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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

DIY Composition Manipulatives

Composition can be a daunting task for elementary students, but manipulatives can make the task a lot less intimidating and also help students better comprehend what they're doing visually, kinesthetically, and spatially. Today I wanted to share a relatively simple composition manipulative that I use primarily with my upper elementary students that I've found very successful.

This post contains affiliate links.

I've talked extensively about the power of manipulatives in a previous post- you can click here to read more about that topic and get more ideas for different things you can use as manipulatives- but the 2 biggest advantages in my mind are that you can 1) visually represent musical concepts more clearly, and 2) you are taking out the writing process altogether, allowing students to focus on the process of creating music itself. Many young students struggle to write down a rhythm or melody on a piece of paper because their brain has to focus on the actual writing itself, hindering their thinking about creating, or because the plain black and white lines and dots all start to become a blur and they get lost and confused. Manipulatives ease both of those common struggles.

I'm a huge fan of manipulatives in general, but this has got to be one of the simplest: I happened to find these foam sheets at Walmart a little over a year ago and thought, "For that price on that amount of sturdy material in that many colors, surely I can do something useful with it!" and into my cart it went. I paid under $5 for this set of 50 sheets (here is the same thing on Amazon, but not nearly as cheap):


Eventually I decided I could use them for rhythm composition. First I cut each sheet in half long-ways to make two longer rectangles. I assigned one color to be whole notes and made those full rectangles each 1 whole note, writing the note on each card with a permanent marker. From there, I cut the rectangles into different sizes to correspond with the number of beats- for quarter notes I cut each one into 4, for half notes I cut them in half etc- with each different note being a different color. I also made cards for the rests in the appropriate lengths, but kept them all the same color:


It may seem like a simple idea but the results have been pretty powerful: I use these for a wide range of games and composition tasks with lots of ages, because they're easy to pull out whenever I need them, but I particularly spent focused time using these with my 4th graders last year, who I found were really struggling with understanding how to properly fill a measure with the correct number of beats. This year as 5th graders, I was shocked at how easily they were able to write out a rhythm, including all different lengths of notes, even in September. I really think these cards made a difference! 

Of course with my older students especially, I will have them transfer their compositions to a piece of paper after working with the manipulatives. That allows them to focus on one thing at a time- first creating, then writing- and makes the whole thing much smoother. When we're working with multiple measures, I hand out popsicle sticks to use as bar lines. Easy!

The great thing about these, compared to printed cards, is that they are colorful, they are durable, and they are fun for the kids to touch (they're a little bit squishy!). I used these heavily last year and they still look almost brand new. And I have plenty more foam sheets I can quickly cut up if I ever need to replace some or add to my collection ;)

Do you use manipulatives like these for composition in your classroom? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below! And if you want to stay in the loop with timely and helpful ideas and resources from me, be sure to sign up for the newsletter below:




Monday, November 20, 2017

24 Easy Christmas Activities for the Whole Family

With Thanksgiving coming up in just a few days, that means Christmas is just around the corner! Each year since my daughters were almost 3, I've put together an advent calendar (see how I made the calendar itself here- super easy) with a different, small Christmas activity for us to do as a family each day in December leading up to Christmas. As the girls have gotten older, I've changed some of the activities we do, but I've definitely kept the low-key spirit up- no music teacher has time for fussy projects or glitter all over the house in December! Today I wanted to share my list of easy Christmas activities I'll be starting next week with my almost-6-year-old girls.


There are a few things I look for when I'm thinking about what to put on our list: 1) things that we're going to do anyway, like putting up a Christmas tree or wrapping presents, 2) things that are quick and easy but are still Christmasy, like eating a candy cane or singing a Christmas carol, and 3) things that I don't want to forget to do as a family that could easily get lost in the craziness of December, like making cookies or going to see a lights display. So here's my list for this year (in no particular order):

1. Put up the Christmas tree
2. Put out the nativity scenes
3. Put (electric) candles in the windows
4. Put up Christmas lights around the house and on the tree
5. Hang ornaments on the Christmas tree
6. Make a wreath to hang on the front door
7. Bake Christmas (sugar) cookies
8. Decorate Christmas (sugar) cookies
9. Make an advent wreath
10. Make Christmas cards
11. Deliver Christmas cards (in the mail and in person)
12. Shop for/ make presents
13. Wrap presents
14. Take family pictures
15. Call family and friends to wish them a Merry Christmas
16. Make paper snowflakes and hang them up around the house
17. Make a gingerbread house
18. Go on a train ride with Santa
19. Hang the stockings
20. Watch a Christmas movie in our pajamas
21. Read Christmas books (including one new one)
22. Put out cookies and carrots for Santa and the reindeer
23. Drink hot chocolate with all the fixings
24. Drive through the local light display to see the Christmas lights

Here's last year's list for 5 year olds, my list for 4 year olds, and the one for 3 year olds, if you're interested in more ideas for the littles. I love putting the calendar together each year because it relieves the pressure I would otherwise feel to make sure I'm taking the time to enjoy the holiday with my girls, and doing small things each day makes the whole month more fun without anything getting overwhelming!

