Mozart Minutes

Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn.

Mozart MinutesI started the school year with several goals and changes I wanted to make in my music program. One of them was to incorporate a student-directed, or Genius Hour, type project. I had heard about Genius Hour several years ago, but it wasn’t until I read Amy Rever’s blog, The Noisy Room Down the Hall, that I believed it was possible in music! Amy is now in year three doing Genius Hour with her middle school band students and it’s quite inspiring. Essentially, Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them, that they are passionate about, or that they want to learn. In school, students are often limited to content the teacher (or standards) dictate. But with Genius Hour, students get to choose their path. If you are not familiar with Genius Hour, I highly recommend John Spencer’s video, “What is Genius Hour?”  It provides an excellent introduction.

Initially, I planned to have 5th-grade students (second-year players) come up with and carry out their own performance opportunity. They would pick the venue or event, choose and prepare the music, and do the performance. In the end, I decided not to go this route. After observing the students this year it didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know how I would manage that type of project for 96 students. So instead I decided to keep it more open-ended and let students design their own projects. I introduced the project we are calling “Mozart Minutes” to the students by first showing another one of John Spencer’s video, “You Get to Have Your Own Genius Hour.”  I told students they would have the opportunity to create their own projects – learn whatever they wanted to learn or do whatever they wanted to do – as long as it related to music. We spent time in class brainstorming, and I asked students to come up with a list of ideas using Lee Araoz’s framework, “Four Pathways to Genius.”  From there, students were asked to narrow down their list to one great idea. The pathways were more helpful to some students than others. Many didn’t understand that the pathways were to help them come up with ideas and that their final plan did not have to incorporate all four categories! I will need to explain that better in the future. Pathways to genius

The students have been given four weeks to work on their projects during band and orchestra lessons (30-minutes each) plus 10-minutes each Friday during chorus to reflect on the week’s progress. They have also had some time to work during vocal music, and of course at home, if they choose. As you would expect, some students have been more successful than others. Some of the projects have been very creative though! Here is a sample of some of their ideas:

  • Composing a song
  • Learning to play new songs
  • Researching the history of an instrument or composer
  • Learning about how instruments are made
  • Creating background music for video games
  • Creating a talk-show about musicians
  • Building an instrument
  • Making tutorial videos to help younger students

I enjoy watching students and their various approaches. For example, some of the composers start with their instruments, while others begin with paper and pencil. Some are digging into research and creating Google Slideshows, while others are drawing or hand-writing what they learn. A few students have reached out (with my help) to various experts, and some even got responses!

The idea of a Genius Hour in music fits into something I’ve become quite passionate about, and that is empowering music students.  Genius Hour fits almost all of the essential qualities! Students have voice and choice, they get to ask questions, they are creating, and they own the learning process. Isn’t this what we want for our students? Next week we will have a gallery walk showcase for students to share what they learned or created. I am very excited to report back the results!


Links for further reading:

Inquiry and Mozart Minutes (a Mozart Minutes recap)

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

10 Reasons to Pilot a Genius Hour This Year, by John Spencer

Enjoy what you have just read? Please consider following my blog! You will get an email notification when new posts are published. Email addresses will not be shared or distributed.

Voice and Choice: It Starts With the Little Things

It starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow. 

Voice and ChoiceI recently had a conversation with someone about what “voice and choice” looks like in an instrumental music classroom. I think their assumption was that incorporating student voice and choice was a massive change, something completely different. While a lot of the mindset behind voice and choice does stray far from traditional models of teaching, I don’t think it needs to begin with monumental changes. As Joy Kirr talks about in her book, Shift This!, it starts with a small shift. Something you can implement tomorrow.

One example of a small shift in my band and orchestra classes has to do with skills. Instead of focusing on what songs the beginners learn, focus on the skills. When you might typically require students to master a certain song in the lesson book, figure out the underlying skill that is important and make that skill the requirement. This gives students options in what to practice – and many times results in them playing more than they would have if only one song were assigned! For example, when I want my trumpet players to practice songs with the new note A, it doesn’t matter if they practice A in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” so why not give them a choice in which to work on? When students have a choice their learning becomes more meaningful.

Another small, but effective shift, comes during warm-ups. In beginning orchestra, we do bow warm-ups at the start of every class. When it got to the point that the students were very familiar with the warm-ups, I started inviting 1-2 students to lead each day. They were instructed to pretend the class was learning for the first time. This accomplishes so many things! The student leaders get to share their voices and decide what warm-ups to do. I can hear the student leaders verbalize details of bowing technique (showing me how well they understand it) and the rest of the class suddenly starts to pay closer attention because their peers are standing in front of the room.

When looking for ways to increase student voice and choice, first look at the things you are already doing. Find ways to give students options within those things. Even better, ask students for their suggestions! The beginning steps in this process don’t have to be big; they have to be effective. I think you’ll find once you start incorporating small choices and giving students small opportunities to share their voices it will become easier. Eventually, you will feel more confident taking more significant risks. It’s from these significant risks that you gain the possibility of finding big reward.

