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




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Five Ideas to Try After a Concert

5 Ideas to Try After a ConcertThis is the time of year where I start seeing posts on social media about what to do after the concert, what to do during testing, and even, what to do when your students aren’t allowed to play because of noise during testing! So, whether any of these scenarios resonate with you, or if you are looking for something different to try, here are five ideas that will motivate learners, tap into creativity, and help you move towards a more learner-centered environment.


Reflecting is an invaluable tool that we do not use enough – with our students or as teachers – but the fact is, it’s essential for a learner-centered environment. If reflecting is not already a part of your routine, following a concert or performance is a great time to try it. Students should reflect not only on their performance but also on their preparations leading up to it and how it will impact their future learning. This process of “thinking about thinking” is known as metacognition. It allows students to take their learning to the next level.

If your students are new to reflection, you might want to begin with sentence starters to as guidance. “I was good at_____.” “Next time I might_____.” “I still struggle with______.” You could also try providing students with graphic organizers such as a PMI chart: Plus, Minus, and Interesting. Students are instructed to fill in items for each category.  Remember – when reflecting, the process is as important as the product.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” John Dewey

Student Leaders

For many teachers, especially those with ensembles, the majority of our rehearsal time is teacher directed. After a concert is a great time to try giving students the opportunity to stand in front of the ensemble. I have had students conduct our performance pieces, run warm-ups, teach new skills, or introduce lines from the method book. And they love it! Students should get the opportunity to have their voices heard, and allowing them time in front of the ensemble gives them a new appreciation for how an ensemble works outside of their sections.



The Makerspace movement has been finding its way into classrooms around the world, but how many music teachers have tried it? A Makerspace project is an excellent choice for a day when playing instruments is not an option. For those that are new to the Makerspace concept, it is primarily intended for students to create, invent, and learn. Some Makerspaces are very involved, including things like 3D printers, electronics, and computer software. Others are more simple and contain found objects and art supplies, such as cardboard tubes, rubber bands, string, etc. This was the type I created for my students for a Makerspace Instrument Challenge. Their task was to create an instrument that could produce a sound. They were given 5 minutes to look at the materials and plan their instruments, 1 minute to “shop” for materials, and 10 minutes to create. I enjoyed watching the students work, and their creativity was evident throughout the project. Here are the project details, feel free to make a copy: Makerspace Instrument Challenge. I guarantee you will love the results! Pair this with an exploration of sound or instruments families to make it more cohesive unit.


I love having students work on composition projects. Composing is an essential part of being a musician. It’s also another way to build creativity and give students ownership of their music making. There are many different ways to do this. Here’s an example of a composition project for beginning and intermediate string players: Kimble Strings: Composition. This year I took my composition project another direction and incorporated a Design Thinking strategy, the LAUNCH Cycle, by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. The finished products had some similarities to previous years, but using the LAUNCH Cycle, students started the process with empathy and conclude by receiving peer feedback and making revisions based on that feedback. It is definitely something I will try again. This document explains the details of the project: Music Composition Project – Using the LAUNCH Cycle.

Genius Hour

“Genius Hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.” A.J. Juliani

To be completely honest, I have not tried this yet. But I plan on it soon – right after my concert! Genius Hour is an opportunity for students to work on something that interests them. Something they are passionate about, or something they wonder. In music, especially ensembles, students are usually working on music chosen by the director. With a genius hour project that is not the case. The students get to pick what they learn, research, and create. How can this work in music? With a little imagination and some planning. While this is probably the most complicated idea here, I think it could also be one of the most rewarding. Amy Rever, a middle school band director, has tried it with her students on more than one occasion and has great things to say on her blog, The Noisy Room Down the Hall. I think if you are ready to try something big, this is the perfect challenge!

I’d love to hear if you have done any of these things with your students, or if you decide to take the plunge and try one let me know how it goes! Don’t be afraid to try something new. Give the students choice, encourage them to be creative and take risks of their own! The results are worth it.


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The Qualities of an Empowered Music Student

Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves?

I am so excited to share this post, which I co-wrote with Kathryn Finch! 

