Iconic Representation – Notating Student Compositions in the General Music Class Setting

In those first years of teaching I tried a variety of composition projects. Each one was laboratory like, as if the general music class was its own entity, separated from the ways of being in the real musical world. I expected the students to know how many beats were in a quarter note, half note, whole note, etc., creating composition assignments that would assess them somehow on note values while giving the air of an authentic process of composition. The assignments were sterile.

This was before the world of iPhones, iPads, and apps, there was no drum groove playing in the background the way there is now in our classes. Compositions were done in a group, which was problematic on many fronts. A few students did all the work, while the rest were merely along for the ride. Assessment became an issue. Higher functioning students unfairly lost points when the overall composition was deficient in some way, due to a lack of work by their teammates. Today, all assignments in the general music classes at HA are done individually. In this way all students are held responsible for demonstrating an understanding of each concept.

Getting back to the problem of notation. During my graduate studies at Oakland University (OU), we had discussions about the use of notation in the general music class setting. After learning about iconic representation, I made the decision that I would no longer use standard musical notation for 4th and 5th Grade general music classes. This would allow the students to focus on authentic musical processes without getting bogged down with what Jackie Wiggins called, “our secret society of music handshake.” Notation is part of the 3rd Grade General Music curriculum for six months when the students learn to play the recorder. This is an introduction to standard notation in preparation for the Beginning Band program for 4th and 5th Graders. My rationale was, if the students wanted to continue to study notation that would come with the band program, or I could easily differentiate instruction for students who wanted that.

The general music class instead would focus on authentic musical processes of creation. Without the focus on standard notation, I felt the curriculum could cover more ground. Iconic representation, as it was presented to me during graduate school, was a way of representing the pitch or highness and lowness of a note along with its duration. Initially I was using a set of magnets on the board for each song I was teaching. At that time, iconic representation had nothing to do with student composition work. I was searching for a way for students to represent the notes in their compositions. Most students would write down the notes on a piece of paper. Rhythm was pretty much left out. Over time, it became more apparent not having a system for the students to notate their compositions was a problem, and I didn’t want to go back to standard notation. I see students twice or three times a week for a half an hour. It felt as though all too often the students had to go back to square one, because their notes didn’t allow them to replicate what they had already composed.

The first solution I had was to cut slips of colored paper that corresponded to the icons or magnets we had been using when learning to sing songs. These pieces of paper were different sizes, just as the icons were. The students then glued them onto a piece of paper that had letters going up the side to correspond with the notes on the instruments they were using (Orff xylophones, keyboards, marimbas, vibraphone, or steel drums). I used this system for two years, but it had its limitations. When I helped make corrections to student compositions, pieces of glued paper off had to be peeled off, making a mess of their work. In general, it made revision difficult.

Eventually, I came up with the idea to have white boards and a set of magnets for each student. The issue then became the cost. I settled on 18” white boards. That was as big of a size I could find. With the size magnets I would cut, this would allow for a four-measure phrase with a couple inches left over. The students each had a set of magnets, I would cut from a roll; 16 one inch orange magnets (quarter notes), 8 half inch yellow magnets (eighth notes), four two inch green magnets (half notes), and two four inch blue magnets (whole notes). My boss was very supportive of the idea, and paid for 30 sets of white boards and magnets. All told, I think this cost around $1000, maybe a little more.

Composition problems are designed for students to solve in one class period. When the student is done she or he takes a picture of it with an iPad. I now had a digital collection of student work. My next problem became how to store hundreds of pictures. I was using my own iPad to take the pictures. In a few weeks the amount of work was staggering. I began by uploading these to Microsoft’s One Drive. This proved to be a timely process, but I was quite satisfied with the direction this was going. The general music classes were running very efficiently. Students were creating a large body of original authentic work.

This past year I tweaked the process again to solve the problem of me having to upload all these pictures somewhere. I discovered the app Seesaw. Seesaw is a digital portfolio system for teachers. You set up classes and the students create individual accounts using their Gmail accounts. There are other ways to set up Seesaw for younger students who don’t have email accounts or if they are all using a shared device(s).

