Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Don't "Decompose" - Compose! Writing music on demand in the music classroom.

For as long as I can remember, I have written music for pleasure.  I write for myself, I write for my friends and I write for my family.  I write as an expression of my faith in Jesus Christ.... but as much as I write, only occasionally do I write music for school.

The thing about writing music for school is that it is typically born out of necessity.  When you NEED a song and you don't have the right one, sometimes a new and original song just happens.

Special Occasions
The VERY first time that I had the need to write a song for school was actually upon the death of a dear friend and colleague who was killed in a tragic car accident.  Our school was stricken by the sudden loss and my students needed a way to express their love for this popular teacher they had lost.   I was new enough to writing music that I wasn't very quick at music dictation, so as I wrote my co-worker drafted what I was playing and singing.  The song I wrote that afternoon has turned into my go to "occasion" song.  I gently shift the words here and there so that when most people hear it they would never guess it was intended for a memorial service.

Since that time there are a couple of things I've realized about writing music for school.

  •  Keep it Simple!  - Ask yourself, Is it universally singable? Writing a song for the entire student body is not the same as writing a song for your honor choir.  (in terms of range I would stay between b-d'')
  • Can you play it?  -If you can't play your song while one hand is directing your chorus and you are "eyeballing" the talker on the back row, it's too hard! You might like to rely on a recording, but what if the power goes out? We call them "special" occasions because they are "special" and weird stuff happens.   

School Songs
Every school ought to have a school song..... PLEASE, even if you don't have time this year, PLEASE at some point at least try it or at least commission a piece. My first school where I was music teacher at for 10 years has a beautiful original school song that was already in use when I became music teacher there. That song is both singable and simple and all of the students, teachers and parents know it by heart.  It brings the entire school together. It's a wonderful way to begin or end school events of all kinds.
When I came to my current school I was utterly dismayed to discover that a school as old as mine had never had a school song of any kind.  How sad! I decided to take my time and for the last two years I've written a "class song" for my graduation 5th graders. After this year, I'll have accumulated 3 songs about my school.  I am going to teach all three of them to my choir and then do a scratch recording of the students singing the song.  THEN next year, I'll introduce them to all of the students and staff and we will all vote.  After-all, it's not MY school song, it's OUR school song. PLUS, my hope is that by giving myself 3 chances to get it right, my compositions will improve. Remember since a school song is an "all-sing" , make sure that you follow the rules for specials occasion songs.

Content Buster Songs
Everybody knows that declarative knowledge (the names of things) and to some extend procedural knowledge ( how things work)  is easiest to remember if you use a song or an acronym or other memory device.  When my students are struggling to remember key vocabulary, sometimes I will be asked to come up with a "diddy".  Just this last week, my team of art, music and PE had a meeting with administration to see how we could help with improving vocabulary that held confused our students on the latest benchmark.  I'm always very intentional about integrating all of the other subjects into what I do, but sometimes even a little explicit intentionality goes a long way.   So I brought the vocabulary list home with me so that I can see what I can come up with over Spring Break....(man it sounds like my spring break will be 3 months long.....)   Ideally,  these  little "diddies" should go back to the classroom WITH the students, especially since knowledge application and transfer are the REAL problems....... SO it helps if the classroom teachers you are supporting can sing the songs too..... wait...... you have teachers at your school who are afraid to sing?  ME TOO!  So a pre-made CD then...... There are some good ones......  Sometimes you can find these songs already created and recorded by someone else which means that all you have to do is make sure that your teacher friends have legal copies.  OH..... wait...  you mean spend money?..... OK, so now we're back to composing our own little "diddies".  You can still put them on a CD for moral support, but if you write them yourself then you have the rights to them.....

  • The BEST and MOST useful chants are the ones that we write WITH the students, BUT if you don't have time. then...... 
  • I HIGHLY recommend enlisting the help of the teachers whose classes will benefit most.  This is critically important in order to clarify definitions. 
  • Chanting is plenty! - don't worry about melody, rhythm is enough!
  • Repetition,  Repetition ,  Repetition .... Repetition! 
Here is an excerpt from a 1st grade chant that I created with my first grade team a few years ago....They were studying the states of matter and wanted to introduce both vocabulary and conditions.....I've looked EVERYWHERE for the whole thing which I can't find, but here is the part I remember.......

