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.
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.
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