James Jensenimage_544495768119989

Welcome! My name is James Jensen, a professional educator in Denver, Colorado. For the past five years, I have taught Instrumental Music in an urban comprehensive high school. My experiences include teaching Band, Orchestra, Choir, Guitar, Music Appreciation. I love working with students to help them achieve their goals and achieve their highest potential.

Modern Band Beginnings

On the last day of school last year, I skipped out a bit early. I said goodbye to my dutiful orchestra students and headed west into the foothills above Denver. Just outside of town is one of my favorite places in the world, Redrocks Ampitheater. The awesome choir I sing with was invited to join the Colorado Symphony Chorus and the Colorado Symphony onstage with the Flaming Lips to perform their album The Soft Bulletin.

It was incredible to be a part of a genre-bending collaboration that culminated in a beautiful concert in front of 9,000 screaming fans nestled between the 3 giant red slabs reaching toward the peaks. The lights of Denver spread out behind us, Wayne Coyne pulled on a giant lighted helmet that connected to hundreds of feet of LED roping that reached out into the crowd.

Growing up in traditional music education programs, I kept my rockstar ambitions at home (and at church youth group). I started playing guitar and even took lessons for a year-long before I ever took formal voice or clarinet lessons. But even throughout my formal music education, I separated my guitar playing (my “modern” instrument”) from my pursuit of a degree in vocal music performance and music education (my “classical” instrument).

Looking back, I realize that this separation did not make me a better classical musician and certainly didn’t do anything for my modern musicianship skills. Ultimately, I am now practicing my guitar, drum set, and keyboard skills in order to bring them up to speed with my overall musicianship.

Today’s students don’t need to be put through this. We have no need to build this wall between classical and modern music. When students are actively engaged in music-making (no matter the instrument or repertoire), they thrive in creativity, innovation, and connection!

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a training with Little Kids Rock  here in Denver, CO! This incredible group trains teachers to teach what they call “Modern Band” and fundraise to provide districts, schools, and teachers, with the instruments needed to start contemporary music ensembles in public schools. They have a lot of awesome resources and ideas that you should definitely look into!


For my birthday this year, I got a beautiful brand new Epiphone Les Paul Pro-II to explore my inner rock-star! I’m looking forward to this journey and hope you’ll come along with me! Rock on!

Improvisation in Ensemble Settings: Building Community, Creativity, and Understanding

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo

Schools have a problem with power. We live in a society that values some perspectives over others. It honors the rich over the poor. The white skin over the darker skin. The men over the women. The powerful over the voiceless.

As educators, we are beginning to push over this barrier. Though my district is certainly more focused on the academic achievement benefits of student discourse and engagement, I’m far more interested in the potential of moving education into a more justice-oriented and empowering system for young people.

This is done by providing students with opportunities to use their voice in the classroom. Not only to discuss teacher-chosen content and build understanding of curriculum, but to engage students in constructive conversations about the nature of their learning. To help them build better understandings of the world around them and begin to see their part in creating the future!

Music educators have traditionally been in the top-down, teacher-centered role. While I honor and believe that is a useful model for music education, I have been looking for ways to empower and engage my students in more authentic and engaging musical practices.

Some background: I am in my third year of teaching at an urban school with many students who experience poverty and who are culturally and linguistically diverse. These students do not have strong cultural ties to Western Art Music or the cultural traditions related to it. They do however, bring interesting perspectives to the classroom and diverse backgrounds from all around the world! If you teach in a program that regularly competes at the state level, is equipped with private-lesson teachers and assistant directors, with booster clubs, trips, and master-classes, then this might not be for you. I fully understand my context as a teacher of traditionally under-served students. I love it! It’s a unique challenge that I am only just beginning to understand.

So, with that said, I’d like to discuss one way to democratize the world of music education in traditional performing ensembles through the use of improvisation. Improvisation is the act of creating music spontaneously with or without the use of supports such as rhythms, harmonic changes, or melodic plans. In my class this has looked like a few different things.

