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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Lessons to Celebrate the Joy of Music

For Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM®) I've been sharing lesson ideas for celebrating the joy of music. I think more than ever we can all use opportunities to be reminded why we love music in all its forms, and our students need that too! Whether it's during MOISM or any time of year, I hope you will make time to bask in the joy of musicking through these lesson ideas for all different age groups.

I am a huge believer and advocate for making learning in elementary music class meaningful and for the importance of music as an academic subject. When I'm planning my lessons, I'm always thinking first and foremost about the concepts and skills that my students need to learn. I stand by those priorities, but that doesn't mean I think music class needs to be serious, hard work all the time! Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in the hard work and forget to recognize the pure joy of music. 

It's also easy as music teachers to celebrate and enjoy certain forms of music making more than others because of our own preferences or because of which areas most of our students enjoy, and forget to give students the opportunity to learn to enjoy other forms of musicking through joyful experiences in those other areas! These lesson activities are designed to celebrate many different ways of making, experiencing, and responding to music. I've found it helpful to take a step back and think about which areas I'm not celebrating as much in my lessons, or am not spending as much time on with certain age groups.

For each of the areas below, you'll find lesson activities targeting a range of age groups from early childhood through middle school- often it can be harder to find ways for kindergartners to enjoy listening to music, or for middle schoolers to enjoy singing, for example- whichever areas you may find most challenging to enjoy with your students, I hope this gives you some concrete ideas to incorporate into your own lessons in Music In Our Schools Month and beyond!

What are your favorite ways to show students the joy of musicking in all its forms? I'd love to hear your favorites in the comments below!

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Lessons to Celebrate Listening

For Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM®), I thought I would share some of my favorite lessons for celebrating different forms of musicking. These are the lessons where we just bask in the joy of music-making- what's better than that? And (because I can never help myself) there are always musical skills and concepts students get more practice with in the process. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite lessons that celebrate listening!

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1. Abstract Drawing

One of my favorite ways to get younger students to listen to and respond to music, besides movement, is with drawing. Movement is a great way to get younger students to demonstrate concrete musical qualities they hear like dynamics, phrasing, pitch, tempo, or rhythm, but drawing is such a great way not only to get younger students to listen in a more focused (calmer) way, it's also a great way to get them to respond to the more abstract musical message of the music. I use the book Niko Draws a Feeling to get kids to understand the concept of abstract drawing, then turn on a piece of music and let them draw. You can see the entire lesson plan in this blog post- this is one of my favorites for Kindergarten and 1st grade.


SQUILT stands for "super quiet uninterrupted listening time", and the point is to listen to a little bit of a longer piece of music and just focus on listening. I love doing this with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. I encourage students to find a place that feels comfortable in the room, whether that's sitting in their chair, on the floor, or even laying down, and I encourage them to close their eyes so they can focus on the sounds. I prefer not to give them a worksheet or anything to fill out during the music so they don't have any distractions, but I usually take the opportunity to have a conversation about what they heard as a class afterwards, giving them time to share their thoughts and observations and then asking some questions about the musical elements they heard to get them to review concepts and vocabulary.

3. Song Brackets

Of course this list would not be complete without mentioning the March Madness song brackets I do for Music In Our Schools Month! This is such a great way to get students to listen to a broad range of musical genres, styles, artists, and time periods. If you've never done one before, the basic idea is to have students listen to 2 songs and vote on their favorite each day, with the winners from each pair advancing to the next round until the students have chosen one song as their favorite. I do this as a school-wide bracket all month long every March, but I know other teachers do it in music class and just have students vote each time they come- this would be perfect for upper elementary and middle school grades to do in class to get them listening to and comparing songs. I choose a different theme each year- I have a blog post here with all of the song lists I've done over the years if you want to try it yourself. 

Those are my favorite lessons for focusing on enjoying listening for each age group- I hope this gives you some new ideas to celebrate music listening with your students! If you have other lesson activities you love I'd love to hear those in the comments as well. 

Want to catch up on the other posts in this series? Click below for my posts on lessons celebrating:

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Lessons to Celebrate Dancing

For Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM®), I thought I would share some of my favorite lessons for celebrating different forms of musicking. These are the lessons where we just bask in the joy of music-making- what's better than that? And (because I can never help myself) there are always musical skills and concepts students get more practice with in the process. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite lesson activities that celebrate dancing! 

1. Follow the Leader

I use this activity all the time with Kindergarten and 1st grade to practice steady beat. This is such a simple concept but really gets students to build their "movement vocabulary", be creative, and have fun dancing in a low pressure way. I start a piece of music (I try to have lots of options of upbeat music from different genres on hand for this) and tell them to copy me as I move on the beat. I do lots of different simple movements on the beat, changing every few measures, to give them some ideas to start. Then I tell them that if I call their name, they are the new leader and they should pick a move and everyone will copy them! I usually do this in a circle and just go around the circle taking turns being the leader, so everyone can see each other easily.

A few tips to make this successful: 
  • Keep it moving! Switch leaders every couple of measures and go around the room quickly. At these younger ages we all know their attention spans are short anyway, but I've found if I let any one student lead for too long things tend to get out of hand!
  • For shy students who freeze when it's their turn, I don't let them off the hook but I do give them suggestions. I try to wait a minute and prompt them again to pick something to do, and sometimes that's enough. If not, I ask them to pick from a few super easy options I suggest, like clapping, patting their heads, or patting their shoulders. 
2. Four Square

This activity is similar to Follow the Leader but is a bit more complicated and gives each student more turns- I use this one mostly with 2nd and 3rd grade. Students get into groups of 4 (this can be modified to be done with 3 or 5 as needed) and stand in a diamond shape, everyone facing the same direction with one student at the front as the tip of the diamond, 2 students slightly behind and to either side, and one student further back and directly behind. The person at the front is the first leader- when the music starts they do a dance move and everyone else in their group copies them. The trick of course is the leader cannot see the others in their group, and the others are copying from behind. When they're done with their move, the leader turns to their right and everyone copies them, making a new person the leader at the front with everyone else behind them. The game continues with leaders turning to the side to switch leaders until the music stops.