Again, my boss was supportive of this process, buying the music department an iPad. The students now compose the work to meet the demands of problems I pose. They take a picture of the work and record a video of themselves playing their compositions, uploading both of these to Seesaw. Seesaw allows for the student’s digital portfolio to follow them from year to year, so we now have an ongoing digital collection of original work. Seesaw is quite flexible. There is a free version that is limited to ten classes. I use the paid version Seesaw Plus, which gives me twenty-five classes, the ability to make private posts (only visible to teachers), record private notes on student work, and create ongoing skill sets based on the curriculum. Here are reproductions of actual student work:

4 Measure Phrase in 4/4 Using the "1, 2, 3 Method"
4 Measure Phrase for a 12 Bar Blues Melody
"1, 2, 3 Method" With Dynamics

Refining the Process of Student Composition in the General Music Class Setting

In addition to the study of non-syntactic music elements, the curriculum at Holly Academy (HA) uses other elements or dimensions of music in a similar way. Using a synthesis of the concepts from Teaching For Musical Understanding (TMU), Ed Sarath’s pioneering work on the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP), and my own ideas, music students explore similar problems involving meter, form, texture, theme and variation, other tools of the composer, the 12 Bar Blues, melody, harmony (diatonic triads and 7th chords), and rhythmic study.

My own struggles as an improviser informed the learning experiences at HA. I realized that all too often I was playing a seemingly never-ending stream of unrelated musical ideas in my improvisations. With this realization, I found that my students through no fault of their own were having the same difficulties. I hadn’t taught them enough about creating and developing ideas, because my own ideas on the subject hadn’t matured. As I continued to study the language of jazz masters through the transcription process it became clear that master improvisers, as well as composers, were always developing melodic material. I went back to the story telling metaphor (In a previous blog post), and discovered what Leonard Bernstein called the “1, 2, 3 Method.” In a nutshell the “1, 2, 3 Method” is as follows:


1)    Create a main idea.

2)    Repeat the main idea with a change.

3)    Repeat the main idea with a change “blasting off” as Bernstein refers to it into a new main idea.  I have broken step 3 into two pieces, like this:

3a) Repeat the main idea with a change.

3b) Compose traveling music, which is what Lenny refers to as the “blast off.” This is music that is not the previous main idea, or the new main idea, but is traveling towards a new main idea. 


The “1, 2, 3 Method” has become a prime focus in the music curriculum at HA, regardless of whether the musical problems involve non-syntactic music elements, or the dimensions of music such as form, meter, texture, 12 Bar Blues, melody, harmony, rhythm, etc. This method works on multiple levels, providing a practical musical strategy that can be used for both improvisation and composition.

In traditional musical terminology we would use motive, theme, motif, pattern, melodic fragment (what else?), but the students already use the term main idea in writing class. As much as possible I try to connect to the language they use in other classes. Storytelling provides a wonderful metaphor for improvisation and composition. I suggest to the students that they think of the main ideas like characters in a book or movie. The details about the characters create interest and drive the plot. We don’t want a never-ending barrage of characters that enter the story, have nothing to do with the plot, and leave without be heard from again. The concept of adding more details is another concept that is shared with the writing curriculum. It is the process that is of main concern. If the students can understand the process of creating, it won’t matter whether they are writing a poem or story, composing/improvising a melody, or painting a picture.

The fundamental concern is to make sure the students are developing melodic material while telling a story. The 5th Grade music curriculum at HA includes a unit on Theme and Variation, and that is where I begin to hold the students responsible for terminology like motive, theme, variation, etc. Depending on the time allowed I also teach a unit called the “tools of the composer.” In this unit we study specific ways to develop melodic material, such as octave displacement, rhythmic augmentation/diminution, note alteration, etc. As you are building a curriculum, remember that the goal should be to create problems for the students that are process oriented and authentic to real life practices of music. In the next blog post, I will discuss my struggles with teaching the students how to notate their work.


Non-Syntactic Music Elements As Vehicles for Musical Invention

As an undergraduate saxophone performance student at UM-Ann Arbor (long before my second tour as an undergraduate music education major and more recent graduate studies at Oakland University), I was fortunate to be a member of the improvisatory-based Creative Arts Orchestra under the leadership of Ed Sarath, who I mentioned earlier. This group was comprised mostly of “Interpretive Performance Specialists in the European classical repertoire”, to use Sarath’s language (Sarath, 2013, p. 294).

