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The Tale of Raffie The Dragon

This was a project that came out of an exploration on how to teach lip flexibility to a challenging class of 4th-grade brass players. Engaging the students with traditional approaches for developing their technical abilities on the instruments was not motivating for this group. One day during a brass class, I experimented with an exercise for teaching these young brass players how to compose a fanfare using the lowest two partials on their instruments. This led to an exercise in which students pieced together fanfares based on the syllables and inflections of their favorite fruits, superheroes, and pets. "Banana" translated into "Bb - F - Bb". "Black Panther" translated into "Bb - F - F," ect. What followed was the most surprising and motivating weeks of teaching and learning for everyone in the class (myself most definitely included).

After composing many different fanfares and lip flexibility exercises, we began to translate full sentences into lip flexibilities. We first thought of pet names and "Raffie" emerged. I then asked who was Raffie? "A dragon," shouted a student. This was followed by immediate approval from all in the class. "Where does he live, I asked? After a bit more questioning, "Raffie, the Colored Dragon from the Mystic Forest" was the final result. We composed our musical lip flexibility. After which, we had only one thought. We must tell the story of Raffie, and so we did.

We explored the concept of a storyboard, and began to piece together "The Tale of Raffie the Dragon." Some students were working on drawings of Raffie. Other students were writing the text and piecing together the various characters and plot. In the end, we had a 13-page children's book about a dragon named Raffie, who is rescued by a foster family of bakers, learns he has fire-breathing powers with the ability to bake the best pizzas on the Mystic Island and saves his community from the evil dragon. Once the story was complete, the students and I began to compose the music for each page.

The finished musical product included all of the basic instrumental techniques that I had hoped to teach them (unison scales, scales in the round, turning against a drone, articulations, and, of course, lip flexibility). However, by using this as a vehicle for achieving those goals, our rehearsals included composing fanfares, exploring major and minor tonality, chromatic mediant chords, and exercises in orchestration and capturing moods through music.

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