Are you an elementary classroom teacher who is stressed about having to teach your own music? It’s easy for non-specialists to find music intimidating. With specialized symbols, unique vocabulary and theory, music is like a whole different language. How can you feel confident teaching a subject you don’t fully understand?
My name is Kris, and I am a teacher and musical theatre performer who helps non specialist teachers teach the performing arts like rockstars – even if they don’t have any training or background. In this article I will share four easy strategies that you can use to feel more confident about your music lesson plans.
#1: Include Music in Every Lesson
The most important thing to remember is this: music always comes down to sound. Every single music lesson you teach should involve listening to or playing music in some way. By including music in every class, you will make sure that students are connecting concepts with how they actually sound.
Here are some ideas to incorporate more sound into your music lessons:
- Listen to a piece of music that demonstrates the musical element you are studying
- Sing or play a song that demonstrates the element you are studying
- Clap rhythms out loud
- Sing or play solfege patterns
- Practice a performance piece for a concert
- Listen to a piece of music by a composer you are learning about
If you are not confident with your own ability to play music samples correctly, there are many online tools that can help. Noteflight is one that I often use – it will accurately play back whatever music you input.
The worksheet trap: Beware of “music” activities that don’t actually have music as the focus
If you’re not a music specialist it’s easy to fall back on activities that are not sound related. Music worksheets are attractive because they are easy to use, paper-based, and don’t require much direct input from the teacher. This can seem like a win-win when you’re not feeling confident.
The problem is that worksheets may teach the theory of music, but if you’re not teaching the sound along with it, the theory has no meaning.
Imagine teaching English by having students learn to write letters, but never learning the sounds that correspond with each letter. That would be pretty useless, wouldn’t it?
You can absolutely use worksheets, but you need to be mindful of HOW those worksheets are being used – and make sure that students also have the opportunity to hear music in every class.
#2: Focus on the Elements of Music
The elements of music are the building blocks of music education. Most music curriculums reference the elements of music in their expectations for each grade. When you understand each of these six elements, then putting your music lessons together gets much easier.
Duration – Duration refers to all things related to timing in music. Beat, rhythm, and time signatures.
Pitch – Pitch refers to how high or low a note sounds, and how a sequence of pitches form a melody.
Expressive controls – Expression refers to HOW the music is played. Dynamics are the changing levels of loud & soft. Staccato & legato describe whether the sounds are choppy or smooth.
Timbre – Timbre describes the different sounds that different instruments make, and how combinations of instruments work together.
Texture & Harmony – How layers of sound are used to create depth.
Form – Form describes how the musical piece is organized. Verse and chorus, but also labeling sections as they form a pattern, for example ABA.
The easiest way to organize your music units is to use the elements of music. I usually teach them in the same order they are in above. Rhythm and Pitch are by far the most essential concepts to understand, so I start with them at the beginning of the year so they can be referred back to in the other units.
The “Singing Songs” trap: Beware of activities that focus ONLY on performance
Reading for enjoyment and reading for learning are both important – the same is true with music. Music education is learning ABOUT music, not just enjoying it.
Sometimes teachers will include music in their lessons for other subjects. This can be a GREAT way of keeping students engaged in your lessons. But simply singing a song about fractions teaches very little about music.
Instead, learn a song about fractions and then also clap the rhythm of the words in the song. You could also discuss how a time signature is different from a fraction, even though they look the same. Now you are meeting curriculum goals from both subjects!
When using songs in your lesson plans, make sure you are always linking them back to the elements of music if you intend for them to also meet music curriculum expectations.
#3: Use Simple, Inexpensive Instruments
Many elementary schools don’t have a large supply of instruments, but that’s ok! Here are some suggestions for including more hands-on activities in your classroom:
- If you can, purchase at least one xylophone or glockenspiel. Even just one can make a huge difference as a demonstration tool, but you can also have students take turns using it. If you can manage to get 4 or 5, you have enough for students to work in small groups!
- There are lots of virtual instruments that can be used on an interactive board, or on student devices. I really like playxylo.com because it has a distraction free page, has colours that coordinate with Boomwhacker music, and you can even switch to solfege labels instead of note names.
- Drumsticks are really inexpensive and can be used on just about anything (bucket drumming is popular for a reason!) Use Youtube to look up some basics on how to hold the sticks correctly and you have the basis for an awesome rhythm unit.
The recorder trap: Recorders don't have to be noisy and awful!
Many elementary schools use recorders because they are inexpensive and relatively easy to learn. However, they often get a reputation for being noisy and awful. Here are some tips to help you use recorders effectively:
- Play in small groups. Recorders are chamber instruments and not designed to be used in large groups. When too many students play at the same time, they struggle to hear themselves and therefore end up overblowing. Overblowing distorts the pitch and causes squeaking. Instead, have five students play at a time. They will be able to hear themselves and their technique will improve faster.
- Take some time to learn basic technique. It’s perfectly ok not to know everything. Watch a few Youtube videos to make sure you are placing your hands properly. Learning alongside your students helps them appreciate the learning process.
- Select instruments that are inexpensive, not cheap. When purchasing recorders, make sure that they have three separate sections. Recorders from the dollar store only have two sections and don’t have a foot joint that can be adjusted. This makes it extremely difficult for children to reach all the holes with their little fingers.
#4: Steal Strategies from Other Subjects!
You’re already an amazing teacher – don’t let music as a subject throw you off your game. It’s amazing how easily your favourite teaching strategies can be transferred to music:
- Try using a shared reading activity with sheet music instead of text.
- Create an interactive notebook on a specific music period in history.
- Create center activities for students to practice specific music skills (see tips below)
What teaching strategies are you already using in your classroom? How could you use them to teach the elements of music?
Tips for Music Centers
I love using centers because you can make the most of the music equipment you have, even if you don’t have class sets. I find them most effective when you have a specific element of music you have been studying and then have each center geared to that element.
Here are some ideas to get you started on using music centers:
- Note Reading – Put copies of sheet music for songs you have learned in class with a xylophone or device with a virtual xylophone. Students can practice reading & playing the music. (This is also a great way to incorporate instruments when you only have a small number – it also keeps the noise level down!)
- Composition – Provide a pitched instrument (real or virtual xylophone) with blank paper so students can create their own song and record it. For younger students, they can simply write down the note names. For older students, provide photocopies with the blank music staff.
- Listening Center – Load up an old iPod with music that features a specific music element. You could also choose to feature a specific composer. Provide a comfy place to sit and paper/crayons for those students who like to keep their hands busy while they listen.
- Music Theory – There are some great games out there that help students practice music theory. This would also be an ideal time to use those worksheets for elements that have already been taught in class.
- Hands-On Centers – Music can be hands-on even without instruments. Games, smartboard activities, and manipulatives are all great resources to use.
Bonus: Get a jump-start with these free lessons
Teaching music without a degree can be stressful, but it is possible when you have a few basic tools and a willingness to learn. I have created some sample units that will help get you started with the duration element of music.
Please email me with any questions you may have and I’ll do my best to help. You CAN teach music like a rockstar!
Kris loves to help teachers like you to teach the performing arts in a way that is fun, high quality and stress-free. For more tips and free downloads for teaching music, drama, and dance head to stageworthybywidy.com. You can also email her at [email protected] with your questions, or browse her TpT store here.
Kris is a musical theatre performer and teacher in Ontario, Canada. When she isn’t teaching, performing, or developing new resources for teachers, she also runs a successful summer day camp and loves spending time outdoors with her hubby and two beautiful boys.