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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Instruments in General Music

There are few things more exciting and motivating for general music students (no matter the age) than instruments, and they are a great way to learn all sorts of musical skills and concepts. But managing the logistics of storing, handing out and collecting, and using the instruments with a class full of students without getting a headache can often be a challenge! From boomwhackers to recorders, ukuleles to drums, here are my top tips for organizing and teaching instruments in general music class.

The main over-arching expectation I enforce with instruments in my classroom is this:

"If you play before I say you'll make the instrument go away!"

I know this isn't an unusual rule to have in a music classroom, but I talk to so many music teachers who talk the talk but don't walk the walk when it comes to this expectation, and then they wonder why their students are always playing when they're not supposed to! I take away instruments (or move the student away from the instrument) pretty much every time they play out of turn, even if it's a tiny sound and even if it's clearly an honest mistake. The keys to making this expectation work without everyone getting frustrated and without allowing students to "get away with" anything:

1. Tell students from the beginning (and remind them often) that you're enforcing this rule whether it was a mistake or not, because you need them to be that careful with the instruments, then DO IT.

2. Always give students a chance to redeem themselves and try again- the whole point is for them to learn how to hold instruments and listen when they're not playing, so they need to have a chance to do so successfully. Sit them out for a turn then bring them back in.

Of course students will also learn procedures and proper playing technique if they have more opportunities to play, so don't be afraid to get them out early and often! I hear so many music teachers say their students "can't handle" instruments because of challenging behaviors, so they aren't going to even use them in class. I find the most challenging classes are the ones that benefit from instruments the most- it's a very clear and concrete way to enforce and practice expectations. You either played out of turn or you didn't. It may take a lot of back and forth initially, but I find it's the quickest way to get defiant students to experience success and build a positive relationship with students. Plus it's an accessible and motivating way for students to learn concepts they may otherwise struggle to grasp! So get them out and use them. 

I've shared a lot of teaching strategies, organizational and logistical tips, and more over the years with various specific instruments- click on each image below to read these specific posts, and check back for more posts in the future. I'll continue to add them to this compilation below as I write new articles. Have questions about teaching instruments? Leave a comment below! You can also get my full, detailed lesson plans for teaching all of these instruments in my curriculum sets here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Introducing Xylophones

Xylophones and other barred percussion instruments are often a staple in elementary music classrooms, but it can be scary to put such expensive instruments in front of small children! I introduce barred instruments to my students in Kindergarten. Getting them started with the right technique and procedures is critical to being able to use them regularly as they get older! Here is my process for introducing mallet technique to ensure students have a solid foundation to get them started.

It's worth mentioning first that I do not introduce any barred percussion instruments until at least January, midway through the school year, in Kindergarten. I spend the first part of the school year introducing non-pitched percussion instruments and making sure they understand the general expectations for using instruments in the classroom properly. I need to know they'll be super careful and already know not to play without permission before I get out the xylophones, and the fine motor skills needed to play with proper mallet technique takes some time to develop!

Mallet Grip

The first thing we practice is how to hold the mallets properly. It's important that students hold the mallets correctly so that they don't bang on the bars or hit them with the wrong part of the mallet, and can get a nice resonant tone.

I use 3 words to cue the correct mallet grip: PINCHERS, FINGERS, and BICYCLE HANDLES. I use these same 3 cues even as students get older, every time they pick up their mallets. First I have them hold the mallets straight up and down in front of them at the top of the rubber handle (mine all have this- if yours don't you'll want them to aim for the lower 1/3 of the mallet) between their pointers and thumbs (pinchers). Then I tell them to wrap the rest of their fingers loosely around the handle without letting go of their pinchers (fingers), and then hold the mallets out in front of them like they're holding onto bicycle handles. I'm looking for a loose grip with a fulcrum point between their pointers and thumbs, elbows out to the side, palms facing down towards the floor.