Improvisational Music for Technical Ability

After rehearsing the Eb major scale, students in Intermediate band are encouraged to explore and refine their understanding of the scale through improvisation activities. One day at the start of class, the ensemble plays the Eb major scale once and then goes around the class, with each student improvising a short 3-5 second musical idea in the key. The next day they repeat the exercise, with the rest of the class holding a simple tonic drone under the improvisation. Students are encouraged to listen to the way their note choices relate to the drone.

This first type of improvisation allows students to explore a familiar concept in instrumental music classrooms – scales – through a more creative improvisational format. Different supports / restrictions for improvisation can be added to explore other musical concepts (dynamics, harmony, rhythms, etc.).

When designing improvisation activities for your classroom to build technical ability consider the following ideas and questions to get yourself started!

  1. What musical concept or idea do you want to strengthen in your students?
  2. What skills or concepts have you taught recently that your students need to practice or deepen?
  3. What are you hearing or not hearing in your ensemble performance that you would like to improve? Could you challenge your students to improvise dynamics together? Practice listening? Intonation in a scale? Chromaticism? Try designing an improvisation experience that will allow them to explore the concept!

Improvisational Music for Musicianship and Creativity

Another day, students gather in a circle instead of the typical ensemble set-up. After a short discussion of musical ideas (What images do we want to create? What kind of musical sounds might create that sound?), students engage in a collective free improvisation. After this exercise is repeated two or three times, students have a longer conversation through the use of a talking circle about how the music they created effectively or ineffectively communicated the ideas they discussed at the start of class.

The second is more focused on the creative aspects of music-making. Students engage in a creative process in which they generate and test musical ideas to communicate a musical idea. This can be done in a large ensemble process or in smaller groups. By providing students opportunities to be creative through free improvisation, students express themselves through their instruments in ways that they take back to their ensemble literature.

These musicianship improvisations might incorporate thematic material from ensemble music. Thematic could mean melodic material or conceptual ideas in the music. For instance, an ensemble rehearsing Moscow, 1941 by Brian Balmages might discuss the folk text that accompanies the traditional theme and choose additional melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic material that might communicate that theme. This encourages students to consider the compositional choices from the perspective of a fellow creator and encourages them to make more informed expressive choices in their playing.

Planning Improvisational Events

I think most music teachers have about the same approach to improvisation and composition in the classroom. We understand their importance in building musical understanding and creativity, but we prioritize concerts, contests, festivals, and performance of ensemble repertoire: usually for good reasons! At the end of the quarter, we may reflect on our concert preparation process and breath a sigh of relief that students  A) put on a successful musical performance and B) learned something along the way. We may notice Improvisation and Composition down there at the bottom of the priority list and think, “Maybe fourth quarter we’ll find some time.”

In order to build intentionality into your use of composition and improvisation in the classroom, I think it is a good idea to plan ahead for improvisation when planning instructional units around a piece of music. Consider using improvisation to introduce musical ideas, practice concepts in the music, or even give students an opportunity to express emotional or pictorial themes of the music through improvisation!

Improvisation and Community Building

Improvisation builds community among musicians! The key skill of improvisation is not the ability to play scales over changes, or pick the perfect note for each chord; the key skill of improvisation is listening. The key skill of improvisation has less to do with music-making than it does with connection-making. Students who listen sensitively to a given soundscape and contribute their own musical thoughts and ideas to that sound scape are practicing a democratic process. Students consider what they have to contribute instead of being told what to contribute!

Improvisation also gives students a creative voice in the classroom. Many of my students have told me how much they love expressing themselves through the music! I was surprised the first time a student say that to me. I thought to myself, “What-in the midst of the chaotic and strange sound these adolescents created-was this young man expressing?” This was one of the first times we tried improvisation and the instructions were simple – without instruction of when or what to play, play something! With explicit instructions not to focus on creating something beautiful or musical and instead expressing through the instrument, these students were finding meaning and connection through their musical creation.

I think it is often difficult for music teachers, who grow up in traditional large ensembles, to truly understand improvisational music-making. Even jazz musicians, who improvise within formal systems, scales, and changes may not really understand the impact of free improvisation and related ideas for students. For my students, they have vastly different lived cultural experiences than myself or even each other! For these students, they find connection and community in music that doesn’t exclude, isolate, or require certain cultural competencies to understand. They can really love and engage with music at a core level!

