Nelson Mandela High School: Creative music making in a secondary wind band program
This project explores creative music making in a secondary wind band program Nelson Mandela High School, one of Alberta’s designated High School Redesign Schools. In a redesign school, tasks are designed not only to assess curriculum outcomes, but also to help develop core competencies in our students. Each course develops different competencies – for music specifically, the competencies are Creativity, Collaboration, and Personal Growth. Music teacher Keshini Senanayake and her students share and reflect on creative music making in their classroom:
Hi, my name is Keshini Senanayake (she/her). I live and teach on Treaty 7 Territory, specifically in Calgary, Alberta. I currently teach Grade 10–12 Music at Nelson Mandela High School. Our program includes a wide variety of the following – Instrumental Music, Concert Band, Choir, Guitar/Rock Band, Chamber Music, and Strings Ensemble.
I use “Creative Challenges”, or creative music making tasks, to assess not only specific musical skills/curriculum outcomes, but also the students’ abilities to collaborate together to create their own original music, using a set of guidelines given to them. These creative challenges have become a regular part of my program, to ensure students not only learn and develop their musical skills, but also have the opportunity to develop their own creativity. I have found immense value in creating a culture where creativity is a regular part of the music program – an increase in confidence of students experimenting and problem solving in class activities, and creating a music program where students are co-creators in program decisions and the class/rehearsal process. Here are two such creative challenges:
- Symbols and Visual Score: This exercise can be used with any skill level of students. It has worked effectively with my senior students, as well as my beginners. Students are given a set of cards with different shapes and symbols. Their challenge is to arrange the shapes/symbols into a visual score to represent their original composition.
- Composing with Repertoire Excerpts: An exercise used specifically with band students, composing with repertoire excerpts asks students are to mix and combine melodic excerpts from their band pieces to create their own composition, or “remix” as the students like to call them. This task is great not just to get students being creative, but also gets students practising and rehearsal parts of their band pieces!
Successful Music Making at Nelson Mandela High School: Five ‘Look-fors’
This video explores what a successful music program means to me. My thoughts on this will be constantly evolving, but these are the main pillars of what I hope students will take away from their experience in the Nelson Mandela music program.
Transcription: “When I was hired to build the program at the school I’m currently at, I had some time to reflect and think about, ‘what do I want students to take away from taking music at Mandela?’ Slowly along the way, this wasn’t right at the beginning, but throughout my years of teaching, I’ve developed five ‘look-fors’, or traits, or bigger ideas that I want students to be able to take away from my program.
- The first was for students to develop lifelong skills to be successful in any life pursuit. Knowing that, regardless of if my students choose to continue on to a career in music or not, knowing that they’re going to be developing life skills or competencies that would help make them successful no matter what they decide to pursue next. For example, the time management piece of being able to juggle various ensembles along with their homework and athletics and other things, the ability to collaborate and work together, or the ability to take critique or feedback and apply it so that they can improve their skills. So that was one of the ‘look-fors’ I was hoping kids would get out of my program: developing those lifelong skills to be successful humans wherever they go next.
- The second trait I was hoping for was for students to develop musical skills so that they can pursue their own musical endeavors, knowing that students come into the classroom with their own interests and their own ideas already of what they want to accomplish. Whether they want to be able to perform a song or they want to be to compose a song, how can I teach them musical skills for them to be able to pursue their own musical goals?
- The other goal that I had was to be able to provide enriching opportunities for students, whether that was through performances, workshops, concerts, being able to provide those opportunities for students who may not have access to if it wasn’t for a school music program.
- The other one was to build a positive community, to create this positive community in the school where students can feel included and a space where they can feel safe to be themselves and to come together with a common goal of creating music together.
- This last goal, which has become more so now than when I started, was to help students develop an anti-oppressive lens through music, through study and the pursuit of music, helping them develop an equity and anti-oppressive lens so that they can develop empathy and be productive allies and contribute to productive change in our world.
When I think about what is successful music education, and what does that mean to me and my students, those are the five that I have over the years built as ‘look-fors’ for when I think about what I want students to get out of my program.”