Empowered Music Student

For a long time, our focus was on engaging the learners and making sure students were “actively engaged” in music making in my classroom. But more recently we have discovered that engagement is not enough. To make an impact and to optimize life-long learning, students must be empowered. The best explanation of the differences between engaged students and empowered students came from Bill Ferriter.

engage vs empower

Which brings us to the question, what does an empowered music student look like? This student

  • has a choice and a voice
  • asks questions (and then finds the answers)
  • is connected (to students and musicians inside and outside the classroom)
  • creates as well as consumes
  • owns the learning process

Has a choice  

Maybe that starts with lesson plans. When planning ask yourself, where can I offer more choice in this lesson? For example, in the elementary music room, students may learn to play classroom instruments with the proper technique by performing instruments during a sound story. Often, the specific words and instruments are pre-determined. But do they need to be? Read the sound story to your students and let them decide how and when instrument sounds would be appropriate. The impact is big. Students love the chance to choose and often perform better when it’s their idea and creation. Once you feel comfortable finding ways to offer more choice in a lesson, the next step is to lesson plan with students instead of planning for students. Take the plunge. Start a project in class and share that you aren’t positive what the next steps are or how long this project will take. Ask for student feedback to plan future music classes.

Has a voice

This could start with rehearsals. When an ensemble (classroom, choral, or instrumental) learns a piece of music, ask: How did we do? What did you notice? What areas should we work on next? This is a great way to make thinking visible. Ask students for the next steps.  Ask them for suggestions. When appropriate, ask someone to begin the piece when the group is ready. Allow students to lead and offer feedback so the activity transforms from being done to them into something they can mold and shape with their own ideas. It doesn’t have to stop there. Sometimes questions come up in discussion or rehearsal. How do we handle that? Do we lead the class back to the main objective because we have a pacing guide and future plans already made? Or do we run down a rabbit hole with them because a genuine, authentic question was asked? When students have a voice in the classroom, they believe their thoughts and opinions truly matter. Teachers who give students voice believe this too.  

Asks questions

Typically in education, the teacher asks the questions, and the students answer. What did you hear in that piece of music? Or, what symbol tells the musicians to get louder? Empowered learners have the opportunity to ask questions and then take it a step further, to find the answers. In a music industry class, students could learn various job opportunities by creating and managing their own bands. The students learn as they go what it takes to start a band and determine their next steps throughout this authentic process. No longer is the teacher the keeper of all information. Instead, the teacher must encourage students to ask questions and empower them to find the answers.  

Creates as well as consumes

We all consume books, movies, YouTube videos, etc. but do we all find a balance of creating as well? This creation could be as simple as improvising rhythmic or melodic ideas, or more complex by writing song melodies or lyrics. It also invites students to use their voice, make choices, and ask questions as they work through the process of creating something musical. As music teachers, we know the value of having our students consume high-quality music, but we must also encourage them to create their own high-quality music. When we create, we invest and share a little of ourselves with the world. We learn to take ownership of our music making. We make decisions and learn to handle bumps in the road. Creating is not only an important skill in music, but it is also a valuable skill in life.

Is connected

Music teachers know well the power of networking. It can be a lonely job at times, with no one else in a school who teaches music. So, we network and learn from others near and far, in person and online. Why wouldn’t we want those opportunities for our students? We strive to be the best for our kids, but we can’t be experts on everything. Nor should we have to be. With a little work behind the scenes on social media, we can invite an expert into our room, in person or through facetime. With the help of technology, we can connect classrooms so students can learn from their own peers around the world. It’s a powerful tool we shouldn’t overlook. Connecting students to musicians outside of the classroom makes the experience more authentic, and therefore more meaningful.

Owns the learning process

When students own their learning, it doesn’t mean they are given free-reign to do whatever they want. It means they are involved in the process and are charged to actively control their own learning. Students can tell you what they are learning and why it is important to them. Students have more questions they want to find answers to, and have determined their own next steps in the process. They are engaged and excited about their own learning. Students are not waiting for the teacher to lead the process, they own the process and look to the teacher for guidance and support.  

So, how do we as music teachers make a shift towards empowerment in the music classroom? Well, first things first. Remember that it’s a shift. It’s not something that happens overnight. Start by giving yourself permission to think about it. Then ask yourself, what am I controlling that my students could do for themselves? When we start to question why we do things, we begin to see opportunities for change.  


Links for Further Reading:

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


Next Steps for the Kindergarten Music Program

Learner Centered Innovation

Personalized Learning: Part 3, How it Works

How to Build a Recording Studio






Be Vulnerable: #IMMOOC 4.5

What about the process? It’s messy! Own it!

