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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

DIY Composition Manipulatives

Composition can be a daunting task for elementary students, but manipulatives can make the task a lot less intimidating and also help students better comprehend what they're doing visually, kinesthetically, and spatially. Today I wanted to share a relatively simple composition manipulative that I use primarily with my upper elementary students that I've found very successful.

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I've talked extensively about the power of manipulatives in a previous post- you can click here to read more about that topic and get more ideas for different things you can use as manipulatives- but the 2 biggest advantages in my mind are that you can 1) visually represent musical concepts more clearly, and 2) you are taking out the writing process altogether, allowing students to focus on the process of creating music itself. Many young students struggle to write down a rhythm or melody on a piece of paper because their brain has to focus on the actual writing itself, hindering their thinking about creating, or because the plain black and white lines and dots all start to become a blur and they get lost and confused. Manipulatives ease both of those common struggles.

I'm a huge fan of manipulatives in general, but this has got to be one of the simplest: I happened to find these foam sheets at Walmart a little over a year ago and thought, "For that price on that amount of sturdy material in that many colors, surely I can do something useful with it!" and into my cart it went. I paid under $5 for this set of 50 sheets (here is the same thing on Amazon, but not nearly as cheap):


Eventually I decided I could use them for rhythm composition. First I cut each sheet in half long-ways to make two longer rectangles. I assigned one color to be whole notes and made those full rectangles each 1 whole note, writing the note on each card with a permanent marker. From there, I cut the rectangles into different sizes to correspond with the number of beats- for quarter notes I cut each one into 4, for half notes I cut them in half etc- with each different note being a different color. I also made cards for the rests in the appropriate lengths, but kept them all the same color:


It may seem like a simple idea but the results have been pretty powerful: I use these for a wide range of games and composition tasks with lots of ages, because they're easy to pull out whenever I need them, but I particularly spent focused time using these with my 4th graders last year, who I found were really struggling with understanding how to properly fill a measure with the correct number of beats. This year as 5th graders, I was shocked at how easily they were able to write out a rhythm, including all different lengths of notes, even in September. I really think these cards made a difference! 

Of course with my older students especially, I will have them transfer their compositions to a piece of paper after working with the manipulatives. That allows them to focus on one thing at a time- first creating, then writing- and makes the whole thing much smoother. When we're working with multiple measures, I hand out popsicle sticks to use as bar lines. Easy!

The great thing about these, compared to printed cards, is that they are colorful, they are durable, and they are fun for the kids to touch (they're a little bit squishy!). I used these heavily last year and they still look almost brand new. And I have plenty more foam sheets I can quickly cut up if I ever need to replace some or add to my collection ;)

Do you use manipulatives like these for composition in your classroom? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! And if you want to stay in the loop with timely and helpful ideas and resources from me, be sure to sign up for the newsletter below:




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Monday, November 20, 2017

24 Easy Christmas Activities for the Whole Family

With Thanksgiving coming up in just a few days, that means Christmas is just around the corner! Each year since my daughters were almost 3, I've put together an advent calendar (see how I made the calendar itself here- super easy) with a different, small Christmas activity for us to do as a family each day in December leading up to Christmas. As the girls have gotten older, I've changed some of the activities we do, but I've definitely kept the low-key spirit up- no music teacher has time for fussy projects or glitter all over the house in December! Today I wanted to share my list of easy Christmas activities I'll be starting next week with my almost-6-year-old girls.


There are a few things I look for when I'm thinking about what to put on our list: 1) things that we're going to do anyway, like putting up a Christmas tree or wrapping presents, 2) things that are quick and easy but are still Christmasy, like eating a candy cane or singing a Christmas carol, and 3) things that I don't want to forget to do as a family that could easily get lost in the craziness of December, like making cookies or going to see a lights display. So here's my list for this year (in no particular order):

1. Put up the Christmas tree
2. Put out the nativity scenes
3. Put (electric) candles in the windows
4. Put up Christmas lights around the house and on the tree
5. Hang ornaments on the Christmas tree
6. Make a wreath to hang on the front door
7. Bake Christmas (sugar) cookies
8. Decorate Christmas (sugar) cookies
9. Make an advent wreath
10. Make Christmas cards
11. Deliver Christmas cards (in the mail and in person)
12. Shop for/ make presents
13. Wrap presents
14. Take family pictures
15. Call family and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas
16. Make paper snowflakes and hang them up around the house
17. Make a gingerbread house
18. Go on a train ride with Santa
19. Hang the stockings
20. Watch a Christmas movie in our pajamas
21. Read Christmas books (including one new one)
22. Put out cookies and carrots for Santa and the reindeer
23. Drink hot chocolate with all the fixings
24. Drive through the local light display to see the Christmas lights

Here's last year's list for 5 year olds, my list for 4 year olds, and the one for 3 year olds, if you're interested in more ideas for the littles. I love putting the calendar together each year because it relieves the pressure I would otherwise feel to make sure I'm taking the time to enjoy the holiday with my girls, and doing small things each day makes the whole month more fun without anything getting overwhelming!