What holiday traditions do you have with your family? I'd love to hear them in the comments below! Happy Holidays, everyone! :)

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

6 Ways to Add Challenge to Music for Young Musicians

So you're 4 weeks away from the concert but your students have already learned and memorized all of their music. Or you're looking for some repertoire for the next performance and find a song that's really great but way too easy for your students. Last week I shared my favorite ways to simplify a piece of music to fit your students' needs, and today I'm sharing some ways to do just the opposite by increasing the difficulty level to appropriately challenge your students!


One of the keys to putting together a successful performance with young musicians is making sure the difficulty level of the material is right in that "zone of proximal development". Obviously it won't work if the music is too hard, but I get just as nervous if the music is too easy! Students lose focus and interest so quickly when they learn the music too far in advance of the performance or feel the music is "beneath them". Here are some easy ways I like to add a little extra challenge to a piece to keep students engaged and add to their learning!

1. Add a harmony part

It doesn't have to be the whole song, but adding a harmony (or counter-melody) line to a piece is a great way to up the ante. In a standard verse-chorus song, adding a harmony part to the chorus section is a great way to add a short harmony part that the students can repeat throughout the song.

2. Add instrumental accompaniment

If you're working on a vocal piece, adding instruments is a great way to increase the difficulty and interest! Simple ostinati on unpitched percussion are always a safe bet, but if you can have some students play a counter melody on recorders or a band or string instrument, even better!

3. Add body percussion

This is similar to the last one, but even without instruments you can add accompaniment parts using body percussion! I love adding body percussion patterns if my choir is singing a song with an instrumental interlude in the middle- that way I don't lose their attention while they're not singing, and it keeps the audience more engaged as well. But you can also add body percussion ostinati while a group is singing to add more accompaniment without having to mess with instruments.

4. Split up into sections

If your vocal or instrumental group is not quite ready for harmony or other accompaniment parts but you want to increase the challenge a little bit, splitting one line up between different groups can be a great way to introduce students to partwork. Have half of the students sing the first line, then the other half sing the second line, and work on following the conductor's cues. I am always surprised at how this simple change can add just enough challenge to refocus the group and keep them on their toes!

5. Add more expressive contrast

Hopefully you're already working on changing up dynamics, timbre, and articulation to fit the mood of the piece, but you can make a piece more challenging by really focusing on those expressive elements and adding more dramatic contrast to the piece. Tell students you're going to change it up each time and force them to really respond to your conducting cues by asking for different dynamics etc each time you perform the song!

6. Add props, dance, or dramatic elements

You may have noticed that "add motions" is not on my list- that's because in my opinion, for young musicians, adding motions actually makes the piece easier (here's a post I wrote on that)! However, there are other things you can add to the performance to increase the difficulty, like props (think paper plates, flashlights, scarves, etc) or stage movement/ acting (have some students silently act out the story of the song in front of the ensemble as it is being performed, move around the stage with the music like a very simplified marching band, or even choreograph a full-out dance routine).

There are plenty more ways to "up the ante" and make the material more difficult for young musicians, but those are some of my favorites. What are your favorite tricks for adding extra challenge to performance music? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Spiced Milk Steamers

After an unusually warm October, the weather here has gotten chilly the last few weeks- and that has me craving a hot mug of something cozy all day every day! My 5-year-olds like to get in on the coziness too, but most of the kid-friendly warm drinks, like hot chocolate or hot apple cider, are so sugary. Today I've got another option for a kid-friendly, non-caffeinated warm drink that has a lot less sugar: milk steamers!


I hope I'm not the last person on earth to discover these things.... I have gotten steamed milk for my daughters a couple of times at Starbucks when we went together, but I didn't know it was an actual thing until recently. I started making them for myself on cold winter evenings last year and this year I've loved trying some new flavor combinations!

The basic idea is simple: add some spices and/or sweeteners to some milk and heat it up. Done. I have this latte maker which can froth and heat milk, so I use that, but you can easily make it in a saucepan- just heat everything together on medium low heat, stirring occasionally with a whisk.

