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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

composition manipulatives for elementary music

I believe strongly in the importance of composition in elementary music, starting at the youngest ages. Although the thought of having kindergarteners create their own music can seem intimidating, it really doesn't have to be! With the added focus on creating in the new national core arts general music standards, I wanted to share some of my favorite tips for getting young students to create in a meaningful, non-threatening way. Today I'll be talking about one of my favorite composition tools for young students: manipulatives! 

Basically, a music composition manipulative allows young students to physically move objects, rather than writing with a pencil and paper, to create music. The beauty of using manipulatives is that it allows students to "notate" and create music without the hindrances of writing or learning musical notation. While the goal is certainly to get to traditional music notation, using manipulatives allows students to focus on the skill that you actually want to focus on: creating music! Using a variety of manipulatives also keeps the material fresh and interesting, and allows you to connect the composition activity to the students' worlds and interests, or even to a particular song they are learning.

For composition, manipulatives need to be able to represent some kind of musical element. It might be pitch, rhythm, timbre, or sections of music. The idea is to use familiar words and shapes to make the musical concept accessible for young students. For example, you could use different colored manipulatives to represent different pitches, or different shapes to represent each section of a piece. The possibilities are endless! Here are some tips for finding and using manipulatives cheaply and simply in your classroom, along with some examples of manipulatives I use with my students.

Where To Find Manipulatives

I think this is one of those things that we see on Pinterest and think, that is so perfect! If only I had those little hearts to use with my Valentine's song! But we don't ever happen to have them so we don't use them. Of course you can make your own, like my Rhythm Monster Magnets that I made last year or Noodle Notes by Tracy King. You should definitely check both of those ideas out if you have the time to make them. But we teachers are busy! So today I'm focusing on things you can pick up at the store and use right away in your classroom. Although you can find items to use as manipulatives almost anywhere if you look carefully enough and have enough creativity, the two places I have consistently found the most manipulatives for a reasonable price are Dollar Tree and the "dollar spot" section at Target. If you want to try to build up a collection of items for your students, try dropping by those two places every now and then (you'll have the most luck at the beginning of each shopping "season"), and you can usually get a full class set for one to two dollars!

What To Look For

Obviously none of the things I use as composition manipulatives are actually marketed to be used that way! ;) After stumbling across a few great ideas, I've figured out some patterns of the types of items you can look for to use for composition. 

What you want are collections of items (within a certain set or theme) that have the same thing in different colors or sizes, or different shapes that have names of different syllable lengths.

Sets with items in different colors are perfect for pitch. Have students choose 4-8 items in different colors and arrange them in whatever order they want. Tell them all the blue ones are sol and the yellow ones are mi, and practice singing the sol-mi pattern they just created. Ta-da! Colors are also great for timbre. If you have larger items in different colors, you can write rhythms on each one and have students arrange them in different orders and assign a percussion instrument to each color.

Sets with different sizes are great for rhythms, especially if they are proportionate. When students are learning about whole notes, dotted half, or even half notes, they can use the shortest ones as quarter notes, ones that are twice as long for half notes, etc. Think legos, sticks, and other similar items that come in different lengths. You could also use size to show dynamics: have students play or sing louder when the shapes are bigger, and vice versa.

Sets of items with different shapes take a bit more thinking but are very effective when you find a good set. These are perfect for rhythm. For example, I found a set of little plastic woodland animal figurines at Target last fall, with some foxes, bunny rabbits, and racoons. "Fox" was the quarter note, "Racoon" was the two eighth notes, and "Bunny Rabbit" was four sixteenth notes. By having students speak the names of the shapes, with each shape getting one beat, they can easily create rhythmic compositions (and if they are different colors too, you could later assign pitches to those rhythms and make it a melodic composition *gasp*!). I also found some Halloween-themed foam stickers at the Dollar Tree with ghosts, pumpkins, bats, and spider webs. I had the students speak the names of the others with one beat each, and say "ooooo" for 2 beats for the ghosts, to help prepare them for half notes.

When I see a set of themed items like these, my mind immediately starts going through the list of names. Sometimes all I can come up with are 1 or 2 different rhythms for the different items, which won't work (having a set with foxes, deer, and skunks won't do you any good since they all have the same number of syllables). BUT don't immediately dismiss a set if they all have the same syllables on your first attempt- get creative! Change "rabbit" to "bunny rabbit" and you've got sixteenth notes, change "ghost" to "ooooo" and you've got half notes! 

If you follow this basic formula you'll start seeing composition manipulatives everywhere you go, but I've had the most luck (and bang for my buck) with mini erasers, foam shapes, stickers, and small toy sets. I see some of these every season at Target and Dollar Tree, so keep an eye out for those.

I wish I had pictures of the manipulatives I have in my classroom, but my classroom closet is currently barricaded with furniture from other classrooms while they put in new flooring :( So instead here are a few pictures of the types of things I'm talking about:

How To Use Them

OK, so now you've got a bunch of tiny little seasonal thingys to use as composition manipulatives- now what?!? Here is how I use them in my classroom to make sure they aren't just a fun little gimmick but that they truly help students understand the important musical concepts I am trying to convey:

1. Give them time to explore. It has taken me a while to learn this lesson but I have come to the realization that if you are going to give kids a bunch of little fun toys, you need to give them some unstructured time to play with them. After I introduce the items and show them what we are going to do, I intentionally give students a couple of minutes to "mess around" with the items before we get to work. Trust me, the students will be a lot more focused that way, and it gives me time to go around and make sure everyone has what they need.

2. Start small. If you are using colors to represent pitches, for example, don't immediately throw 5 colors at them and tell them to compose a pentatonic melody. Start with 2 colors, then the next time add one color, and keep going until you reach your target variety. It's too much to process otherwise.

3. Sometimes tell them what the musical concepts are in advance, and sometimes don't. If we're doing something with shapes to represent rhythms, sometimes I have them practice speaking each name on the beat, or even discuss what kind of rhythm each shape represents. before they start composing. Other times, I just give them some stuff and tell them to pick 4 and put them in a row without telling them what it is for, then later I tell them what each shape indicates. I've found some students find a pre-emptive explanation helpful and others find it a hindrance, so mixing it up seems to help the most number of students.

4. Transfer to notation..... eventually. If you're using colors to indicate pitches, you can hand them a paper with staff lines and have them place all the blue ones on the bottom line, and all of the red ones on the middle line etc. They could then write out the notes on a separate paper by drawing a notehead to match the spots of the manipulatives. You could also, after introducing a new notated rhythm, remind students of the "bunny rabbit"s and "raccoon"s they were using before and have them use those names to speak the rhythms instead of the usual 1-e-&-a or tika-tika. There are plenty of ways to connect what they do with the manipulatives to traditional notation, but make sure you don't rush into it- they need to understand the concept and be able to work with it before you introduce the notation.

I hope this gives you some ideas for ways to incorporate composition manipulatives in your own classroom! What are some of your favorites to use?

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  1. Thanks for this great idea. I already had flat marbles in my classroom that I use for lots of things. This morning I found a larger size at Dollar Tree - great for depicting quarters and eighths!

  2. I can’t wait to use some of these manipulatives in my classroom! I often find that students get so caught up in the challenge of notation that it prohibits their creativity. I am excited to try a new lesson where the emphasis can be placed solely on creativity.

    1. Definitely! For so many of them if they have to notate their composition as they're creating it, the song just becomes a mathematical formula and they aren't really making music, just trying to pick the right number of beats and write the notes correctly. Manipulatives make the process of composition, with notation, so much more accessible and focused on the creating process, like you said. I hope you and your students have fun with these!