Ed taught us to improvise conceptually focusing on what Leonard Meyer called non-syntactic music elements. We would improvise as an ensemble, or in smaller configurations, focusing on concepts such as tessitura (high vs. low), density (more vs. less), tempo (fast vs. slow), dynamic (soft vs. loud), articulation (smooth vs. choppy), timbre (the difference in sound quality between voices or instruments), and silence (lack of sound). Ed would give us one or more of these to use as the basis for our improvisations. Reflecting on how engaging this was for my friends and I in this group at that time, I began to make this a key part of the curriculum at Holly Academy. These became the basis for problems I would set for the students. This provided a goal-oriented approach to the music classroom, while also providing multiple avenues for assessment. I fused the non-syntactic elements with the idea of telling a story.

In my previous blog post I discuss basing the general music curriculum on the skill set of the jazz musician where story telling is a focal part of the problems I set for the music students. The students are required to write stories in their English classes. At our school they are taught about main ideas and the development of main ideas. I feel this is a clear way to discuss authentic musical experiences. If we are performing a piece, we are merely playing someone’s preconceived main ideas. It is the performer’s obligation to understand what these main ideas are, and elucidate how the ideas are developed over the course of a composition. Using the non-syntactic elements as a vehicle for improvisation or composition, students are beginning to learn how to tell a musical story while learning about key musical concepts.

This approach speaks to the important function of the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer. With the CICP as a model, the general music students are simultaneously the improviser, composer, and performer. They are learning to tell a story using basic musical parameters. They improvise, compose (notate using icons), and perform the story. Assessment then becomes a question of whether or not the student is demonstrating an understanding of those elements of music. At the same time, I am holding these students responsible for verbally knowing what the non-syntactic music elements mean. There performance is assessed on whether or not they are playing to the steady beat and whether or not they are accurately playing what they notated. As the students are working on this process there is always a drum groove from the app Drum Genius playing through monitors in the classroom. For a highly insightful look at the future of music education, read Sarath’s Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness from SUNY press. I will comment further on his Integral Approach to Music Education in coming blog posts.

Constructing a General Music Curriculum Based on the Skill Set of the Jazz Musician

In my previous blog post I shared my initial struggles creating meaningful music lessons and assessments. As I was introduced to Constructivism in grad school, I learned about creating authentic musical problems for the students to solve. I began to develop lessons using backward design. This entails starting with the following questions:

What is it that I want the students to learn?

How will I know that the students understand the material?

How will the students demonstrate an understanding of these concepts?

What musical problems do I want my students to solve?

At every step of this process, it was only through my own developing musicianship that it became clear what I wanted the music learning to be about. As a jazz saxophonist, my primary goal was to develop a vocabulary that would convince the jazz musicians that I respected that I knew what I was doing. In essence, this means telling a convincing story using the proper syntax. I don’t mean to imply that I am teaching my general music students to develop jazz syntax, but rather that it was the study of jazz that framed my ideas about curriculum construction. I began to focus the learning process in the music classroom through the lens of the skill set of the jazz musician.

The jazz musician is an improviser, composer, and performer, all in one. Ed Sarath refers to the Integral Jazz Musician as a Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP). I’ll get to Ed more a little later. I began to try and distill all the things I was learning in my attempts to be a CICP down to the basic elements that would become the General Music Curriculum. I was simultaneously doing this for two other middle school ensembles, but that is for another series of blog posts. If you want to go into that in detail, see my thesis Teaching Towards Learner Agency In Instrumental Ensemble Settings.

To sum up the CICP in as few words as possible, they are creators of the highest order. To condense this down a little further for the purposes of general music, I’ll just say “master storytellers.” This is the skill set I am attempting to use as a basis for the general music curriculum at Holly Academy. The students are already learning to tell stories through their writing classes. I felt I could draw comparisons to a process they already know, while using the conventions and terminology they know, as well. We are always telling a story. Our students are telling their story. I came to believe that letting the students tell their story, and helping them along this path is important in many ways.

When a student is creating his or her own music, the process is inherently authentic, providing the student with ownership over the process. The concept of ownership over the learning process is called agency. If the student has ownership over the learning process, problems with classroom management immediately begin to fall away. Getting back to the story telling process, when a musician improvises, she is telling a story. It just happens in real time. You don’t get a second chance at it. When a musician composes, she has time to create the story as she wants, depending on the allotted to time given to work it out. Using the jazz musician as a template, the student must also perform the compositions.

