Five Tips to Make Arranging Approachable: Teaching Students How to Create Their Own Music

Five Tips to Make Arranging Approachable

Teaching Students How to Create Their Own Music

By NAfME Member Taylor Morris


I often find myself wondering why we spend so much time teaching students how to make music other people have written, but we rarely spend time teaching them how to make their own music. And, if music is a form of self-expression – which I suspect many would agree it can and should be – then teaching students how to create their own music is a highly valuable and radically freeing act. For those of us who have been taught in a system that seems to place more value on playing and interpreting music by others, however, arranging can be a daunting process!


Teaching students how to create their own music is a highly valuable and radically freeing act.


In my varied work as a musician and educator, I frequently create environments to support students and teachers in group arranging, be it pop tunes, fiddle tunes, or other melodies. As a teaser for my conference session on hands-on arranging this November (“DIY Music-Making: Teaching Students How To Arrange From Scratch”), here are five ideas that can help demystify the arranging process for you or your students!


arranging | AJ_Watt


1) Think about arranging from the front end, not the back. We know arrangers and composers whose specialty is making detailed choices about textures, harmonies, and instrumentation. That’s well and good, but all of those folks had to start experimenting somewhere! Don’t burden yourself with “professional” expectations of how your arrangement could or should sound.

2) Begin with the basics. The process of arranging for two or more instruments requires a melody and a set of chords – that’s it! Harmonies are cool if you have time to write them, but don’t feel like you need them to get started. In the words of tennis legend Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”


“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”—Arthur Ashe


3) Try every idea that comes your way before you dismiss it. I never cease to be amazed and humbled by situations where an idea I doubt in theory ends up being the best choice in practice. The reverse happens, too!

4) When in doubt, choose the simplest option. See suggestion #1. Don’t make the process unnecessarily convoluted!


composing | Slonme


5) Remain flexible—nothing you create is set in stone. When I notate on my computer, I worry about whether or not that’s actually the bowing, rhythm, or chord I want. As a result, I generally avoid notating my arrangements as it leaves me feeling overly burdened by choice. Instead, I make audio recordings on my phone or just write down descriptive words on a piece of paper (e.g., low chords, high melody, cool rhythmic thing). Resist the urge to think that arranging is a concrete process that must be done a certain way!

Making arrangements doesn’t have to be a heady endeavor! You can do it. And, without a doubt, your students can do it, too! For tried-and-true tools and approaches that support students in a group arranging process, come hang out at my session this November. I look forward to seeing you there!


About the author:

Taylor Morris

Hailed by a class of 2nd graders as “wreely nice and kind” and “the coolest man on erth,” NAfME member and Arizona native Taylor Morris enjoys blurring the line between violin and fiddle. In addition to serving as a guest Lecturer at Arizona State University, he is a Co-Founder/Co-Director of the Gilbert Town Fiddlers, an extracurricular high school fiddle group whose students collaborate to create all of their own arrangements for performances. During the summers, he directs StringPlay, a set of summer camps focused on creativity in music-making that he designed for secondary string students. Taylor has previously presented at the Midwest Clinic, ASTA National Conference, and “Continuing the Conversation,” Harvard University’s arts in education conference. For more information on Taylor and his work, please visit:


Taylor Morris presented on his topic “DIY Music-Making: Teaching Students How To Arrange From Scratch” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!

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Brendan McAloon, Program Coordinator, August 21, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (