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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Family Plays Music: exploring musical genres

I found a new book for my classroom that I can't wait to share with every single class, and it is absolutely perfect for Music In Our Schools Month too (but really would be great any time of year)! I don't know why I didn't hear about this book sooner, but I'm so glad I found it and I hope you all enjoy these lesson ideas as much as I am.

This post may contain affiliate links, which will not affect the purchase price or buying experience but will support this blog.

My Family Plays Music by Judy Cox is a beautiful book about a young girl who comes from an diversely musical family- from a great-grandmother who plays organ at church to an aunt who plays vibes with a jazz combo (and everything in between). On each page, the girl introduces us to a family member and the music they play, and shares a classroom percussion instrument she likes to play with each genre. The book features people of all ages, gender, shades, and sizes, and of course a wide range of musical genres.

The MIOSM theme for 2019 is "All Music. All People". What could possibly be a more perfect fit for this book than that?!? I am planning to use this lesson during the month of March this year to explore and celebrate the variety of musical genres and ways we can participate in music-making, no matter who we are.

For this lesson, I'll be stopping after each page to show students an example of the genre that is mentioned on the page. Before we start the story, I will pass out one of the instruments the main character plays to each student. After watching the video/ listening to the excerpt for each genre once and discussing what we see/hear, I'll have a small group of students play along with a short repeated rhythmic pattern on the instrument that she mentions on the same page while we listen/watch again. Of course there are plenty of recordings you could use for each one, but these are the ones I found that best match the descriptions in the book:

1. Mom's country-and-western fiddle (play along on tambourine)

*note there is one swear word in the first verse of this- I plan to start the recording midway through


2. Dad's string quartet cello (play along on triangle)



3. Sister's marching band clarinet (play along on cymbals)



4. Brother's rock 'n' roll guitar (play along on cowbell)


5. Aunt's jazz vibraphone (play along on woodblock)


6. Uncle's big band saxophone (play along on maracas)



7. Grandma's bluegrass banjo (play along on jug)



8. Grandpa's polka band tuba (play along on rhythm sticks)



9. Great-grandmother's pipe organ (play along on hand bell)



10. Cousin's spoken word bongos (play along on wind chimes)



11. Niece's pots and pans (play along on pots/pans)



The story ends with the entire family dancing together, with the text:

"...And when we get together, we celebrate!"

That's when we'll watch this rendition of "Celebration" and dance along with the music.


After finishing the story, we'll review the genres and instruments we read about and have a discussion about which genres and instruments (either from the story or otherwise) we enjoy and why. Then we'll talk about how different people can enjoy different styles, and the variety of ways that we can make music in our lives. Then we'll talk about how all the different children around the world came together for the song in the final video, and how the family came together to dance at the end of the story, and we'll practice having the whole class play together on their different instruments (for kindergarten I'll have them all play the same rhythm together, 1st-4th grades can layer one instrument in at a time on different rhythm ostinati, and the oldest grades can come up with their own patterns for each instrument).

There are so many musical concepts you can address through this lesson: musical genres and instrument names, names and playing techniques for classroom instruments, musical elements (through the discussions about genres etc), performing and/or creating rhythm ostinati, and rhythm reading (if you have students read a rhythm from notation for their play-along patterns). Most importantly, it is such an accessible and engaging way to expose students to a wide range of musical genres, musicians, music-making opportunities, and instruments!

I love using books as a basis for music lessons, especially with my younger students! You can see all of my literature-based lesson ideas in this post:


Have you ever used this book in your classroom? This book was first published in 2003- why in the world am I just now discovering it?!? If you have used it before I'd love to hear how you used it in your music classroom- leave a comment below. I hope you get some fresh inspiration to use during your Music In Our Schools Month celebrations or any time of year!

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Current Musicians of Color for Black History Month and Beyond (Part 2)

In celebration of Black History Month, I'm sharing more current musicians of color that I like to use in my classroom. These are artists who are currently active and have school-appropriate music- in fact many of these artists have created music specifically for the classroom. These are also lesser-known artists who you may not have heard of before- I hope you'll find a new song or artist to share with your students this month and all year long.


My goal in including these songs and artists in my lessons is to provide students with more role models, and to "normalize" musicians of color. If the only time students see people of color represented in the classroom is in February, or only when you talk about Jazz or spirituals, it limits their understanding of the contributions people of color have made to the world of music, and the contributions that they themselves can make.

1. Desmond Dennis



2. Resound


3. Asia Monet



4. Griot B



5. Ms. Niki



6. Black Violin



7. The Roots


8. Our Native Daughters/ Rhiannon Giddens


I know there are plenty of other musicians that could be mentioned here, particularly more well-known ones, but my hope is to share some artists you may not have heard of before. I'd love to hear what other names you would add to the list- share them in the comments below! If you want to see more musicians that I shared last year for Black History Month, here is that post:


To read more about how we can all better respect, reflect, and respond to students of color in our music classrooms all year long, check out these posts:



Although Black History Month is a great opportunity to focus our attention on better representing people of color in our classrooms, it's important for this not to be a one-month change but rather be the impetus for lasting improvement! 

Monday, February 4, 2019

January Favorites 2019

It's crazy to be typing "2019"- one month already gone in the new year! January is always a busy month in my house- here are some highlights from last month as told by pictures from my Instagram photos!