Teaching For Musical Understanding, as I understand it, is the study of the musical elements that go into this story telling process. It is up to the teacher to decide what musical processes to include when setting problems for the students. The musical processes involved could include steady beat, tempo, dynamics, tessitura, texture, meter, orchestration, form, or any number of musical parameters. As the student gains a better understanding of these processes, they become better equipped to tell their story. This then reinforces the learning process as being a valuable and meaningful part of their education.

For more information about the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer (CICP) and Ed Sarath’s Integral vision for music education, please read his Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness from SUNY press. In an upcoming blog post I will share specific story telling problems using non-syntactic music elements as catalysts for composition and improvisation.


Trouble With Your General Music Curriculum

·      Did you come out of your undergraduate music education experience with a body of lessons that are engaging to the students?

·      Are you a first or second year General Music Teacher?

·      Do you find yourself or your students frustrated with your music lessons?

·      Has lesson planning taken over your life?

·      Are you constantly mired in lesson planning, unsure of how to proceed, feeling you’re trying to reinvent the wheel?

·      Are you a band director, choir director, or string specialist who has general music classes, but don’t know where to start?


I haven’t met many music teachers who can answer yes to the first question, and if they do, most of the time those teachers came from Oakland University. If you answered yes to any of the following questions, this will be the first of a series of blog posts on the General Music curriculum that is currently in place at Holly Academy (HA). I will try to outline how the curriculum at HA evolved to solve problems I faced as a music educator.

When I first began teaching at HA, the music curriculum was based on learning to sing songs and play games. It involved very little in the way of instrumental experiences. The curriculum I was taught to teach as an undergraduate music education consisted primarily of a song-based curriculum that added simple instrumental borduns as accompaniments to songs. These were usually I-V, or simple diatonic fragments. I wasn’t crazy about the repertoire I learned in education classes. I struggled to find songs that were engaging for the students, and consistently went back to the drawing board to create more meaningful lessons. It seemed as though I was in an unending spiral of lesson planning, each day trying to make the next day’s music classes better than today’s. Classroom management was always a struggle.

Looking back I can see that behavior problems were a result of student boredom. When I run into students from those first five years, I often apologize, wishing they had the more meaningful experience I feel students have now. It wasn’t until I enrolled in graduate courses at Oakland University that I began to think differently about what I was teaching. Thanks to the professors at OU (Jackie Wiggins Ph.D, Joe Shively Ph.D, and Deborah Vanderlinde Ph.D), I began to shape the musical experiences of my students based on my own musical experiences and goals as a professional musician.


Struggling to Create a General Music Curriculum


As I endeavored to learn the jazz vocabulary and body of standard jazz repertoire, I began to include more improvisational and compositional experiences in the classroom.  I continually reinvented the curriculum hoping to bring more meaningful and authentic musical experiences to my students. The graduate courses at OU focused on Teaching For Music Understanding (TMU). The premise is that the General Music curriculum is one of learning about the elements or dimensions of music through authentic musical experiences such as composition, improvisation, performance, and analysis. By authentic, I mean as close to real life musical experiences as possible. 

While I was working out what this curriculum looked like I was spending a considerable amount of time trying to develop my own abilities as a musician. I found that the more I developed as a musician, the more I had to share as an educator. This continues to be the case years later. In those early years of teaching I often struggled with finding meaningful ways to assess what was going on in the classroom. I began a dialogue with my administrator about assessment, but there were no easy answers. I didn’t get the answers I was looking for from professors, either.

As music teachers, we are at a distinct disadvantage compared to other disciplines, as assessment in other fields is much more straightforward. Every other subject is concerned with or at least aware of what the assessment looks like from the beginning. Often times, their curriculum already has the assessments created. Assessment is a key element in any educational experience. One I feel is all too often lacking in the music classroom. I don’t recall having many discussions about assessment during my musical education. How do we now if our students are truly learning, without meaningful assessment?

