Let’s Celebrate MIOSM 2017 By Collaborating

Each of the past three school years, my students have celebrated Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM) with an evening of chamber music. Starting after our December concert, the students pick their chamber groups and music, and they begin rehearsing together. This collaborative experience has been very empowering for the students.

This year, I’d like to expand that collaboration beyond my classroom walls. What if several ensembles around the country performed the same piece of music during MIOSM? What if these schools recorded their performances and shared them with the other performers from around the country? How cool would it be for students in Michigan to hear how students in California interpret and perform the same piece of music? What if we were to create new music for these students to perform during MIOSM?

The seeds for this idea were sown back in my college days. Trombonist Brad Edwards composed a series of fanfares for International Trombone Week, and made them freely available to any interested musicians. My plan is to compose a fanfare for concert band, and make it freely available to any groups who would like to perform it as part of an MIOSM performance.

I invite any interested composers/educators to join this fanfare collaboration by contacting me here. Ideally, I envision several short new pieces being created each year that encompass a wide range of styles and ability levels. Any groups that perform these pieces and have access to recording equipment would send in a recording of their performance, which we would then post online to share with every other group that performed the same piece.

I hope some of you will find the potential of this project as exciting as I do. The potential for interaction between performers and composer is great, and I love the thought that my students could start some deep musical discussions with students from all over the country. Again, if you’re interested in participating in this project as a composer or a performing ensemble, drop me a quick note here.

Celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, a great excuse for music educators everywhere to bring this fantastic art form into their classrooms. NAfME has a list of ways to celebrate on their website, here are some more things you can do to get your students involved with jazz.

1. Incorporate the blues scales into your warmups. Learning a blues scale is an excellent gateway to basic improvisation. The scales are fairly accessibly even to your younger students (I teach them to 7th graders), and open up a lot of musical possibilities. You can create some short riffs for your students to mimic as an ear-training exercise, or you can even just use them with any major/minor scale exercises you already do. I’ll play some very basic comping rhythms, and we’ll play the scale as a class using that rhythm on each note.

2. Learn a jazz standard by rote as a class. If your students know even just a single scale, you can teach them the melody to C Jam Blues by using scale degrees. It’s a very quick process that can lead to teaching swing style, getting percussionists involved, and improvising. Here’s how I do it (and you can do this with ANY major scale):

  • Okay class, find the fifth note of this scale. Let’s play and hold that together.
  • Now find the eighth note of the scale. Play and hold together.
  • Repeat after me (do this in the rhythm of C Jam): five five…five five…five five…fiiiiiive eight. That’s the whole melody! We just play that little riff three times in a row.
  • Now I’m going to use some hand signals to help you guys remember those notes while we play it as a class (I use five fingers and eight fingers).

If your students are very comfortable with that, there are plenty of other standards out there that only require some basic blues scales knowledge (Manteca, for one).

3. Have an improvisation conversation. Trading fours is one of my favorite ways to introduce my students to improvisation. We set up a few basic parameters and go from there.

  • Pick a single note from the B-flat blues scale. That’s the note you’re going to use for this conversation.
  • You can play any rhythm you want, just stick to that note you chose.
  • You get four measures, and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

I’ll put a basic swing beat on our stereo system using the GarageBand app, and then I’ll take the first four measures to give the students an example. The first few times we do this as a class, just so the students feel more comfortable, I’ll play, then a student, then me, then a new student, then me, etc. As they get more comfortable, I’ll step aside more and let the students take over.

This can be expanded to riffs using multiple notes as the students progress. The reason I choose to start with a single note is so that the students are not overwhelmed by choices. It’s one less thing for them to think about as they’re starting to learn a new concept.

4. Write a short 12-bar blues composition as a group. I’ve done this project with my jazz band many times. Your students don’t have to be great with notation for this project to be successful. The last time we did this project, we started with an improvisation conversation. Students came up with some very short riffs using the B-flat blues scale, and we recorded the session.

Step two was playing back the session for the students and asking them to identify some riffs that they liked. I spent a few hours over the weekend transcribing those riffs and labeling them (A, B, C, etc) so I could put some sheet music in front of the students.

Next, we experimented with putting those riffs in a different order. One student might feel that riff B is a great opener, and we should follow it with riff E, and close with riff A. Another student would suggest going ABD. Since the students had each labeled riff right in front of them, we could try out these combinations right away and figure out what we liked best as a group.

If you want, the project can stop there. You’ve got a 12-bar blues melody ready to go. If your students want to go deeper though, you can start digging into the chords that make up a 12-bar blues, and start coming up with some background harmonies to support your melody. This is where I would revisit some of those basic comping rhythms, and we would have some students play the melody while others played I, IV, or V on those comping rhythms. Now you’ve got a more complete piece to work with.

Music Tech On A Budget

Last spring, I was asked to create an entirely new music offering at my school, something to expand on our current program of band, jazz band and choir. After all of four seconds of deliberation, I decided that I was going to design a music technology class. My principal quickly jumped on board and said something to the effect of, “Oh by the way, we’d like you to do this on the cheap!”

