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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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