I am embarrassed to say that those first five years of teaching, grades were based almost entirely on participation. Now I can see how unfair this was for students. I failed to provide engaging lessons for the students, yet held them responsible when they were bored and failed to act in a manner I saw fit. Eventually I would see that the key to authentic assessment would arise naturally with the construction of a more authentic music curriculum. Creating authentic musical experiences became of paramount importance as the curriculum at HA was being constructed. I found that as the music curriculum focused more on instrumental experiences, rather than just singing song after song (none of which I was really crazy about), students became more engaged and I was able to begin creating assessments that were indicative of the music learning that was occurring. As music educator, when building a curriculum you need to figure out the following things:

1)    What authentic musical experiences are centrally important to be taught in the music classroom?

2)    How can you create problems for the students to solve, revolving around these authentic musical experiences?

3)    Once the students have addressed these problems, how will you know whether the students have truly met the learning goals?

4)    How are the students going to demonstrate this?

5)    How are you as an educator going to evaluate this?


In the next blog post I will share how I began to create a curriculum that addresses these concepts and how I began to implement it. Begin to ponder the previous questions.  Even if you have a curriculum in place, think about whether or not the experiences you give the students are authentic musical experiences. Are the students demonstrating an understanding of these concepts? How do you know whether they have learned what you want them to know? Are they demonstrating these experiences in an authentic musical way?


Welcome to: Flat or Sharp?

Welcome to my blog.  I will be discussing topics related to music education, the saxophone, jazz, music in general, and probably meditation at some point.  I recently graduated from Oakland University where I received a Master's degree in Music Education, while also spending quite a lot of time studying jazz with some of Detroit's great jazz musicians who are on faculty there.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a graduate student at OU, including the process of writing a thesis. After spending the better part of two years writing the thesis and then defending it, the process is finished and I have graduated.  My time has freed up somewhat with graduate school completed.  I am just in the daily grind of teaching, practicing, and playing gigs.  I spent nearly two years working on my thesis, Teaching Toward Learner Agency in Instrumental Ensemble Settings (A PDF version is available in the Education section of this website).  The topics covered are important to me and I have learned a lot since I first began writing it.  The awareness that comes from any deeply reflective process shines a light on habits and biases.  These habit energies may not even necessarily be bad, but they do have consequences.  I noticed that my own biases, strengths and inadequacies, often worked to counter some of my loftier goals as an educator.  You are welcome to read the thesis itself, but it is quite long, as I am unfortunately long-winded (as my students will surely attest).  Over time I will try to cover some of the more salient topics from my thesis in this blog, along with other ideas I have about music education.  My thesis was a qualitative analysis, meaning I had to go where the data from the class videotapes took me.  There were other subjects I thought may have been covered, but the data was just not there or, as my professors told me, "eventually you have to put a period at the end and be done."  This is just as well, as the thesis was long enough as it is.  I hope this process proves somehow useful to someone besides myself.   This process certainly gave me a lens to view how my successes and tensions affected my students as I implemented a curriculum meant to foster student ownership over the learning process.  The following passage gives some background to the study itself and will be the first section I would like to share.

Entering Into the Study

"I entered into this study nine years into my career as an educator, and four years after I began graduate study at Oakland University. In this document I offer my thoughts (at the point when this was written) on what I feel is an approach to music education that is more comprehensive than practices prevalent at the time. I have included a description of the curriculum I was still trying to implement at the time and subsequently continued to develop.

As I began to experience the power of learner agency in the classroom, I endeavored to incorporate more processes that fostered agency in learners in these two emerging ensembles. These processes included balancing the interpretive-based nature of music ensemble study with creation-based approaches such as improvisation, composition, and personal expression through the development of musical vocabulary. It is my position that creation-based practices inherently hold more possibilities for students to have agency over their musicianship, while also helping to inform other musical concepts under study, such as reading notated music, aural skills, developing rhythmic integrity and harmonic understanding, and overall technical proficiency on one’s instrument. Azzara (2002) offers his thoughts on the efficacy of creation-based musical practices and the resulting effect on personal expression.

