Holiday Favorites



This week, my students and I are in “singalong” mode, as we get ready for the holiday singalong on Friday afternoon (see this blog post with more information about putting together a singalong.) I thought I’d share some of my favorite activities and books for my winter holiday lessons.

Holiday favorites: Picture books, dances, and more for the music room in December!

·         “Feliz Navidad” book by Jose Feliciano and David Diaz: This is a beautiful picture book narrating the song “Feliz Navidad.” It appears to be out of print, but it can still be bought cheaply on Amazon and www.alibris.com (my favorite out-of-print children’s book website!)


I     I found it years ago at a book fair, so you might also find it in your school’s library. I’ve been using the same recording of the song by Chino Espinoza for years; you can find it on Itunes. Listening to it definitely gets me in the holiday mood! The beginning of the book has an interesting bit about Christmas traditions in Puerto Rico that you can read to your students.

·         Instruments with “Up on the housetop”: After singing this Christmas favorite, I have students listen to when I play instruments. Then, I play rhythm bells on “ho, ho, ho” and wood blocks or another wooden non-pitched instrument on “click, click, click.”. The students identify the words and instruments and then they get instruments to play. Easy but fun!
      
      Jingle Bell Dance: I found this dance on Pinterest and was very excited to use it with my 5th graders!


·        On "Dashing through the snow," they promenade their partners, then on "Bells on bobtail ring" they switch directions. Now that they know the dance, I plan on adapting the dance to Frank Sinatra's "Jingle Bells" (Who doesn't love that version? So fun!)

      Dreidel: After singing “S’vivon Sov Sov” or “When oh when” (a song I wrote about here) I have students make a circle around me and we play dreidel. I’ve played both with candy (the kids get one piece each after we play) and with pebbles. The kids really enjoy playing. I’m amazed by how many of them need practice spinning the dreidel! Maybe too much time playing video games and not enough time playing actual games? It’s also a good opportunity for younger students to practice their counting skills.

·         “The Sound of Kwanzaa”: This colorful book by Dimitrea Tokunbo and Lisa Cohen is a great introduction to Kwanzaa. 
       Afterwards, we discuss how many nights are in Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas, respectively. You can connect it to a Kwanzaa song or an African folk song.



·         Want some rhythmic practice while keeping in the spirit of the holidays? Check out my "Santa's Stuck" files for several rhythmic concepts:



      These are a great way to weave curriculum into the holidays, and to assess!

What are your favorite holiday ideas for the music room? Feel free to comment below, and Happy Holidays!

When oh when is the holiday coming?


There are many teachers out there who absolutely love to integrate the seasons and holidays into their lesson plans. I must confess, I’m not exactly one of them. While I love the change of the seasons, and I love the holidays, I don’t usually do that many songs and activities that are dependent upon the time of the year. Part of this has to do with curriculum—depending on whether I had the students the year before (since I teach with another music teacher), I may be teaching ta and ti-ti to my first graders in December one year, and in another year it might be November or January. I don’t want to have to completely change my lessons around just because there is a holiday coming up.

I know, I’m a Grinch!

Another reason, though, is that I’ve had students in the past who, for religious reasons, can’t celebrate holidays. If I do a holiday song while that student is in class, he/she has to be dismissed to another location, or they have to have an independent assignment with headphones. So usually, I just don’t teach to the holidays. Until, that is, my singalong.

The holiday singalong at my school happens in the thirty minutes before their winter parties, the last day before break. I have done a singalong every year since I’ve been in this district, and it’s very fun! There’s nothing quite like the whole school community (including kids, teachers, parents, and grandparents) singing together.

Preparation of the students doesn't take too long--just the week of the singalong and the week before. Then, the afternoon of the singalong, the entire school comes down to the gymnasium. On the stage, I have a large screen on which I project a powerpoint with the lyrics to all of the songs. Some of the songs are accompanied (I either use CD accompaniments from the textbook series or play along on piano) and some of the songs we sing a cappella. We sing songs for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. This year, we will be singing:

Up on the housetop
Winter Fantasy (a partner song with “Jingle Bells”)
When oh When (a Hanukkah song—more info below!)
Frosty the Snowman
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Feliz Navidad
Jolly Old St. Nicholas
Che Che Kodaly (an African folk song for Kwanzaa, to celebrate African heritage)
S’vivon Sov Sov (a Hanukkah song)
We Wish You a Merry Christmas


“When oh when” is one of my favorites, and is definitely one of my students’ favorites. In fact, just recently, I had a student ask me not when we were going to sing “Jingle Bells” or “Rudolph,” but when we would sing “When oh When.” I learned this song from my friend Naomi Cohen, at a Jewish music workshop she presented for TRIKE. The song is below:





Second verse: When oh when...the one with dreidels spinning spin? Shouldn't it be...now that winter nips at my chin?

Third verse: When oh when...the one with gifts for me and you? Shouldn't it be...now that slush creeps into my shoe?

Fourth verse: When oh when...the one with latkes sizzling hot? Shouldn't it be...now that all my windows are shut?

The song was originally from a recording by Leah Abrams, recorded in Cedarhurst, NY by Tara Publications. (Update: It used to be available on oysongs.com, but now it's not there.)

