Composing in the Large Ensemble

Stronger Together through Composition

Composing in the Large Ensemble

By Daniel Abrahams
Assistant Professor of Music Education
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Alaska

Teaching middle school band and orchestra was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. However, there were times when I faced students who appeared disengaged and were unable to make connections between the repertoire being performed and their lives outside of school. Students saw teacher music (the ensemble repertoire) and their music (what’s on their mp3 player) as very different. They expressed feelings of marginalization and described school music as boring and uninteresting. Traditionally, music composition is associated with the creation of something original and not based on a pre-existing tune or idea. In this situation, I use arranging as a form of composing because students express something original to say about their song showing it in a new light.

All-National Honor Band Ensemble, Photo by Howard Rockwin, Musical Memories Photography

 Informal Music Learning as a Framework

My students wanted to perform music they heard on their phones and mp3 players. How do we make this music accessible to young musicians? I turned to the Lucy Green’s research on informal music learning[i] as a framework to engage students in authentic activities that would also connect to the artistic processes in the Core Music Standards[ii]. Informal music learning is often associated with popular music and how pop musicians learn through unstructured learning environments. Her work began by looking at how popular musicians learn and engage with music and applied it to small groups of students in general music classes. Her pupils copied recordings of pop and classical music and did it without formal intervention from their music teacher. Lucy Green notes that the process connects well with students, increases motivation in, and attitudes regarding the efficacy of school music classes. I found the same to be true in the ensembles. 

Steps to Arranging in the Large Ensemble 

The learning sequence described in the new Core Arts Standards for Creating offers an appropriate template for planning.

Imagine. Through a democratic process of nominating songs, listening to those songs, deliberating pros and cons, and voting by ballot, students choose a popular song to arrange as an ensemble.

Plan. Students listen to a variety of recordings of their song. Examples might come from YouTube such as Jimmy Fallon and the Roots on classroom instruments or the Smule band using iPads and iPhones. As an assessment component, students write in a composition journal about how the arrangements reflect the original composition, as well as make predictions suggesting the techniques used to create these unique arrangements.

Make. Ensemble members work within smaller cooperative learning groups of students representing different families of instruments. For example, one group might include a trumpet player, French horn player, bass clarinet, oboe and snare drum player.  Students move freely between groups to share and exchange ideas and negotiate musical concepts such as correct notes and rhythms, harmonic structure, form, texture, instrumentation, and orchestration. Some students might use a piano to figure out a melodic part and then attempt to transfer those parts to their instrument leading to discussions about transposition. As students decipher the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic components of the song, they enter their information into musical notation software on a classroom computer.

Evaluate and Refine. At the end of each composition episode, students come together as a full ensemble and reflect on the newly arranged material. Students listen to, discuss, refine, and edit their arrangements. Throughout the process, students write in their composition journals on their experience and how they solved their musical problems.

Present. The ensembles premier their arrangements in concert.

All-National Honor Band Ensemble, Photo by Howard Rockwin, Musical Memories Photography

Benefits of Arranging within Large Ensembles

As a result of adding activities that utilized strategies from informal music learning, student became more aware of the process composers engage to produce a piece of music. They developed a sense of empathy and of respect toward arrangers of other works they were performing. Students didn’t want someone performing their arrangement with wrong notes and rhythms.

My perception of students in the large ensembles also changed. I came to learn that they knew a lot more about music than I thought. They were able to think about and within music at a high level and apply their knowledge in new musical ways. Leaders emerged, some whom I did not expect, and that changed the way that I interacted with them inside and outside of rehearsals.

Several students noted in performance journals that the pop arrangement was their favorite song of the year because it was theirs. Students gained a “voice” within the ensemble experience when empowered to choose music they like and bring music from their engagements outside of school. Students took ownership of their work and learning. Arranging using informal music learning strategies opened students to a way of being musicians that was rich in cultural capital[iii].


[i] The work of Lucy Green on informal music is described in her book How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education published by Ashgate.

[ii] For NAfME standards see

[iii] Cultural capital is a term to describe the social assets promoting social mobility that are non-financial.

About the author:

Daniel Abrahams bio pic

Daniel Abrahams is currently Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Arkansas – Fayetteville. He holds a Ph.D. in music education from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.  Prior to arriving at the University of Arkansas, Daniel taught instrumental music for 18 years in the Omaha Public School District. He has presented research at numerous state, national and international conferences, as well as contributed several book chapters in edited publications. Daniel’s r esearch interests include the acquisition of learner agency and the use of reciprocal teaching in classroom music and ensembles. His dissertation research examined how pedagogy fosters personal and musical agency among beginning instrumental conductors.

Connect with Daniel on Twitter at @daniel_abrahams

Daniel Abrahams presented “Stronger Together Through Composition: Composing in the large ensembles” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Grapevine, TX.


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