3. Going Downtown

This activity requires locomotor movement, unlike the first two activities, and is perfect for upper elementary. To set up the game, separate students into two lines facing each other, with at least 5 feet between the two lines. Try to make the lines even but if there is an odd number of students it will still work. The students are the sidewalks, and the space between them is the street. I tell students to imagine they are on their way to a really awesome party. They are walking down the street with their friend to get to the party. If they're really excited about the party, they aren't just going to be walking calmly down the street- they would be skipping, jumping, doing cartwheels, dancing... One person from the front of each row will be going from the front of the line, down the middle, and joining the back of the line, but they won't be just walking. One person, whose name I call, will be coming up with a fun way to go down the street. The other person (from the other row) will copy them. But they are going to the party together, so they will be going down the street at the same time- not watching the first person and then copying after. Everyone else on the sidewalk moves forward as soon as someone leaves their row to make space at the back of each row. Keep taking turns until the end of the song (I used to have a CD with a song called "Going Downtown"- hence the name- but now I use "Walking On Sunshine", which is equally appropriate!).

These are the rules I give my students when we play: wait until I call one of your names to go, keep the street wide, only do things your partner can physically do, and if you can physically do something you should go for it. I remind them that we don't want any traffic jams, so I make sure the next pair doesn't start going until the previous one has gotten to the end of the row. Often the people waiting get busy watching the others walking past them and they start to move in, making the space too small. To avoid injuries, make sure the space stays wide! For the person picking the movement, I give the example of someone who can do back flips and another cannot. If the leader chooses something that their partner can't do, they are disqualified from the game. If the person copying can do something (like maybe a somersault) and chooses not to, they are disqualified. Obviously you as the teacher will have to be the judge of whether something is truly too difficult or not, or if someone is trying to embarrass someone out of spite rather than fun (I've never had that happen, even in my most challenging groups, but it is theoretically something that I am prepared for).

Of course there are many others that come to mind, but these are my highlights for each age group. I hope you can use them to enjoy dancing with your students! If you have other favorite activities and games that your students love to play over and over again, I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below. 

Want to catch up on the other posts in this series? Click below for my posts on lessons celebrating:

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Lessons to Celebrate Instruments

For Music In Our Schools Month (MIOSM®), I thought I would share some of my favorite lessons for celebrating different forms of musicking. These are the lessons where we just bask in the joy of music-making- what's better than that? And (because I can never help myself) there are always musical skills and concepts students get more practice with in the process. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite lessons that celebrate instruments!

1. Instrument Merry-Go-Round

I've shared this activity several times before but it's just that good! And I use it with every age group: it's easy enough for the Kindergartners and it never seems to get old, even in 6th grade. The basic idea is to have everyone sit in a circle, and give each person 1 instrument (either everyone having a different one or at least have a few different ones that you alternate around the circle). Then in some way, shape, or form they rotate around the circle to play different instruments.

The variations on this activity are endless. For the process of rotating instruments I use 3 variations:

  • Verbally tell students to put down their instrument, scoot around the circle to the next spot, and pick up the new instrument
  • Use silent hand gestures to signal students putting down their instrument, scooting around the circle, picking up the new instrument, playing, and stopping (this is a great way to introduce following conductor cues)
  • Use a chant similar to the one used in "Mallet Madness": 1 2 3 4, put your instruments on the floor, 5 6 7 8, hurry don't be late (they should be holding the new instrument by the time they get to the number 8)
For the playing part there are also many variations:

  • Have students play on the steady beat with a recording or with a song you're singing
  • Have students stop/ start playing on your cue (another opportunity to practice following conductor cues)
  • Have students play different ways (fast/ slow, piano/ forte, etc) when you say the words (great way to practice vocabulary) or show a corresponding conducting gesture
  • Have students echo your rhythm patterns
  • Have students take turns improvising a 4-beat pattern, taking turns around the circle
  • Assign a different ostinato to each instrument and layer each one in 
  • Call out instrument names or instrument groups (pitched/ unpitched, metals/ scrapers/ etc) and only those instruments play 
2. Drum Circle Improvisation

Apparently a lot of my favorite instrument lessons involve sitting in circles?!? There are so many fun lesson activities I love to do with drum circles, but for my upper elementary / middle school students in particular I have 2 favorite activities that truly give students a chance to bask in the joy of drumming together: Improv Circle and Groove Pass. Rather than try to explain them, here are videos of each one:

3. Follow the Bouncing Ball

There are many excellent percussion play-along videos out there these days, but my favorites for getting students focused on playing together as an ensemble, my favorite is the bouncing ball play along, and its variation, the funky veggies. I love these because they don't require any notation reading per se, so students can focus on playing and staying on the beat, but they are also the perfect introduction to Eastman counting because they focus on counting the beat numbers within a measure. It's also easy for them to visually see how their part lines up with the others. I assign a different instrument to each line (these can even be done with body percussion) and the best part is they both sound super cool when it all comes together! I've used these successfully with students as young as 1st grade, but I think they work best for 3rd grade and up.

Of course instruments are inherently fun so there are endless possibilities- when is the last time you did something just to enjoy playing together with your students? I hope you can use these ideas to get jamming and celebrate the joy of playing instruments! I'd love to hear your favorite ways to enjoy instruments too- please leave your ideas in the comments.

Want to catch up on the other posts in this series? Click below for my posts on lessons celebrating: