Wiggins Composing Lessons
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Jackie Wiggins Composing Lessons 1
Composing in the Music Classroom This website contains a series of projects designed to help you incorporate improvising and composing into your music teaching. Performing, creating, and listening are the three processes of music. To learn music, students must engage in all three processes. In current music education practice worldwide, creating often receives the least attention, partially because of the nature of the prior musical experiences of the music teachers. Often they, themselves, have been educated through performing and listening with little or no opportunity for creating. That is why materials like this are so important for supporting well-rounded music teaching. The intention is for these materials to be used in conjunction with performing and listening lessons (although these projects also contain many listening experiences). Children and young adults are usually quite comfortable creating original music in much the same way as they are comfortable creating visual arts projects. Unless we give them some reason to fear, they usually have no fears. The fears are often our own, due to our own inexperience with the process. For students to be comfortable creating, it is of utmost importance that they are able to perceive the classroom as a safe, supportive environment in which their ideas are welcome and valued.
QUALITIES OF A HEALTHY, PRODUCTIVE MUSIC LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Students are engaged in real life, problem-solving situations that require them to use what they know and understand about music to perform, create, analyze, or respond to music.
The challenges teachers create for students are genuine and authentic the same challenges that real musicians face.
The questions teachers ask students are real questions the same questions that real musicians seek to answer.
Students perceive the curriculum and content with which they are engaged as genuine and relevant to their lives.
Problems for learning are designed in ways that foster multiple solutions. Solutions are considered and valued for their uniqueness,
creativity, and originality.
Students have a sense that the answers they are seeking are not predetermined and fully predictable (Perrone, 1994, p. 12).
Students understand the goals of the experience and have sufficient grounding in the processes and understandings necessary to achieve the goals.
Students feel the ideas they bring to the classroom are welcome important to and valued by everyone in the classroom.
(From Teaching for Musical Understanding (Wiggins, 2001, McGraw-Hill)
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GENERAL PLAN OF THE LESSONS ON THIS SITE
The creating lessons on this web site are all designed based on a similar process.
In each case, students engage with a musical idea through a performing or listening experience. Once they understand the idea quite well, they are invited to engage in an improvising or composing experience based on the same
Since students are working on their own in small groups during the creative activities, this is not a good time to introduce new ideas. New ideas are always introduced in the whole class setting with the teacher providing any needed support. Only when students are relatively secure in their understanding of the new idea are they asked to engage in the more independent process of creating original music.
If you look at each lesson, you will see that new ideas are always introduced in the section called Groundwork. This section of the plan
lays the groundwork that students will work from and draw upon when they create. This does not mean that the teacher abandons the students when they are creating. Certainly the teacher remains a resource throughout the process. But by its nature, creative work requires more independence. Therefore, students need a solid introduction to the ideas before plunging into the creative part of the lesson.
The Groundwork sections all contain some means of assessment that will enable the teacher to know just how well the students have
mastered each new idea and how ready they are to engage in independent work. Especially because listening is an internal, unobservable process, it is important that listening experiences in this kind of setting include some way for students to make their understanding overt. In these lessons, an assortment of graphic representations and charts are used for this purpose.
When working with more complex music, you may want to dedicate one whole class to the listening experience that lays the
groundwork for the creating experience in order to be sure that students have enough time to understand the concepts.
Once students have a good understanding of the new ideas, they are invited to form groups, choose instruments, and begin to work on the creating project. It is generally best to allow students to choose their own groups. Composing together is a highly personal process and usually more successful when students have already established some understandings with their peer group. (This idea is supported by the research of Miell & Macdonald, 2000.)
If students are given 20 minutes to compose, they can usually produce something, but truthfully, not much of value. Composing takes
time. For best results, allow at least one or two class sessions for the composing and possibly another class for sharing. While these projects may look like single lessons, all but the most basic ones are not intended to be. Creative thinking takes time as does organizing and learning to work together toward a common goal. It is usually time well spent, well worth the time allotted.
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As students work on their compositions, the teacher should circulate throughout the room as a resource and support. When doing this, however, it is best not to hover (which can be intimidating) or intervene when not invited (unless there is a behavior situation that needs addressing). Students need to feel relaxed and comfortable when generating and working with their own ideas.
There is no reason for students to notate their pieces. Unless they are highly experienced musicians, they are not able to think through
notation. It is thinking in sound musical thinking that matters here. Students will not forget their pieces. They never do. They seem to be able to hold the aural image of the music they create for much longer than an adult might be able to do.
Once students have completed their pieces, it is time to share. This sharing time is extremely valuable teaching time. It is important to
have enough time to talk about and celebrate what the students have done. Make sure that you leave enough time for sharing. If there is not enough time at the end of a class session, wait until the next session to share. The students will remember their pieces. That is not usually a problem.
When students are sharing their work, try not to bruise the moment an expression that I learned from my undergraduate mentor,
Lawrence Eisman, professor emeritus, Queens College of the City University of New York. It has always been one of my favorite expressions because it so clearly describes the mistakes teachers sometimes make in their efforts to do the right thing and explain things to students. Sometimes the music says it all and words are not needed. These moments should be respected.
Most important, the process needs to be designed and facilitated in a way that enables and supports students capacity to feel
ownership of the process and the music to feel that they are genuinely the decision-makers. If these projects are carried out in a way that makes students feel like they are assignments to be done to please the teacher, they will be of little educational and musical value.
The main point of the experiences is not getting the right answer. The point of the listening experiences is for students to further their
understanding and valuing of the music of the world. The point of the creating experiences is for students to learn to use music as a means of personal expression. If they happen to learn something about the dimensions of music along the way, that is a plus. If you can adopt this attitude, your students will embrace the experiences with a fervor that will generate more musical learning and passion about music than you might have believed possible.
For the most part, the projects on this web site are arranged in order of difficulty, with the earliest lessons designed for younger students and the latter ones for older students. However, please realize that prior musical experience is much more important here than chronological age. Students who have composed in class for several years will be ready for the more complex lessons even if they are younger chronologically. Conversely, a fifteen-year-old who has never composed before is not ready for a complex lesson, even if he is fifteen.
The very youngest students (four, five, and six years old) can improvise together with the teacher. They can also plan improvised embellishments to songs, like introductions and endings. They can compose short songs together with the teacher, building on the natural ways they sing as they play. But children of this age generally are not mature enough musically or socially to engage in a small group composing project with peers in a classroom setting.
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The simplest projects on this site can be done with seven and eight-year-olds. However, if middle school students have never done this
kind of work, even those projects could be adapt