1. Birthdays



One of the biggest reasons January is busy for me is because of all the birthdays! Besides a few friends who have birthdays this month, my daughters and my mom both have January birthdays. This year my mother turned 60, so we had some extra planning for that, and I loved hosting my daughters' bug-themed party. Each year the girls pick out a theme and we figure out snacks and activities to go with it. It's so much fun to see how creative they get, making up their own games and coming up with fun snack ideas :) Busy but fun!

2. Hip-Hop Unit



I am partnering with a local hip-hop artist to take my 6th graders through a class project creating their own hip-hop song and recording it. This has definitely been a new adventure for me in so many ways, but an important one, and I am learning a lot as I go (as are the students!). The books in the picture above are not for the 6th grade unit specifically, but I also ordered these books for my classroom library to add more variety to my book selections, and I'm so happy with these!

3. Planner Updates



If you've been around these parts for a while you'll know that I start working on next school year's planners in January. I've gotten several great suggestions from members of my Facebook Planner Collaborative group- if you want to have input into the 2019-2020 planner updates, or just want to hang out with other planner lovers, come join us! For anyone who owns one of my planners, the free updates should be available by May, so stay tuned...

4. Music Education Articles

I always round up my favorite finds from the month in music education blogger world- click on the pictures below to read each of these awesome posts! I share these each week over on my Facebook page, so follow me there if you want to stay up to date on all my favorite posts :)






I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and best wishes on a wonderful February ahead!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Pop Songs for Elementary Choir: Finding the Right Song

For the last 6 years, I have been incorporating at least one "pop" song into my 5th and 6th grade choir's performances at every concert. I have found it to be a great practice for so many reasons, and over the years I have learned how to make it work most successfully for my students. Last week I shared the benefits I see for incorporating pop music in choir literature, as well as how I take a pop song and make it work in a choral setting- you can catch up on that post here. Today I want to share how I find and choose songs that will be successful and effective with my elementary choirs, and give you some examples of songs I have used over the years.


1. The best pop songs for choir

One of the biggest challenges to incorporating pop music in elementary choir, of course, is finding the right song. My criteria in selecting a pop song to use with my choir are:
  • Age-appropriate material: Obviously one of the first things I consider is the lyrical content. But besides vulgar language and "adult themes", I also tend to steer away from most "love song" material (no matter how tame or wholesome it may be). One of the goals I have for my students in learning pop songs is to work on expressive performance. I am not comfortable (nor are my students!) asking them to sing expressively about romantic love at this age! Unfortunately this makes up a giant portion of pop music, so having this criteria definitely makes my life more difficult (but I think it's worth it). Ideally, I look for songs with a truly powerful and meaningful message that my students can connect with.
  • Melodic and harmonic content: Of course the song needs to be in an age-appropriate range and be singable in an choral setting! Often if a song meets every other criteria on my list I can get around this one with the way I arrange the song (see my previous post for some examples of how I do this), but some songs just cannot be arranged for elementary voices without making the song unrecognizable.
  • Diverse sources: If you've been reading my blog this school year you know that I am very focused on inclusive, anti-oppressive teaching. A big part of this is representation, which includes the artists whose work I use in my teaching. As much as possible, I have tried to incorporate artists of color when choosing my songs (including the performers and the composers), as well as drawing from different styles/ genres within current popular music. 
  • Current: Most of the time I choose songs that were released within the last year. I find that songs from 2-5 years ago generally get a lukewarm response from students- they tend to think that I'm trying too hard to be cool but am actually out of touch with current trends ;) The occasional exception to this rule is when I've done a "standard" from decades ago. When I do that, I usually explain to students that we're doing it more for their parents' benefit, which they seem willing to accept!

2. Sources for finding songs

Another challenge with incorporating pop music is you can't pick out a few songs that work well and then keep using them or they will be outdated! Over my years of using pop songs with elementary choir I have found some go-to ways of searching out new songs that will work well:
  • Students: The best way to find out what students are interested in and stay current on what they are listening to is to ask the students themselves! I will admit I don't often end up using the exact songs they suggest because they don't understand the criteria I need to consider for choral settings, but I often discover artists or sources (like radio stations or specific styles) that I can draw from.
  • TV and movies: I've found a lot of great songs that have the content I'm looking for by looking at music made for the TV shows and movies my students are watching. While there are still romantic themes in some of them, there is usually a lot more diversity in the topics they cover and a lot more age-appropriate.
  • Radio: I've written an entire post about this, but to stay on top of what is current there's really no substitute for listening to the radio! And I've found it's important to find out what stations the students are listening to. In my case the majority of my students are not listening to "top 40" radio- I have 3 different stations saved in my car radio now that different students listen to most often that I try to tune into whenever I can.
  • PS22: If I'm really struggling to come up with song ideas, I'll go to the PS22 chorus YouTube channel and see what they've been up to lately! They do pop songs almost exclusively and I'll often find inspiration from their song selections. They are also a great source for getting ideas for how to arrange the songs!

3. Song examples

Of course I don't recommend necessarily using these specific songs because this list will quickly become outdated, but hopefully this will help give you some ideas of the types of songs and artists that I have found work well with my elementary choir! This list starts with my most recent song selections and goes back to when I first started using pop songs years ago- you'll see that there are a few older songs thrown in there, but most of them were released within the year we performed them.

If you haven't already, be sure to go back and read last week's post on why I use pop songs with my elementary choir, and how I arrange the songs to make them work in a choral setting. What are your thoughts on using pop music in elementary choir? What are some songs you have used that have worked well with your chorus groups? Share your questions, ideas, and suggestions in the comments below!