Playing Techniques

Once they have their mallet grip down, I introduce 3 basic playing techniques that we then practice extensively in Kindergarten: FAIRY FEET, FROGGY HOPS, and SLIDES. For all of these techniques, I remind students to play in the center of the bars, not the edges!

The first one is fairy feet: I tell students to imagine a tiny fairy tip-toeing across the bars so that they play with alternating hands. It sounds so magical when we play this way that it really does evoke the image of fairies!

Once they can do fairy feet we move on to froggy hops, which is playing with both hands together. I tell them to hop around like a little frog, making sure to bounce and not to stomp like a dinosaur. This one is always harder than fairy feet but they always get it with some time to practice! Once students have the technique down, I use the book Froggy Gets Dressed (see the lesson plan in this post) to give them more practice.

It may seem odd to start with the more complex playing techniques before introducing the slide, but I find that starting with those 2 forces students to play with more care and concentration from the beginning. For the slide, I have students hold only one mallet and then slide the mallet across the middle of the bars from low to high and high to low. I use a modified version of the "Mr Brown and Mr Black" story (see the lesson plan in this post) to practice differentiating upward and downward melodic motion by sliding on the instruments as the characters go up and down in the story.


As with any instrument, I always repeat the refrain, "If you play before I say you'll make the instrument go away" when we're playing xylophones. If they play out of turn, even by mistake, they put the mallets down and sit out for a turn. But with xylophones in particular I'm also very strict about not touching the instrument with their hands at all- I explain that the only thing that can touch the xylophones is the mallets, because of the sensitivity of the wooden bars. I let out a dramatic gasp any time someone touches any part of the instrument, and soon I have all the students doing the same! My other general expectation with instruments it to walk around them, not over. Any time students are going to instruments set out on the floor I make sure they walk around them to get to their spot rather than stepping over them.

Although I'm lucky enough to technically have enough barred instruments for everyone to play something at once, I rarely do so- most of the time I have enough for half of the class to play at a time. I find that's a more manageable number for me to keep an eye on and help quickly with technique as well as make sure students are following the expectations as they play. I pair students up and have them sit behind each other to trade places so they can take turns playing, and once I introduce the initial technique on the instrument I give the other students something else to do, like singing along etc. This is also an important step to getting students to sing and play at the same time, because they can practice playing while hearing other students sing before trying to do both at once.

I love using barred instruments in my classes, and introducing them to my Kindergartners is always one of the highlights of the year! If you have any questions about teaching with xylophones, please leave a comment below. Want access to all the lessons and materials I use in my classroom? Check out my general music curriculum here. You can also read my tips and lesson ideas for teaching other classroom instruments like ukulele, recorders, keyboards, boomwhackers, and more in this post:

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Assessing Prior Knowledge in General Music

One of the most common questions I get these days is some variation on this one: "I'm starting a new job and don't know what they learned with their previous teacher- how do I assess where they are right now so I can plan my lessons?" It's a great question that puts the students front and center in the curriculum planning process- here is how I go about assessing prior knowledge when I am meeting new students.

The short answer is this: I don't start off by assessing prior knowledge before deciding what to teach. Assessing student understanding is an ongoing process for me. I plan out the concepts I expect to teach in each grade level based on my research and experience of what is developmentally appropriate (and other factors such as available class time/ frequency) and then I am constantly looking at student understanding and adjusting my teaching (regardless of how long I've known them).

Put differently, I don't decide what I think they can or should learn based on what they can do now. I have in mind already what they can and should learn and then use my developing understanding of their current knowledge, skills, and background to inform how I get them there. That doesn't mean I never change my mind about which concepts I should be teaching, especially when I am starting in a school environment that is completely different from my past experience (like I did in my current position). But even moving between drastically different schools, I have found my sequencing and expectations to be appropriate across the board for the most part- the difference is in how they learn most effectively and how they demonstrate their understanding as well.

So here's how this approach works out in concrete practice for me.