Let Go and Listen!

One of my favorite moments this school year since I have started using Improvisation in my classes was after working on a small-group improvisation project in which students were asked to create a piece of music inspired by a photograph (I got these from our art department! Great way to collaborate!). After working for a while, some of my students came up and said that they had decided to use only five notes as a group because they found that they worked well together and matched the beautiful leaves that they were trying to visualize.

When they told me about this 5-note phenomenon, I was floored! On their own accord, my students “discovered” the pentatonic scale! We then got to have a really cool conversation about how the lack of half-steps in the scale allows more chances for consonant intervals between steps of the scale – making it perfect for improvisation! I was then able to let the students teach the rest of the class about the scale and then design a lesson plan (including improv!) around different kinds of pentatonic scales from different cultures.

Let your students be musical! Let them create! Let them improvise! It won’t sound perfect ever, and it may rarely sound “good,” but students will discover musical truths and connect with each other in ways that you could never plan in a lesson!

2016 Colorado Music Educators Association Day 3

This will be the last post in my CMEA 2016 round-up! You can find the the other posts here:

What About Us? Teacher Wellness Strategies

Presented by Dr. Margaret Berg from Colorado University in Boulder, CO, Dr. Berg offered a new perspective on the often maligned “work/life balance.” In contrast, she suggested striving for satisfaction in all areas of your life: professional, emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual.

She referenced the work of two researchers in two divergent areas of study.  The first is Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction by Matthew Kelley. Kelley’s premise is that there is no such thing as a work-life balance. Due to unique priorities, schedules, and life circumstances of each person, your “balance” might be different at different times of your life, the year, or even your week! Kelly advocates instead that people seek satisfaction in their personal and work lives.

The second book is The Power of a Teacher by Adam Saenz. Similar to Off Balance, Saenz encourages a focus on teacher well-being in multiple facets of their life. There was also an emphasis on priorities here as well.

I have not read either of these books, but they are on my Want to Read shelf on Goodreads! I will make sure to update when I have read them!

Colorado Music Education Conference Round-Up

Thanks for taking a look at what I learned at the 2016 Colorado Music Educators Association Clinic Conference last weekend in Colorado Springs! If you have questions or would like to talk to me about any of the ideas I learned, I’d love to share the resources and wisdom I learned from the conference!

2016 CMEA Round-Up Day 2

The “IT” Factor in School Orchestra Literature

Dr. Gail Barnes, from the University of South Carolina runs a program called The String Project, in which undergraduate music education string students have an opportunity to teach students from 3rd grade through adulthood. In this first clinic I attended with Dr. Barnes, she presented ideas that promote an affective approach to selecting school music literature. She argued that students do not stay in music because of the skills and knowledge they acquire through our courses, but through the emotional connection they make to the music, to each other, and to their directors. She also demonstrated the ways in which composers use intervals and other compositional devices to evoke musical expression and emotional connection.

Dr. Barnes also quoted one of my very favorite books about teaching music, Shaping Sound Musicians by Patricia O’Toole. Shaping Sound Musicians emphasizes incorporating affective goals into the planning process for music teachers. It is not enough to teach them the skills they need to play it or the information about the composer or composition. We must actively engage in teaching our students the emotions of the piece and providing them opportunities to express and explore their own connections to a piece of music!

Hey CMEA… What if we…?

This session focused on providing feedback and ideas to the state music education organization on how they could better support teachers and provide opportunities for music teachers to improve their craft. Primarily, our discussion centered around the role of non-traditional performance ensembles and ways of musiking. What I really appreciated was the emphasis on the “Both/And” approach: traditional large ensembles and alternative musical ensembles (rock band, mariachi, ukulele ensembles, etc.) can and should coexist in schools!

It was a really interesting discussion! As the profession opens up for new and diverse ways of music making, I think it is important to keep educational equity in mind! Ukulele ensembles, guitar ensembles, and other ways of music making cannot just be the second-tier option for schools without the resources to build large musical ensembles. Such a two tier system would simply widen the opportunity gap between students at affluent schools and students living in poverty.

