Unleashing Creativity in the Music Classroom by Andrew Morrison

This guest post was written by Andrew E. Morrison: Performer, Educator, Philosopher, and Advocate. Check out his website, AE Music!

A great educator once told me that you never get a second chance at a first impression. The first time someone picks up an instrument creates a first impression that lasts for the rest of their life. This impression can be positive or negative creating pressure for beginning band and orchestra programs.

That first impression ultimately will help empower each student to decide for themselves and may influence whether or not they want to continue with music throughout the rest of their schooling, and ultimately the rest of their life. The first year of instrumental music sets the tone, the first year is dedicated to creating a foundation that sets each student up for success, the first year begins to harness each individual’s relationship with music. What is that foundation and how do we make it positive?

In music education, there are four central pillars of the artistic process that provide the foundation for what we do. They are, create, perform, respond, and connect. In any music program, there should be a healthy balance of the four. While reflecting on pre-pandemic teaching philosophy, in many programs, the create pillar may not have been at the forefront of the pedagogical approach. Fortunately, there are ways teachers can use the Essential Elements beginning band and orchestra method to allow our students to be more creative in the music classroom.

Two of the most integral creative approaches to music-making are improvisation and composition.

Improvisation is often viewed solely through Jazz, but there is room to improvise earlier in instrumental band and orchestra well before learning song form and the traditions of jazz. We often forget there was improvisation in the Baroque era as composers such as Bach would explore, improvise, and have fun creating music.

Developing a foundation for improvisation by teaching the basics of music theory and aural training at a young age will allow students to be more prepared for improvisation in the style of both American and classical music later on in their musical careers.

It is never too early to begin composing! Regardless of one’s knowledge of theory, we are all composers. We can not let music theory serve as a barrier to students on their journey. One can compose with minimal theory knowledge, it can be as simple as writing four measures, what is important is that we encourage all students to at least try composing. Large works of music often start with a simple melody or a bass line that is eventually expanded upon. Fun fact, Mozart was only 8 years old when he composed his first piece!

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) existed before COVID, but now it is more important than ever. The intersection between social-emotional learning and music is naturally embedded. However, just because SEL is embedded in what we do does not make it intentional. We can make it intentional by having students improvise and compose at a young age when students first pick up their instruments.

We can sustain a culture of SEL by empowering students to unleash their musical creativity. Students will develop a deeper relationship themselves finding their musical identity, students will learn and collaborate with others through music-making, students will learn how to make spontaneous musical decisions through improvisation, and intentional decisions through composition. To learn more about the intersection between SEL and music click here.

This article is designed as a guide for current/and future teachers as an inspiration to foster a culture of creativity in their music classroom.


We often miss opportunities by focusing exclusively on written music, or exact music in the music classroom and, as a result, overlook what improvisation can do for the development of each student. Experiencing music making away from sheet music is a completely different musical experience that fosters internalizing various musical concepts.

Many of the greatest musicians in the world will even say that internalizing and memorizing music is integral to understanding how to truly phrase a piece of music. Training one’s ear with their instrument before reading music may be more beneficial as it allows students to be more comfortable with how their instrument functions.

The first time someone picks up an instrument there is plenty of room for exploration and improvisation. Following the basics in the essential elements book, the first few notes for each instrument are introduced. Every time a new concept is introduced throughout the book, students can be improvising. It helps to set parameters for improvisation so students do not feel overwhelmed or lost.

For example, if a student learns the notes G, A, and B… they can improvise using those three notes using a variety of different rhythms, dynamics, and articulations (even if they don’t know what those elements are yet).

Rhythmic Improvisation

All students have listened to music over the years that use harmony, intervals, melody, rhythmic variety, and more. Our students’ ears are developed further than what they know how to do on the instrument and what they know concerning music theory. Especially as it relates to rhythm, students can and should ultimately improvise beyond what they can read on paper. It is okay for students to initially not know how to notate what they improvise, they will eventually be able to do this in their musical career as they learn how to read and notate more complex rhythms.

Assuming all students can keep a steady beat by the time they pick up an instrument due to high-quality general music instruction. If any student struggles to keep a steady beat, learning how should be a priority, otherwise they will get lost in their improvisation. Students should be able to conceptualize thinking about rhythm in 2s, 3s, 4s, and hybrids (2s, 3s, and 4s, connected.)

