Creating Outside the Box: What Large Ensemble Directors Can Do

Creating Outside the Box: What Large Ensemble Directors Can Do

 By NAfME members Amy Spears and Marsha Vanderwerff


We all want our students to think creatively and to be creative, right? But how often do we actually engage students in our band, orchestra, or choral programs in activities that allow them to begin creating outside the box?





The new National Core Arts Standards for Music place major emphasis on this process of engaging with music. The three anchor standards include:

  1. Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and works
  2. Organize and develop artistic ideas and work
  3. Refine and complete artistic work.

Just to read these may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It starts by having a mindset that “Yes, creating is important” and “Yes, I think I will try something,” instead of being overwhelmed and saying, “Well, I don’t really know how to compose or improvise, so how can I teach my students anything about creating?” The answer to that is, why not start learning now? And the reality is you don’t have to learn it all at once and it actually can be fun! To us, it’s a matter of simply trying something to get started and more comfortable with having students create in our ensemble classrooms.


Who and What?

This session at NAfME’s National In-Service Conference will provide multiple examples of teaching tools and projects that secondary choral and instrumental ensemble leaders have done to incorporate and assess the Artistic Process of “Create” from the 2014 Music Standards in deep, meaningful, student-focused ways. We will pull from several sources to show attendees different methods of creativity in their classrooms.

These include short activities that you can add to your warm-up routine to small group, student-centered projects that students work on over time. Some ideas include:

  • Student-composed warm-ups
  • Students creating their own individual melodies based on experimentation
  • Creating cover songs based on learning by ear (informal learning methods)
  • Creating parodies and mashups with given parameters
  • Original collaborative student compositions
  • Initial ways to start improvisation in a large ensemble
  • Use of Comprehensive Musicianship activities and ideas (based on ensemble literature that your large ensemble is rehearsing to perform)

Within these activities and projects, we will discuss and share ideas on:

  • Use of technology, including:
    • Useful websites and apps
    • Use of Smart boards and/or iPads
  • Use of various musical genres
    • Ensemble literature – how to incorporate student-centered creative projects as you work on preparing for upcoming performances
    • Popular/contemporary music – giving students autonomy in choosing their own music to work with
    • Other genres – both of our choosing as the teacher and of students’ choosing

We will show examples of and discuss:

  • Parameters and guidelines we use for setting up student-led projects
  • Proactive strategies for classroom management when having students work in small groups
  • Rubrics and feedback forms we use for grading informances and final performances. These include more comprehensive ways for teachers to assess students’ knowledge and understanding of what is being taught: assessments of the process in addition to the final product of the performance.




We will provide step-by-step instructions and show classroom videos of how these ideas have worked in instrumental and choral ensembles. Examples will illustrate the type of classroom environment necessary for creativity to occur, as well as the teacher’s changing role in these types of activities. Though the focus will be on elements of the Create Process, this session will also address ways that these activities and projects address the Perform, Respond, and Connect Processes as well. Come and get a wealth of ideas for incorporating more creativity into your secondary ensemble classroom.


About the Authors:

Amy Spears

Amy Spears is assistant Professor of Music Education at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She holds a Ph.D. in Music Education from Arizona State University. Her previous teaching experience includes secondary school instrumental and general music classes in Alabama and Arizona, and music education courses at Florida Atlantic University and Arizona State University. Dr. Spears is a regular presenter at national and international conferences including the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and its various state affiliate conferences, Society for Music Teacher Education (SMTE), Instrumental Music Teacher Educators’ Colloquium (IMTE), Association for Popular Music Education (APME), and Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic.


Marsha Vanderwerff

Marsha Vanderwerff is in her 32nd year of teaching music. She has taught at all levels pre-K through 12th grade choral/general music in Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Ms. Vanderwerff is a National Board Certified Teacher, and holds music degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Music Education at Arizona State University where she taught several music courses and supervised student teachers. Ms. Vanderwerff has presented at various state and national conferences. This is her second-time presenting at a National Association for Music Education conference.


Amy Spears and Marsha Vanderwerff will be presenting on their topic ”Creating Outside the Box: What Large Ensemble Directors Can Do” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today!

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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!

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