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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Instrumental Sequencing in Elementary General Music

If there is one thing I hear adults reminisce fondly about most from their childhood music classes, it's learning to play an instrument of some kind. And if there's one thing I hear adults most regret from their childhood, it's not sticking with whatever instrument they started learning how to play. Instruments are an important part of children's musical development! Today I am sharing which grades I teach each instrument and how.

Kindergarten/ Preschool

Early childhood is all about exploring musical elements and establishing a strong foundation in both musical understanding and proper care and responsibility for equipment. I always start my youngest students with a few classroom instruments that are easy to play and hard to break (rhythm sticks, egg shakers, and hand drums are usually the first) and use those exclusively for a month or two to practice how to hold them and play them correctly, how to get them out and put them away safely, how to play only when they're supposed to, and to start practicing basic musical concepts like steady beat, fast and slow, and simple rhythm patterns. 

Once they are able to use instruments appropriately, I start introducing more unpitched percussion instruments, always making sure they are using proper playing technique and making sure students can correctly identify each instrument by name as we go. There are so many different instruments I like to use at this stage, but the ones we use the most include triangles, jingle bells, tambourines, djembes, cow bells, and boomwhackers. I try to make sure all of the instruments are easy enough for small hands to play while still giving students exposure to a wide range of timbres and techniques.

I wait until January or February of Kindergarten (about halfway through the school year) to introduce barred instruments. These instruments are much more complicated to play and use properly! In Kindergarten I just introduce a few basic playing techniques and use those to explore the instrument without trying to play any specific melodies etc. You can read my specific lesson plans for introducing barred instruments in this post.

1st/ 2nd grades

First and second grade is all about developing music literacy and expanding their musical "vocabulary" by adding more pitch and rhythmic elements to their repertoire. In these grades students spend a lot of time learning more complex techniques on barred instruments, including borduns, ostinati, and in second grade, simple melodies. I also spend more time exploring the range of barred instruments with them (which I am lucky enough to have in my classroom): xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels all in various sizes. 

Besides the focus on barred instruments, I also make sure to save some of the more challenging and unique unpitched percussion instruments for these grades: cabasas, slap sticks, ratchets, vibraslaps, rain sticks, finger cymbals, sleigh bells, guiros, and more. It can be tempting to let students try out all the different instruments right away (and boy, do they want to!), but I make sure I reserve exciting new things for each grade so that things don't get stale, and many of these instruments are too heavy or difficult for younger students to play properly.

3rd/ 4th grades

This is the age I introduce recorders. In my last district I taught recorders in 4th grade, and in my current district we teach them in 3rd. I think either grade can be successful, but with 3rd graders I definitely recommend waiting until halfway through the year to give them time to develop their fine motor skills, let their hands grow a little more, and develop their notation reading skills as well. In both districts the recorder was introduced the year before beginning band is offered, and that seems to work well in both cases.

Recorders are a whole new ball game because it's the first time they are learning a wind instrument, and it's also the first time I expect them to care for their own instrument and take it home to practice independently as well. Besides the obvious goals of developing their playing technique and musical literacy, I also use the recorder to teach independent practice skills. You can read about all my tips for teaching recorder, including my lesson sequence, recommended instruments, storage and organization solutions, and more in this post.

5th/ 6th grades

I know many elementary schools don't include the 6th grade- when I have taught K-5 in the past I included some of this in my 4th grade curriculum- but currently I teach in a K-6 school, and I teach piano in 5th grade and ukulele in 6th grade. I know many teachers start ukulele at much younger ages, and in terms of physical capability I think younger ages definitely could play ukulele properly, but it is so important to me to make sure my oldest students have something that is special just for them, and there is a lot of musical content they can learn naturally through the study of these specific instruments that would be too advanced for younger students.

I have written separate posts about my ukulele and piano units as well- click below to read those posts.

I hope this helps you think about your own sequence for instrumental music curriculum in general music class! This is certainly not the only right way to teach- there are plenty of other instruments that would accomplish the same curricular goals besides the ones I have available to me in my classroom. If you'd like to implement a similar sequence in your own classroom, you can find my curriculum, including all the lesson plans and materials to teach all of these instruments, in this resource.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Music Lessons for Read Across America

Many schools across the United States will be celebrating Read Across America the first week of March. Whether you've been strongly encouraged to do so by your administration or just want to join in the festivities, this is a great time to pull out some books to tie into music lessons! Today I want to share some of my favorite ways to bring Read Across America into the elementary music room.