What holiday traditions do you have with your family? I'd love to hear them in the comments below! Happy Holidays, everyone! :)

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

6 Ways to Add Challenge to Music for Young Musicians

So you're 4 weeks away from the concert but your students have already learned and memorized all of their music. Or you're looking for some repertoire for the next performance and find a song that's really great but way too easy for your students. Last week I shared my favorite ways to simplify a piece of music to fit your students' needs, and today I'm sharing some ways to do just the opposite by increasing the difficulty level to appropriately challenge your students!


One of the keys to putting together a successful performance with young musicians is making sure the difficulty level of the material is right in that "zone of proximal development". Obviously it won't work if the music is too hard, but I get just as nervous if the music is too easy! Students lose focus and interest so quickly when they learn the music too far in advance of the performance or feel the music is "beneath them". Here are some easy ways I like to add a little extra challenge to a piece to keep students engaged and add to their learning!

1. Add a harmony part

It doesn't have to be the whole song, but adding a harmony (or counter-melody) line to a piece is a great way to up the ante. In a standard verse-chorus song, adding a harmony part to the chorus section is a great way to add a short harmony part that the students can repeat throughout the song.

2. Add instrumental accompaniment

If you're working on a vocal piece, adding instruments is a great way to increase the difficulty and interest! Simple ostinati on unpitched percussion are always a safe bet, but if you can have some students play a counter melody on recorders or a band or string instrument, even better!

3. Add body percussion

This is similar to the last one, but even without instruments you can add accompaniment parts using body percussion! I love adding body percussion patterns if my choir is singing a song with an instrumental interlude in the middle- that way I don't lose their attention while they're not singing, and it keeps the audience more engaged as well. But you can also add body percussion ostinati while a group is singing to add more accompaniment without having to mess with instruments.

4. Split up into sections

If your vocal or instrumental group is not quite ready for harmony or other accompaniment parts but you want to increase the challenge a little bit, splitting one line up between different groups can be a great way to introduce students to partwork. Have half of the students sing the first line, then the other half sing the second line, and work on following the conductor's cues. I am always surprised at how this simple change can add just enough challenge to refocus the group and keep them on their toes!

5. Add more expressive contrast

Hopefully you're already working on changing up dynamics, timbre, and articulation to fit the mood of the piece, but you can make a piece more challenging by really focusing on those expressive elements and adding more dramatic contrast to the piece. Tell students you're going to change it up each time and force them to really respond to your conducting cues by asking for different dynamics etc each time you perform the song!

6. Add props, dance, or dramatic elements

You may have noticed that "add motions" is not on my list- that's because in my opinion, for young musicians, adding motions actually makes the piece easier (here's a post I wrote on that)! However, there are other things you can add to the performance to increase the difficulty, like props (think paper plates, flashlights, scarves, etc) or stage movement/ acting (have some students silently act out the story of the song in front of the ensemble as it is being performed, move around the stage with the music like a very simplified marching band, or even choreograph a full-out dance routine).

There are plenty more ways to "up the ante" and make the material more difficult for young musicians, but those are some of my favorites. What are your favorite tricks for adding extra challenge to performance music? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Spiced Milk Steamers

After an unusually warm October, the weather here has gotten chilly the last few weeks- and that has me craving a hot mug of something cozy all day every day! My 5-year-olds like to get in on the coziness too, but most of the kid-friendly warm drinks, like hot chocolate or hot apple cider, are so sugary. Today I've got another option for a kid-friendly, non-caffeinated warm drink that has a lot less sugar: milk steamers!


I hope I'm not the last person on earth to discover these things.... I have gotten steamed milk for my daughters a couple of times at Starbucks when we went together, but I didn't know it was an actual thing until recently. I started making them for myself on cold winter evenings last year and this year I've loved trying some new flavor combinations!

The basic idea is simple: add some spices and/or sweeteners to some milk and heat it up. Done. I have this latte maker which can froth and heat milk, so I use that, but you can easily make it in a saucepan- just heat everything together on medium low heat, stirring occasionally with a whisk.

Obviously the sky's the limit in terms of flavor combinations- if you aren't worried about the sugar you can do it like Starbucks and just add a little flavored syrup- but here are some of my favorite things to add to my milk steamers:

Sweeteners: honey, molasses
Spices: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger
Extracts: vanilla, peppermint

My absolute favorite combination right now is a little cardamom and molasses. So cozy!

Have you ever tried milk steamers before? What are some of your favorite ways to flavor them? If you've never had one before, give it a shot- it's a really great way to mix up your tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate routine and unwind on a cold evening :)

If you want more hot drink ideas, don't miss my chai tea recipe and my ideas for spicing up your coffee at home: