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6 Steps to Composing With Your Students

Here is a PDF of this blog post (with pictures and easier to print if need be).

In other years, I did a lot of explicit rhythm practice and drill for grades 1 through 3. I had, as well, gotten the learners to arrange the Orff instruments into a circle with C pentatonic and had them do ‘say and play’ back rhythms with me in the centre on a large roto-tom. Every few rhythm patterns I had them recite the rhyme from the “Mallet Madness” book to have them switch instruments counter-clockwise. Here is the rhyme: “1, 2, 3, 4, mallets down get off the floor. 5, 6, 7, 8, hurry don’t be late.” By the time the word late arrived they had to be at their next instrument ready to play. Eventually, every student in the class would get a chance in the middle to be the “Rhythm Master” and got to make up their own 4 beat patterns based on what I had been showing them. The only requirement was that they had to say it and play it. I thought, “hey, they are learning rhythm AND being creative.” However, even though the kids did enjoy it, it became mundane and incredibly boring for me. And they weren’t even being that creative.  I needed something else, but what??

There was a particularly strong grade 2/3 class who I felt this Rhythm Master was above. So, without any pre-planning whatsoever, once they were set up, I thought “we are going to write our own song and learn rhythm in the process.” I had no idea how this was going to turn out but I ended up doing this with all the grade 3 classes and one grade 2 class. They were learning music by creating their own – Not by recreating it. This is an important dichotomy. If we employ the tenets of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating is at the top, the capstone of learning and applying knowledge. This unit flips that on its head and begins with creating.

Here is the unit plan:

Prior Knowledge: Learners… • Are familiar with the following rhythms: ta, ta-di, ta-ka-di-mi, rest, and/or ta-ka-di. • Are familiar with what each of these look like written down. • Have had experience writing them down themselves. • Had experience with saying and playing rhythms. In the end we will have an ABA song with 2 or more parts and a rhythm ostinato underneath most of it.

Lesson 1

Have students set up the Orff mallet instruments and drums in a circle.

NOTE: Feel free to use the formation you are used to. This is just the formation that we are used to. Explain: “today we are going to begin writing our own song.” “So we need to generate ideas for our song”

The first idea we come up with should be a 4 beat rhythm only pattern for the drums to play. At this point, give learners a couple of minutes to come up with ideas that they think will work for the drum part.

NOTE: We did enough work with rhythm in previous years so that students know what 4 beats feel like.

Once learners feel like they have an idea or two, ask them to share the ideas. There are a number of ways to do this but pick 4 or 5 students to share their ideas and write them down all in different colours on the chart board. Once there are a few ideas written down on the chart paper, try them all and have a vote. Make sure that when they are played before the vote to loop them a few times so they hear what it sounds like when it is put into a song. Have them say it and play it and to help them stay in sync, have them follow along with you, while you point to the rhythm on the chart paper. You may have to explain what looping means.

NOTE: Make sure you reiterate that they should be saying the rhythms in their head as the play or be mouthing the rhythm syllables. This connection to their body directly relates to them internalizing the rhythms. It helps them keep it more accurate and steady.

Once you try looping all the rhythms, pick one that they all like the best to be the rhythmic ostinato. We do this by voting for the one we like the best as a class. Usually a show of hands will suffice. The one with the most votes, I put a check mark beside. The ideas with the 2nd and 3rd most votes, I put a ‘?’ beside. Another way to do this is to vote on each one separately. For each idea, the choices should be: Keep for now, keep for later, and not going to use.

NOTE: I make sure to explain that these are all good ideas but we have to pick one. The ones that get ‘?’s beside them I explain as ideas that we might use later.

Lesson 2

Now it is time to add our melodic ideas. Melodies should be 4 beats long and simple but not necessarily the same as the rhythm ostinato. It is better if they are different, rhythmically.

Start off with giving them time to generate ideas on the mallet instruments that are set up in C or F pentatonic. I like to hover around and listen to a few students during this time. After the allotted time, I take a few more ideas and write them on the chart paper in short hand notation. Figure out the rhythm together by saying “Cool idea, let’s write it down. Can somebody help me with the rhythm?” After agreeing agree on what the rhythm is, write it down on the chart board. When you write it, just put the stick notation then I ask the student who presented the idea what the pitches were.

NOTE: We hadn’t done a lot of work on pitch by this point so they needed further explanation as to what I meant. I asked them to tell me the letters they were playing because, as you know, the note names are etched onto the Orff mallet instruments.

Then I write the note names under the stick notation like in this picture.

Then hear all the ideas again, this time, looping them as a class and vote on which ideas to use now and which ideas to save for later in much the same way that we chose the rhythm ostinato.

After deciding on a melody to use, see if it fits in with the rhythm ostinato that they chose. This can become more difficult trying to get this together. Begin by having those playing the rhythm ostinato to play it twice in a row before you try adding the melody.

NOTE: Most times, the melody will be practiced at another tempo so they will have to adjust the way they are playing it to make it fit. At this level, it is difficult for them to conceptualize. Lesson 3 describes how I helped them to understand how the rhythms relate to one another and fit together.

Lesson 3

This one begins with a mini-lesson on rhythms and how they fit together. Begin with students in front of a white board or your main “lecture” area of your classroom. Write the drum ostinato that they chose in the previous lesson on the board in stick notation as in the black notation on the left.