Give Your Students the Creative Classroom They Deserve

Building a Climate for Creativity in the Classroom

By NAfME Member John Mills


Facilitating a climate of creativity in a music classroom is one of THE most important components of music education. When students are taught to create their own music, they take ownership of their educational experience.


Draw from what students already know and like.

  • “What’s your favorite song?”
  • “‘Wake Me Up’ by Avici.”
  • “Great! I’ll play it on the piano. Everyone stand up and clap the big beat.
  • “Cool. Now make up your own rhythm. Here’s an example.”
  • “Nice job.” Everyone hum the resting tone. Good. Now, let’s sing the melody on DU.”

From here, you could:

  • Encourage students to notate and develop their improvised rhythm
  • Help students figure out how to play the melody
  • Invite students who have already figured out the whole song to use those notes to play a solo over everyone else singing the melody
compose | SunnyGraph

“Are you proud of what you wrote?”

This question has become my default response to questions such as:

  • “How long does my composition have to be?”
  • “Does this look done to you, Mr. Mills?”

Students become protective of their own ideas, and are quick to criticize performances of their own compositions.

“Are you sure that’s what you meant to write?”

Before a student is allowed to submit their work for a grade or have it performed at a concert, they must do one of two things:

Option 1: sing their piece to me

Option 2: have another student perform their piece without help from the composer

Students who are beginning to understand the relationships between notation and time often find that what they hear in their head is different than what they wrote.

This formative assessment allows me to work with students individually and help them understand how to notate their musical idea.



Open-Ended Feedback in a Safe Setting

At my school, students perform their own compositions, big or small, in a forum setting. There is always applause at the end, followed by a couple minutes of questions. I have found that allowing the class to ask questions is a safer and more thoughtful approach to feedback than allowing the class to say what they thought of the piece.

Example Performance Rubric


Here’s an example performance rubric for grading student’s work!


Chamber Music Ensembles & Festival

The River Bend Middle School Chamber Music Festival in Sterling, Virginia is a program that focuses on performance of student-composed works and features RBMS Chamber Music Ensembles.

Seven student-led chamber groups meet on a weekly basis throughout the school year as part of a project-based learning experience. Each participant is a volunteer member who assumes responsibilities of composing or selecting music, running rehearsals, setting short and long term goals, and initiating performances in the community such as multicultural events at elementary schools.

creative classroom | rzoze19



Whether you create a new event or add to a traditional concert program, students feel successful when their own creations are applauded by friends and family, and are empowered to continue making their own music outside of the classroom.



About the author:

John Mills

John Mills is in his third year on the faculty at River Bend Middle School (RBMS) in Sterling, Virginia, where he teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth grade instrumental music classes, and oversees the Gold and Purple Beginning Bands, Intermediate Band, Advanced Band, River Bend Jazz, and the River Bend Chamber Music Ensembles. Mr. Mills is also Camp Director of the Potomac Falls Summer Band Academy and co-director of the Potomac Falls Private Lessons Program. He maintains a private lesson studio and is on the teaching faculty of the Northern Virginia Youth Winds.

As Music Department Chair at River Bend, Mr. Mills recently hosted a residency of the popular National Public Radio program “From the Top” in a partnership between the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Loudoun County Public Schools. In April 2015, RBMS will host the third annual River Bend Chamber Music Festival, featuring a program of student compositions performed by student-led chamber groups.

Mr. Mills develops student musicianship through composition and improvisation. As cornerstones of the RBMS band curriculum, Mr. Mills has presented lectures and posters on these concepts at Virginia Music Educators Association (VMEA) In-Service Conferences and at the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML). He holds memberships in VMEA, GIML, and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).

Mr. Mills maintains an active schedule of arranging music for all levels of musicians. His work has been performed at public school concerts and assessments, NCAA events, and international venues, including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the London New Year’s Day Parade.

Mills earned the Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from James Madison University in 2012.


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