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How to Use Dice to Teach Middle School Music Students Composition in Any Hybrid or Virtual Classroom

How can you practice composition with middle school students without getting awkward melodies? The intricacies of composing, the hidden pitfalls of voicing. The answer? Random dice.

Yes! Random dice!

Annnd strict parameters that set students up for success, of course.

Internally, I cringe when I see assignments that say “Compose an 8 measure melody” as the capstone of a worksheet or activity.

Maybe it’s my anxiety kicking in, but that’s not much guidance. Time to leave it up to chance, I guess.

That thinking sparked an idea for a composition activity for beginning music students. What if it was left to chance?

Why Composing with Dice or a Random Number Generator is Crucial for Middle School Students

When distance learning started, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind was composition (Right after vocal styles). What an excellent opportunity to practice composition with students!

Then, the ghost of undefined composition activities for middle schoolers touched me with its cool, terrifying hand. That’s what students would (probably) do. It shook me to my core. (Not literally, but you get it.)

Students need to feel successful to buy into your choral program, friends. And if they experience failure or confusion, even when it’s not directly related to singing, then discouragement sets in.

To mitigate this, I wanted to design an activity that took the composing pressure OFF of the students and onto something else. Hence, dice! Or a random number generator. Either way, it gives kids the “out” they need to try composing for the first time.

Coming into middle school means dealing with their identity in new ways and any blow can be devastating. How many times have you heard a student immediately say, “Oh, I can’t do that.” It’s dismissive and shows how students don’t want to take ownership of something that hasn’t been proven to be successful for them.

Putting the “ownership” on something random relieves middle schoolers the responsibility of being good at a new skills they’ve never seriously done.

Maybe they did composing activities in elementary school (and they remember). Hallelujah, but it’s time to examine why they felt successful in elementary and bring that into your choral classroom.

Middle School Students Need Structure to Feel Comfortable Composing

Let’s go back to your elementary music teacher friend. They’re bubbly, adorable probably, and most of all: they (usually) have a super structured game plan each class.

With one class a week on the line, no time can be lost to shenanigans.

So, when they do a composition activity, they do not simply throw their kids to the wolves and say “Compose four measures”.

No, no, no. They tell those kids what notes to use, what rhythms they can and can’t use, and put in as many parameters as needed.

THAT’S what you need when first introducing any composition activity into your middle school classroom.

A.) It’s good practice to NOT assume all of your students can do a skill.

B.) Middle school students need that structure in all activities, but especially one that’s vulnerable like anything creative.

How can you structure composing effectively?

Another hot tip stolen from the elementary music world: pitch stacks.

When I completed my Level 1 Orff training, this blew my mind honestly.

Select notes based on the given key signature to control what choices students can end up with. This ensures a melody that students can sing and experience if you wanted to extend the composition activity. (Which I think you should. Student composes a nice melody that the class can sight read together? Yes please.)

Pair the pitch stack with the random dice and you have the makings of an activity that middle school students won’t shy away from easily.

Pitch stack + dice = Composing Lesson Planning Heaven

Now, how can we marry these two things?

I suggest using a major key to start and this can be shared explicitly if you’ve taught key signatures or ignore addressing it to keep students focused on building their compositional skills.

Then, assign a pitch to a number. For example:

This is where the magic happens. Now students don’t have to worry about what note to write for their measures and get to experience the fun of rolling dice. Have you ever rolled dice? It’s just fun. And lessons need more pure fun honestly.

Other Parameter Recommendations for Middle School Music Composing Activities

Beyond the pitch stack and assigning notes to certain numbers, consider how much freedom you want students to have with their first experience composing for you. Maybe it’s the crouching Type A, hidden control freak in me, but I think limiting as many variables as possible is the best way to introduce composing to middle schoolers.

There will be a time and place to give them freedom, but I think of it as asking them to write a short story without letting them practice a coherent paragraph.

Rebuttal time: that’s spoon-feeding/enabling/ babying the students.

To that thought, I say that I disagree. Limiting the variables (that maybe you don’t see as the expert in the room, but it’s still new to these students) helps focus on the composition itself and ultimately helps you identify any knowledge gaps if they struggle. When students receive tasks that are too open-ended, it gets hard to pinpoint what the problem was if a student produces a poor composition. Not familiar enough with notes or rhythm? Confused by key signatures?

We want to foster good musical habits, even in music theory. If students START with many supports in place that lead them to compose successful and singable melodies, then your students will have a good model to reference when they have more control over composing activities in the future.

As you plan a composing activity for the first time, here are a few more points for consideration:

1.) Starting and ending notes: Tell them to start and end on the tonic. Or, have it already written in the staff so students don’t need to think about it.

2.) Rhythm: What notes do you want your students to use? Simply quarter notes or will they have choice? If they are able to make the choice, then be sure they already understand time signatures and how many beats are needed per measure. It’s one thing to answer a worksheet. It’s a different ball game when students are creating themselves, so think about their overall rhythmic and time signature mastery before composing.

3.) Measures: How many measures do you want your students to compose? Do you want to use a traditional five-lined staff or modify the staff to three lines because you’re limiting the pitch stack? Don’t overwhelm your students with a multitude of measures because you’re trying to fill in a whole class period with this composing lesson. Keep it meaningful for the ability of your students.

*If you need to milk more time out of your composing lesson, then plan for an early finisher activity for your choir class. Students can sing the measures composed by peers (which should be nice and easy to sing when students are directed to use specific pitches and rhythms). From there, shift your lesson into sight reading practice and have students critique how the group sang - accuracy, blend, all the good stuff.

4.) Steps or Skips: Inherently, using a pitch stack inhibits students from crazy, awkward leaps. But if you know your beginning choir students don’t know how to sing Re-Fa yet, then another parameter to implement is the motion of the melody. Limiting to step wise keeps the exercise simple for beginning music students.

Bonus: Your ESE Students Will Feel More Successful in Your Middle School Music Class

Students with IEPs or 504s or your ELL students come to your class with educational accommodations or modifications that are taken care of when you scaffold your composing activities with the considerations discussed above.

When you throw a last-minute lesson together with little direction (Really, just saying compose 8 measures after completing a note identification worksheet isn’t good practice), your academically disadvantaged students suffer the most. Don’t let them experience failure when you have the tools to support them easily through controlling the variables needed to effectively compose.

Start Lesson Planning for Teaching Composition to Your Middle School Choir or Music Class Today!

Pandemic or precedented times, composition serves as a strong tool to demonstrate music theory mastery and allow students to dig into the creative side. However, their first experience composing needs to be supported or you will get some jacked up melodies. It would be like you writing in a language you don’t know.

Set your middle school students up for SUCCESS. I challenge you to create more interesting and supportive composing activity for your beginning music students. Share what you come up with in your Instagram story and tag me @cathyschoirclass!

Want to check out composing by chance activities? Click the thumbnail below.

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