The occasional break can be a very good thing. It gets us out of our ruts, turns our perspective upside down, rattles our cages. “Why don’t I try….” we think, and suddenly a new idea is born.

In this case, it wasn’t such a new idea as it was a new combination of old ideas. It was probably all the recent chatter about the compositional power in the studio that got me thinking, and suddenly Grab Bag transformed into Chord Scrabble.

A bit of explanation:

Grab Bag involves a bowl of poker chips, each one inscribed with a note name: F-sharp, B-flat, C, etc. This bowl is my go-to source whenever I want a student to do something (a scale, a chord progression, a Five-Finger position, whatever) in a random key. “Go pick a chip,” I’ll say. The kid then draws a chip—“Ugh, B-flat!” much groaning—and then does the task in that key. What I love about this process is that I cannot be blamed for the key they pick. It is not my fault if they draw B-flat (“The devil’s key,” one kid calls it.).

Officially, what we call “Grab Bag” is a strategy we use with compositions. “Pick five chips,” I’ll tell a student, and then only those notes can be used in that week’s composition assignment. Or sometimes we do Reverse Grab Bag, which means the five chips they draw are the notes they CANNOT use in their composition.

It’s all good, and part of the rotating fun of our normal lesson routines. But it took the most recent holiday break to inspire the newest variation on the Grab Bag theme: Chord Scrabble.

Five chips are drawn (yes, sounds familiar so far). The student (or teams of students, this works great in group classes) has to spell as many major, minor or diminished chords as possible using only those five notes. Yeah, much like traditional Scrabble.

Of course, what makes this really challenging is that sometimes the five chips drawn will be something like: F-sharp, D-flat, A, C, E-flat, which makes the F-sharp minor and E-flat diminished chords hard to puzzle out, since they will be spelled enharmonically. I love this. The trickier the better as far as I’m concerned.

Chord Scrabble can be a game all on its own, and a worthwhile one at that, but we can also take it in another direction. After decoding the five notes into all possible chords, these chords can be the required harmonies that must be included somewhere in that week’s compositional assignment. Integration, I think, is always something to strive for whenever possible.

As it turns out, three kids this week drew “Ms. Amy’s Cats” from the composition bowl of titles. I don’t know which kid thought of it, but it is a very good title.  I suggested that this might inspire a very annoying composition because the cats, this week in particular, have been very annoying.

So, those lucky kids, who this week are a composing piece called “Ms. Amy’s Cats” and incorporating a round of Chord Scrabble as well, might be including, let’s say, an F-sharp major chord, a B-flat minor chord and a G diminished chord somewhere within their composition (Assuming, of course, the five drawn keys are some version of F#, A#, Db, F and G). This combination has great potential to be very annoying, indeed.

Perfect.