CNMN > Projects > Nelson Mandela High School: Creative music making in a secondary wind band program

Keshini Senanayake

  • Acoustic instruments
  • 13 to 18 years of age

From one class to an entire school year

  • Education

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. 

Cre­ative Challenges

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: 

  1. Sym­bols and Visu­al ScoreThis 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. 
  2. 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. 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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? 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.” 

The Val­ue of Cre­ative Music Making

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 +


Image Gallery