Workshop notes for teachers

It’s the end of a very enjoyable day and I am sitting down with my cup of tea to write up the notes from today’s workshop. I presented a session entitled “Musical Creativity in the Classroom” to a group of very delightful, responsive teachers from schools all over Melbourne, and even one from Portland in the far west of the state. My overall aim was to look at some strategies for getting students started with composing and inventing their own musical ideas, and to then work through some ways of organising and structuring the material they create. I promised everyone I’d provide a record of what we did today – hopefully it will be of interest to others out there who weren’t at the session today. Let me know how you go!

Creativity is an act of the imagination and is rooted in playing and playfuless. What characterises a setting or event as playful? There are many things but some of the ones that come up again and again are:

  • open-ended processes, where the process or “getting there” is more important than the finished outcome (in fact, at the end of many children’s games and imaginative play, the end of the game is barely remembered or remarked upon);
  • the ‘rules’ are often fluid or flexible, and can be mutually agreed or changed – in other words, very collaborative and democratic;
  • It is inherently social and interactive;
  • changes and discoveries take place in context;
  • tangents get followed; little is pre-determined at the outset. This isn’t colouring by numbers – it is starting from a starting point and seeing where you end up!

Therefore, if I want to create an environment that is creative, I need to create one that is playful, where it is okay to have a go and not know the answer, where you are not going to be set up to fail or be rejected in some way by your peers. I try to get my students playing (as in, on instruments or by making sounds with their bodies and voices) and exploring fairly early on in the classes, and find that as they play and participate, they naturally begin to refine their efforts. Not immediately, but in time.

In order to get creative, playful work happening quickly, I use activities or strategies that give quite clear guidelines or boundaries. I don’t mind if people step beyond these, but I want to avoid lengthy dilemmas or decision-making processes that can bog people down if they aren’t quite sure what to do and feel anxious to produce something incredible!

Creative work can feel very risky (for all of us, not just our students!). We might feel put under the spotlight, overly scrutinised, judged by our ideas, or exposed by our participation in some way. The guidelines and boundaries I include in these initial tasks help to minimise their sense of risk, so that confidence gets built up early on.

The environment we establish in the room needs to support this risk-taking and accompanying sense of safety. This is why keeping it playful and uncritical is so important. Part of this can be given by the teacher’s preparedness to be seen by their students as a “creative risk-taker”. To be able to say, through their participation, “I’m no expert here, but I’m having fun and happy to explore and listen and see what happens through the process.” It’s okay to be seen to be learning.

Warming up

It’s useful to do some kind of warm-up task at the start of a lesson. This can serve as an ice-breaker, or to establish a new energy/environment in the room (especially if students are coming in from the playground), as well as a way of establishing some useful foundations and skills for ensemble music-making.

Move around the space

This is a very simple activity. Ask the students to move around a clearly defined space. You can get them to

  • make eye contact with the people they pass
  • wink
  • say hello (maybe shake hands)
  • Walk faster/slower
  • Connect physically in some way (we tried touching pinkie fingers, touching elbows, touching elbows while dropping on one knee to floor, doing a two-handed high-five)
  • Get into groups of specific numbers, or eye colour, or hair colour…. we didn’t do this (I was mindful of time), we just got into a circle.

Circle work – body percussion

I sent several different sounds around the circle and we passed them on one by one. I tried to use a wide range of body percussion sounds – I hadn’t really planned these, just did whatever came into my head. I included some more complex combinations – these were to throw in some challenges, keep the group on their toes, not let anyone get complacent… it also engaged us all with our musical memories. Memory is important in creative music work, as we do want to be able to remember some of the brilliant things we come up with! We have to work at cultivating it, and there is a lot of mileage in remembering short sequences like the ones I sent around the circle.

Another intention of this game was to give people some ideas of a range of body percussion sounds. The next task was for each person to think of one body percussion sound. First we did these as a Call-and-Response, where, one by one, each person performed their sound and everyone copied it. The call-and-response mechanism gives everyone a chance to rehearse and commit to the sound they have chosen. Having it echoed by the group implicitly endorses it, so that hopefully no-one feels like their sound is “not okay” or “not good enough”.

Then we performed these individual sounds one by one around the circle very swiftly, to see how it sounded. We tried changing direction (indicated by eye contact to the person on either our left or right side). We tried hocketting a rhythm, where a chosen rhythm is performed by a group of people one sound at a time, and this took a bit of time to get right. It’s easy for the rhythm to get lost or a bit unclear. It’s a great exercise for teamwork and listening, but it does take practice. It can help to have everyone vocalise the rhythm as it is passed around the circle.

Then we listened carefully to all the sounds people had chosen and put them in order of lowest to highest. Some sounds were hard to place, so we asked the individuals involved to perform their sounds consecutively, in order to compare them. We listened to how it sounded when we performed them in this ascending and descending order, one by one.

