Amplify: Inspiration

Inspiring Students through Creativity

By Christopher D. Azzara, Opus Leader and Presenter


We had two terrific days at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) 2018 National Conference Opus, Amplify: Inspiration – Inspiring Students through Creativity. At this Opus, we addressed the question: How do we provide for the creation and improvisation of music throughout the music curriculum? We explored the relationships among music listening, improvising, reading, and composing. Participants improved their understanding of how these skills are related, and gained insight into how to teach curriculum that helps students learn to improvise, improve listening and reading comprehension, compose original ideas, and gain a greater understanding of the music they are learning.


The Creativity Opus was a music-filled and inspiring two days! The conference format provided participants with the opportunity to go deep into content and interact in meaningful ways in related sessions. Congratulations to the presenters, including Alden Snell, Lynn Grossmann, Patricia Riley, Beatrice Olesko, Matthew Clauhs, Julie Scott, Susan Brumfield, Steven Robbins, Sandra Doneski, and myself. Sessions included: “Creativity as Inspiration and Meaning for Music Teaching and Learning”; “Principles for Creativity in Music Education”; “Improvising and Arranging in Small Groups”; “Inspiring Creativity through Effective Composition Mentoring”; “Improvising and Composing across the Music Curriculum”; “Assessing Music Improvisation”; and “Inspiring Creativity and Improvisation in Early Childhood, Elementary Music, and Secondary Music.”

piano keys | carloscastilla


We started the event by introducing important elements that would lay a foundation for the sessions. These elements included:

  • learning repertoire and a musical vocabulary
  • using our intuition and reason to create and improvise
  • reflecting on our learning, and
  • learning from exemplars.

We explored these elements in terms of the relationships among music listening, improvisation, reading, and composition. With an understanding of how these skills are related, participants made music and discussed ways to implement sequential curriculum for music creativity. Learning repertoire by ear is analogous to learning stories and provides context for musical vocabulary and creativity. By using intuition and reason, students can learn to create and improvise music spontaneously. Reading notation and composing music allows students to reflect on and revise musical ideas. In our sessions, we also studied and learned exemplars as models and inspiration for our creativity.

In our learning track, we provided participants with suggestions for applying these principles of music teaching and learning to elementary and secondary music instruction. Drawing upon these ideas, we introduced participants to key elements and skills designed to:

  • develop improvisation and composition in a variety of musical styles
  • include improvisation and composition as an integral part of teaching and learning, and
  • assess student learning.

Photo: Bob O’Lary


We considered creative play central to child development, and posed the question: How can we provide rich opportunities for children to develop musical thinking, embody music, and express themselves creatively? We explored how building a vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns through a repertoire of songs enables children to have something musical to “say” in creative activities. Through singing and movement, we provided ideas for inviting children to engage in “conversation,” ultimately inspiring improvisation in the early childhood classroom. Workshop participants practiced several techniques for building improvisation readiness, and for giving children opportunities to make connections and improvise. The group experienced musical play with interactive activities that encouraged meaningful musical responses from all.

General music teachers and ensemble directors can work together to provide students with tools needed to create and perform original musical ideas. By sharing a common language and engaging in music activities that transcend typical classifications of general, choral, and instrumental music, we may provide a cohesive music curriculum that inspires creativity and collaboration among our students. The presenters lead participants in a variety of interactive lessons focused on exploration, improvisation, and composition in all elementary music contexts and share examples of student work, demonstrating these practices in the field. The presenters connected these activities to Core Arts Standards for music education and shared authentic assessment tools that lead to new musical understandings.

equity | FatCamera


We also presented sessions on how to inspire students’ creativity through performance of standard repertoire in secondary ensembles. By teaching main and secondary melodies, bass lines, and harmonic progressions, teachers can help students begin to think like composers. When encouraged to think this way, students develop skills for improvising and composing music with understanding. As part of secondary sessions, we shared examples drawn from ensemble repertoire, making connections to various musical styles and genres. Classes and rehearsals can be planned to develop executive skills for singing and playing instruments while also scaffolding the rhythm, tonal, and harmonic understanding necessary for thoughtful improvisation and composition. Through interactive music making, participants confirmed that students need opportunities to think musical thoughts that provide pathways for developing higher-order thinking skills when making music.

Creating is one of three artistic processes in the new 2014 Music Standards, establishing improvisation and composition as essential to the music curriculum. Participants listened to student compositions and learned ways to best mentor student composers. For example, participants explored examples of a) complete and in-progress student compositions at a variety of grade levels, and b) mentoring comments and advice in response to compositions.


Photo: Bob O’Lary


In several sessions, we provided methods and teaching techniques for assessing music improvisation and composition. Based on a recently completed literature review, we shared suggestions for developing reliable and valid checklists, rating scales, and rubrics that encourage students to reflect on their growth as improvisers and composers. We also shared rating scales that have been found reliable in a variety of teaching settings.

The Inspiration Opus culminated with participants improvising and composing arrangements in small groups and in various musical styles, applying what they learned throughout the two-day experience. These musical sessions provided participants opportunities to compose, arrange, and improvise with each other in vocal and instrumental ensembles. It is important to remember that music notation is the documentation of a creative process. Participants learned the importance of:

  • interacting musically
  • grouping content into meaningful patterns and phrases
  • anticipating familiar music and predicting unfamiliar music, and
  • making comparisons tonally, rhythmically, and stylistically.

A fundamental relationship exists among listening, improvising, reading, writing, and analyzing music. Each is integral to the other in important ways when considered in the context of creativity.


Photo: Bob O’Lary


The ideas presented in this learning track provided participants with motivation to inspire students’ life-long music learning. Participants developed an awareness for music curriculum that places creativity at the core of music teaching and learning, making connections for general, vocal, and instrumental settings at all levels of instruction and experience. Participants agreed that continued professional development focusing on the content and skills necessary for creativity in music classrooms would be beneficial to students and teachers alike. It is important that curriculum allow for the expression of creative musical ideas for every student. Indeed, everyone has some level of potential to make music, and some individuals are able to express themselves in music more than any other subject. This includes developing a deep understanding of repertoire as inspiration for creativity, and a place for students to learn and grow as creative musicians.

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Registration for the 2019 NAfME National Conference will be available soon!

About the author:

clinicianPianist, arranger, author, and educator Christopher Azzara has made important contributions to advancing the understanding of creativity and improvisation in the music learning process. An innovator in the area of music teaching and learning, Dr. Azzara is Professor Music Education and Affiliate Faculty of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music. Teaching and performing internationally, he is the author of numerous articles and books, including Developing Musicianship through Improvisation and Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series (GIA). His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Research in Music Education, the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, the Music Educators Journal, Early Childhood Connections, and in The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning (MENC/Oxford), and Oxford Handbooks Online. An active teacher and clinician, he has presented and performed extensively throughout the United States, and in Canada, the Caribbean, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Australia, China, and Japan. He has presented clinics and workshops in a variety of settings, including TEDxRochester, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, and leading music schools in this country and abroad.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. February 4, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

February 4, 2019


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February 4, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (

April 2024 Teaching Music
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