Start with a Plan, but Make No Assumptions
I jump right in when I start in a new position (or meet a new student coming into our school). I have a long-range plan in mind based on allotted class time etc, and I start teaching them as if I had taught them the previous year's content as well. I'm constantly reviewing anyway, especially when it comes to those fundamental skills we're building on year after year like rhythm and pitch, so I come in with 5th grade lessons that include syncopation, for example, along with quarter and paired eighth notes. I model and practice from the ground up, and adjust how much time we spend on it based on how quickly they pick it up.

Here's the thing: if your expectations are developmentally-appropriate and your curriculum is properly sequenced, older students will catch up quickly to fill in any "holes" they may have. Trying to teach dotted half notes and realize they don't know half notes yet? They can pick up both in the same lesson- you don't need to take them back to your normal sequencing of lessons to introduce half notes.

Never Assign Blame
I am always careful not to assign blame when I am working with new students, finding places where I need to "catch students up", and adjusting my lessons. Students pick up on my mentality pretty quickly, and if they get the sense that I'm looking down on their previous teacher, prior music education experience, or their musical experiences outside school, it will be a lot harder to develop a positive relationship with them. The reality is I have no way of knowing why they can't perform a certain task or answer a certain question. They may have actually learned it already- maybe I'm presenting it a different way than they're used to, using different vocabulary, or they're just having an off day (which I wouldn't pick up on if I don't know them well yet). This is why I don't think starting off with lessons that are below your expectations and "working up", or giving out pre-tests or otherwise assessing their understanding and then choosing your starting point is a good idea. You'll probably thinking they're further behind than they actually are because of all those other factors.

Rather than "I can't believe you can't do this", it's "this is our goal, here's what we need to do to get there"

Present the End Goal, Break It Down, and Get Them There
Go ahead and throw it out there- if you've decided they should be able to compose melodies using pentatonic solfege, then put that out there for them. If they look at you like you've got three heads, break it down. Maybe instead of notating it by hand, they can use computer software to let them focus on creating instead of worrying about writing too. Or take them through the writing process as a class instead of working independently. Maybe they can each write an 8-beat melodic phrase instead of expecting 8 measures. Present the task, listen to their questions, break it down, and help them achieve success. Older students won't get bored with review or think it's too babyish if they see what they're working towards.

In order for this approach to work, there are a few key elements that have to be in place:
  • an understanding of what is developmentally-appropriate
  • an ability to discern student understanding and adjust my teaching
  • a clear sense of which concepts/ skills are most important for students to learn
  • a willingness to constantly self-reflect and adjust my approach when students don't get it

These things come with experience- the longer I teach the better I am able to think on feet and adjust my teaching in the moment. But even beginning teachers can implement this approach by arming themselves with 1) a plan and 2) an understanding of students. I recommend two resources as key starting points if you want to delve into this further- my approach to long-range planning, and resources for responding to diverse student needs. If all of this feels intimidating or overwhelming, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the resources below- it's really all about a shift in understanding in each of these areas.

I still remember the first time I passed out a composition worksheet to my 5th graders when I first started in my current position. I thought I was starting with something pretty basic- just a 2-measure rhythm with a rhythm bank- and I explained everything step by step before passing out papers and sending them off. I started walking around the room and realized nobody had a clue what to do or how to start. At first I was taken aback and a little offended thinking they just hadn't paid close enough attention to my obviously-well-crafted explanation of the assignment. Then I paused. I had everyone stop working and I asked them what they were confused about. Eventually it came down to this: they had never seen a composition assignment specifically laid out in this way. We came back together, and I did one in front of them, talking through my thought process out loud. Then we did one together as a class. Once they had a chance to experience the process, suddenly the assignment became much easier and less intimidating!

