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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

One-Off Music Lessons That Don't Waste Time

We've all been there: one class is ahead of the rest of the grade level, it's the last day before a vacation, you're stressed/ tired/ sick and can't think straight to teach a regular lesson, it's a weird schedule day and the kids are spinning in circles, there's a last-minute change and you can't do the lesson you had planned... Whatever the reason, we all have days when we need to step out of our regularly-scheduled sequenced curriculum and do something different for one class period. Sure, you could throw on a movie or pull out some worksheets. But those types of classes can result in lots of behavior difficulties (and no wonder, the students are usually bored!). Here are my favorite ways to use those "one-off" class periods in meaningful musical ways.

These ideas are ones that don't require too much thinking on my part, don't require advance planning to set up, can be done with large or small groups, and keep students engaged for an entire class period.

1. instrument merry go round

I actually use this activity as a part of my regular "curricular" lessons as well, but it's a good one to pull out when I want everyone to stay focused and engaged but I know they're going to be antsy. I have every student pick out one instrument (usually I limit their options to small percussion on specific shelves in my room) and bring it to sit in a circle on the floor. Then I tell them to play when my hands are open, and stop when I close my hands. If they play/ don't play at the wrong time, they're out for the next round.

Once they get the hang of starting and stopping, I have them leave their instrument on the floor, stand up, and move over one spot around the circle. Then they pick up the new instrument and repeat. Keep going around the circle and switching instruments! The great thing about this is I can use it to review a variety of concepts. Instrument names and playing techniques are obvious ones, but I can also teach dynamics by having them play louder/ softer when I hold up dynamic symbols or move my hands bigger or smaller, review instrument classification by calling out certain types to play on different turns, or practice rhythms by having them echo patterns instead of starting/ stopping. Lots of ways to change it up!

2. Musication

I purposefully save videos from this awesome YouTube channel to use only for this purpose so that I know students won't get tired of them. They are most well-known for the play-along videos for Boomwhackers and hand chimes with color-coded notes, but there are also play-along videos for percussion (which is great for large groups and younger students), and even chord play-alongs (which I use with ukulele but could also be done with guitar, piano, etc).

One other pro tip for these: you can slow down or speed up the videos on YouTube without distorting the sound by clicking on settings (the gear icon at the bottom of the video) and selecting "playback speed". This is a perfect way to keep classes engaged and "up the ante" by repeating the same song but speeding up each time! Of course switching the parts/ notes they're playing is another great way to change it up and keep everyone on their toes.

3. posters

I don't do this often but every now and then, especially if I'm under the weather and I don't think the students will be too high-energy, I'll have the class make posters to hang up on the walls. Sometimes I'll have them make posters for an upcoming music event to hang up around the building, including reminders about concert etiquette. Other times I have them make posters about something they're learning: instrument families, a musical element, music vocabulary, etc. Bonus: it's great to have student work to actually display on the walls because most of our student work isn't visual, and administrators (and kids!) love to see that in the classroom!

4. soundscapes

There are so many ways to do soundscapes- I've written an entire blog post just about all the ways to do them here- but the most basic one I pull out most often in this scenario is to write down names of places on slips of paper, fold them up and have students draw one from a jar, and then have small groups come up with a soundscape to match that scene using only their voices and found objects they have in the room. So for example if a group has the beach, they may make the sounds of waves by flapping a piece of paper, seagulls with their voice, beachballs getting hit by hitting a chair, etc.

If you're reading this right now and thinking ha, I wish I had a sequenced curriculum laid out for me that I could even stray from in the first place! Don't worry, you're definitely not alone- I talk to so many music teachers every week who are planning their lessons week by week or even day by day from scratch! You can get my complete curriculum with all the plans and materials for the entire school year for K-6 general music here, or learn exactly how to make your own in this free e-course here.

I hope these lesson ideas are helpful the next time you find yourself in one of those situations- I'll be using a few of them this week after I finish my concerts and try to finish the week until our vacation!


  1. Awesome post! I love that Youtube channel so much (Hall of the Mountain King got tons of playtime this fall!).

    I'm curious about the merry-go-round idea; when the kids play, are they just keeping a steady beat or playing along with music or something else? (I know you said sometimes they echo patterns, but I wasn't sure what the default is.) And what grades do you usually try it with? Love this idea and may have to pull it out these last days before break!

    1. Thank you! The default for the merry-go-round is to just play- no beat/ rhythm, just sound on/ off. The focus is more on playing technique and following conductor cues in that case. I use this with every grade K-6 and it works great!