Luck is not chance, it’s toil. Fortune’s expensive smile is earned. ~ Emily Dickinson

Mr. Ahrens teaches band & choir at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, CA.


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Blues Improv / Composition Assignment

Random Music Sheet + Photo Both by Flickr user: joeleyva

I’m really pushing to include more theory and more composition in my ensemble classes this year. While I’ve always recognized the importance of such things, available class time has fallen prey to the ever impending performance. But my students are not getting experience in composition any where else. Most of them are not taking private lessons, and those who are naturally focus on their instruments. I’m venturing out into waters that are untraveled by both me and my students and so far it is a great success.

We have very limited computer stations in the band room. However something has changed this year that has created an access point for all of my music students. I am not teaching full time music; I also teach a freshman computer course. For the first time, I am the only teacher using that computer lab. This means that during Jazz and Concert Band classes, the lab is empty – perfect! Knowing this would be the case, I had our IT Department install MuseScore and Functional Ear Trainer (freeware notation and ear training programs) in the lab.

My first experiment into using MuseScore in a classroom setting is with the Jazz Band. We took three days out of our rehearsal schedule and met instead in the computer lab at 6:30 AM. The Assignment: Compose a head for a blues improvisation we would be performing as a warm-up in rehearsal. They were to score it for four instruments: C treble, Eb treble, Bb treble, and C bass in order to accommodate the instrumentation of our ensemble. Everyone was assigned a different major key at random. Since there are 20 of us, I doubled up on some of the more common keys. To keep things simple, I wanted this to be unison. So I had the students write for one instrument and then cut / paste to the others and print out parts. I had them begin by writing out the blues scale up and down.   Then they were to write a blues melody over 12 bars.  I suggested writing it in C as this was the first attempt at composition for most of them. Then we transposed as necessary.

Once complete, I copied each student’s composition in the appropriate key/clef for each member of the band. We now have a book of blues heads in all keys written by the band to use for improvisation practice! The students are excited to be writing their own music – and this excitement is taken to another level when they hear it performed by the ensemble and crafted into a full song with 20 improvised solos.

Many of my students have downloaded MuseScore at home and are busy writing their own compositions. The other day, I was listening to a trombone/baritone duet at lunch that they had written. It’s great to see new creative outlets opening and passion for music being further developed.

I’ll be working with my Concert Band on composition as well this year. I’ll post summaries of all of the assignments as they happen.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. How have you incorporated composition into your performance classes?  What have you found to work best? Let’s share lessons for the benefit of all of our students.

[image: "Random Music Sheet + Photo Both" by Flickr user: joeleyva.  Used under Creative Commons License]

  • Katie Wardrobe

    Hi David,

    Great post. I enjoy hearing about the practical applications of composition, performance and tech especially when there’s seamless integration of all three. And it’s so motivating for students to hear their own works being played.
    The blog looks good too. Nice choice of theme. Well done!

    • David Ahrens

      Thank you Katie. I’m excited to see them get excited! I should have started this sort of thing long ago.

      And thanks for the comment on the blog theme. :)

  • Gus Sterneman

    I’m delighted to read about your use of MuseScore in the classroom. I will be presenting to the Association for Technology in Music Instruction (ATMI) on MuseScore at their national conference this week, and would love to reference your work. Would you mind if I did that? Thanks.


    • David Ahrens

      I’m so happy to have freeware notation software available to use at my school. The economy is poor everywhere, but my home state of California is particularly devastated. I could certainly not afford a full lab with Finale or Sibelius and MuseScore does a great job, so it’s a win-win. I’d be honored for you to reference this project/blog at ATMI. Wish I could be there!