Maybe in the first year in a new position, your oldest grades won't get to everything you hope or expect. Developing relationships with your oldest grades is going to be tough anyway, and it takes time for you to get to know how they learn and for them to adjust to how you run your classroom. That's OK. Keep in mind which concepts are the highest priority, and give yourself permission to take a few years to learn how each student learns best. Keep putting the end goal out there, and keep trying new approaches to get them there- if your sequencing is appropriate, then it's all just a matter of figuring out how to teach the students in front of you.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

2019 Rewind: Top Music Education Posts

Happy New Year! 2019 was a great year- I learned so much from the online conversations and connections I made through this website, and I continue to grow as a teacher through my writing and creating process. I'm so grateful to have this platform that allows me to reflect and explore ideas! Today I'm counting down the top 10 most-read posts of 2019. Did your favorite make the list? Let's find out!

#10: Classroom Tour 2019-2020

This brings back memories... My summer was pretty packed this year. We had 2 new elementary music teachers join our district, so I was focused on helping them get set up, and we went on vacation with my family the week before teacher work days started, so I had to work ahead to get my classroom ready much earlier than I ever have before. I have LOVED the new color-coded storage system I set up!

#9: Allie All Along

I created this new lesson for my Kindergartners because I was looking to replace the lesson I used to teach on communicating emotion through music. My old lesson was based on a book by Dr. Seuss, who I have removed from my classroom, and I wanted to find something featuring characters that represent my black students (the vast majority in my building). This was perfect- the students loved it and the conversations we had about emotions were actually so much better with this book than my previous one because the story is so much more relatable for this age group!

#8: Color Teams

I'm glad this one made the list because it is one of my favorite things to talk about! If there is one organizational system I could recommend to every general music teacher, it's this one. The longer I use it the more I love it, seriously!

#7: My Family Plays Music

I was very focused on improving my representation of marginalized voices in my classroom this year, and this book was one of those finds that left me shocked that I hadn't come across it sooner. There is so much diversity in representation in everything from the musical genres to the characters in the story, and it's a perfect jumping-off point for active lessons with pretty much any age.

#6: Pop Songs for Elementary Choir

I honestly wish I had written about this sooner. So many great conversations with music teachers came out of this post! The sequel to this post (which also made the list- see below!) lists the specific songs I've done over the years, and I have been continuing to update that list each semester.

#5: Dance Playlist 2019

Finding good, clean, fun pop songs to use in the classroom can be hard! It has legitimately been very helpful for my own use to keep track of the songs I find that my students love- this was my 4th year in a row making one (and I've already got a good start on the 2020 edition)! It's a great reference whenever I'm tasked with putting together playlists for school events and such.

#4: Planner Tour

It's fitting that my planner tour would be on this list, because my *very first post* I ever published on this site back in the summer of 2014 (WHAT. I know, right?) was also a planner tour! Some things have changed, but actually a lot has not. The organizational systems I set up back then are still going strong 5 years (and counting) later.

#3: Pop Songs for Elementary Choir (part 2)

This was clearly a hot topic, because both posts in this series made the top 10! I am continuing to update this one as I choose new songs each semester to do with my choirs, and it lists my top resources for finding new music (which is always the hardest part of using modern music in our teaching).

#2: Elementary Music Supplies

I was putting together an instrument order around the time I wrote this post, and I realized that I had actually done quite a bit of ordering over my career with a very broad range of budget amounts and existing supplies. Going through that experience has helped me really narrow my focus to what my true priorities are for supplies, and this lists them in order that way.

#1: 15 Fun Videos for Music Class

I find it kind of funny that this one was my most-read post of the year: it was honestly a spur-of-the-moment decision to put these together because I like to keep these on hand for when classes earn the "prize" of watching a video instead of their usual warm-up. I've actually written a sequel with 15 more videos since then- here's that one if you're looking for more!

Thank you for coming along on this journey with me- I appreciate each and every person who reads, interacts with, and shares my content. It is so validating to know that others are benefiting from all these thoughts and ideas floating around in my head! Have a favorite that didn't make the list? Got a request for a topic you'd like to see this year? Leave a comment below- I love hearing from you!