There are many things I love about this song: the melody is enchanting, the riddle is fun, and let’s face it—it’s so much better than “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay"!

On a side note, if your district or your local chapter is interested in learning more about Jewish music, I highly recommend Naomi! She has a rich knowledge of Jewish culture, songs, and dances, and is a joy! Her email address is nkcsings@yahoo.com.

What do you do for the holidays? Have you ever tried a singalong? Or are you thinking about trying it now?

Agenda for music lessons

Throughout my career, I've been on the board of several different music education organizations. Each board meeting is a great chance to see old friends, and help guide the future of the organization. At each board meeting, we receive an agenda of the items we will be discussing. During the meeting, I find myself looking occasionally at the agenda—seeing where we’ve been and what we still have left to discuss. Having this list calms me a bit; like many people, I enjoy knowing the direction of the meeting.

I bring this up as a comparison to the students in our classrooms. For years, I have left the “agenda” for the day’s lesson a mystery to students. I thought this was best, as it gave the students a chance to discover what would happen next instead of being told. But recently I entered into a discussion on Facebook about this very issue and it had me reconsidering my previous practices. (Note: If you are not part of the “Kodaly Educators” group, I highly recommend it!)

The question on Facebook was posted by my friend Naomi.. She asked if others had posted a list of the lesson’s activities and goals on the board. Many other Kodaly-inspired educators posted some really wonderful ideas and thoughts, including:
  • A list on the board can be very helpful for students who like routine, especially those with autism.
  • A general list can work, like “Sing and play!”, “Time to think,” “Let’s play a game!”, “Let’s write!”, “Relax and listen,” and “Goodbye song.”
  • Icons of activities can also work.
  • You can put a clip on the board as to which part of the lesson they are on, or write a check mark once you are done with that part of the lesson.
  • If students aren’t listening well and you have to cut a game out of the lesson, they can visually see what they are missing out on!
  • You could put up verbs on magnetic/ laminated strips such as “sing,” “improvise,” “play,” “conduct,” “dance,” “discover,” etc. At the end of class, you can invite students to move those words over to a part of the board that reads “Today in music we got to…”
A special thank you to Naomi Cohen, Susan Brumfield, Lynn Makrin, Kristen Bamberger, Cecile Johnson, Sandra Mathias, Stephanie Benischek, Heidi Brueggemann McIlroy, Susan Garrett, Vicki Ray Strode, Anita Swanson Gadberry, Jennifer Guenzel Kimock, Gretchen Liechty Lynch, Andrea Halverson Forsberg, and Keira Lynn for all of the wonderful ideas!

Since reading this conversation on Facebook, I created a SMART board file for each lesson which lists the songs/ activities as well as the “I can” statements. You could also post essential questions, if you are using them in that particular lesson. Since I don’t want them to know every single song in the lesson—as they sometimes have to identify a song by its melody or rhythm—I sometimes use phrases such as “mystery song,” “singing game,” or “play instruments.” I’ve noticed some of my students looking up at the board and processing what they are about to do, or what they have done. 

Here is a picture of one of my agendas:



I also had a conversation with some colleagues in my district about this issue. One of them mentioned choosing a “summarizer” at the end of music class to help explain what we did and/or what we learned that day in music. I worried that the students would rely too much on the list on the board to describe what we did that day, but have been pleasantly surprised. Sometimes the students say “we played the game for ‘Dance Josey,’” but then sometimes they give wonderful answers like “We learned that the time signature tells us how many beats are in each measure,” or “we created patterns in the do pentatonic scale.” It is then I know that students have truly synthesized the material, and like an agenda in a board meeting, they know where we’ve been and where we are going!

Here is an infographic to help summarize the how, why, and what!




Thanks to Dancing Crayon Designs and Kevin and Amanda for some of the graphics and fonts!

If you are looking for "I can" statements or essential questions to post, try these; both sets come with picture files that you can insert into Powerpoint or SMART notebook if you'd like.


     


Here is the editable powerpoint set I used to create the agenda above:



Do you post an agenda for each lesson? Feel free to comment below with your ideas!

The musical alphabet and treble clef


Recently I had a colleague ask me how I practiced the musical alphabet and the treble clef with my students. I typed up some activities for her and thought I'd go ahead and post it to my blog.
First, here are some activities for helping students to get more comfortable with the musical alphabet (a special thank you to Joan Litman for many of these ideas!)