Then I asked each person to choose a number, 1 to 12. I counted aloud a cycle of 12 beats, and each person placed their sound on the number they had chosen. It didn’t matter that there were some numbers where no-one played, and others where several sounds were played simultaneously. This just made for an interesting texture. If we’d wanted to develop this particular task further, we could start refining the shape or arc that was being created by the sounds in this order. We could ask people to change their number. We might have decided to put a particular strong sound on beat 1, for example, which might have helped us keep track of where we were up to in the cycle of beats. We could have created a second version of the task, where each person chose a new number (maybe with a different number of beats in the cycle) and created a piece that was 4 repetitions of the first number chosen, followed by 4 repetitions of the second number chosen. Lots of possibilities!

Instrument work – tuned percussion

First I explained a strategy I have developed for getting ESL students to compose melodies in a particular tonality. I talk about “families” of notes, instead of key signatures or scales, and I work with modes that are present on the tuned percussion we have (the white notes of a keyboard). Most commonly, I use the “D-family” (D to D, or a Dorian scale), the “G-family” (G to G, or a Mixolydian scale), “A-family” (A to A, or an Aeolian scale), and the “F-family” (F to F, or a Lydian scale). I draw an analogy about power structures in families (one person who gets the “final say”, others who often in charge as well, and all the children and “interesting, more colourful” members of the family group). Definitely a contestable version of family decision-making, but as a way of explaining a tricky concept in language that new arrivals will understand, I find it is very effective.

To create a melody in the D-family, the students can start on D (the “final say” note), F or A (other decision-makers and bosses), and they must finish on D (the “final say” note). Music theory people will recognise these three notes as making up the tonic triad of D minor.

We chose a theme to work from (we needed this as inspiration for the sentences we wrote; you can use any topic that you think your class will respond to quickly – names, months or the year, street names, pets, what you ate for breakfast are all excellent fodder as starting points for generating sentences). Our theme was the current weather (damp and cold). We brainstormed some sentences about this (I wrote down everything the group said; when we do this with our students it encourages forth more responses because the risk-averse ones see that nothing is getting vetoed).

Some people worked in pairs, and everyone chose a way of saying the sentences in a rhythmic way. These rhythms are so important! They are what you will hang your melodies on, and later, if you feel like you’ve forgotten your melody, you can return to the words and find that the rhythm has etched its way into your memory. (And anyway, if it hasn’t, you can just use the same process and create a new melody on the spot).


Three people worked in the G-family, the rest worked in the D-family. I did this for variety, I thought it might add some options or further interest. However, the task still works beautifully if you keep everyone in the same family (mode) of notes.

I wrote out a label for each of the melodic extracts we had made. Essentially, each label was the word-riff about cold weather that had formed the basis of the melody. We listened to the melodies one by one. (I asked each pair or individual to play their melody 2 times in a row, without pausing in between, as it is only by doing this that we can ascertain the timing and full length of each riff). If I heard something that I thought might go well with another riff I asked those two groups to play again straight away. Whenever we heard a combination we liked, I put the two labels (loose pieces of A4 paper) together on the floor.

We decided to create a “chorus” or theme that would return several times throughout our piece. There are a couple of advantages to doing this. One is that no-one in the group will ever have to sit for long waiting for their turn to play. Having a chorus that everyone plays is a way of maintaining the focus and engagement of the whole group. Sneaky but practical, and musically-pleasing! It’s musically-pleasing because when familiar themes return, we like it. Our brains like it. They like hearing material repeated. It creates a sense of structure and organisation and overall shape to the music.

Once we had an order for our piece we played it through a couple of times. Transitions from one section (melody) to the next required extra attention.

Instruments – untuned percussion

I included a set of gongs in the untuned percussion, which aren’t strictly untuned. By listening critically, and considering which sections of the piece would be enhanced by untuned percussion (including drums, seed-pod shakers, a cabasa, a vibraslap, a guiro…), we decided to add an atmospheric opening to the piece, and to close it with the same texture (with the melodic material being played in the foreground). We added drums to a mid-section that people felt was a little “exposed” or abandoned, or thin, in comparison to what was coming before and after it.

By that time we were into the last ten minutes of our workshop, so we set the final group of labels in place and performed our piece. Very beautifully!

I used different coloured markers for the labels (blue for the melodic riffs, green for the choruses, red for the number of repetitions and untuned percussion) – I am in the habit of keeping things as visual as possible with any kind of cues or scores in composition projects. It helps the students orient themselves through what can quickly become quite a large amount of different material.

I hope everyone got lots out of the workshop. Please let me know how you go if take any of these activities to your classes – I’d love to hear about it.

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