Great, MIDI keyboards, Ableton Live and synthesizer rigs are probably out of the question. What the heck am I going to do?

This was a question that weighed heavily on me during the summer. I was starting a Master’s Degree, and one of the requirements was to design and present a curriculum in the span of five weeks. It was perfect in the sense that I needed to get this done anyway, but difficult in the sense that we were encouraged to pretend like money was no object. So I decided to design essentially two parallel curriculums, one for a school that spent money like a drunken Gordon Gecko, and one for the real world. Here are some of the things that I came up with.

Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live: $30/site, Soundation: Free)

In a perfect world, this class would be using Ableton Live. In fact, my colleague struck a deal with the good folks at Ableton which would have given us some dirt-cheap site licenses. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find the money so we’ve adapted and started using Soundation as our go-to DAW.

Soundation offers a lot of the features that we were looking for as part of a basic music tech class, like the ability to compose using pre-recorded loops, ability to export saved files in .wav format, and the ability to do MIDI sequencing with a piano roll or virtual keyboard.

The student project using Soundation was the composition of a five-part Rondo. Students had to use three tracks of pre-recorded loops, and one MIDI track that they composed to create a piece in ABACA form.

Audio editing software (Audacity: Free)

Before this class began, I was relatively unfamiliar with Audacity. After two units using the program, I’m hooked. It’s a high-quality, powerful audio editor, and middle school students were able to use it fluently with a minimum of trouble.

Project #1 using Audacity was lifted straight from the pages of Dr. Scott Watson’s book. Students wrote, recorded and edited a podcast about one of their favorite musicians. To create an effective podcast, students had to import an MP3 clip, cut it up, and fade in and out. Students also had to adjust their own vocal recording levels so as not to interfere with their audio clips.

Project #2 involved students creating a piece similar to Lasse Gjertsen’s Hyperactive or PBS’ Garden of Your Mind. Students learn how to cut up and rearrange audio tracks as well as how to apply different audio effects, such as distortion or pitch correction.

Synthesizer rigs (Audiotool: Free)

Synthesizers are easily the most difficult thing to cover on a budget, at least so far. It’s impossible to replicate the tactile nature of programming a drum machine, but Audiotool makes a good go of it. Audiotool is essentially a virtual synthesizer rig, where students can sample, apply effects, sequence drum machines/synthesizers, apply automation curves, do MIDI sequencing, and a whole host of other capabilities. In short, it’s got the potential to be mindblowing deep and complex.

At this point in the semester, students are just learning the basics. It took only one class to show them how to create multiple drum patterns on one of the virtual drum machines, and add the patterns to the timeline (similar to a piano roll). Based on early impressions, it seems like we could spend an entire semester working in just Audiotool and still only scratch the surface.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Becoming Creators, Not Just Consumers

Nothing makes a student’s eyes light up quite like the chance to independently create. For our students to realize their maximum potential, not just in music but in any subject, we must allow space for creation in our classrooms. Creativity is activity, while merely consuming content is largely passive. Creating content allows students to synthesize the skills learned in a classroom. Creation is relevant. Creation is problem-solving. Creation fosters all the traits that we supposedly desire in a student, yet we may be reluctant to allow those traits to develop.

To have a successful classroom that allows for content creation, a few things must be in place. First, the teacher must be willing to cede a great deal of control. In my classroom, students are encouraged to compose their own original music. Often this involves me saying something along the lines of, “Here is the task, you are free to accomplish this in any way you see fit.” From that point forward, the creative process is largely under the command of the student. If I, as the teacher, am overseeing every step of the process, is it their piece or mine? Relinquishing that control may be a difficult adjustment to make, but without it the students can not truly feel ownership.

Relinquishing control does not mean abandoning students. Far from it. Students will want guidance and feedback during the creative process. Students also benefit when a teacher shares new creative tools. My young composers really took off when I showed them how to use Noteflight and Musescore. They were still in control of their creations, I was merely showing them more options to accomplish their task.

Your classroom also has to be a safe environment. Students not only need to be allowed to make mistakes, it needs to be encouraged. Some of the most musically rewarding moments for our student composers have grown out of mistakes. One student has been composing a saxophone quartet, and struggling to find an ending.

“Mr. Guarr, this doesn’t sound very good.”

“Well, why not?”

“It doesn’t sound complete.” (He wasn’t ending on tonic.)

“What other notes have you tried?”

“Well, none.”

“Go try every note you can think of. Some might sound really bad, but some might sound really good, too. If you do that and still can’t find an ending you like, I’ve got some ideas for you.”

Five minutes later, the student had wrapped up his quartet with a perfect authentic cadence. Not through the study of music theory, but through rigorous trial and error. The student was told to go make mistakes, and the mistakes led to a great musical decision.

Lastly, we need to ensure that the student creations do not live in isolation. Record their creations, post them online, perform them in public. What good is the student’s effort and investment if they never get to share their product? We can distribute student work for FREE with a site like Soundcloud, so take advantage.