  • Up and down the alphabet: Have the notes of the musical alphabet written on the board vertically. Start with A, end with G, and then write A again. The teacher points to the letters going up and down and the students say those letters (i.e. A B C D C B C D E F G A G F E, etc.)
  • Ball game: Students say the letters of the musical alphabet as they pass a ball around the circle. When the teacher plays the hand drum, students switch the direction of the ball and the direction of the musical alphabet. For example, the students might say “A B C D,” and then the teacher plays the hand drum, and they’d switch the direction of the ball and say “C B A,” etc. In the next lesson, only the student who holds the ball says the letter.
  • “You say a letter”: I’d love to cite a source for this, but I learned it in my student teaching and haven’t seen it since. The chant goes like this:
After the word “behind,” the teacher says a letter, like “B,” and then the students say the letter before, the original letter, and then the letter afterwards (A B C.) If the teacher says “O,” the class would respond “N O P” (while doing the motions pat/ clap/ snap.) After doing this a few times, students figure out what the teacher was doing, and then they offer other letters.
The next time students do this activity, we try it with the musical alphabet. So if a student offers “G,” students would respond with “F G A.” The students love this chant, and it’s a great way to get comfortable with the musical alphabet.
Her are some ideas for getting comfortable with the staff:
  • By the time my students are learning the note letters on the treble clef staff in my classroom, they’ve worked with the staff quite a bit, labeling solfa. So they should be able to find the lines and spaces well. When preparing note names with the treble clef staff, I first start finding the lines on the staff. Then I show the treble clef, explain it is sometimes called the G clef because it crosses the G line four times, and I tell them about silly sentences for the lines. Examples include:
    • Every Good Boy Does Fine
    • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
    • Elvis’ Guitar Broke Down Friday
    • Elephants Got Big Dirty Feet
    • Empty Garbage Before Dad Flips
The students find E, G, B, D, and F on the staff during that lesson.
  • In the next lesson, we review the lines, and then find spaces. I explain that the space notes rhyme with space—F A C E. Again, the students find those notes on the staff (I use the SMART board for this, but you could you any board, having students place notes in certain spaces.)
  • In the next lesson, students practice both lines and spaces. You could place notes on the staff and ask them which note it is, and/or tell students a note and have them place it on the staff.
  • “Mad Minute”: I use this as a formative assessment to see how students are doing with note names. They get 60 seconds to fill out as many note names as they can. Once I’ve done quite a bit of practice, I do a “mad minute” for a summative assessment.
  • SMART Board Files: There are plenty of great SMART notebook files to practice note letters! Check out the SMART exchange website for some great downloads (try searching "note names" or "treble clef.")
  • Note name learning centers: I’ve enjoyed using learning centers in my room for the past two years With the learning centers, I had one group at the SMART board working with a note name file, another group playing a jumping game with a floor staff (first one to jump to B wins), another group figuring out how to play a song on the treble clef on their recorder, and another group figuring out how to play a song on the treble clef with barred instruments. During the jumping game, I pulled students who had trouble with the first mad minute so I could work with them individually. This was a great chance for intervention! Then during the next music class, I did the second mad minute for a summative assessment.
  • I just bought the "Freddie the Frog" book, which I understand is a great book for treble clef practice. You can buy the first book in the series here: 

Any other ideas? Please post them below!

Ghost Melodies



I'm always looking for ways to include vocal exploration in my lessons--especially with my younger students. Vocal exploration is a great way to help students find their head voices. One of my favorite vocal exploration activities is ghost melodies. For this, you can draw a ghost on the board, and then draw the sound the ghost makes, by drawing a small hill and a big hill, loops, or whatever you'd like. Then you have the students explore their voices by going from low to high for each hill, getting higher as the hills get higher. (If this is confusing, see the pictures below...hopefully it will make sense!)

I have uploaded my ghost melody file for the SMART board to the SMART board download section of my website: kodalycorner.weebly.com. You don't have to have a SMART board though--simply draw a ghost on the board and then the ghost's melody. You can change the activity depending on the time of year--leaf melodies for fall, snowflake melodies for winter, etc. After you've drawn a few melodies, students can come up and draw their own melody.

This year, I decided to extend this activity. EVERY kid wants a turn to draw their own melody, and sometimes there is just not enough time! So last week, I handed all of the students their own dry erase board, marker, and sock eraser, and had them draw their own ghosts, and then their own melodies. Then, on the count of 3, we all did our melodies together. It sounds chaotic but in a really wonderful way! Kids are exploring, creating, and having so much fun! Here are a few pics from one of my Kindergarten classes:




Check out the bats! So cute!




Love the ghost's stitches...looks very spooky! And his melody was fun to listen to as well! And one more...





This is a great activity for Halloween, but can be done any time of the year. The latest Ohio music standards for Kindergarten include "Create a visual representation of sound," and this is a great way to do just that!


Looking for more vocal exploration activities? Check out these sets:



      


What are your favorite ways to do vocal exploration? Feel free to comment below!

Guest Blog: How to write a song for a group



Today I welcome Julia Amisano, Founder of Grace Music Studio NY (www.gracemusicstudiony.com), as our guest blogger. Thank you Julia for your insight into writing songs!

About Grace Music Studio NY:
Grace Music Studio NY is a place where people come to take Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons and Brooklyn acting lessons, but also they come to be inspired. Every year, Brooklyn voice lesson and piano lesson students perform in February and June. It's inspiring when a person gets up and performs a piece they could not sing or play before. It's even more inspiring when they wrote the piece themselves!

Songwriting -Part of Julia's Mission:
When I opened the Studio in 1999 part of my mission was to change peoples' minds about music and what kind of people get to call themselves 'musicians'.  I believe everyone is a musician, and set out to prove it. How do you change someone's mind if they think they are not a musician? One of the quickest ways is to help them write a song. Since songwriting is a criteria that the outside world would use to deem someone a musician, the person's concept of themselves changes as they learn to write songs. My job, as a music teacher, is to teach them the skills needed to become great musicians and songwriting is a really fun skill.

