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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Favorite Halloween Week Lessons

It's the week of Halloween and you know what that means.... kids are HYPED beforehand, and exhausted after. It's also the time of year when music teachers, at least in the U.S., seem to want to go all-in with the holiday-themed lessons. I do not do directly Halloween-themed lessons, but I do try to plan for the general high energy and distraction. Here are some of my favorite lesson activities for the week of Halloween.

First on the point of Halloween-themed lessons: I do not think we have to remove all references to holidays. I actually teach my students about different holidays throughout the year, from around the world. But Halloween is not really a holiday I feel is important for my students to learn about from a cultural or musical perspective, and using it as a theme without teaching about it directly makes students who don't celebrate Halloween feel othered, excluded. When I reference holidays in my classroom it is with the intent of having students learn about the holiday at some level, not to treat it as a "norm". I encourage you to think twice about Halloween-themed lessons before using them this week!

What I've found most successful for this week surrounding Halloween are lessons that are highly structured and require focus and teamwork, but don't require too much higher-order thinking. Without structure and focus the class can easily fall apart, but students are generally too preoccupied and/or tired to be doing any deep thinking!

1. Mountain King Play-Along

OK for those people who want to infuse some Halloween spirit, this is the closest we're gonna get in this post! I like this play along because it gradually speeds up, keeping students' attention, it's easy enough to follow, and depending on what we're doing I can repeat the play along multiple times and have them switch parts. There are 5 parts so I usually do this with 5 different percussion instruments, and it keeps them focused because the parts are not in predictable patterns that allow you to zone out! Split the class into 5 groups, assign each group to one instrument and one color icon to follow, and have them play each time the conductor lands on their icon.

2. Sarasponda

First, just to clear up any misconceptions: my research indicates that this is a nonsense song made in the US, not a Dutch "spinning song" as some sources will say. I can't say my research is super extensive, but if you use this please do your own research before telling students it's Dutch (and if you have credible sources indicating it actually is, please let me know in the comments)!

That said, this is a great one to use because the song is relatively short and easy to learn, and there are a lot of possibilities for stick games and passing games to build in that concentration factor I'm looking for. Here is an example of a partner stick game (for upper elementary- it's on the trickier side), here's an individual stick routine (perfect for social distancing protocols- I used this last year), and you can also do it as a passing game by having students pass bean bags or any other object around on the steady beat (up the challenge by switching directions for the A and B sections).

3. Pass the Beat Around the Room

This is another game that requires a lot of focus! You'll see older students playing in this video but I've done it with younger students (just much slower and we don't take out any words)- I don't recommend this for younger than 2nd grade at the very youngest though.

4. Note Swat

I like this one because it's active, fast-paced, and competitive but still easy to control because there are only a couple of students competing at a time. Write notes on the staff scattered around the board (or if you have flashcards with individual notes you can stick those on the wall). Split the class into 2 teams. Have one person from each team race to find the note that matches the letter you call out. It's fun to give them fly swatters (and keeps them from smacking the board too hard), but I've also done it by just having them point with their finger, and I've heard other teachers have them throw a beanbag or something at the note. The first person to touch the correct note gets a point for their team. I find it works best if I tell them they only get one shot- the first thing they touch is their final answer. That prevents them from randomly swatting at every note on the board!

You can do this with any clef, of course, but if you'd like an image to project to do this with treble clef, here's the one I made for my classes:


What are your favorite lesson activities for the week of Halloween? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments (and I'm sure many other tired music teachers will thank you as well)! I hope you have a fun week- may the force be with us all. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Tideo: socially distant movement lesson

I, along with many other music teachers I'm sure, use the song "Tideo" as a way to introduce barred sixteenth notes. For the last few years I've done a folk dance with the song to get students experiencing the rhythm, but with covid protocols still in place I needed a movement activity that students can do independently. Here's what we did!

I actually used to use this movement activity with the song before I came across the folk dance and it has always been a big hit- few lesson activities elicit as much focus as this one- and I was reminded of that when I brought it back this year. I cannot find a source for this activity nor can I remember if I got it from somewhere or made it up! If anyone knows of another source for this please let me know.

The idea is for it to be a cumulative movement activity, adding one move at a time to go with different words or phrases in the song. There are many different versions of the lyrics but it would be easy to modify to fit whatever version you use! Here's a demonstration of what I do:


Besides introducing barred sixteenth notes, this song lends itself well to a review of pentatonic solfege. I use the song to get students experiencing sixteenth notes before they are ever formally introduced to the concept or notation, and then use it as a review of the solfege notes after they've heard it over and over again as well. If you want the full lesson plan, it's included in the 3rd grade curriculum!

