Composer Books for a Sub

Hi everyone! This is Jamie Parker. I am so excited to post my first entry today! I have already gained a lot of new ideas from the other contributors, and I hope you have, too.

I have recently been out of the classroom for a few professional development days, and I had to do what most teachers dread: write sub plans.

When I have a substitute in my classroom, I have to assume that he/she has no musical experience. I try to keep my plans as simple as possible. I love to incorporate children’s literature into the music room, and I have found that composer storybooks work great for days when I am gone.

Listed below are a few of my favorites. They are all wonderfully written and have beautiful illustrations. If you click on the picture, you will be directed to Amazon where you can view the book more closely.

You can certainly use these books as an extension of a listening lesson or with a composer study. I just like to save them for those times when I know I will be out of the classroom.

1.    Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan 
 Ballet for Martha
I found this book when I was in the gift shop after a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. I took one look at it and had to buy it. It has beautiful watercolor illustrations and tells the story of creating the ballet, Appalachian Spring. I love how the story shares the importance of collaboration. Aaron Copland (one of my favorite composers), Martha Graham (the choreographer), and Isamu Noguchi (the set designer), had to work together to create their masterpiece. When I was looking at the book online, I also noticed that there is an audio version of the book available. I listened to the sample and noticed that they intertwined the music into the text, which I thought was a fantastic way of presenting the story.

2.    I, Vivaldi by Janice Shefelman
 I, Vivaldi
This biography is told as if written by Antonio Vivaldi himself. He tells how his love of music helps carry him through his struggles. The author and illustrator both do a wonderful job of representing the historical and social atmosphere of the Baroque period. Pair the book with Spring from The Four Seasons for a great listening lesson.

3.    Strange Mr. Satie by M.T. Anderson
Strange Mr. Satie
The text and illustrations in this book are just as quirky and entertaining as the music of Erik Satie. Written poetically, the story tells of Satie’s struggle to fit in in a “world of black top hats and stiff, starched collars and gloves and bows and curtsies.” In addition to the great introduction to French culture, I loved how the book mentioned the collaboration of Satie and Picasso during the making of Parade. What a great starting point in discussing the relationship between the arts!

4.    What Charlie Heard by Mordicai Gerstein
What Charlie Heard
This book introduces another one of my favorite composers: Charlies Ives. It is a detailed biography of his entire life, and the author does a fantastic job of explaining how Ives received inspiration for some of his most famous pieces. The illustrations in this book are simply outstanding!  Each page is colored from top to bottom with different sound effects. My favorite part is when Charlie hears two marching bands playing different tunes during a parade—perfect opportunity to listen to Country Band March (one of my favorites from Wind Ensemble). Again, this book can be purchased with an audio version containing the music of Charles Ives mixed with the text of the book.

5.    When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky by Lauren Stringer
When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky
I’ve been looking for a good children’s book on Igor Stravinsky for a while, and I was so happy to find this one. Like Ballet for Martha, this book tells of a great collaboration between a composer and choreographer. I just love when books make it easy for me to be cross-curricular! The book is a very tasteful representation of the Rite of Spring, from its creation to the riot that occurred on opening night.

I hope you found some new composer books to use in your classroom! Do you have any other favorites? I would love to hear about them. Please share in the comments below.


  1. I am not familiar with any of these! I love that you highlighted books about composers beyond the big 3.
    I just ordered the Stravinsky and Satie book, (2 of my favorite composers). Thanks!

  2. I am also not familiar with any of these! So excited! Thanks for a great post, Jamie!

  3. When you leave these as book plans for a sub do they just read the book/ play the dad or do you have student activities that go with them as well?

    1. It depends. Some of these books will take up my entire class period (I see my students for 30 minutes). Some of the books lend themselves to a class discussion afterward. If they don't take up the entire time, I will have extra activities to go along with them. Sometimes, I will have the sub play a piece/excerpt of a piece by the composer and lead a discussion (what instruments do you hear, how did the music make you feel, what do you think the composer intended, etc.). If I'm doing really good, I will connect the listening to a concept we're studying in class. Or I may have the students be a composer themselves. If I'm gone and I want the students to compose, I will normally have them work in partners to create 8- or 16-beat patterns (I would do rhythm compositions with a sub because they're easier than melody). I have found that when the students are working together they can help each other rather than rely on help from a teacher. Then, if there is still time, the students could perform their own compositions for the class. They can discuss what was easy and difficult about composing their own music.

  4. Wow! What a great post! I had never seen any of these and now I feel like I need them all! What great ideas to leave for a substitute!

  5. What grades did you use these for? I would love more suggestions ages Prek-5th :)


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