Group Songs - What Qualifies for Grace MusicS tudio NY Recitals:
Whenever I am helping a voice lesson student or a piano lesson student write a song, I am listening to see if it has the potential to be the 'Group Number' at our next recital. All Brooklyn voice students and Brooklyn piano students perform a solo piece at our bi-annual recitals. At some point in the recital I like everyone to perform a song together; I call this piece the 'Group Number'. There are five criteria i use to determine whether or not a song will work for our 'Group Number'. The first is whether or not its appropriate for all ages. Currently at Grace Music Studio NY Brooklyn, about half our students are adults and half are children. In order for a song to qualify as a good candidate for our next 'Group Number' it has to be appropriate for adults and kids. The second criteria is it has to be positive. Grace Music Studio NY has a mission to inspire and for this reason, the 'Group Number' must have a positive message/moral, or be uplifting in some way. The last three criteria I use to determine whether or not a song would make a good 'Group Number' are 1. The key, 2. The range and 3. The Rhythm. The piece needs to be in C Major/A Minor, easily transposable, or in an easy key (not a lot of sharps and flats). I love for Brooklyn piano lesson students to accompany us so when it comes to the key, easy is better. The range needs to be within one octave or just outside it. With a mix of people singing (male and female, children and adults) a range a lot bigger than an octave sounds a bit unstable. The last criteria is rhythm. The rhythm also has to be easily felt and not too complicated. For example, if a songwriter writes a piece in 5/4, or the piece has a lot of syncopated passages, I'm not likely to use that for our 'Group Number'.

Group Songs- How to start:
All songwriting starts with an idea. It can be a melodic idea or just words or both.  When I am working with voice lesson students or piano lesson students who are children, I usually ask them to think of something positive, something they 'like'. When they respond with ideas that are too personal, for example: 'I love Transformers' or 'Hello Kitty', I ask them to think of positive things that everyone would like, even their parents. Sometimes I nudge them a bit by giving a bunch of examples like: Happiness, Safety, Peace, Smiling, Heaven, Beauty, Sunshine etc.. Usually this will help them to think of something. In the case of Grace Music Studio NY's  most recent 'Group Number', written by 10 year old Donovan, all I had to say was 'we need to say something positive, what should we write about Donovan?' He responded immediately with 'Peace and Love!!!'.

First Create 'Hook'/Chorus:
Once you have an idea or a theme, then you take what you've got and create whatever is missing. If you have words, create the melody. If you have a melody create the words. If you have neither a melody nor words (just a theme or idea), I suggest creating the words first (especially with kids). People are used to expressing themselves through words, so this is easier than asking them to create some music that sounds peaceful or happy or safe.

Create the Words for 'Hook'/Chorus:
Just start talking out loud about the theme or idea. Ask the student to do the same. Once they are talking, you are on your way. Have them keep talking about the theme until they come up with a phrase they like. Encourage them to keep their phrases short and simple. Give BIG praise for the discovery of the phrase they like most, this is, most likely the 'hook' (most memorable phrase) of your 'Hook' (most memorable part of the song - usually the chorus). Now create the other lines in the Chorus. There are many different ways to create a chorus, I like to use a simple three or four lines that somehow rhyme. So, once the student has written the first line, encourage them to come up with two or three more phrases that rhyme with the first and/or with each other.

Create the Melody for 'Hook'/Chorus:
Once you have the words, sometimes you can ask the student to just start improvising a melody until they find a melody they like. It's best for the teacher to encourage the student with every step.  I like to sing, what they have created, back to them and ask them if it is what they want. Always encourage the student to sing pitches within their talking range. Sometimes, my voice lesson or piano lesson students need more help. In this case, I start by saying the words with the student out loud and tapping my foot. All spoken word has rhythm, see if the student can keep a simple, steady beat while you speak the first phrase with them. Repeat the first phrase until the student feels the beat. Encourage the simplest rhythm inherent in the speech. Have the student start improvising a melody on la while you tap and speak the words out loud. Eventually a melodic pattern will emerge that the student likes. Have the student then teach you the melodic pattern. Keep guiding them toward simplicity. Now, switch roles; the student says the words and rhythm out loud and the teacher sings la. Once the melody is memorized by both student and teacher, both can start singing the melody with the words. Repeat this process for each line of the chorus encouraging them toward a feeling of finish (Cadence to the Tonic) at the end of each line or, at the last line of the chorus. With little kids, I suggest they create a couple of question phrases (these go up in melody at the end) and then an answer phrase for the last line (this goes down in melody to Tonic). Point out to them the feeling of 'finishing' when the melody goes back to Tonic. If the student is more advanced, this is a great time to
teach them about cadences.

Create the Verses:
Use the same method as above to create the verses to the 'Group Number'. The only difference is I use four lines or phrases for the Verse, instead of three. You can rhyme all the phrases at the end or every other phrase. At this point, I like to give the student some freedom to decide whether he/she would like the phrases to be question phrases (go up at the end) or answer phrases (go down at the end).  I typically like to create three verses with the students. So, start with one verse and write the lyrics and melody to that and then write words for another two verses. I like to introduce the idea that songs can be stories so, the next verse is the next part of the story.