In its simplest form 2s can be 8th notes, 3s can be triplets, 4s can be 16th notes and a hybrid would be 4 16th notes next to a triplet. In all music, the groove is integral, therefore, teachers should encourage all students to prioritize internalizing a steady beat at a young age.

Creating Melodies

Creating melodies should be a priority for every student, and as students develop on their journey creating melodies in all 12 keys is a must. Learning anything in all 12 keys is possible once the chromatic scale is learned. Starting early and with simple melodies will prepare students to improvise, and make music in all 12 keys.

It is a slow process at first, start by learning a song in two keys and eventually build your way up to all 12. Ideally, if this is worked on for a few years, students will be able to play harder music in their wind bands, orchestras, jazz bands, marching bands, and chamber ensembles as students will feel comfortable playing in all 12 keys earlier.

Learning Songs

It is better to take 5-6 short songs for the year and play them in all 12 keys as opposed to 30 songs in 2 or 3 keys. This will allow students to become familiar with key centers on their instrument, only improving musicianship. It may seem daunting, but in reality, there are only 12 notes and we have a lifetime to explore them. Oftentimes jazz musicians will learn songs in all 12 keys.

Encourage students to go out and learn songs and melodies by ear, learning songs by ear helps stick them to memory. When songs are memorized, they will often pop up when improvising.


Modeling for your students is one of the best and quickest ways to achieve positive student learning outcomes. Try playing call and response games with your students. Students can also play these games with each other by having them hear ideas from other people and mimic them. Mimicking is a great way to train the ear, and call and response games enhance phrasing and musicianship.

Specifically, this will help develop aural intelligence and allow students to develop their melodic pallets. Developing one’s aural intelligence earlier on will empower students to transcribe master musicians later on.

Use of Drones

Utilize a drone for improvisation. There are cello drones for all 12 notes on youtube and Spotify. These drones are great for creativity and exploration. Every time a new scale, mode, interval, articulation, and more are introduced, encourage your students to practice improvising melodically with a drone. This will help with line construction and developing one’s aural intelligence/ear.

One can put on the drone and begin singing melodies as well. This is called aural improvisation. Singing melodies before playing them helps students internalize the sound before how it sounds on the instrument, helping with intonation.

Use of Chordal Instruments

Harmonic instruments are your friend. If you are teaching students and you have access to a chordal instrument such as a piano or guitar, I recommend using these tools to play chords and encourage students to one at a time, improvise over top of the chord. If one doesn’t have access to a piano, or a chordal instrument, you can have students each pick a note in the chord and have students take turns playing musical ideas. All teachers should have a basic competency on a chordal instrument.

Scale Patterns

Once a student learns all of their scales, promote the usage of both diatonic and chromatic scalar patterns/melodies. Rarely are melodies just going up and down the scale. Melodies are created by using patterns taken from the scale. Each note of any scale has a scale degree, (ex: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7) An example of a scalar pattern could be 1235. You can play this pattern diatonically up the scale, or chromatically, keeping the quality of interval every time.

The more scalar patterns one internalizes, the more music one will have inside them to improvise over anything. Scalar patterns are the fastest way to build technique while harnessing one’s melodic intelligence.

Student-Created Exercises

Students should be making individual exercises based on the music. By examining the music you find in a method book such as essential elements or even one’s wind band/orchestra music, you will find that the music is filled with various scalar patterns and fragments of 3,4,5,6, etc notes. There are enough patterns to last a lifetime.

If students begin internalizing patterns they find from the music they like to listen to, or music played in class they will be able to guide their practice as well as improvise their music. Encouraging students to be proactive in learning this way will help foster a positive peer learning environment where the students and teacher are constantly learning together.

Improvisation tips and tricks

  • Start with small melodies
  • With a lead sheet chord tones will always be your friend (root, third, fifth, and seventh)
    Experiment with non-chord tones
  • Once students learn the chromatic scale, they can begin learning songs in all 12 keys
  • Learn the pentatonic scale in all 12 keys
  • If playing with a lead sheet highlight chord tones such as the root, third, fifth, and seventh in your solos
  • Play with rhythm
  • Use musical ornaments such as turns, trills, and grace notes
  • Set parameters such as targeting specific rhythms, intervals, or scales
  • In jazz, there is usually a form, or roadmap the musicians follow to know where they are in the music and what to play
    • While playing free, one usually thinks about melodic motifs and key centers
  • Mess around with timbre, (pitch bends, extended techniques)
  • Space/rests are extremely musical
  • Transcribe melodies that you like to further develop your aural intelligence and melodic pallet



It is never too early to start composing even if it is as simple as a small melody. Students should tinker with any of the songs in the essential elements book and practice composing at a simple, attainable level.