Links for further reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Personalized Learning, Part 1

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back

Enjoy what you have just read? Please consider following my blog! You will get an email notification when new posts are published. Email addresses will not be shared or distributed.

Empowered Music Students Create as Well as Consume

When students create musical experiences, they own the process much more then if only consuming music.

Have you ever taken time to think about everything you consume throughout a day? I’m not referring to food, but information. On a daily basis, I consume information from so many sources: radio, social media, blogs, podcasts, television, books, YouTube, email and more. Combine that with the music I consume, and the list grows: through Spotify, music my ensembles are learning, music I’m practicing, music I’m studying, etc. Just as the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” the same is true about the information, and music, we consume. As music teachers, one of our jobs is to ensure our students are exposed to (consume) high-quality music. Most of us spend a significant amount of time making this happen! One thing we often forget, while helping students become discerning consumers they must also have time to create.

Create and Consume

This act of creating is one of the qualities of an empowered music student. As Kathryn Finch and I discussed in our previous post, “The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student,” it is important that music students create as well as consume when in the music classroom. Luckily there are numerous ways this can happen. 

The most obvious thing is to have students create their own music. This can be done through a simple improvisation activity, or a more complex music composition unit. With improvisation, depending on the age of your students you may want to ease into this process gradually. Begin by having the students echo rhythmic or melodic patterns that you play. Then, using a specific rhythm or pitch set, have students respond to what you play (as a group) with something different. It will sound chaotic, but it gives students the chance to try something new in a low-risk situation. Once students are comfortable with this, begin having volunteers respond to your pattern individually. You can gradually increase the complexity of these exercises as it is appropriate for your students. 

Music composition is another excellent way for students to create. Personally, I feel as soon as students can read music, they are ready to write music! Composition projects can look like any number of things, again, depending on the age and ability of your students. This year I tried something new with my first-year instrumentalists and incorporated a design thinking process called the LAUNCH Cycle into our projects. Instead of beginning with a set of criteria for their compositions, students began by thinking about the purpose of their compositions, and how they could write something to fulfill that purpose. This document explains the details of the project: Music Composition Project – Using the LAUNCH Cycle.  Composition projects do not have to be this involved though; anything that gives students the opportunity to write music is worthwhile.

Now that digital media and 1:1 devices are so prevalent it is very easy to find tutorial videos, or “how-to” videos for just about anything. On more than one occasion I have assigned videos to students who needed reminders to watch at home, an additional explanation or are ready to learn more advanced concepts. This year I also had students create some of these videos! Having students think through the process of teaching others is powerful. For example, I had first-year string students create videos teaching how to hold a violin bow properly. Students were able to demonstrate their learning and show a deeper understanding of the skills. They enjoyed being the experts, and I had a means of formative assessment. Tools like Flipgrid make this process of video creation very easy, though I’m sure other tools could be used as well.

How many of us have posters in our classrooms, detailing musical notation, terms or other types of information? I would guess most teachers do. But how many of us have given students the opportunity to create these posters, or at least determine what is displayed and where? Probably not as many. If we are displaying things in the classroom to help students (information they will be consuming), shouldn’t the students have some say in what goes on the walls? This month I took a suggestion from Joy Kirr’s book, Shift This!, and asked for student volunteers to decorate one of my bulletin boards. I gave them complete control and had no idea what to expect – I imagined random pictures and music notes. I sure was wrong! Instead, the boys created an interactive board, containing definitions other students might struggle with, practice suggestions, and links to videos for more help! WOW! I gave them the opportunity to create something for our classroom, and they did a great job.

Finally, think about allowing students to create some of their own opportunities. Maybe one week instead of giving a specific practice assignment, encourage students to find performance opportunities for themselves. They could play for family members, neighbors, at church – or whatever creative venues they can come up with! Do you have a group of students who have mastered their concert pieces several weeks in advance? Try giving those students the opportunity to find and prepare a chamber piece on their own to also perform at the concert. Require the students to make all of the creative decisions regarding the performance of their piece. There are many more opportunities students could create, but hopefully, this sparks some ideas.

Next time you are planning a lesson, rehearsal, or unit, take a minute to think about what the students are consuming and what they are creating. Ideally, you should have a mix of both. Students can only create quality music if they have been exposed to and have consumed high-quality music.

“There’s an ongoing cycle of critical consuming, inspiration, and creative work.” John Spencer & A.J. Julinai, Empower

If you are not currently incorporating creative opportunities for your students, consider trying it. The effort spent is well worth it. When students create musical experiences, they own the process much more then if only consuming music. And this is what helps lead to empowered music students.


Links for Further Reading:

The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

How I Increased Voice and Choice in My Music Classes, and Why I’ll Never Look Back



Enjoy what you have just read? Please consider following my blog! You will get an email notification when new posts are published. Email addresses will not be shared or distributed.