Create the Bridge:
This is my favorite part because it can be completely different from the verse and chorus. I use the same method to help the voice lesson or piano lesson student write the Bridge with one added thing; I tell the student 'Ok, what else do you want to say about this subject?', and/or 'Is there an action we can suggest to our listeners?'. In Donovan's song, Peace and Love, the bridge says 'Maybe we can make a brighter world together, Maybe all we need to do is sing together'.

Structure: Put all the Pieces together:
Every song is different and a structure might emerge that is different from a typical structure, if it feels right, just go with that. If a structure doesn't emerge, just keep things simple. A format that is tried and true is one that has a Verse, then Chorus, then Verse, then Chorus, then Bridge, then Chorus, and one last Verse then two choruses. If your Bridge feels like it goes better with the chorus, then follow it with the chorus, if it feels like it's a bridge to the verse, then follow it with the verse. If it feels like it doesn't go with either, don't worry, some of the greatest songs have memorable departures and returns to the main material in the piece. If you need to, when you are creating the accompaniment, you can create a musical bridge to/from the Bridge with chords.

Last step: Create Accompaniment:
Now that you have the words, melody,  Chorus, Verses and Bridge, it's time to put it to music. The first thing to do is go to the instrument you are most comfortable with and figure out which pitches are your melody. Then just add the simplest chords you can think of and you're done! You're song is finished.

Teaching the song to a Group:
Once my student finishes their song, I teach it to everyone who is going to sing in the group. In each student's private voice lesson or piano lesson, I go through the song at least once or twice. I like to start teaching the song to everyone at least two months before our recital. Everyone learns the same melody, and Group songs are mostly sung in unison. Sometimes the songwriter wants to sing parts of the song solo (like the verses) and have the group sing the rest, I leave that up to the songwriter. If the songwriter is a child, I help them decide what they think will sound best. Because music students are creative, they will often come to me with a harmony or embellishment for the song. I also encourage students to think of harmonies, once they know the song pretty well. All harmonies and embellishments are subject to the songwriter's acceptance or rejection. The songwriter gets the last word. At the Grace Music Studio NY recital, I make sure I introduce the voice lesson student or piano lesson student who created the song to our audience. This kind of recognition is the very best encouragement you can give to any songwriter. That person, whether it is a child or an adult then thinks of him or herself as a musician. Mission accomplished!

For more information about Julia Amisano, Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons or Grace Music Studio NY, visit www.gracemusicstudiony.com
Check out the new DVD Julia has made on how to sing: Three Pillars of Singing can be found at www.gracemusicstudiony.com or http://howtosingeasily.com
AND, the workbook on how to write music for beginners: Music Theory Grade 1 on www.gracemusicstudiony.com and  http://readmusicseasily.com

Exploration, to Improvisation, to Composition



This year, I took the position of elementary music co-chair in my district. After our first meeting, I sent out a survey, asking teachers to list their needs for professional development. A vast majority of the teachers—including me--wanted more information about improvisation. Knowing that improvisation is a bit focus in the Orff philosophy, I then approached three Orff specialists in our district and asked them to present a session with improvisational strategies. The session was so helpful, and helped teachers to foster musical creativity with their process. I will list here the process for improvisation I adapted from the session, as well as a composition activity that grew out of the same improvisational activity. Note: A special thanks to Clinton Wright, Tina Wilson, and Jason Bash, for presenting the session, and to Ginger Littleton and Sue Leithold-Bowcock, whose template for composition helped me immensely!

During the session, Clinton, Tina, and Jason presented an improvisational activity for “Apple Tree,” in which students brainstormed adjectives describing apples, then explored and improvised word patterns, then explored melodies with that rhythm on barred instruments, and then students made more conscious choices about what they wanted to play on barred instruments, transferring the exploration to improvisation.

I loved the sequential process laid out in the session, and the choices given to students in creating their own patterns. A few of the Kodaly-trained teachers in the district got hung up on where this activity should fall in the rhythmic or melodic concept timeline, and at first, I struggled with this same question. But then after trying out the activity with my students, I realized that it is very beneficial for students to explore and improvise for the sake of creativity, and not to serve the purpose of preparing or practicing rhythm or melody!

