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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Elementary Music Procedures to Practice

One of the most important things we can do at the beginning of the school year is practice classroom procedures- the less time we have to spend explaining and managing logistics throughout the year, the more time we have for music-making and the smoother our lessons will go in general. Part of creating a "safe space" classroom is making sure students feel confident that they know what to do in common lesson situations, and procedures are the foundation for that. Here are the most important procedures I make sure to make time to practice at the beginning of the year with my elementary general music students.

Before we jump into the list, I want to make it clear that I do not cram in practice of all of these procedures in the first lesson, or even the first week, of the school year. But I do try to introduce them within the first 3 weeks or so. I found if I don't make the time to practice them within the first month, the first time we really encounter the procedure with a particular grade I forget they haven't practiced it and I get impatient when they don't know what to do, which invariably leads to problems. And I definitely do not tell students how to do these things, or even have a class discussion about them or have students model examples- I build the actual activities for which the procedures are needed into my lesson plans so that the students naturally have opportunities to practice them when the need arises. Contextualizing it helps students understand the importance and purpose so much better! If you want an example of how I do that in the first few lessons with each grade level, see my first day of music lesson plan blog post.

1. Entering and exiting the room

Establishing how to enter and exit the room is probably the most important procedure for elementary music because we tend to have such short class periods, and the students spend so much of the rest of their day in one room with one teacher- coming into and leaving a room is not something they do all day like high schoolers and middle schoolers do! My procedure for leaving class has changed very little in my 16 years of teaching: we quickly review what we learned, line up in a very specific order on the line marked on the floor, give compliments, and walk into the hallway. Students know class is almost over when I give the silent signal for them to stand up and walk to the line, and they know exactly where and when to go. Keeping the end of class predictable and highly structured makes the transition out of music class so much smoother! Read all the details of my exit procedures in this post.

Predictability at the beginning of class is key as well, but my procedures have shifted over the years as I've recognized that I need to build in time to address any "baggage" students come into my room with, whether it was an argument on the playground or a test right before class they think they bombed. I've also realized nobody can (or should) be expected to instantly switch into "music class mode" the minute they cross the threshold of my classroom- they need time to transition into the space, some more than others. I started doing student-led warmups at the beginning of class a few years ago and it has been magnificent. I get those going as soon as the first few students are walking in, and everyone knows they need to join in as they get to their seats. Read about the kinds of warmups I do, and how I've made them student-led to free me up for side conversations etc, in this post.

2. Standing, sitting, and sitting up

This isn't always at the top of other teachers' lists but it is on mine- with all the singing, movement, and other transitions I have in my lessons we are rarely in one position for long, and it's important to me that students learn how to sit up properly in chairs for singing or playing wind instruments to give them proper breath support (one of the reasons I am a firm believer in using chairs rather than just sitting on the floor). I've established a silent hand signal for standing, sitting, and sitting up that we practice starting on the very first day- read about those in this post.

3. Redirection

One of the most important procedures I go over with students at the beginning of the year is how to handle themselves when they feel themselves getting out of hand, they're upset and aren't quite ready to resolve the issue yet, or need to share something with me that I can't listen to right away when they need me to hear them. We talk about taking responsibility to take space themselves rather than waiting for me to intervene, and I show them a few different places they can go when they need to remove themselves from a situation. I also have sticky notes and a pencil in a corner where students can write notes to me if they need to tell me something and I either can't listen right away or they want to keep it confidential. And I also try to reinforce with everyone that if I'm asking a student to go sit in one of those spaces or take space away from the group, that's to give them the opportunity to resolve the situation before it escalates, not as a "punishment". 

4. Instruments

The most important expectation I establish with instruments is written on a giant poster on my wall: if you play before I say you'll make the instrument go away. We practice the importance of holding instruments in a way that they won't accidentally make sound when they are waiting to begin playing, and we also practice what happens when they do play out of turn- I make sure they see early on that if they make a mistake it's not a big deal, they put their instrument down for one turn and then they always get another chance to join and try again. 

Besides that though, I also believe it's important for instruments to be visible and available for students, and for them to learn how to safely and appropriately handle them early on. So we practice how to get instruments off the shelves and put them away, and how to hand out instruments or collect them from other students if they are assigned to that team job and we are using small instruments like egg shakers or rhythm sticks. 

5. Movement

I'm lucky enough to have 2 areas in my room: one where chairs are set up, and another with floor spots in a circle. The kindergartners sit on the floor most of the time, but for the older grades we practice how to safely move from one area to the other and back again. Seems self-evident but I learned very early in my teaching career that it definitely is not!

6. Writing

I don't have desks or tables for each student in my room, so when it's time to write or color it is quite an ordeal without procedures in place. I have teams assigned to pass out and collect things, and we practice how to get everyone pencils and paper. For younger grades I just have them use their chairs as desks and sit on the floor to avoid more transitions and logistics, but for older students who tend to find that uncomfortable I have clipboards, lap desks, and some table space that we go over how they can get and use. I keep all of our supplies organized by color team to make it easier to keep track of everything- you can read about that in this post.

7. Bathroom/ tissues/ nurse

To be honest this is the procedure I tend to forget to practice because I'd rather just have everyone stay in music and never have to use the bathroom, blow their nose, or visit the nurse! Of course life doesn't work that way so when I'm on my game, I make sure to show students where the tissues are in my room and where nearest bathroom is and (especially for younger grades) practice walking between the music room and the bathroom, and I tell them my one rule to not have more than one student in the bathroom/ at the tissues at a time (mostly because it's too much for my brain to keep track of, but also to avoid dilly dallying). I have tried to have students use whatever hand signals they have in their homerooms in the past to avoid confusing them, but I'm considering establishing a hand signal for bathroom and tissues this year and putting a poster up in the room for their reference, because I have had too many times when students are trying to signal something to me and I don't know what the signal means! :) Regardless, they're important to review so they don't become disruptions throughout the year.

I know what you're thinking: what about emergency procedures? I honestly don't count that as a separate thing to practice for music class because we go over emergencies in general as a building and discuss various scenarios, including if students are in art, music, the cafeteria, the bathroom, etc. If we didn't do that as a building, I would certainly include that on my list as well! What else is on your list that didn't make mine? What are some ways you've found to help the procedures above go more smoothly in your room? I'd love to hear more ideas in the comments!


  1. Bravo on your wonderful website! Your procedures to practice are spot on! I have taught music for over twenty years and I concur 100% with your procedures, especially with the advice on the chairs. One of the main reasons is the wear and tear on my body! I can't help but to get down on the floor to demonstrate or assist my students when they are on the floor so after 6 classes I am sore! (I am 46 years old!) When they are in chairs I am already at their level so it makes assisting students easier for me. I also am glad that you mentioned transitions (passing out instruments, getting clipboards, preparing for vocal exercises, etc.). In a mixed teacher meeting, the administration asked us what we thought were important parts of a lesson plan and I said transitions, and a few people laughed but if they taught music they would understand why I said that! Keep up the great work!

    1. I can't imagine any teacher not practicing transitions! But I think you're right, with such short class times in music we are probably doing a lot more transitions that need to be executed quickly than most other classes. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, thank you for taking the time to comment!