Incorporating Composition in the Classroom

This was, hands down, the most fun I had at a session all weekend! A violist from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presented a composition model used in the education outreach arm of the Orchestra. Basically, the teacher guides students through a composition process that doesn’t rely exclusively on traditional notation, and with the help of other musicians, bring the students ideas to life!

What I really liked about this model was the emphasis on story-telling, musicianship, and creativity! It is typically used in the primary and middle grades, but it could be adapted for a high school classroom really well! The most interesting part of this process is immediately playing

Posture, Pulse, Pitch…and Praise (and Persistence!)

I have a confession to make. Well, that’s not completely true… I confess that I am not a string player! That’s right! While I teach strings every day, I am still struggling with many of the fundamentals of string playing. I grew up a clarinet player in the band and took a few years of private lessons when I was younger and again in college. And while I enjoyed my instrumental experience, I fell in love with singing at a very early age – just ask my parents!

And while I also played guitar, I was worlds away from non-fretted string instruments! And so I’ve done my best over the last two years to delve into string teaching and pedagogy, but have not been great at actually picking up the violin! So, inspired by the conference, I’ve decided to rent a violin and start practicing violin playing daily at school!

Total Program Success

This was another big favorite of mine! Jeff Young from the Carmel High School marching program in Carmel, Indiana presented a system to evaluate and redesign a program for total success. This seems like a lofty goal (especially for a guy that teaches Anatomy and Physiology), but by applying principles of leadership, entrepreneurship, and what we know about goal-setting and organization psychology, Jeff and his program Dynamic Marching, laid out a usable format for rethinking a band program.

Truly, though, this system could be used by any school organization looking to reevaluate their vision and goals! I learned a lot from this class and intend to use the principles taught to reimagine my program and where I want to go. To be honest, I’ve been feeling very directionless at school as I work with my students. Certainly, I have short term goals for my program and my students-concerts, performances, festivals, etc. But I have not had long-term goals that I am working towards. Even worse, the department I chair does not have long-term goals that we are working towards together.

To truly be successful, both my program and my department need vision, goals, and the work ethic to achieve them. I hope to take the course that Jeff and his team have developed in order to better design  a way forward for me and my students. Professional satisfaction won’t land in my lap from nowhere! I need to take the necessary steps to make it happen for me and my students! We deserve nothing but the best!


Part 1 of the 2016 CMEA Round-Up Series


Between the World and Me – Required Reading

25489625This morning I finished my first read-through of Ta-Nehisi Coates 2015 book, Between the World and Me. This long-form letter written from father to son exposes the systemic racism and system of prejudice in the United States for what it is: the active and bloody destruction of black bodies. Our society, our dreams, and our national pride are built upon the historical otherness of blackness; and our individual participation in what Coate’s describes as “The Dream” perpetuates that violence.

I will read through this book again and again and again. While I have a long way to go in grappling with my own whiteness and racism, this book has really opened my eyes to the ways in which our current society continues the sins of our fathers through racist policies, policing, criminal justice, and countless other practices.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the book here, because I think you should read Coates’ own words on the topic. So stop whatever your doing. Put your other books on pause for a while, and read this book. I think you’ll close the book a different person than you opened it, and that is — in my estimation — the sign of a great piece of art.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

5-Star Reflections – CMEA 2016 Day 1

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m had a blast learning new things and engaging with new ideas at the 2016 Colorado Music Education Association Clinic Conference at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado! So, I thought I’d share my thoughts thus far on some of the clinics, workshops, and performances I’ve seen over the last few days! This will be a 3-part series over the next few days and is organized just by each day of the conference! If you’d like more info on the ideas from these posts, let me know and I’ll send some of the information from the sessions along!

Teaching Music in the 21st Century

The keynote speaker, Dr. Russell Robinson, chair of the Music Education program at the  University of Florida, spoke about the importance of adapting instruction to a new age of “digital natives.” His talk more broadly summarized the challenges of teaching music in the 21st century, where technology, cultural shifts, and federal and state policies have changed the music education field forever.

