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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.


  1. This is seriously an amazing blog post. I know so many music teachers struggle with what to do in upper elementary and you do such a great job laying it out step by step in an easy to follow approach.

    1. Thanks so much! I'm so glad you found it useful and easy to follow. I love using instruments in my curriculum and they can be such a powerful and effective tool for students :)