I then took this process and adapted it for use with my fifth graders, who were practicing low la (they are a couple years behind, as I began teaching them last year.) I used the song “Who has seen the wind,” as notated below.
Image
Once the students were comfortable with the song, I went through the process below. This took several lessons, as I typically only planned 5-10 minutes in each lesson, putting one step into each lesson over the course of several weeks.
  • Image brainstorming: Students closed their eyes and pictured a windy day. What did they see? Hear? Smell? I wrote this list on the SMART board and saved each class’ list. Note: When Clinton, Tina, and Jason presented, they had students work with small groups and write their own lists. Examples of images they brainstormed included “fall baseball,” “flying leaves,” “breeze,” “howling wind,” etc. They were usually much more creative than I expected!
  • Body percussion/ pattern brainstorming: I then wrote 4 of these words/images on the board, in 4 boxes. I chose 4 words with different rhythms, so the pattern would be rhythmically interesting. For example, in the four boxes, I may have had:
    • Jump in leaves             Flying kites                 Fall baseball                Smooth
    • Each box was 2 beats long, so “jump in leaves” was ti-ti ta, and “smooth” was ta rest.
    • Then I had students create their own patterns and put those patterns on their bodies. For example, a student might say “smooth flying kites fall baseball smooth” while tapping his/her head.
    • Each time we tried different body percussion (lap, hands, feet, etc.) while saying a new pattern. I also had students find something in the room to play—but not an instrument. Students were hitting walls, hitting floors, “playing” stands, etc.
    • Then I had students raise their hands and offer one of their patterns. Everyone would try this pattern.
    • Pattern brainstorming / Deciding on class pattern:
      • In the next lesson, I had students do a few body percussion patterns again, and then students offered their individual patterns.
      • I then chose a pattern that I thought would work well as a class pattern and wrote that on the board.
      • All students clapped that pattern, then tried the pattern several times on different parts of their bodies and different parts of the room. Again, I saved this pattern so I could refer to it later.
      • Barred instrument exploration and improvisation
        • In the next lesson, I had students clap the class pattern, then go to barred instruments. The instruments were set up with the bars E, G, A, and B. Students tried playing that rhythm on those bars, in whichever order they wanted. I found it helpful for students to whisper the class pattern as they played.
        • During this process, students are at first exploring. Once they’ve played a few different patterns, I said, “Now think about what you liked about your last pattern, and what you might like to change. Let’s try it again.” At this point, it transformed from exploration to improvisation, because they were making conscious choices about what they were playing.
        • I rotated all students so all had a turn. If we had time, we listened to individual students playing their patterns. We also sang the song, played our improvisations, then sang again (ABA form.)
The improvisation session covered about this much, although I should say that while the process above sticks pretty close to what was laid out in the session, I changed it and adapted it as needed.

I really enjoyed this process, as did my fifth graders, but I really wanted to transfer their improvisations to compositions. I just wasn’t sure how! In March, I went to the OAKE National Conference in Phoenix, and attended Ginger Littleton’s composition session. There, I found a wonderful template that I realized I could use to move this activity into the world of composition. Ginger created the format with the help of Sue Leithold-Bowcock, who I teach with at Colorado State.

Based off this template, I created a worksheet for each individual class, so that each class’ pattern could be listed on the worksheet. I am attaching an example of a student composition. Each worksheet included:
  • Rules. For this assignment, the rules were:
  • You must use the notes E, G, A, and B.
  • You must start on E.
  • You must end on E.
  • Boxes for stick notation
    • I notated the rhythm of each class’ pattern inside these boxes. Underneath, the students wrote the note names. This was a good process, as it was a great time to review basics such as not listing note letters under rests, and listing two sounds for a ti-ti.
  • Blank staff and word pattern
  • Here I had a blank staff, as well the class’ word pattern listed underneath the staff. This was the space for students to transfer their stick notation to the staff.
For the composition process, I followed the steps:
  • Students went to instruments, played around with their improvisations, decided what they wanted their composition to sound like, and wrote the letters in the stick notation boxes. If you don’t have enough instruments, you could have some students write in the stick notation boxes while other students improvise, and then switch so they can check what they’ve written.
  • In the next lesson, we reviewed the names of the notes on the treble clef staff, and then students got their worksheets and wrote the noteheads on the staff, based off of their stick notation composition.
  • After this lesson, I took all of the worksheets and checked the following:
    • If they followed the rules—if not, I underlined which rule(s) they weren’t following
    • If the noteheads were written correctly—if not, I starred that measure so students could re-check and re-write their work
    • Then, in the next lesson, I reviewed how to write stems. Then, I handed the sheets back out, and had students work on their composition from whichever point they needed to. This took longer than the above steps—about 20-25 minutes. Some students had to finish writing noteheads, then begin writing stems, some students had to fix their noteheads, and others were ready to move onto stems. Once the students had finished writing, I had them show me their work and I checked it. Then, they went to instruments and tried playing their compositions.
    • After this, I then took a rubric, stapled it to their composition, and graded the papers.
    • After that, I scanned a couple great examples and showed students those compositions on the smart board. We spoke through the note names in rhythm, then sang the note names while I played xylophone, then they sang the compositions on solfa.
This was a great learning experience for me, and for them! Through the composition process, I realized that with some students, I still had more work to do to practice note naming and writing, as well as more work with stems. Through the improvisation process, I realized that I needed to add more opportunities for creativity to my lessons! This was a great jumping off point, and could be adapted for any song and any grade level. Good luck, and have fun!
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A Beginner's Guide To Elementary General Music

For the last four weeks, I have had a student teacher in my classroom. She is the third student teacher I've had, and the experience always reminds me of those little things that have just become second nature to me after years of teaching. My current student teacher isn't new to music education--her mom is also a elementary music teacher--but some of these discoveries have still been surprising, as they were for me in my student teaching! Some thoughts and observations about elementary general music:


Guide to teaching elementary music: Great tips for any elementary music teacher!


