Easy Ways to Create Engaging Arrangements for Mixed-Level Ensembles

engaging arrangements with Gail

By Gail Fischler, founder of Piano Addict

I love mixed-level group activities. Yes, students need to learn alongside those who are working on the same skills and concepts. But, I believe it’s equally important to occasionally kick things up a notch and combine levels. Mixed-level activities allow less experienced students to aspire to something higher and more experienced students to see how far they have come. Mixed-level activities build kindness towards oneself and others. They also build leadership.

One of my favorite things to do with mixed groups is to have them play together. You can do this with everything from two acoustic pianos to a mix of acoustic and digital keyboards. Unless the keyboards are really small, I usually put more than one student at each one. There are lots of multi piano ensemble arrangements out there and they are fun and satisfying. But, when you adapt a piece or arrangement so that several levels can play together you introduce students to the process of arranging. 

Adapting a piece can seem overwhelming and complicated but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a top-tier composer or improviser either. You do have to organize things a bit so that students of all levels can participate successfully. Add in some digital sounds and you have an orchestra or band. I like to have someone discreetly video record short segments of the class. Everyone loves to watch how their ensemble arrangement evolved.

Here are a few tips for adapting and organizing pieces, using examples from the Argentinian Christmas carol, Gaspar, Melchor, y Baltazar

Choose a piece that is someplace between the highest and lowest levels of your mixed group. I usually try to give students the music at least a week in advance of the class. 

Simplify the arrangement. In Gaspar, because I had inexperienced readers in my group, I took out almost the entire accompaniment and marked the intro, transition, and coda ‘Solo’. My higher-level students played those solo sections. If you have the score in pdf form, it’s easy to use a pdf editor (Markup for Apple, Adobe for PC, or an open-source app) to add text and place solid white shapes over whatever you wish to remove—digital whiteout. Don’t get too type-A about this. It’s ok if there are a few bar lines hanging down.

Add simple chord symbols. Less experienced students can accompany with roots, fifths, or triads. More experienced students can create accompaniment patterns (boogie, walking bass, Alberti, extended chords, etc.)

Place less experienced students 2 per keyboard so they don’t have to play hands together. To keep things interesting, have them switch parts with their partner, as appropriate. (More experienced students can switch parts if they are partnered, as well.)

Keep things simple to start so everyone has success. Let the more experienced help the less experienced as needed. 

Start with only the melody plus chord roots. Even your more experienced students should do this. Assign the fifths, triads, and patterns in layers to specific students as you rehearse the piece. Even though your least experienced students are still keeping to the simple melody and chord tones, they are learning much as they experience the process. They are also opening their ears to musical layering.

You can stop right there and move on to another activity. Sometimes these classes move faster than others. If you have the time or another group lesson coming up, you can try these extended activities. 

Have your most experienced students add in the original solo arrangement. This should be the last step. It’s fun for them to improvise on the melody or create an obbligato part, too. 

Allow an extra 10 minutes or so in your overall lesson plan to treat families to a live performance when they come to pick up their children. 

Mixed-group arrangements are flexible, fun, and spontaneous. They reinforce the fact that every single part in an ensemble is important, no matter how simple or complicated. I learn something new every time I lead one. And, it makes my heart happy when I hear a student say the magic words, “Dr. Gail, what if I…” 

Would you like a free copy of the arrangement referenced above? Click here to go to my Teachers Pay Teachers site. The download is on the right-hand side.