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First let me make sure everyone is on the same page: Dr. Seuss is not featured in my RAA celebration, and he shouldn't be in yours either. The NEA has already completely removed Cat in the Hat, and Dr. Seuss, from their logo and theme (visit their site linked above to see their new resources), but many teachers haven't gotten the memo yet. Besides the author's overtly racist political cartoons and propaganda, a large portion of his book characters and content (including the Cat in the Hat) are demeaning and exoticising of non-white people and non-Western cultures. If this is news to you, I know it can be hard to process at first, but I encourage you to set aside your childhood memories for a moment and read this article (click here to download for free) and do a little research- there are plenty of other articles to look at to find out for yourself.

OK. Now that we've addressed that, let's talk about alternatives! Because there are so many, and actually they're way better.

Conveniently enough, March is also Music In Our Schools Month® (MIOSM®)! So my favorite way to bring literature into my music lessons during Read Across America week is with books about music. The theme in 2019 was "All Music. All People.", and for that theme I used the book My Family Plays Music to explore different musical genres while having students play along with recordings on classroom instruments. See all the recordings I used and the full lesson plan in this post:

The 2020 theme for Music In Our Schools Month is "Music Changes Lives", and I am going to be incorporating this year's theme with the beautiful book Because. I've been trying to think of a way to bring this book into my lessons in a meaningful way ever since I found it last year, so I can't wait! To see the lesson and activities I am planning to go with this book, read this post:

For any other music teachers who, like me, used to teach "My Many Colored Days" by Dr. Seuss, I found a great alternative that my students actually like better and understand more readily: here is the lesson I do with the book Allie All Along:

There are so many great ways to use books in the elementary music classroom- these are just a few examples! I especially love using them with my younger students (K-2). They love listening to stories, and their imaginations light up when we use those stories as springboards for creative musical expression. You'll find complete lesson plans for 13 more books (and counting!) that I use throughout the school year in this post:

I know there are many more great books and lesson ideas to use them! If you don't see your favorite here, please share them in the comments below! I hope you enjoy reading with your students and discovering new books to use in your classroom.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

My Tips for Teaching Class Piano

I have been teaching a piano unit in my 5th grade general music classes for years now and I love it! I have learned a lot about how to manage the logistics to make it work in the classroom setting over the years, how to manage the logistics of the instruments so that it's not too labor-intensive for me, and how to continue to build on the skills and concepts they're learning while incorporating basic keyboarding skills. Here are my top suggestions for teaching class piano in elementary or middle school general music!

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I don't have a class set if keyboards/ pianos, nor do I think anyone needs them. I have almost enough for half of my class, so I have them choose a piano partner and they share (a few have 3 together on one instrument). I don't have them doing anything that uses more than one octave at a time, so it's easy for two of them to play at the same time.

In my room I have 2 uprights (one acoustic that is dying a slow death, and one electric that I got to replace the acoustic when it dies) that are permanently set up on opposite sides of the room. The rest of the instruments I have are basic electric keyboards: they are from all different years and slightly different models, but similar to this one.

When I first came to this school there were only a handful of keyboards. When I didn't have enough to have the whole class using them at the same time, I printed out one or two octaves of a keyboard and laminated them so that students could practice hand positions, finding notes, etc while they waited their turn to use the real thing. Honestly, they didn't even mind (because piano is inherently cool), and it did actually reduce the noise level significantly. Don't let a limited number of instruments stop you from teaching class piano!

Storage/ Set Up

I was able to get some shelf space to store my keyboards when we're not using them- there is no way I want to have them set up year-round because they take up too much space (especially considering I only use them in lessons with one grade level out of seven)! The biggest issue for me, then, is getting them set up and torn down quickly before and after class. The best tip I have for that is leaving the plugs plugged into the outlets, and unplugging the cord from the back of the keyboard to store them away. It's a lot faster than trying to find the outlets against the wall each time!

I also did away with keyboard stands and have opted to just have them sit on the floor. It's not the best for posture and hand position, but I rotate everyone through the uprights so that they all have chances to sit at an actual piano, and it's worth having more time to spend actually playing the instruments instead of taking more class time to set things up and take them apart!


Of course one of the hardest things about any type of class instruction on an instrument is getting everyone to stop playing when I need to give instructions! The way I manage that is by having students keep the keyboards off/ lids closed on the pianos when I'm giving directions, and when it's time for them to stop I turn off the lights in the classroom. I tell them ahead of time that when the lights turn off they need to turn off/ close the lid on their instruments, and if they don't do that they miss out on free play time at the end of class.

Free play time is another key element to making sure students are staying on task when they're given time to practice- of course they want to try out songs they know by ear, see what all those buttons do, or try to gliss up all the keys. They need time to experiment on their own. I always give them an extra-long free play time the first time they use the instruments at the beginning of the unit, and I try to have some free play time (maybe 1 or 2 minutes) at the end of each lesson.