Obviously the sky's the limit in terms of flavor combinations- if you aren't worried about the sugar you can do it like Starbucks and just add a little flavored syrup- but here are some of my favorite things to add to my milk steamers:

Sweeteners: honey, molasses
Spices: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger
Extracts: vanilla, peppermint

My absolute favorite combination right now is a little cardamom and molasses. So cozy!

Have you ever tried milk steamers before? What are some of your favorite ways to flavor them? If you've never had one before, give it a shot- it's a really great way to mix up your tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate routine and unwind on a cold evening :)

If you want more hot drink ideas, don't miss my chai tea recipe and my ideas for spicing up your coffee at home:






Tuesday, November 7, 2017

6 Ways to Simplify Music for Young Musicians

You're 4 rehearsals away from the concert and your choir is nowhere near ready to perform. Or you find a really great piece for your ensemble that would fit perfectly with your theme and you know your students would love, but it's too difficult. I often find myself adapting music to my students' ability levels- sometimes making a piece more challenging, and other times simplifying- and it gives me a lot more flexibility in choosing repertoire and preparing for performances! Today I want to share some easy ways to simplify a piece of music for your students.


1. Leave out parallel harmony (or other tricky harmony) parts

This is an easy one, especially if you're still in the stage of selecting repertoire and haven't begun rehearsing yet! You can remove the harmony parts completely and have everyone sing in unison, or you can leave in just a few notes or phrases if you think your students are up for a little bit of a challenge- it often works out well to have students split into parts at the end of a phrase or section.

2. Repeat lyrics instead of learning all the verses

Obviously this one is specifically for singers: if the song has multiple verses, you can have them repeat the same lyrics for consecutive verses to give them fewer words to learn and memorize. This is a go-to for me if I feel like we're getting too close to a performance and the students aren't on track to finish learning a song in time!

3. Simplify rhythms

I don't like to do this very often but sometimes it can make a big difference in what a group can perform if you simplify the rhythms, particularly if there is a lot of syncopation, shifting meters, rests on downbeats, and other difficult rhythms. I rarely do this with a melody, but I have done it a few times with a harmony or ostinato part to make it easier for students to hear how the parts line up with each other and stay together as an ensemble.

4. Turn a section into a solo/ small ensemble feature

Rather than changing the music itself, you can also just reduce the number of students that have to learn that tricky phrase or memorize that 4th verse! This is a great strategy if you have mixed levels in a larger ensemble (don't we all?!?). Bonus: it's a great way to give those high achievers a little extra challenge while still making the music accessible for the group as a whole.

5. Adjust the key signature

I'm surprised at how many times I've found a piece that was perfect for my students in every way except for the range! If I'm lucky, it's simply a matter of lowering or raising the key to put it in a more comfortable range for the students' voices.

6. Narrow the range

If simply changing the key of the entire song isn't enough to make the music appropriate for your students, you can also narrow the overall range of each part. You'll need a pretty good understanding of chord structure/ melodic contour etc to do this, but even with the most recognizable melodies it can work just fine to lower those high notes to the next chord tone (or vice versa)- it's just a planned way of improvising on the original melody! ;)

There are plenty of other ways to simplify music depending on the piece of music and the students' abilities, but those are some of the easiest and most common strategies I use in my teaching. I hope this opens up new possibilities as you explore repertoire for your students, and eases your mind as you plan ahead to make sure students are ready for their performances!

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Monday, November 6, 2017

DIY Tea Box

It's been a while since I shared a quick and easy DIY project, so I'm excited to have another fun one to share today that's perfect now that the weather is getting cooler: a DIY tea box! Even better, this is a simple way to upcycle something you would otherwise throw away, so it's a great way to do a little planet saving too :)


I am a hot drink lover. Whether it's hot chocolate, coffee, or tea, I love it all! So naturally I have a bit of a tea collection in my pantry. That's all well and good when it's just me, but when I have guests over it can be pretty cumbersome (and overwhelming) to pull out 10 different boxes just to offer them a drink! This tea box solves that problem.

Another thing I love are those "cracker cuts"- cheese that is pre-cut into squares. They are so easy to pack in lunches and they're great to put out as a no-fuss appetizer or a quick snack after school. So I started accumulating these nifty long, rectangular plastic boxes that the cheese came in- I knew there had to be a way to reuse them!

Turns out, they are a great size for tea bags:


Besides the nice shape, these boxes also have a pretty good seal on the lid, so I can keep some of those tea bags that aren't individually packaged in there too- I just cut out a piece of the box so I know what type of tea it is, and stuck a few of each tea behind the cutout.

