We’ve all been in the situation of counting the school days after the concert and wondering, “what am I going to do with them for that long?” We have a unique opportunity to focus on one of the cornerstones of the National Core Standards of the Arts: Create. There are only a few times in the year when we don’t feel pressure to prepare students for a concert, and we have a great opportunity to plan a series of lessons designed around creating music.
The word “create” often gives teachers the sense that students have to write a whole symphony in order to reach this standard. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There can be immense value in letting students “play in the sandbox” of musical ideas. It allows them to explore different harmonies, collaborate in different ways, and ultimately become well-rounded musicians. I invite you to try any and all of these strategies, and I welcome any questions or feedback!
Creating Tension and Harmonies (Warm-Up Activity)
Melanie DeMore’s simple melody in “Standing Stone” is a great opportunity to have students improvise different harmonies. You can sequence these steps over several classes.
- Teach students the melody by rote, ask them to identify what solfege syllables they are singing as well.
- Divide the students into two groups. One group will sing the melody, another group will sing “do” the entire time. Ask, “what words have tension/dissonance?” Have students switch parts.
- Have one group sing the melody and the other group use “do” and “sol” over the melody. Switch parts.
- Have one group sing the melody and the other group sing any note in the scale. Have students switch parts. Ask, “which notes lend themselves to more tension?”
- Have students break into trios/quartets within the room. One person in each group should stay on the melody, and the others should create harmonies within those groups.
The Power of the Pentatonic Scale
Bobby McFerrin made this famous video at a science conference back in 2010 at the World Science Festival. I show it to students so they can see the power in these five notes and how even to non-musicians, it can bring a world of creativity. This procedure may take several classes to gain students’ trust, but it is worth it!
- Use solfege hand signs to reinforce the five notes of the pentatonic scale (Do, Re, Mi, So, La).
- Use call and response over three or four note patterns so they can get a sense of it (I also snap on two and four to create a steady pulse throughout the room)
- Invite students to make circles of 10-12 and have each student make up their own pentatonic pattern and sing it as an ostinato, similar to the “machine” theater exercise. Each students’ pattern will fit in nicely due to the absence of half steps.
- You can expand this by putting students into different groupings, or making one large circle around the room.
- Ask students to share their experience?
- What did you enjoy/not enjoy about this?
- What made it difficult?
- Did it get easier the more that you tried and experimented?
- Apply some of these ideas to music based on the pentatonic scale. Some ideas are:
- Ahrirang (any arrangement)
- Zanaida Robles’ “Umoja” (which includes an aleatoric section that’s great for improvisation)
- Melanie DeMore’s “Blessed Be”
Creating Melodic Ideas over Pop Chord Progressions
This year, my classes used Sarah Dan Jones’ “When I Breathe In” as a concert piece. The chorus of this song is a popular Unitarian hymn. (Meditation on Breathing).
I recorded myself playing the chord progression and had my students make up melodies over the chords.
At first students were tentative while experimenting with this, but recently we had Brad Dumont and the Assumption University singers join us for a class and I tried the procedure with them. The results were incredible. Here’s what we did:
- Have students listen to the chord progression and hum along as they feel comfortable. How did they feel when they were doing that?
- Have students sing on any syllable they would like and make melodies a little louder this time. They can put up a microphone (left hand in front of the mouth connected to the right hand over the ear) if that makes them feel more comfortable.
- Have students sing the chorus (any of the three parts) to Meditation on Breathing as they walk around the room. When we get to the verse, the students have to stand still and have a “musical conversation” by improvising with the person next to them. When we return to the chorus, start walking around again until the verse starts.
The results of this were amazing. Students were excited to converse and learn about each other in a very unique way. You can use this activity over any pop song progression (I, vi, IV V).
“When I Breathe In” was written in response to 9/11, which was a transformative event for the millennial generation. I asked my students to write new verses to answer the essential question, “What is the message of your generation?” The results were incredible. Here is one of the examples:
I hope that we can see
The problems of our divide
Our society’s in pain, and it’s time to heed
Let’s close the gap and turn the tide
Money needs to flow
Equitably and fair
The wealth spreads, and lifts up our lives
Let’s build a future we can share
A great resource to practice verse writing is the Justice Choir Songbook. Many of the songs lend themselves to new words and verses through zipper songs.
Setting them up for Success
Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to reiterate that this process is truly exploratory. If we spend too much time worrying about whether we sang the right note or wrote the right word, we miss an opportunity to enjoy what we are doing at the moment. If you and your students enjoy this process, perhaps integrate it into your next concert cycle so that the trust and confidence is there from the beginning, and you could include sharing this work with an audience.