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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:


  1. Thanks for the ideas! I love using xylophones, but every once and while I forget to review posture playing positions. You're ideas are great, and I'll add them to my repertoire.

    1. I'm glad you found the ideas helpful! Thanks for the note :)