  • Break it down: Kids in elementary school need things broken down, and broken down again, and yes, again! They are capable of more than some give them credit for, but the material still needs to be broken down into small steps--built from the ground up. 
  • If you hesitate, they will talk: Even if you pause for five seconds to figure out what is next in the lesson, they will take the opportunity to talk! It's not that they are misbehaving, it's just human nature. Have you ever been to a staff meeting where there is a momentary pause? Adults will talk just as much (and sometimes, even more!)
  • Periods of relaxation after concentration are very important!: If the students are asked to concentrate for a few minutes in a very focused setting, they need a break! (Don't we all?) Give them a break by singing and playing a game. They need that breather!
  • Rehearse your lesson: I just told my student teacher today that I have at times rehearsed my lesson--after school, sitting in front of the computer, in the car. Maybe the person in the car next to mine thought I was crazy, but I knew that lesson inside and out by the time I taught it--what I was going to say, how I would transition, how many times the students would play the game. Rehearsing allows us to think through every aspect of the lesson.
  • Pacing is key: If you don't stick to your lesson, your pacing will fall behind and you won't get through everything. And if you talk too much....your pacing will fall behind and you won't get through everything! Talk little, sing lots, and keep the lesson moving! The students will be more engaged and will be far less disruptive.
  • Planning takes time: Those of us who have taught for even a year know how laughable it is when someone says, "Oh, so you're a teacher. Must be nice to only teach until 4 every day AND get the summers off!" Planning lessons (and the million other things we have to do each day) takes much longer than 8-4 every day. It takes late nights, weekends, and summer days. It takes dedication and time. Especially those first couple years, when writing a lesson takes at least an hour (and you have ten to write in a week!)
  • Teaching is like acting: Sometimes, we are having a horrible day, and we just want to sit in front of the T.V., crack open a gallon of Ben and Jerry's, and cry. But when you're teaching, you just can't. You have to smile and put on that happy face and act like you want to be there. Sometimes, you actually act yourself into reality, and you decide you really do want to be there! (And other times, well, you just act, and hope the kids don't notice your forced smile!)
  • Kids are funny: My student teacher has a "Funny moment of the week" in her journal entries. A few funnies: When she observed a friend of mine teaching music, she watched several kids pick their noses...and yes, eat what they found (Ewww!). A first grader just told us the other day, "I know where babies come from....your B-U-T-T!" (Uh...quick change of topic was in order there!) This year, I was showing my 2nd graders the "What a Wonderful World" book and explained that the song was sung by Louis Armstrong. "He's the guy who walked on the moon!" a student yelled. "No..." I said, "That's Neil Armstrong." The excited reply: "Is that his brother?!?!" One of my faves from years ago...when a fifth grader asked me if I was pregnant, I told her, "No, I'm not pregnant-- I'm not married." Her response: "That's not the way it's done in my family!" Ah, out of the mouths of babes!
  • Teaching is WORK, but when it becomes second nature, it feels more like fun!: As stated above, teaching is really time-consuming, and it can be hard. But when my kids are singing beautifully, and smiling, and laughing, I think, "Really? I get PAID for this?" 
Any other observations to add? I'd love to hear them (or just hear your funny moment of the week!)

Learning Centers in the Kodaly-inspired Classroom

This year, as I evaluated the learning environment I had created for my students, I realized that as interactive and full of learning my class was, it was not very student-centered. Many of my activities were set up with me as the teacher in front of the class, and my students giving the answers, which I deemed as right or wrong. Not to say that there was no creative input from my students, but I had to be honest with myself--my classroom was just not very centered around my students.

At that time of the year, I was also looking for ways to really delve into "ta" and "ti-ti" with my first graders. Most of my lessons involve a rhythmic and melodic concept, as well as musical skills, but I was interested in writing a lesson that was very rhythmically focused, so my students would be sure to be ready for their summative asssessment, in which they had to encode "ta" and "ti-ti" patterns on dry erase boards.

Then I had an epiphany which could help with both of these issues: I could do learning centers with my students. I had tried them my first year of teaching, and had liked them, but then I started my Kodaly training, and felt that Kodaly-inspired teaching did not lend itself to learning centers. Now, as a veteran teacher, I can see that if we put aside the notion that lessons always have to have five to six songs with seamless transitions, that (gasp!) we sometimes deviate from this tried-and-true formula, that learning centers actually foster wonderful learning in the Kodaly-inspired classroom.


Centers in the Kodaly-inspired classroom: Easy ideas to implement centers into your music lessons!

The idea of learning centers is that every child is involved in learning the same concept, but at different stations, with each station approaching that concept in a different way. With my first graders, I split them up into four groups, and had each working on "ta" and "ti-ti" in a different way.
  • Group #1 worked at the SMART board. They threw a soft ball at the SMART board, and when they hit one of the circles, a rhythmic pattern popped up, which they had to read.
  • Group #2 chose a non-pitched percussion instrument from my box of instruments, and as a group, played the patterns showcased on rhythmic flashcards.
  • Group #3 worked on a worksheet with different pictures. Students had to figure out whether each picture had one or two sounds, and write whether it was a "ta" or "ti-ti." For example, "baseball" would be a "ti-ti" and "bat" would be a "ta."
  • Group #4 worked with colored circles. Some were colored red, some purple, some blue, etc. Students created their own pattern using these circles. Then, they clapped and said the colors, and then figured out what their pattern was with "ta's" and "ti-ti's."
After five minutes at each center, students rotated to the next center, until they were able to do all the centers. It was wonderful to see how independent the students were with each task, and it was great to sit back and watch learning unfold without my help!