What I most appreciated about Dr. Robinson’s talk was the emphasis on teachers being the solution! I also loved his emphasis on quality repertoire for school music ensembles! He cited a study (which I will try to find at a later time) that showed that the reason students stay involved with music education is primarily the quality repertoire that their directors select! This is far from new information for me, but it is nice to hear it again!

Greeley Children’s Chorale

Darlene James leads the Greeley Children’s Chorale in Greeley Colorado. Home of the Greeley Stampede and the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley is doing something great with music education! These students performed beautifully with excellent choral technique and expression beyond their years. I particularly enjoyed a piece by Peter Romero, one of their two accompanists called On and On.

Western State Colorado University Wind Symphony

What a wonderful program and band! They performed a short concert that included some band favorites like the Earl of Oxford March and Chester and also some incredible new compositions including a world premiere featuring a wonderful marimba player! I particularly enjoyed their final selection, Give us This Day by David Maslanka. While the title comes from the Lord’s Prayer, the inspiration for the piece is based on buddhist principles as taught by Thích Nhất Hạnh. I love hearing beautiful and moving music that is inspired and connects with other religious and cultural traditions!

Tips for Quick and Easy Repairs

While I love going to clinics and performances where I get to see and discuss the state and future of music education, but workshops like this one from The Repair Shop sponsored by Music & Arts was one of the most useful and informative sessions of the weekend! The clinician took us through all of the wind and percussion instruments and discussed / demonstrated the kind of basic repairs that teachers can perform on their own using a small arsenal of simple tools. The most essential quick fix tool for instrumental music educators? Blue tape!

While many of the repairs were intended to be things that could be fixed if something breaks the day of a concert and are intended to simply get a student through the performance, these repairs will help my students be much more successful on their instrument! For instance, he discussed the G#/A key on the clarinet and the small screw that is often too tight. When this screw is too tight, the instrument will not play! I wonder how many times I have sent in an instrument to be repaired that simply needed a small adjustment!

0-60: The story of one teacher in Chicago who developed a successful curriculum for students who begin music in High School

I attended this session with high expectations. After all teach students who begin music in high school! teach music at a school with very low reading scores and math scores. There must be something for me at this workshop, right!?

Not quite. Doug Corella teaches at a charter school in West Chicago, where he has implemented an innovative model of music education that is based entirely in percussion instruments and arrangements that Mr. Corella writes himself! With a history as a pop music performer and recording artist, Corella brings a special talent and skill-set to his classroom that most music teachers who have almost exclusive experience in traditional large ensembles lack.

This allows him to reach his students in really interesting and beautiful ways!

My own disappointment with the workshop was not Mr. Corella’s fault. I was hoping for a curriculum! Something that I could take back to my students and use in my Beginning Band class! What I encountered instead was an instance of the “Both/And” direction of music education moving into the next part of the 21st century. That is, bands, choirs, and orchestras will need to coexist with non-traditional performing ensembles and diverse ways of musiking (a verb describing the process or act of participating in music as a performer, listener, or otherwise).

While this presents organizational and capacity challenges to schools, districts, and places of higher education, I believe that this concept of “Both/And” will be important for schools across the nation, particularly those who serve Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students or those serving students of a low socioeconomic status. I’ll touch on this more in the day 2 post!

Digital Practice Cards

This was maybe one of the more “new” ideas I learned at the conference! John Hermanson, the director of the Fort Collins High School Orchestra in Fort Collins, Colorado, presented his practice assessment system. Most music programs in the country use some sort of practice log or practice journal in order to require / incentivize students to practice at home! Practice is an essential part of being a musician (or any other skilled trade), and most high school students just don’t do it very well.

hero_logoIn Mr. Hermanson’s program, students in his classes (not every class) are required to video record themselves practicing  for 3 hours every week and submit those practicing videos to their teacher through Google Classroom. I have used Google Classroom for playing tests in similar way, but had never considered asking my students to record their practice. In Hermanson’s orchestra, his students receive feedback on their practicing. This is really the key element of this system. While it is important that students are practicing, it is much more important how they practice. Through this system, the teacher is able to better teach his students more effective ways of thinking and processing while they practice, which leads to more productive and meaningful practice sessions that build student skill and understanding of their instrument!

