6th Graders Compose for Jazz Ensemble, Style Compositions

Background -When to Talk Style

The YCIW curriculum that I’ve developed for my music classes at Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School typically allows for 6th graders to have completed 4 large scale compositions over the course of 5th and 6th grade. The first 3 compositions are geared towards allowing students to explore how music works without referencing musical style directly. We engage in the universal musical concepts: melody, harmony, form, rhythm, consonance, dissonance, orchestration and more. For their 4th and final composition I want my students to use the knowledge and skills gained from creating their first 3 pieces to help them explore the world of music around them. I ask that they pick any style of music that interests them and become experts in that style. They then must compose a an original piece of music that has elements of or is directly related to  their chosen style. In the past these piece were performed by our resident chamber group Metropolis Ensemble. See here for example. The results were great but I was always left wishing we had the chance to write for an ensemble that included a rhythm section and a front line of horns. Well, this spring I got my wish!

Starting with Research

I’ve found that kids are really excited to work on the research portion of the project knowing that they will have a chance to compose in a style that really excites them. We focus on the importance of listening for the exact same musical concepts that we know so well from composing our first 3 pieces. Each student creates a multimedia presentation using Blendspace.  There are many tools that could be used for this task. I happen to like Blendspace as it allows students to comment on each others work and there are plenty of ways for me to offer feed back. Students will rely on their Blendspace research when they are working on their piece.

Getting Started

I encourage students to begin their piece with the most important characteristic to their style. As you can hear from the recordings, and as is usually the case, students are drawn to a wide range of styles. Some choose popular styles like reggae, disco, funk or soul. Some choose roots based music like swing, blues, ragtime or rhythm and blues. Still others go a bit more adventurous and choose what might be termed world music like Indian classical, Chinese, or Irish folk music. Because of the wide range of styles it follows that no two students will begin their piece the same way. I love this (even though it’s a bit labor intensive for the teacher)! It employs the student to be reflective of their creative process and monitor their own criteria for an acceptable beginning.  As with our other compositions we use Noteflight for all of the composing. Once again Noteflight is an invaluable resource that makes this all possible.

First Visit from the Musicians

New York City has no shortage of great jazz musicians and I’m lucky enough to play with some from time to time. I was able to put together a wonderful group of not only great musicians but also those whom I know to be excellent teachers and sensitive to young learners. As with the chamber ensemble this first get together was a chance to learn the intricacies of writing for the various instruments. The drum set and electric guitar proved to be the most difficult for students to grasp. A few students relied on Curt (our great drummer) to play a stylistic beat but I helped most figure out how to write out the exact rhythm they wanted.

Another primary function of this first visit from the musicians was to give students an opportunity to practice performing their own notated part on their instrument or to get a sense of what it is like to improvise on the iPad.  Yes, this was an unexpected turn…!

An Unexpected Turn – Improvisation for All!

As with our other compositions I encourage students who play an instrument to compose a part for themselves to play with the ensemble. For this project I was sensing that students who didn’t play an instrument wanted to be involved in the performance. Another contributing factor was that improvisation was an integral component to many of the student’s chosen style. And lastly we had a jazz ensemble at our disposal and I wanted the kids to feel what it is like to be part of an ensemble that listens, improvises and works together to make the music happen beyond what is written on the page.

Because many students were using iPads to explore chord progressions and melodies (Garageband, Chordion and Thumbjam mostly) it was an easy task to help them find a scale or mode that they could improvise on over part of their chord progression. We explored improvising over a chord progression in the exact same way we composed melodies to fit our original chord progressions in earlier pieces. Some notes are consonant (chord tones) and some notes are dissonant (non chord tones). We also worked with the blues language when appropriate. Working one-on-one at the piano students would practice their improvisations on the iPad while I played their chord progressions on the piano.  These practice sessions afforded me a chance to talk about their approach and what they needed to work on. For the concert we decided that trading 4’s or 8’s with the members of the band would be the most fun!

Concert and Reflection

For me the concert was an absolute blast! There was something very significant about having every student up on stage performing on their piece. Together with families and students our school community swung, grooved, rocked and droned for over 90 minutes! One anticipated highlight was one piece for which the student composed a vocal part for the entire 6th grade to sing. Unfortunately, our limited rehearsal time led to a bit of a train wreck.  The entire experience has left me excited for ways to build on and improve this project. I look forward to doing it again next year and to helping any other music teachers who may be interested in doing something like this with their students.

YCIW Big Band Musicians

Janelle Reichman -woodwinds  janellereichman.com

Josh Deutsch – trumpet    joshdeutsch.net

Matt Davis -guitar  mattdavisguitar.com

Emily Asher -trombone   emilyasher.com

Trifon Dimitriov -bass   trifobass.wix.com

Matt Lawless -piano   mattlawless.com

Curt Garey -drums

Matt McLean -tenor saxophone

Matt Lawless -piano