Sometimes liquids are viscous (repeat 2 times) 
( ta --- ta ---  ti-ti ta --- ti-ti )

(ti-ti taaaaaaa ti-ti- taaaaaaa)

Speaking of well done, pre-composed chants...... In my search for vocabulary support I found this great site.  I've got my free 14-day trial and I expect to be listening to some of these chants so that I can see if it's worth my $5.00 a month......


Modeled Composing / Modeled Writing (Same thing)
If you are like most music teachers that I know, you've had your share of professional development in language arts and math.   I'm finding that one of the most useful aspects of these processes of teaching literacy is the cognitive transparency that occurs.   A teacher reading to her class will share her thinking about what she is reading.  A teacher writing in front of his class, will share his thought process about word choice or voice. I feel like literacy is literacy is literacy, so I thought I'd give it a try in music.  So, I got my guitar out and composed a song transparently in front of my students using the kids names and what they were wearing.  THEY LOVED IT!  Some of the verses I wrote were funnier than others..... One was about wearing a white shirt on spaghetti day, while another mentioned something about wearing green must mean that you love trees.  I brought transparency into the process by guiding them through my melodic choices and pointing out how the rhythm of the words informs how I create the rhythms rather than the other way around.....I was working more with aural discrimination and  even word choice in terms of rhyming.  I wanted the students to hear when the song was finished. On this particular day, I didn't worry about notation, I was primarily concerned with sparking the conversation about composition with the students..... we'll use their own compositions to notate as this one would be rather complex.  This is a practice I want to continue to develop. 

Songs of Encouragement! 
If you are like me and you teach music at a public school, your school life is dictated by whatever standardized test your state uses so show that your students are progressing compared with everyone else.

If you've ever taught at a school with a significant population of "at-risk" students, then you understand the obstacles that these children face just getting to school, let alone succeeding in school. Making a full year of academic growth is a huge accomplishment when by February you've gone to your third elementary school for the year.  Passing a standardized test is an even bigger achievement because for most "at-risk" students.  In order to pass the test,  these students must   bring their "A+++++ game" to school and then show up with it on test day too!

 It doesn't matter that last night, after your mom got off of the evening shift at work, your family had go to the store to buy milk at 11:30 p.m....... It doesn't matter that because your family had to go to the store so late, you have to wear yesterdays uniform that has lunch stains and a rip in the seat.  It doesn't matter that last weekend your aunt moved out, so now your mom doesn't have enough money for the rent and you just busted out of your only pair of shoes.......  It doesn't matter.... those tests, like real life....... will wait for no student.

However, since I GET to be the music teacher, I can encourage and support my students to do their best on those pesky tests.

Just  before spring break my help was enlisted in organizing a TEST pep rally..... not my favorite thing to do, but I know my students will love it........ My biggest problem is that over the years different "alternate test day lyrics" have cropped up for whatever popular song is currently IT.....Rather than being put in the awkward position of being "copyright shady".... Isn't it better to create something original and meaningful that can be adjusted to the specifics at your school?  Time is REALLY the key.... so first I'm going to suggest that you subscribe to Music K-8  because they have a great collection of songs that will fit the bill for most folks.  

However, when you set out to put something both encouraging and fun together for your students for an event like this, play around with looping and sequencing.  It's a skill that if you don't use it for a purpose, then you'll never learn how to use it.

This summer I got 3 Macbooks for my classroom that have Garage Band on it.  I took a 3 hour class this summer and have been on my own ever since.  Without a project to point toward, I've not really learned anything.  But I decided to bring one home over Spring Break because I knew that this testing shindig was in my near future and I want it to be good because my kids need LOTS of support!

So this afternoon I started playing around with some of the loops and I found one that I liked and in about 45 minutes I had this track recorded.  I'm sharing it with you because I think that for the time I spent on it (not much) is sounds pretty good....I think my students will be impressed and amused. Plus I'm amused by the fact that I now have a track of ME rapping..... that is really funny.....I also figure that it's a pretty safe track to put out there because unless you are a Wildcat, you can't steal it...... and no one wants to hear a recording of a almost 35 year old lady rapping..... yeah.... I'm not worried.....If you do decide to share it, let me know, and give credit. Maybe you'll even enjoy it enough to laugh with me at the simple joys of teaching elementary school music and all of these creative ways we can support the learning of your students.

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