Teaching Methods

One thing I've learned with teaching class instruments is to focus on one small skill at a time and give students short practice sessions on each small skill, rather than giving them larger tasks and expecting them to stay on task to practice a more difficult skill for longer periods of time. So if I want them to find C and play in home position with their right hand thumb on C, I'll have them go to the instruments and find C, then stop and have them play C with their thumb, then stop and have them put each finger on the other notes above C. Shorter practice times with focused, achievable tasks keeps everyone on-task during practice sessions!

Unit Content

The basic outline of my keyboard unit with 5th grade is to find C, play in home position with both hands, each finger playing its own note independently, play one song in home position, and then compose one song using those same notes. It's not a very involved or complicated unit, but it's enough to get everyone acquainted with the layout of the keys and get them comfortable with playing. You can see all of my detailed lesson plans and materials in my 5th grade curriculum as well.

If you want to see my tips and lesson ideas for other instruments, whether it's recorders, ukuleles, boomwhackers, xylophones, or other typical classroom instruments, head to this post:

What questions do you have about teaching class piano? What tips do you have from your own experiences with keyboards in the general music room? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Music In Our Schools Month 2020: Music Changes Lives

This year the Music In Our Schools Month® (MIOSM®) theme is "Music Changes Lives", and I'm so excited to share some new ideas to celebrate! I've been celebrating Music In Our Schools Month® with my classes for years, but this new theme has sparked some new ideas that I think will be inspiring for the whole school community.

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When I first saw the new theme, I immediately knew I would be using the book "Because" by Mo Willems to introduce the theme! If you aren't familiar with the book already, here's a reading. It's a beautiful story with fantastic illustrations:

I plan to read the book to the class and then use the story as a prompt to lead into a discussion about how music has impacted our lives.

Poster Contest

Using the book "Because" as a starting point, I will have students use this template (click the image below to copy and paste to your own computer) to make a poster about how music has impacted their own lives- they might include things like, "because of piano I can make my own music", or "because of music I don't feel lonely", or "because of trombone I know how to work hard", or "because of choir I have new friends". I'll share some of my own thoughts from my own life as examples and then have them fill in their own thoughts by finishing the sentence, either with words or pictures (or both).

Rather than take too much class time working on the posters themselves, I'm planning to send these home and turn it into a poster contest! The class with the highest percentage of participation will get a class prize (probably to play a game like freeze dance at the end of class), and I'll also choose the best poster(s) to feature on our school website and hang up around the school.

Community Survey

I'm also planning to send out a survey to staff in my building, district administrators, and parents about songs that have impacted them. I'm sending these out now, at the beginning of February, so I'll have time to collect and compile them, and then I'm hoping to collect enough entries to play one song, and share the accompanying story, each morning on the announcements. If you'd like to see the survey I'm sending out, you can take a look at it below:

I think this will be a great way to get the community involved and thinking about the importance of music in their lives, while also inspiring students with stories from people in their community- I'm excited to see how this goes, and I can't wait to hear what people have to say!

Other Activities

Along with these new ideas I'll be using to tie into the specific theme for this year, I'll also be using a lot of the same activities from previous years, like Rhythm Battle and Disco Duel. The students look forward to these every year and I can't wait to get started with them again! If you aren't familiar with how I celebrate Music In Our Schools Month® be sure to check out all of my previous posts below- there are so many fun ways to celebrate with your school community, and they don't take a ton of effort to put together!

I can't wait to celebrate the impact and importance of music in our lives with my entire school community this year- I think it will be a wonderful month! If you have other ideas for ways to incorporate the new theme this year, I'd love to hear about them in the comments! Happy MIOSM!

Monday, February 3, 2020

January Favorites 2020

And just like that, 2020 is off to the races. January has been a full month, and my life doesn't show any signs of slowing down. I'd honestly forgotten a lot of my favorite moments from the past month until I stopped to write this post! Don't miss some wonderful content I found from other music education websites this month at the end of this post as well.

1. New Shirts

I've become a little obsessed with teacher t-shirts lately, but this one from Franklin Willis wins. Every time I wear it I get comments from both students and adults! It's telling, though, that the negative ones have only come from other music teachers... If you're interested, here's where I got the shirt (there are plenty of other music teacher designs I am drooling over)!

2. Hybrid Layouts

I'm honestly still obsessed with this planner layout I put together for the first week of January. The rainbow and gold color combination is so festive, but I especially love how the functionality worked out combining two different weekly layouts into one! We had 2 days of school on Thursday and Friday after the new year, so I only needed those 2 days for lesson planning, but I still had plenty to write down for my days "off", so this was perfect! Both of these are part of the Dated 5 #PlanMyWholeLife planner that I've been using for years, but I've never put two together in one week like this- I'm so pleased with the way it turned out.

3. Music Education Articles

I'm loving the posts I've found this past month- catch up on your reading by clicking on the images below!

I hope you had a fantastic start to the new decade as well, and that you're looking forward to a wonderful month ahead!