In Grade 2, music teacher Mr. Justin Miera has been teaching his students about music composition. Throughout the unit, Mr. Miera wanted his students to build the foundations of composition without being overwhelmed by the amount of creative choices involved in writing original music. So, he used an unconventional method: chance. Drawing inspiration from John Cage, a composer from the 20th century who wrote groundbreaking music throwing I-Ching coins to determine the dynamics, tempo, and melodies of his pieces, Mr. Miera’s students have been doing the same. “Writing your own music can be really overwhelming for a young child,” Mr. Miera said. “This project builds on that operation so they don’t have to come up with their own original ideas for all of these different concepts. They make very easy choices, so the creative experience isn’t overwhelming.”
To help prepare his students for the unexpected nature of writing music by chance, Mr. Miera began the unit by encouraging his students to look at music from a neutral point of view. “Instead of thinking of music as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the response I give them is ‘interesting,’” Mr. Miera said. “So, when I ask what they think of a particular piece, they’ll stroke their imaginary beards and say, ‘Hmm, interesting.’ They get a kick out of that.” This ability to critique music from a neutral perspective led into the final piece of Mr. Miera’s unit: rolling the dice. Students rolled a single die for a number of categories, including dynamics (how loud or soft the piece is), tempo, the instrument used, and the notes to play. When their piece was decided, they performed it for their peers while Mr. Miera recorded them on GarageBand. “I can actually see in real-time how each child is reading and responding to the written music,” Mr. Miera said, adding that performing and recording gives students the opportunity to practice and modify their pieces, if needed. “This way, I’m able to help them move along to the next stage in music theory.”
According to Mr. Miera, this unit not only helps students with their compositional skills, but it also introduces them to music history and theory that prepares them for more advanced music classes as they get older. “It’s called a spiral curriculum,” Mr. Miera said. “Each grade level builds on the concepts from previous years, so when they start playing in a band or orchestra, or singing in a choir, they’ll all know the language.” Mr. Miera’s favorite part about the unit, though, is how it’s always full of surprises. “That’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much, because every single lesson is a little unexpected. Especially in this unit, I never know what the kids are going to come up with, and I never know how they’re going to react. Those surprises are always satisfying.”
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.