Now that I remember how engaging this format of introducing a song is, I'd love to use the same technique with other songs! Let me know in the comments if you've ever done something similar with another song (or with this one). 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Ambos a Dos: Puerto Rican game song

It may be the very end of Hispanic Heritage Month but I just recently came across this song and it's a great lesson to use any time of year! The Puerto Rican game reminds me a lot of some games I grew up playing in Japan, and it was a great song to use with my Kindergartners because it reinforced some concepts they were working on and it is easy to learn the words in Spanish.

There is a great explanation of the game, with lyrics to the song, on page 15 of the book "Juegos de mi Isla" by Marta Monta├▒ez. The basic idea is to have 2 lines facing each other, and they walk towards each other and back away on the beat while singing their verses back and forth. At the end everyone join hands in a circle. Here's a video:


The first obvious concept this game can reinforce is steady beat. I love that there is mixed meter thrown in there as well- actually I find young kids aren't that thrown by it when they do it with the steps and kicks because it makes sense with the phrasing, it's the adults who find it more difficult! But any time we can use music in lower elementary grades that's not straight duple meter is a good thing!

I also happen to have several instruments from Puerto Rico given to me by a friend and retired music teacher, so I had students take turns playing those instruments on the beat while others did the steps and kicks with this recording. Maracas, guiros, tambourines, bongos, and congas are good choices if you don't have instruments directly from Puerto Rico- I would recommend showing a video like the first minute of this one to show students examples of the instruments being played in context.

The other concept students are able to practice with this song is call and response. Once students have heard the song a few times it's easy for them to sing the repeated lines, "matarile, rile rile" and "matarile, rile, ron". Older students could probably learn the verses in Spanish, but for Kindergarten I just had them learn the first verse, "Ambos a dos", then I did the rest of the lines in English: I sing "(name of student) do your job", then the student whose name I sang responds "what's my job?", I respond with "you can be a (job title)", and the student sings back "I like that job" or "I don't like that job" (the whole class sings the repeated lines in Spanish in between throughout), and at the end everyone sings "celebramos todos juntos" in Spanish together while we go around in a circle. If you would like to see musical notation for the melody, you can find that here.

Have you heard of this song before? This was a great addition to my lessons this year and, now that I'm more familiar, I'm excited to use it more effectively next year as well. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Socially Distanced Elementary Choir

After 18 months of no in-person chorus, this school year I have my choirs back! And while that's super exciting, it also presents many challenges- in my district, we are currently required to maintain 6 feet distance between singers with masks on. I had so many concerns about how this would work going into it, but now that we are a few weeks into the school year I am feeling much better about it- here are my top tips for making it work when your elementary chorus is socially distanced.

1. Choosing Songs

As much as I want to dive back into the 4-part a capella singing we were doing pre-pandemic, we're not there yet (and that's OK). Besides not having the background from missing over a year of choir, students are also not used to singing that much in a mask- and that's tiring. And because they are so spread out, it's harder for them to hear the other singers on their part. So I think going with simple part singing, or even unison pieces, is the way to go.

Along with an uncomplicated arrangement, I'm looking for songs where the vocal parts are easy to sing- lyrical lines in a limited range that's comfortable for everyone. Because they aren't taking as deep of breaths through their masks, they don't have as much breath support to sing vocally challenging parts. The songs should feel comfortable and good to sing!

The other most important consideration for me is to choose songs that are engaging and fun. One of the biggest difficulties with socially distanced choir is that students won't sing out as much because they can't hear the other singers' voices around them as much. They're more likely to get to a place where they're not too self-conscious to sing out confidently if it's a song in which they are invested and enjoy singing.

2. Seating

I have chairs in 6-feet-apart rows, all facing straight forward, with the rows staggered so nobody has another person right in front of them. I also made sure to put all the students from the same class / cohort together. As much as I would normally prefer to split them up by vocal range, right now minimizing spread has to take priority! Obviously this means I have assigned seating, in which I am a firm believer whether I'm dealing with pandemics or not. 

3. Regular Singing Breaks

To keep energy up while they're singing in a mask, I build regular breaks for the students into the rehearsal. Sometimes that's me talking to them, sometimes it's listening to a recording or me demonstrating something, sometimes it's a random team-building game etc, but I've found that even with the relatively short 30 minute rehearsals I have, the students need time to build up to singing that whole time. Building in some breaks in singing helps keep them from wearing out.

4. Turn Up the Volume

One of the biggest hurdles with socially distanced / masked singing is kids not being able to hear the others around them. My way of combatting that is to turn up my personal amplification microphone and sing along with them, and use recordings that have the singing and accompaniment for them to sing along with. So far I think this has been the most important change that has helped my singers sing more confidently!

I hope this helps any other music teachers teaching choir (or singing in general music) with these protocols in place. It's definitely not ideal but I try to keep reminding myself how grateful I am to have chorus happening in-person at all! If you have other tips that have worked for you, please leave them in the comments. I'd love to hear them!