I have since tried learning centers with other rhythmic concepts, with recorders, and with note letter names, and will soon do them for melodic concepts. Ideas for learning centers are only limited by your imagination! Just choose four ways in which you think students could independently work on a task.

I've also found another plus to learning centers--the chance for assessment and intervention. With my fourth graders, I've been able to listen to them individually play recorder for their "recorder karate" belts, all while other students are engaged in other activities! This has been a wonderful opportunity to really hear how well students are producing sound, how well they remember their fingerings, etc. I've also been able to work one-on-one with struggling students, because again, all the other students are happily engaged in other activities.

As I've done these learning centers, I've come to the realization that students really need to be very familiar with the concept to be successful at independent work. You might only do learning centers 4 or 5 times in a school year, after the students are ready for the challenge.

Does it get noisy? Yes! But is wonderful learning taking place? Most definitely!

My favorite moment happened when my fourth graders were working on recorder stations. One of the groups was teaching themselves a song on the board that used high D. One boy turned to another boy and said, "Remember? For high D you don't use your thumb." They were teaching each other....and I could sit back and enjoy it!

Update: Since writing this blog post, I have since created a bundled set to help other music teachers interested in doing centers in their music classrooms. View it by clicking on the picture below; you can also purchase the grade-level sets individually:


Have you done centers in your music classroom? Feel free to comment below!

Improvisation Ideas for the Music Classroom

As a musician in jazz band all throughout high school and jazz band, I struggled with improvisation. As a teacher, I always jump at the chance to hone improvisational skills with my students. When I received a Martha Holden Jennings grant in 2004, entitled "Musical Creativity, Improvisation, and Composition," I searched for literature and methods to achieve improvement in those areas. I've found that working on improvisation is actually quite accessible and non-threatening, by providing students with the right tools, where no "wrong answer" exists. The following list contains some of the activities I used with my students.


Ideas for improvisation: Lots of ideas including rhythm card improvisation, drum babble, and more!

 Rhythm Card improvisation: After reading through rhythm cards with the new rhythm, I have students go to the barred instruments set up in C, F, or G pentatonic (taking down the bars not needed). First, they say the pattern from the card, then they play it, using whatever pentatonic notes they choose. It actually sounds quite beautiful, and is a great way to practice the new rhythm.

 "Somebody's Knocking on your door": After the students know the song well (in the key of F), have students snap three times after the first beat of each whole note. Then, they play the barred instruments in F pentatonic instead of snapping, playing whichever notes they choose on those beats.

 "Liza Jane": After the students know the song well, I add two ostinati: Pat pat pat (Ta Ta Two) and Pat Snap Pat Snap (Ta Ta Ta Ta). Then, I transfer these ostinati to the instruments, playing the first one with C and G together, and the second alternating between C and G. Then, I have them dictate the first 16 beats of the song. I play the rhythm they've dictated on any of the metal instruments (metallophone/ glockenspiel), using C pentatonic. Again, there is no wrong answer--I only ask them to end on C. Then, I have them play with this form:

Intro: Metal instruments, improvising to the 16-beat rhythm pattern, ending on C
Begin ostinati
Verse 1: Sing song with ostinati (Ostinato 1 on bass bars and bass xylophone, Ostinato 2 on other xylophones)
Interlude: Solo on metal instrument, improvising to 16-beat rhythm pattern, ending on C
Begin ostinati
Verse 2: Sing song with ostinati
Coda: All metal instruments, improvising, ending on C, then all instruments play C and G to end

 Drumming Babble: Play a pattern on a hand drum, and have students echo. After a few times, tell them you will play a pattern and they have to play something different. For example, if you play Ta Ta Ti-ti Ta, they might play Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ti-Ti Ta. This activity can also be used for solos for any students who are interested, and can be expanded in several ways—as a question/answer activity, as a way to begin drum circles, and as a means to practice a new rhythm.

 Watch the Conductor: Have several non-pitched instruments spread out throughout the room (the instruments I've found work well are the rainstick, thunder tube, gong, temple blocks, and wind chimes, to name a few.). Have students go to an instrument, and tell them they will decide what they are going to play. When you point to them, they play whatever they want, but they have to watch your cues, showing them to get louder, softer, or to stop. I've done this so that instruments layer on top of one another, until all instruments are playing, then one by one, instruments drop out. After the students are comfortable with this activity, have a student volunteer come to the front to be the conductor. The students have to watch him/her; the conductor decides who and what will play when. I used this activity on the grant concert, and the students did very well with it--they took much ownership, especially the conductor!
 In any jazz solo, the musician has guidelines to follow--chords, length of solo, and a melody to play off of. The same can be done with our music students--we give them guidelines to follow, and the tools to perform, and they joyfully succeed. Improvisation can be accessible to all students!

...How about you? Any improvisation ideas you'd like to share?