Teaching and Assessing Basic Musicianship with Composition

Teaching and Assessing Basic Musicianship with Composition

By NAfME Member Matt Doiron


Many jazz greats have written new melodies or contrafacts on tunes from their standard repertoire. Elementary musicians, too, have a standard repertoire, one that provides the same opportunity for our emerging musicians to improvise and compose upon. These folk and children’s songs help us all to better understand the music we hear and play.


Adding Harmonic Context

Most young musicians learn melodies but don’t develop harmonic understanding. The addition of bass lines and harmony parts to melodies that students know will help them gain that understanding. I’m going to use three folk songs to model the process I am suggesting for a first composition unit.


Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary had a little lamb




London Bridge is Falling Down

london bridge is falling down




Go Tell Aunt Rhodie

go tell aunt rhodie




Now that you have had an opportunity to see the songs, grab some paper and list the things these pieces have in common.

OK, let’s see if we came up with the same list.

  • All the pieces follow the same chord pattern (only tonic and dominant.)
  • Each of the pieces re-uses a single rhythmic idea with minor variation.
  • Each piece also re-uses melodic material with variation.
  • Chord tones fall on almost every beat.
  • Pieces move mostly by step.

I’d suggest you sing the songs, one at a time with your students and add a bass line using only the chord roots. Do all of this without notation. The goal is to get the students to hear when the bass note should change. Once they feel comfortable with the bass line, ask them to choose a rhythm to re-use for their bass line (Congratulations, you have gotten them to improvise!)


mary had a little lamb


When the students feel comfortable with this, I’d add two other voices using the same (or similar) rhythm. One part should begin on “DO” for all the tonic chords and move to “TI” for the dominant chords. The second part should begin on “MI” and move to “FA” on the dominant chords. Have the students change parts. Everybody should sing every part. (More often than not, you’ll have to ask for more people to sing the melody because everyone wants to sing the other parts once they feel comfortable with them!)


A Couple of Side Notes

I’m using solfege syllables to describe the process I use. I have several friends who prefer using numbers. That’s fine. My goal here isn’t to convert anyone’s thoughts on the use of solfege.

After the students are comfortable with the Mary Had a Little Lamb, see if they can transfer the process to London Bridge and Go Tell Aunt Rhodie.

Ask your students for similarities between the three songs. Point out the re-use of material to your students. They need to understand that re-using material is key to composing.

I’d also point out that there are two chords in this song. The first chord is made up of “DO”, “MI”, and “SOL”. The second chord is “SOL”, “TI”, “RE”, and “FA”. If your students already have an understanding of tonic and dominant, it’s fine to name the chords but I wouldn’t name anything until after they have heard and can sing/play what they hear. Only attach names to things they can do and identify aurally.


Composing Their Own Lines

I like to have students complete a melody as a first step to composing. I’ll sing or play a first phrase and ask them to complete the melody. Here is an example of a phrase I use:


Doiron Fig 5


Having the students sing a consequent phrase allows them to create a melody. I’d recommend asking them to sing a second one… then a third… maybe even a fourth. (Again, they are improvising and getting a chance to evaluate their own work.)

Once the students have completed these activities, they are ready for the first three assignments.

The first assignment instructions are as follows:

  • Using the chord progression from the model song, write the bass line on the bottom staff and your own melody on the top staff.
  • Use 1 rhythm with a little variation at the end.
  • Use only chord tones.
  • End on DO.

Each assignment provides the students a bit more choice. The second allows passing and neighboring tones, and the third asks students to write in the inner voices they sang to make their melody a quartet. The process is great for differentiation. The students who show more ability are allowed more freedom but that comes with higher expectations.

The beauty of this model is its adaptability to teaching any concepts from musical literature. I have used it in music theory class with Neapolitan and augmented sixth chords. The greatest challenge is finding literature to support it. Happily, there is a website (musictheoryexamples.com) maintained by Dr. Timothy Cutler and Dr. Patricia Gray that provides musical examples for a large number of theory topics.



In her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Dr. Betty Edwards defines drawing as a perceptual challenge, not a technical one, telling her readers “learning to draw is learning to see.” I would suggest that learning to compose is also a perceptual challenge, one that involves learning to hear with greater depth and recognition. Re-focusing my teaching in this direction has not only had a profound impact on my students but also on my own musicianship. I hope you find it has the same impact on your students (and on you too!)



Azzara, C.D., & Grunow, R.F. (2006) Developing musicianship through improvisation. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications.

Edwards, B. (1999). Drawing on the right side of the brain. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Grunow, R. F., Gordon, E. E., & Azzara, C. D. (1999, 2001, 2002). Jump right in: The instrumental series—teacher’s guide for recorder; winds and percussion; and strings. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc.

Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. (1989) Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.


About the author:

Sept 12 - Matt Doiron Photo

Matt Doiron is a PhD student at the Eastman School of Music where he teaches and assists classes in instrumental music education. He holds degrees from Keene State College and Southern Oregon University. For 21 years he was director of bands at Sanford High School in Maine. In addition Mr. Doiron was the music director of the Strafford Wind Symphony and the conductor of the basketball band at the University of New Hampshire. He has served in leadership positions for the National Band Association, the Maine Music Educators Association, the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative and the Maine Band Director’s Association.


Matt Doiron presented on his topic “Teaching and Assessing Basic Musicianship with Composition: A Model for Lessons and Ensembles” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!



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