Be Vulnerable: #IMMOOC 4.5

This post is the sixth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation

As I finished the last section of Katie Martin’s Learner Centered Innovation, there were many concepts that resonated with me. But one word, in particular, stood out: vulnerable. It makes me shudder to say it! Who wants to be vulnerable? Yikes! But the reality of the situation, this is yet another thing that must be in place in order for us to grow.

“Vulnerability is the prerequisite for all innovation, creativity, and change.” Aaron Hogan, Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth

If we want to be innovative, try something new, and make an impact, we must be willing to take the risk. AND we must be willing to share that risk. We cannot only share the successes and the shiny final products. What about the process? It’s messy! Own it! We teach our students that the process is more important than the product, it’s the same for us as teachers. This all goes back to the beauty of having a network, a tribe. These are the people who will support you throughout the mess. They will celebrate, commiserate, and offer suggestions every step of the way. But only once you’ve let them in.

In an effort to take my own advice, here’s a (small) project I’m working on right now. Instead of doing the typical composition project with my 4th-grade band and orchestra students (write 4-measures, start and end on do, etc.) I am incorporating the design thinking process. This is terrifying! We are somewhat following the LAUNCH Cycle, as described by John Spencer and AJ Juliani. The process starts with empathy. The students were asked to think about why composers write music, what various purposes music is written for, and then what purpose they might want to write music for. While many focused on things like music for entertainment or to make money, some had very creative ideas like music for ringtones, commercials, and even funerals! The students have been working on their compositions in class but were instructed to come back after spring break with the rough draft complete (the prototype, if you are familiar with LAUNCH) so we can begin the peer review process. When they Launch their compositions, students will have the opportunity to perform for the class and will be encouraged to find another audience, fitting with their purpose, to share the music with.

This has been a process not only for my 4th graders but also for me! I teach 12 small classes over the course of 4 days each week and was still making adjustments to the project on the 4th day. Iterations are part of the process. I’m taking a risk and trying something new. The next step is to invite others in and share the risk.

Katie Martin discusses the importance of teachers observing teachers, not for evaluative purposes, but for learning purposes. She encourages teachers to start by, “putting down the checklist and celebrating success.” It all comes back to being vulnerable, welcoming people into our classrooms so that we can learn and grow together. I am going to be vulnerable next week and invite someone into my room to experience this design thinking composition project. I look forward to hearing another perspective and receiving some feedback – not as an evaluation, but as a tool for growth. This is an important step in the journey, and I am excited to see the results!

“I truly believe that breaking down silos and sharing real challenges are the only ways that we will continue to improve.” Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation

Learning is a process

Why Network? #IMMOOC 4.4b

But find your people. Connect, share, and grow.

Why Network? #IMMOOC 4.4b


This post is the fifth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation

When I first started at APS last school year I was appalled when administration encouraged teachers to have Twitter accounts – and even more shocked by the idea of tweeting what went on in our classrooms! They wanted us on social media?!? Didn’t this go against everything I had heard about getting (and keeping) a job? Regardless, being the good little worker-bee, I set up a Twitter account and sporadically through the year would tweet about things going on in my classroom. I would participate in the random Twitter chat, re-tweet on occasion, and felt I was doing as told.

It took about 7-months for me to realize what I was missing. While it was great that I was sharing with my 89 followers, I had yet to learn anything! The power was in the network, and once I developed a network, everything changed.

“Your network is your net worth. We improve when we open ourselves up to learning from others, share our ideas, and work together to create something better. And when we improve, our students benefit.” Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation 

Fast-forward 9-months. I now have 2 Twitter accounts, one for school (@ATS_MrsDMusic) and one that is personal/professional (@TDucassoux). I tweet regularly, and I learn just as often. I love a good Twitter Chat. And on top of all that, I’ve built a network. People who believe what I believe. People who support me. People who push me to think and do outside my comfort zone. And it’s awesome! It has helped me to grow as a teacher, and in turn, has provided even more powerful learning experiences for my students.

I would recommend all teachers find their own tribe, through Twitter, Facebook, or whatever platform makes the most sense. But find your people. Connect, share, and grow. It may be safe in the comfort zone, and safe sticking with what you know, but the true magic happens for you and your students when you can look beyond that and try something new.

