Student Exercise: Making Music Matter

This is a student exercise designed to encourage sharing to find connections and tensions between different kinds of music that students have produced an expressive product about.

It is a structured protocol, which means that although there are time recommendations, these can and should be adapted to your own circumstances.

  • Pair/Doubles Exercise: Put 2 projects in conversation (can be group or individual projects
  • It is designed to take about 10-15 minutes for each person, and be repeated for both participants.
  • These steps should be followed for each project and are followed by a chance to connect and reflect for about 20-30 minutes
  1. Put the project where everyone can see it.
  2. Choose a recorder to make lists about each of the works where everyone can see (Chart Paper? Projection? Whiteboard?)
  3. Start with looking (3 minutes).  This means you are describing the aspects of what you see, not interpreting meanings.  Here are some helpful filters
    1. Name the patterns you see or hear
    2. Talk about the colors and shapes on the picture plane, or how the harmony feels
    3. Point out textures or kinds of sound (is it a crayon? is it a saxophone?)
  4. Then connect (5 minutes).  This means you are describing connections between the formal parts of the image like how shapes and colors interact with patterns
    1. Do the patterns you see or hear seem related?
    2. Are the colors or harmonies related to the other parts of the work?
    3. Overall what do you notice
  5. Finally begin to interpret (8 minutes). This means you can talk about how you are making meaning out of the work.
    1. Think about how it feels.
    2. Is it telling a story? What makes you say that?
    3. Do you think it is a particular genre? Does it look or sound like anything else?

Once you have done both projects look at your lists everyone who is participating should individually identify three differences and three similarities.  (2-4 minutes)

  1. Everyone names one Difference and the recorder color-codes them with arrows and circles (1-2 minutes)
  2. Everyone names one Similarity and the recorder color codes them with boxes (1-2 minutes)
  3. Take time (2-4 minutes) for everyone to think or write about what they think about these similarities and differences.
  4. Open the floor to discussion (10-15 minutes)

After the discussion give everyone time to think, write, draw, or make music for a few minutes.

(Inspired by Making Thinking Visible, specifically and Think, Pair, Share)

Collaborative Drawing: Funny Faces

This drawing game is a simpler version of the exquisite corpse.  I love collaborative drawing games because they connect people.  This one I recommend starting with pencil, and then letting the person who started the drawing finish it.

  1. Draw an oval on your paper and write your name
  2. Fold the piece of paper in half, either hamburger or hotdog style
  3. Draw half of a face on your paper, carrying the edge of the nose, mouth, or eyes over the edge if you’re doing a left/right half, or write “top/bottom” on your paper if you’re doing it the other way
  4. When you finish, find someone else who is also done and trade.
  5. Open and see what it looks like!
  6. Finish it as you see fit, or start a new one!

What is learned: This is a pretty silly exercise, but because it connects learners through an activity, it fosters social interaction, and can make visible to teachers if some people aren’t getting along.  This allows teachers and learners to talk openly about ways of getting along.


  1. Form a group and put your faces together to make a story
  2. Write it out either with more paper, or on the backs of your faces
  3. Staple or sew it together into a book, or use the faces and writings to make a poster-collage.


  1. Instead of drawing, use collage to start with using glue and magazines or wallpaper samples instead of pencil

Guiding Question: What’s Your Plan?

My favorite question to ask learners is “What’s your plan?”

This question in its most basic form is designed to help learners stop and think, but in its simplicity it opens up the door for all kinds of dialogue.

  • If someone is doing something unsafe, it causes them to stop to think, and usually they figure out what it is right away, for example, “What’s your plan with that big stick?” You don’t have to say, “That you are swinging wildly near your friend’s head!” because the young person by that point has usually noticed.
  • It also elicits an actual plan of action.  For example: “Oh, my plan with this big stick is to build a fort, and I need to go find some other things to do that, where should I look?”
  • With older learners, it comes in handy when someone is frustrated with something.  For example, “Well, my plan was to take this rubber band and use it to make the car run, but I can’t get it to wind,” “Oh, cool!  What isn’t working?”
  • And if someone isn’t doing anything, “What’s your plan?” gets them to tell you if they’re stuck, or if there is something the matter.

Teacher as Guide and Listener

In this kind of work, it is important to let students find and make their own choices.  They will find things you never thought of if you are able to step back.

Keeping that in mind here are some kinds of roles that a teacher can play in a student organized project:

  • Guiding questions, for example:
    • “What’s your plan?”
    • “What do you think comes next?”
    • “How does this connect?”
  • Knowledge/Skills resource
    • After the main skills have been taught, the digital and specific craft skills may not be something that all the learners need, so the role of the teacher is to pay attention to the students, and anticipate when they are going to hit a knowledge gap.
    • When that becomes clear, fill the gap and step back
  • Structured formative check-ins and protocols
    • This is an area that once a warm-up or protocol has been introduced, students may or may not want to take the lead
  • Connect to community resources
    • This is the biggest adult role: connecting youth to adult resources and using your position to make things happen (signing permits, calling offices, connecting to prominent community members, etc)

Student Run Lab Ideas

Youth have their own set of skills and tastes, and it is important to keep this in mind.  Although the skills that connect musical ideas are front-loaded, there are a lot of places a teacher can offer freedom, after the general skills are understood.  What learners make when the teacher isn’t looking is usually pretty rad!

  • Music that students make and/or listen to will be invited into the space
  • Students search “literature” (music, art, other things)
  • Choice “research products”

Here are some skills that can be taught as students need them in individual interactions.  Often the best way to do this is to think of it as “each-one-teach-one.”  (with safety or really technical skills you can set specified boundaries)

  • Music/Video
  • Coding with MIT Scratch
  • Concrete Art and/or Performance