This video explores my thoughts on the value of creative music making, and what drew me towards ensuring creative music making is an integral part of the music program. Exploring creative music making in my own teaching practice has not only highlighted some of the gaps in traditional music education, but also open my eyes to the possibilities and benefits for students, when we are willing to venture outside of the colonial structures and practices embedded in traditional music education.
“When I graduated from my BA program, I was left with some prompts from our professor Doug Friesen, and was also reflecting on what I was able to observe and see within my own teaching practicum. The combination of that plus the first couple of years of my teaching made me realize that if you’ve got a program that follows the traditional Eurocentric classical music direction, there are not many opportunities around students actually creating original music.
Doug has a very famous quote that always kind of stuck with me: ‘What’s creative about telling kids where to breathe in holes?’ So that made me realize that we spend a lot of time preparing kids to play in band and for performances, but do we necessarily make time for students to create their own music? Usually any form of music-making came after learning multiple units and years of music theory, or music performance first. There’s such a heavy emphasis on learn the theory, learn the performance first, and then you get to create, rather than creating a culture in our music programs of being able to create from day one and acknowledging the musical knowledge that students already bring in the classroom.
In the first couple of days, I’m asking students, ‘What is your previous music experience’ and a lot of students right away say, ‘I don’t have any’. I’m like, ‘Well, actually you do because you listen to music, you love it and appreciate it. You know what you like and dislike, you can already tell what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good.’
So I challenge my students that they really come into the classroom with expertise and it’s just a matter of developing their listening ear and music literacy. It’s already developing from that base knowledge of what they do already know. So that challenged me to think: are there ways for students to practice making music from Day One? Rather than having to wait after ten theory lessons, are there opportunities for them to create music from Day One? And now when we start teaching about music theory and performance and technique, it’s with the idea of ‘Here’s some skills and tools to help you continue creating music. Here are some more things to help you understand it and for you to be able to compose and create your own.’
One of the great things working in my school is that we assess both outcomes and competencies. So the outcomes are from the curriculum and every options class identifies three competencies. For example, I evaluate students on creativity, collaboration and personal growth. Each class has a list of nine provided by Alberta Ed. You pick two or three that are most relevant for your class content and you have the opportunity to evaluate students on those skills. Using that competency-based assessment, I was able to use, as we call them, creative music challenges. It was an opportunity for students to be given different tasks and challenges to help create their own music again, from Day One. I don’t wait until kids know how to play an instrument, but from Day One. Then they can actually see their growth and process, their progress and their ability to take more things that they’ve learned from class and apply it to these creative music challenges and assess them more on the process of how they created the product: taking away that pressure from the final product and evaluating them on the process, evaluating them on their understanding of the creative process, and evaluating them on their ability to collaborate and work together to create a final musical project.
What I found was that there was quite a bit of a shift in my program culture. We created a culture in our music classes of creating music from Day One, and have been integrating it and allowing it to be part of the program. Students were less anxious about experimenting with music, around taking risks, even when they were taking risks with playing tests or performance tasks that we’re doing in class. It almost alleviated some of that anxiety that students get. They’re more eager to experiment and try and if it goes wrong, like hey, okay it went wrong, especially when we started talking about jazz improv and whenever I started creating tasks around compositions in my upper years for them to create. For example, in our pop song unit, they actually have to compose and write their own pop songs and perform it. So they they’re less anxiousness or hesitancy to actually try it, because we’ve created this culture of experimenting and trying from Day One through creative tasks.
I see the value in offering these tasks to students and integrating it into our program rather than letting it be this one off task that you do, but rather integrate it as part of your program and knowing too that you can assess so many other outcomes. For example, if you do a creative music challenges with instruments right away, you can assess students’ understanding of their instrument technique and musical phrasing. There’s always ways to connect those outcomes back to the curriculum. I see the value in the results of the students and the culture of my program, integrating creativity as part of your music program, and valuing it as much as you value theory, performance and history.
My hope for music education is that we can begin to move forward to deconstructing that idea of ‘Here’s the music, I am the conductor, I tell you what to do, and you listen to those instructions’, deconstructing that idea of music education and integrating different genres of music, different perspectives and different ways to create music.”Read More +