"The power in engaging with critical friends is not just spending time together or finding people who will support you. While that is important, true learning and growth requires being pushed out of your comfort zone." Katie Martin, Learner Centered Innovation

The Power of Feedback: #IMMOOC 4.4a

This post is the fourth in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation


I have noticed that some students have a very difficult time receiving feedback. They want to turn in assignments (recordings of music demonstrating specific skills) and have that be the end of it. But it’s not the end. Sometimes based on the recording I would not consider the skill mastered. Attempted? Definitely. Mastered? Not quite. Other times there were problems with rhythms or note accuracy. In either case, feedback was given to help the student remedy the issue and re-submit. It took several months of repeating this process for students to understand what to do with the feedback. It doesn’t end because the assignment was turned in. It’s a continuous cycle to help learners grow.

There is also another key ingredient in meaningful feedback, and that is the relationship. In Learner Centered Innovation Katie Martin says,

“Providing feedback that improves performance must be preceded by belief in and care for the individual. Without a trusting relationship, feedback feels like criticism, and people tend to feel misunderstood or as if they don’t belong or are being judged.”

Along with students understanding what to do with feedback, we also need to make sure they understand the why. We give students feedback because we believe in them. Because we care about them. Because we want them to grow as learners, and in my classes, as musicians. This is another great reminder of why relationships are vital in all areas of education, and why we need to establish these relationships first. If we wait,  it will be too late. The window will have passed, along with many missed opportunities. Relationships first, then true learning can occur.

Learning to Learn: #IMMOOC 4.3

This post is the third in a series for #IMMOOC, as it relates to Katie Martin’s most recent book, Learner Centered Innovation

In our ever-changing world, there are many new skills that students need to learn in addition to the standard, “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” It is now also vital that students (and adults) learn how to learn. No longer should students wait to get knowledge only from their teachers. The ability to learn is at our fingertips. As Katie Martin says, “Shouldn’t we emphasize with our students that learning is for life, not just for schools?” The key is finding the motivation to learn. Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive” defines the foundation of motivation as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is easy to believe that if adults can be motivated by these things, students will be as well.

This year I have been working to help my students learn how to learn. I have written several posts about my adventures in personalized learning with my 5th-grade band and orchestra students. The students are working at their own pace on a given set of learning targets. They set their own goals each quarter and can show mastery of each target however they would like. While students are “on their own,” I have provided several resources to help them through the process.

  • Method Book – all students are provided with a method book (Essential Elements) and instructed how to find and read the included fingering chart.
  • Interactive App – all students also have access to an interactive app that corresponds to the method book, Essential Elements Interactive. Within the app, students have access to additional fingering charts, can hear recordings of all songs, adjust the tempo of the songs, and change the accompaniment music.
  • Videos – percussion students are provided with a symbaloo link, containing numerous videos to help with specific percussion techniques.
  • Hyperdoc – a Hyperdoc about dynamics is provided to help students understand the concepts and skills surrounding dynamics and dynamic changes in music.

What I have noticed is that students only use a fraction of the provided resources! And the reason is purpose. Students use the resources when they are personally invested in the purpose. But when their purpose is learning a skill that I have mandated, such as mastering eighth notes, they are much less motivated to use the given tools to actually master the skill. On the other hand, when students are working on something they are interested in, they quickly will turn to a fingering chart or recording for help. For some reason “The Banana Boat Song” has been popular recently, and many students have been practicing that along with the various recording accompaniments.

Another time this year I have seen increased student motivation to learn on their own was during two video projects using Flipgrid. In both cases, students were given supplemental music, one set for Halloween and another for Christmas. Each time the students were encouraged to add a song of their choosing to the Flipgrid. Most students played the first (and easiest) song, “Jingle Bells.” Until we began sharing the grid with other schools around the country. As soon as my students heard other songs being played, they immediately wanted to play them too! There was a sudden sense of urgency to learn the other songs – not because I told them to, but because they wanted to. The students had found their sense of purpose.

So what does this mean? Students need to be personally invested in their learning, and part of my job is to help them find that purpose. I can (and will) continue to provide tools to help them learn, but the students must see the purpose, or at least how the purpose relates to them. This definitely adds a new layer to things, but I think it puts us all closer to the right path.