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Grade 3: Writing Their Blues Away

Did you know that third graders have been working with Graland’s very own Artistic Director, Mrs. Tara Neeley to write their own blues songs?
As a Borgen Fellow in the University of Northern Colorado's Master of Music Education program, Mrs. Neeley completed her thesis on elementary songwriting, specifically in 12-bar blues. Despite the prominence of songwriting in today's musical world, Mrs. Neeley shared that it is a skill that is vastly under-taught and under-researched (especially in elementary schools), which made it even more important for her to pursue. "I feel a strong call to songwriting for myself and for students. Songwriting is a beautiful way to tell our stories and the stories of others. Storytelling is essentially what all artists do, and as songwriters, we are able to combine musical choices with written communication to make connections with others," Mrs. Neeley said. 

For this reason, throughout her time with third graders this year, Mrs. Neeley taught her students how to write and perform their own blues songs on ukuleles. "I focused on blues specifically because it is an excellent launch into songwriting for young students," Ms. Neeley said. "The 12-bar blues progression uses just three chords, and students can easily hear the chord changes and 'blue' notes after a few days of listening and singing. Those three chords are also the first chords they learn on the ukulele, which makes for a perfect pairing, and the A-A-B rhyme scheme of traditional blues is easily accessible for elementary students."
Before the songwriting process could take place, however, third graders spent their first rotation learning how to strum the chords and studying the history of blues, its evolvement, the feelings and emotions behind blues music, and famous blues artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Bessie Smith. Additionally, students ended rotation one by writing a blues song as a class to prepare them for writing their own songs in small groups during the next rotation. 

During their most recent rotation together, Mrs. Neeley's third graders worked in small groups to brainstorm their newest blues pieces. The third graders chose song topics, brainstormed possible verses and rhyme schemes, and wrote lyrics. Each group also got the opportunity to work one-on-one with Mrs. Neeley to receive feedback (sometimes up to 10 times!) before getting the "green light" to perform their piece in front of the class. According to Mrs. Neeley, "When students get the green light that their songwriting is finished, the final piece of the puzzle is adding improvisation. Between their lyric verses, there will be a 12-bar blues solo using improvisation on a recorder or xylophone. Eventually, the third graders will perform on mics in our class, singing and strumming, while I play the chord progression on piano and another classmate plays the improv solo. After all of the groups perform in class, one or two groups will be selected from each class to perform in our concert!" 

While the end products her students create are exciting, the most enjoyable part of the activity for Mrs. Neeley is the joy and dedication she witnesses throughout. "One of the parts that makes me the happiest about this unit is how much students enjoy it, including the writing process. Writing is not always enjoyable for students because it can be difficult. However, I don't see students struggling with writing when they compose their blues songs. They are fully invested in the process and truly enjoy their own creativity. Prompting kids to write or stay on task is never an issue. In fact, I usually have to ask them to cut back on their writing, or they end up with five or six full progressions, and we run out of time to perform!" Mrs. Neeley said.
Keep making beautiful music, Grade 3!

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.