The research suggests that students should be provided with opportunities to make music spontaneously in a meaningful way through improvisation. Improvisation allows students to express themselves individually, to develop higher order thinking skills, and to develop a more comprehensive and intimate relationship with music, performing with or without notation. (p. 182)

Musical ideas generated during improvisation and composition practices come from the students. This is quite different from musical ideas in traditional interpretive- based practices, particularly in a large ensemble setting, where the music has already been composed by another and is subsequently interpreted by a conductor for the students in the ensemble. This is also true when students are covering music. The students in the Creative Arts Ensemble generally stayed close to the original version of the pop or rock music they were playing. Azarra (2002), citing Hummel, offered the following statement comparing interpretive practices and improvisation:

Even if a person plays with inspiration, but always from a written score, he or she will be much less nourished, broadened, and educated than through the frequent offering of all of his or her powers in a free fantasy practiced in the full awareness of certain guidelines and directions, even if their improvisation is only moderately successful (Hummel, 1828/1829. (Azarra, 2002, p. 176)

This study also gives a glimpse into the nature of other processes employed in my classroom to foster learner agency, such as student-conducting and greater student input into literature selection.

As I have tried to create a more balanced approach to the curriculum in the instrumental music settings in which I teach, I have experienced both success and tension. This study will explore how my ongoing musicianship practices inform the curriculum I have put forth. I set out on this study hoping to learn more about how the musical concepts I explore in the classroom promote or negatively affect the students ability to have agency over their own learning and learning environment. It is my hope that this study will lead toward a path of instruction that better understands and strives to meet the needs of today’s student-musician." (Dufresne, 2015, p.6-8)

That is the end of the first excerpt I will share.  As I reflect back, a couple years removed from when the first data was taken, I can summarize some of the more successful ways in which I foster agency in the classroom; they Include:

  • Teaching students to conduct, while giving them regular opportunities to conduct in rehearsals and concerts.  We have an annual conducting competition in the spring.  The winner conducts a selection in the final concert.  Letting the students conduct also frees me up to sit in any section in the band.  This is useful as a classroom management tool, as well as being able to understand exactly what is happening from every vantage point, and ultimately providing individual instruction amidst a group rehearsal.
  • Balancing interpretive music practices with regular experiences improvising and composing.  I firmly believe that improvisation and composition are the purest ways to foster agency in the music learning environment, as everything a student improvises or composes is their own.
  • Allowing students to choose their own band-mates in chamber group settings.  In our improvisatory-based ensemble (AAE), we have small combos.  This allows for shared musical experiences among friends.  I think the greatest gift in music is when we as musicians have a long-term musical relationship with friends who are dear to us and share similar interests and goals.
  • Not discriminating based on instrument, medium, or genre.  Each music student has a different background and set of interests.  This is often at odds with the experience of the teacher.  For example, I am trying to learn and teach the skill set of the jazz musician.  For some of my students, jazz just does not resonate with them.  While these skills are very much a part of my curriculum, because I let them choose whatever music they would like to play in the concert (as long as it is school-appropriate) a balance is struck.  The students are able to express themselves in the way they see fit, and my curricular goals are still met.
  • Allowing students to play the instrument of their choice, including, piano, electric guitar or bass, drum set, steel drums, DJ controller, violin, cello, voice, ukelele, etc.  All too often as music educators, we sacrifice the learning of individuals for the benefit of the ensemble.  This is a phenomenon that doesn't occur so much in other disciplines.  The math teacher doesn't ask her student to focus on decimal addition and subtraction because it benefits the math class while others are free to explore more advanced concepts.  Music educators, though, routinely ask someone to play 2nd trombone or 3rd horn because the part needs to be covered, regardless of whether or not that student will ever actually get to play a melody.
  • Allowing students to provide input regarding repertoire selection.  I cannot overestimate how important it is for the students to be passionate about the music they are playing.  It is the difference between endless complaining and having to force people to stop practicing after class, so they can get to where they are supposed to be.  I am not saying that you let the students dictate the curriculum, just that they are given a voice in the process.
  • Making the acquisition and creation of musical vocabulary a central part of the music curriculum.  The development of a personal musical vocabularyprovides a unique and authentic avenue of self-expression in much the same way creation-based practices such as improvisation and composition do.

That is the end of the first blog post.  Thank you for reading.  Check back regularly for new posts.  and please search around the sight.  There are free PDF's of exercises for band I have composed, jazz transcriptions of solos by I have done by my heroes, as well as Teaching Toward Learner Agency in Instrumental Ensemble Settings. 


Matt Dufresne