include the devices of step, skip, leap, melodic motion, repetition, variation, sequence, motive, augmentation, diminution, retrograde, extension, truncation, and harmonizations via I, IV V chords.
- analyze a pop song covering items covered in step 2.
- in small groups, students select a short animation to download from www.archive.org which has Creative Commons copyright for sharing and adapting
- download the animation and delete the soundtrack on software such as GarageBand or MixCraft.
- create a timeline noting changes in moods and sound effects along with time markings
- compose music for the animation while referencing the timeline. Students will interview their peers to learn about proper playing ranges for instruments.
- rehearse, perform, revise, and then record music to the short animation.
- sync the performance recording with the animation on Garage Band/MixCraft and publish online.
I have since been impressed with a new online curriculum developed by an elementary music teacher in New York called “The Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop” (www.yciw.net) and have purchased subscriptions which include Noteflight Learn accounts for each of my band students at a price of $5 per student. This program is well thought out and digs deeper into form and harmonizing. It uses the Canvas learning management system which includes a gradebook and tutorial videos.
We started this project last May up until the last day of school in June when student engagement is typically low. The experience was incredible and composing is now part of the fabric of our concert band curriculum. We are working on putting together a composer concert, workshops, and having students write music for local businesses via YouTube commercials. Students who want to dig deeper are now receiving private lessons in composition and can take an independent study during the school day to compose music for credit. Next year we are expanding our offerings to include a film and video game music composition course.
This change in our program has enhanced the musicianship of our students. Additionally, they are finding ways to incorporate composing music for projects in English and history courses. Students are composing and arranging on Noteflight at home, extending what they learned from the school day. Visit www.composinginband.weebly.com to listen to student examples.
Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2009.