Composing in the Classroom

Ask a jazz educator what makes a piece of music distinctly jazz, and most often one of the responses will be “improvisation.” While this is true to a degree, it gives short shrift to all of the wonderfully skilled arrangers and composers whose creations comprise much of the music’s repertoire. Who knows? Perhaps the next Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn is, at this moment, sitting in your band room, unaware of the potential contributions he or she could be making.

“Spontaneous composition is an extremely humbling experience, and many musicians proceed with caution and hesitation,” says Greg Bunge, former Wisconsin MEA Jazz Education Chair. “Here are a few ideas that might help with developing confidence and compositional skills in your students.”

Band Room Jam

Years ago I was in a meeting at the other end of the building, which made me late getting back to my jazz class. Entering the classroom, I was pleased to hear individual passages being addressed by the students. As the bass player and drummer were doing their own thing, I stopped to listen, and encouraged them to come up with a groove that the rest of the band could “feel.” Once established, the winds stopped playing and listened to the rhythm section jam. Next, I asked the winds to create a riff each member of the section could play, which had to be relatively short (I did not mention key, melody, or any other parameters). After a few minutes of organized chaos, we had a working tune. Then the playing was stopped , and each section shared its riff. We determined the official key and a few of the students improvised over the groove. The horn riffs were then strategically inserted as background parts for the soloists. This has become such a popular activity that the students have taken to creating backgrounds for existing tunes where appropriate and needed.

Listen, Learn and Implement

One of my students came in one day with one of his listening CDs, showed me his favorite track, and asked if the band might play it. After determining its accessibility, I scrapped my lesson plan for the day. I then played the recording, asking the students to focus on the groove, the instruments used, and the horn riffs. They were asked to figure out the opening melodic statement, and a few of them got it right away. They then shared that lick with their peers, and we all soon learned the opening. Each day I made it a goal for us to learn one more section. Within two weeks, we had learned the tune, complete with soloists, and totally by ear. Together we wrote the parts for each section, each student eventually transcribing the tune. The students learned form, chord progressions, different riffs, and even added their own harmony. They were so excited and took so much pride in having learned the tune using only a recording. After playing it in concert, we worked on taking that enthusiasm to the next level, focusing on how to transcribe solos.

Something for Everyone

This next activity was the result of a few weeks of drilling scales, arpeggios and chords in concert band (the students in my band classes are now conditioned to play scales with the arpeggio at the end of our scale exercises). Using this knowledge, they were asked to play concert B-flat, E-flat and F, in that order. I then put the basic 12-bar blues progression up on the white board and had them plug the appropriate scales into the respective measures(I, IV, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, I, V). Once they got a basic handle on the progression, they were asked to use just the arpeggios instead of the ascending scale. After they sounded like they had it under their fingers, they were then invited to use only the notes of the arpeggios in the given measures, and play any rhythm they wished. I gave them a little guidance by pointing out the troublesome rhythmic passages. At first, there was a lot of timid playing, but after a few minutes, their confidence increased noticeably. The jazz band students were extremely helpful in modeling appropriate rhythms, notes and the progression. I used this exercise to introduce a number of different concepts, but mostly to get the kids to hear and understand a chord progression and the difference between major and minor chords. Finding different ways to work on difficult rhythms is important for students who struggle in this area. This activity reaches all levels of musicianship. The more advanced students are able to compose using the different notes of the scale, while others can participate using only the root of the chord.

What’s Next

Basic as they are, these activities allow music students of all skill levels to feel they’ve achieved some measure of success as composers and even improvisers. There are times when students approach me and ask if it would be OK for them to write something for the bands. “Absolutely,” is always the response. We have featured a drumline original, a brass ensemble piece, arrangements for the jazz ensemble and even an original alto saxophone feature written by a trombone player! Sometimes all that is needed is an opportunity and a little reinforcement. As we know, our students have abilities and potential that continually amazes us, and opening different doors is a simple and important obligation. Have fun!

Excerpted from “Spontaneous Composition” by Greg Bunge, originally published in the January 2007 Wisconsin School Musician

Gregory D. Bunge is director of bands at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he teaches three concert bands, jazz ensemble, jazz lab, combos and general music


—Nick Webb, January 8, 2009, © National Association for Music Education