Examples of tinkering with already written songs are:

  • Adding/changing dynamics
  • Putting in or taking out articulations
  • Changing the rhythms
  • Changing the notes
  • Adding a duet line
  • Adding or changing harmony
  • Adding a bass line

Music Theory

Students would benefit by learning the basic functions of harmony and music theory at an early age. This will help from both a compositional and improvisational perspective. Sometimes music theory can be presented in overly complex ways in the classroom, primarily when it comes to harmony. This creates a barrier for them becoming well-rounded musicians.

Music theory should be used as a tool to unlock musical creativity as opposed to a subject that generally intimidates students and turns them away from music. Harmonic intelligence cannot be overlooked. Music theory and harmony should be used as a tool to allow students to express themselves musically.

Intervals and Chords

Teachers should consider teaching intervals, triads, and seventh chords in both major and minor keys. If we start by teaching students harmonic function in one key, students will be able to apply that knowledge to other keys.

Students should be able to read and identify chords and symbols on a lead sheet. If students learn how to read a lead sheet earlier on, teachers will be able to put in chord symbols over top of songs in Essential Elements for students to improvise and compose over.


Students can write contrafacts to already written songs with separate staff paper. A contrafact is a melody written by someone that follows the chord progression of an already established song. Students can take ownership of writing various melodies and contrafacts, eventually, we stray so far from the original melody that the new melody we create becomes our own. Continuing, there needs to always be some form of structure in regards to creativity for students to improvise or compose, otherwise students may feel overwhelmed and intimidated by playing.

Listening to music

The more music students listen to the better. It does not matter what style of music. Have students create a listening log. There is active listening and passive listening, both are important. We learn a lot from listening such as phrasing and articulation styles.

Most importantly listening to music gets the juices flowing and will spark inspiration to write. Listening also will give students the opportunity to discover what they like and dislike. Listening is a major part of the creative process.

Studying Other Composers

Encourage your students to really analyze the music they have in front of them. Have them look at the smaller building blocks within the piece. Smaller building blocks are small motifs, melodies, counter melodies, etc… Have students look at scores so students can see how parts are intertwined.

Students can seek out music on their own to study and see what they learn. Once students develop a strong theory knowledge have them analyze how other composers write and then have students write music based on those composers.


Singing is great for developing aural intelligence. We often sing what is catchy to our ears. Singing, humming, or whistling ideas and melodies can lead to a larger creation. If you think it is catchy, it probably is. I

f you do not know how to write what you hear in your head, record yourself singing the idea and save it in your notes for later. One of the greatest composers of our time, Wynton Marsalis, has hundreds, if not thousands of small audio clips on his phone of just ideas that came to him. Some of them turn into larger works, some never get used at all.

Arranging Songs

Arranging existing music for any instrumentation is a great way to start for students who are afraid of composing from scratch. You can arrange solo pieces, duets, music for jazz band, wind ensemble, jazz band, orchestra, chamber ensembles, modern band ensembles, and really whatever instrumentation piques your interest.

Even though it is an arrangement, you can really be creative with how the piece is put together. Maybe there is a four-chord pop song that you want to play in the stands at a football game. Students can take the song and rewrite it for the band’s instrumentation. Arranging can be used as a great introduction to composing.

Collaborating With Other Artists

Students can work with their peers on composing together. When multiple heads work together, it is amazing what can happen. We often are surprised by what we learn by working with others.

The more students compose, the more comfortable they will become. It is that simple.

To conclude, enhancing the way we teach music by including improvisation and composition will provide positive benefits for students. From students practicing, to redefining learning outcomes, defining a classroom culture, and more. Oftentimes we rely too heavily on extrinsic motivational factors in regards to why we are involved with music.

There needs to be a healthy balance between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation will come for students who can identify themselves in the music they create. If we give students the tools to be successful and empower them to create their own music, we will retain more students and more students will continue making music for themselves after they graduate high school.

Too often students will never again pick up their instrument after they graduate. This shows that students currently care more about the culture, environment, and making friends through music than actually making music for music’s sake. There is no reason we can not have both, that is the power of “and.”

We fail to teach students that learning music is lifelong and that learning never stops, this should become part of every student/teacher’s music philosophy. If we all adopt an innovative approach to teaching music, we can help develop students musically on a social and emotional level.

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