In my classes two weeks ago, the topic of practicing came up in a class meeting about how things were going in our ensembles. Students who have been in my ensembles for 2 or more years now talked about the importance of practicing their instrument. So, this is something I will be implementing in my classes! Not right away, and certainly not all at once, but I will be bringing these ideas into my classroom in order to build student capacity for independent practice! I expect it will be a wonderful addition to my classroom environment!

President’s Opening Concert – Colorado Symphony Orchestra

The President’s Opening Concert is an annual event in which the state organization inducts members into the CMEA Hall of Fame! This was a short presentation that honored two music educators who have really impacted the music education field in Colorado. While I do not know the two educators who were honored, it definitely inspired me to think about the legacy that I want to leave through my career.

Following the short ceremony, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra took the stage under the baton of a young composer named Jayce Ogren. The orchestra performed a wonderful program of works by Jean Sibelius, Aram Khachaturian and Modest Mussorgsky. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged by the great composer and orchestrator Maurice Ravel.

I must confess, however, that I broke a cardinal rule of concert going in the Western Art Tradition: I used my cellphone. Throughout the performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, I pulled up the Wikipedia page for the piece and read about the composer, the work, and the artwork that inspired it. While I may not have appreciated each nuance of the work, I did learn things about the work that I will remember for a long time!

For instance, in the movement inspired by a paintinhartmann_paris_catacombsg of people in the Paris Catacombs, Mussorgsky wrote in the margins of his score: ”
With the dead in a dead language… Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within.” When I first read this sentence, the first violins made this beautiful pianissimo entrance of a floating tremolo that sounded exactly like skulls beginning to glow softly from within.

Which made me think about the possibilities of technology within the context of musical performance. Certainly, some ensembles are beginning to create and embrace technologies like this that can enhance listener experiences and provide them with more information than brief program notes could ever provide. I wonder if there is room in Music Education at the K-12 level for this? Could technology provide a more interactive music experience for the audience in addition to the students on stage? I think so!


Moving updates!

I’ve always loved coffee shops. Well, at least since I started drinking coffee in college (more out of necessity than pleasure or social necessity). During student teaching, the coffee shop in my small college town was my first destination before driving 30 miles on a country highway a few towns over. One morning, they were really excited to see me and they handed me a paper as I approached the counter with me on the cover conducting the band in their Winter Concert.

Needless to say, I knew I went there too often. But here I am, sitting in a coffee shop in Denver sipping black coffee and enjoying air conditioning that I don’t have to pay for.

Last week Thursday I moved back home with my parents from college and enjoyed a great family vacation. Now, life is back to normal. Except I’m now an unemployed college grad in a recovering economy. So not great. But over the last few days I’ve become really excited about what the future holds. Sure, it’s nerve-wracking and terrifying, but there’s a feeling like I’m supposed to be here.

I’m still looking for work in school districts in the area, but I’m ready to sub for the first 6 months to a year if that is necessary. Now that I’m moved, I’ll work on that reflection on the recent Music Educator’s Journal. I didn’t forget about it!

Fair Thee Well Love by James Mulholland

Last night I got home from my last domestic tour with the Concordia University A Capella Choir! It was such an incredible opportunity to sing with this group for the last five years, and I cannot wait for our European tour next month.

Here’s us singing Fair Thee Well Love by James Mulholland with me singing the solo.

Also, if you read this, wish me luck as I interview with a school in Denver that I would really love to work at!

We teach to cre…

We teach to create a musical environment we lacked while growing up. We are here to give students the best foundations possible.

A “Ms. Alexander,” as quoted by this tumblr page!

I thought this would be a wonderful quote to return to my blog with! I have spent the last few months hectic with papers and assignments and tours and job applications. I’m looking forward to the end of the semester when I can sit back and reflect on the last five years of my college career and really begin to appreciate all that I have learned and the new person I have become.

I will attempt to update this blog more often (once a week, I hope) over the next month, but I leave for my penultimate choir tour on Wednesday so that may not happen!

I do have a job interview next week, so maybe I’ll post some of what I’ve been researching in preparation for that with my connections to music education.

Good luck as we all (teachers and pre-service teachers alike) finish out the school year!