Allow your students space to create, and they will become more engaged and involved in your class. They will grow as students, and have a truly memorable experience.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The Best Tweets of 2011

I’m constantly impressed by the folks I follow on Twitter. It’s a wide variety of people, from college music students to web developers. Following such a great variety of people has meant that I’ve been able to discover boatloads of new resources. The “favorite tweet” feature has been getting a hefty workout this year. Here’s a list of some of my favorites from 2011.

That’s only a very small sampling of the learning experiences provided by my PLN over the past 12 months. I look forward to adding to this substantial list of resources over the next 12 months.

Pedal Point Duets-Lesson Plan

The idea for this lesson plan came from Dr. Scott Watson’s book, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity. The book is filled with excellent lesson plan ideas and other information that can help inspire you to better integrate technology into your music classroom.

While reading Dr. Watson’s book, one particular project grabbed my attention, the pedal point duet. This seemed like an excellent project for a couple of reasons: It’s simple and accesible enough for even young musicians, and it offers a great intro to composition in advance of the large group composition project undertaken by my jazz band every year.

To intro the project, I recorded a couple of examples with GarageBand and played them for the class. I demonstrated how the ‘pedal’ tone could change rhythm but not pitch, and how a simple melody could be an excellent compliment to the pedal. We then went over some basic parameters for the project, and I set the jazz band to work.

For this project to be a success, the teacher must be constantly working with the students, offering feedback, criticism and coaching. The students might also need some assistance with notating some of their rhythms, as well as some gentle reminders of the composition parameters. For a more detailed lesson plan, I urge you to check out Dr. Watson’s book.

Pedal Point Duet

Pedal point is a technique that has its roots in medieval organ music. Despite its age, composers still use it today because it yields a great sound. Pedal point involves a sustained tone (the ‘pedal’) in one instrument while the other musician performs a melody. You will use these techniques in writing your own duet, to be performed and recorded.


  1. Your target length for this duet is 16 measures. The pedal note MUST be the first note of the B-flat blues scale; the melody MUST begin AND end on the first note of the B-flat blues scale. Your pedal can be either a low note or a high note.
  2. You should only write music that you can perform yourselves.
  3. Using clapping, improvise a short rhythmic pattern. Share this rhythm with Mr. Guarr.
  4. The rhythm you composed in step 3 will become your pedal. Mr. Guarr can help you notate the rhythm if you need.
  5. Each partner will be responsible for writing 8 measures of melody and 8 measures of pedal. The pedal can change rhythm but not pitch.


  1. Keep it simple!
  2. Consider the relationships between rhythms in each parts. Do they make sense together? Are they easy to play together?
  3. Good writing uses repetition. Don’t be afraid to repeat a phrase! Good writing uses repetition. Don’t be afraid to repeat a phrase!
  4. Rests might help your piece “breathe” a little bit.
  5. Rhythmic call and response between pedal and melody might sound very cool.
  6. Play your piece frequently as it develops. Does it sound good? If you don’t like what you have, what can you do to change it?
  7. HAVE FUN!


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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Get Smart

I am fortunate to work in a school district with great community support. We have rarely, if ever, had trouble passing bond issues and everybody in the community is genuinely proud of the education we provide. The fruit of one of our more recent bonds is interactive white boards (IWBs) in every classroom.

I’ll admit it, I was pretty skeptical at first. Despite spending a lot of time doing research over the summer, finding good activities and resources for a secondary instrumental music class was difficult. There were vast amounts of activities geared toward the elementary classroom, but I had a hard time seeing how I could adapt those to a classroom with 60+ kids with instruments in their hands.

Two weeks in, I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The IWB has become an integral part of our classes. Toward the end of the summer, I stumbled across the Sioux City Middle School music tech wiki, put together by Pat Toben. There’s a wealth of resources on there, including the always enjoyable iNudge and Incredibox. Those got used quite a bit during week one so that the kids could experience some music creation right away.

The IWBs also made me re-imagine some activities that I had been doing for awhile. In David Newell’s book Teaching Rhythm, he outlines a plan for using rhythm flash cards as part of comprehensive rhythmic literacy. We used rhythm flash cards last year with success, so for this year I put together a few random rhythm generators for the IWB. We’ve got one for duple meter, and one for triple. The rhythm generators are also constantly evolving, and will soon include an unusual meter generator as well as a compositional element for the students.

I also teach a jazz band that features a couple of bassists who are new to the genre. They are talented, but have never seen a walking bass line. Not a problem. Just open up Sibelius or GarageBand so they can see/hear the line.

There are also big plans for the future of the IWB in my classroom. Last year, I had the jazz band collectively compose a piece of music. This year, the project remains the same but the kids will be better able to see the piece develop. Rather than write things down by hand, we can plug lines into the Korg NanoKey and the students can see them pop up instantly on the screen. This will eventually allow us to take the collectively composed piece, and have the students go up to the board and experiment with creating harmonies just by clicking and dragging.

The key to making this all successful is ensuring that the technology available to us is enhancing the classroom rather than controlling it.