Honestly if you don't care about aesthetics, you could just rinse out the box, flip it over, and throw some tea bags in there. But of course I wanted mine to look a little more fun, so I cleaned off the original label and stuck some washi tape around the outside and on the lid. I put a few stickers on the top to write the word "tea" on the lid, and that's it!

I'm happy to have this little box on hand for the next time I have people over! Now to find some people to invite...... ;)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

An Organized Music Teacher Computer: Projector / Whiteboard Visuals

One of the biggest organizational struggles of the modern music teacher has to be digital organization. It's one of those problems that's great to have- with so many amazing online and digital resources out there, it's easy to accumulate way too many wonderful files on your work computer that would make your teaching so much better..... if you could just find them. Obviously there are a lot of aspects to digital organization that will help streamline and organize your files, but today I want to share a simple solution that I came up with this year that has streamlined my computer files significantly!


I've been using some form of projected images, whether it's PowerPoints on a pull-down screen or Smart Notebook files on an interactive whiteboard, for many years now. The first year I started using projected visuals, I would have a folder for each grade / class I taught, and I would save the file for each lesson in that folder and label it with the date. I figured then I could just reuse those same files the following year. What ended up happening in reality was that I wanted to change the order I was teaching, or update a lesson, or just update the visuals, and I ended up creating a whole new folder for every grade each year. And because I couldn't remember exactly when I taught certain lessons, I would have to search through tons of files to try to find the visuals that I wanted to use for my lesson- I probably could have just remade them in the time it was taking me to search for them.

So then I got smarter and started labeling the files with a word or two about the lesson or concept I was teaching in that file. This made it easier to find visuals from the previous year to reuse from year to year, but I was still creating an entire new folder every year and accumulating hundreds, maybe thousands, of files of the same repetitive material year after year. I couldn't figure out how to save my visuals so I wasn't starting from scratch each year without continuing this endless accumulation of files!

Enter my monthly lesson banks. If you haven't already, be sure to read this post on how I started organizing and pre-planning my lesson materials by month for each class- this simple change in my long-range planning has been seriously life changing. One aspect of this monthly planning strategy that I didn't realize would be a benefit was the organization of my PowerPoints for each lesson! Last year, when I was creating my monthly lesson banks, I created all of the projector visuals to go with those lessons at the same time and saved all of the visuals for each grade by month in a single file.

This year, I started off doing the same thing I've always done for my PowerPoints- I would copy and paste the slides I was going to use for the next lesson out of the monthly file for that grade, and save it with the date and concepts taught. Then it hit me: there was no reason for me to do that because I already have all of the visuals organized by grade and by month!

Now, instead of having those folders full of hundreds of files of duplicated, hard to search visuals, I have my "master folder" labeled "curriculum". Inside that folder is a folder for each grade, and within each grade I have a folder for each month, containing all of my plans, printables/ worksheets, and projector visuals for that month. Then I have ONE FILE for each grade / class saved to my desktop. When I am getting the visuals ready for each lesson, I delete the previous lesson's slides and save the new slides to that file, so the files on my desktop always have the current lesson's visuals saved and easily accessible.


See those boxes with purple headers? They are a free download from The Yellow Brick Road- grab them here if you want to organize your desktop by categories!

This has made my life so much easier, and my computer so much more streamlined. And when I do create or modify a slide for this school year, I just add the new slide to the monthly "master file" so I have it for next year.  Yessssssss!

This system will work for any software you're using for visuals- the PowerPoints I made are image files on each slide so they are easy to copy into different programs! Last year I used Smart Notebook. This year I'm trying to use PowerPoint, but if I get a new interactive whiteboard with its own software, I know I can always copy and paste the slides into that software.

How do you organize all of your visuals on your computer? Organization is a very personal thing because whatever we use has to make sense to us for it to really work- I'd love to hear about any other systems others are using to streamline their digital files in the comments section!

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Making Chores Work: the Power of Choice

My daughters have been doing small chores around the house since they were about 3 years old, as a part of their growing responsibilities as a family member. As they've grown the chores they do have changed, and this summer as the girls prepared to start kindergarten we revisited the family chore chart again. Today I want to talk about one aspect of how we do chores that I think makes them less of a burden and more of an expected part of life: choice.


Over a year ago I shared our family chore chart system in this post- I still love the idea of having my household responsibilities as the parent right there on the chore chart with the kids' chores- I think it makes it much clearer that we are all contributing! 

After using the same weekly chores for a year and a half, we revisited them this past summer. In the past, I had given them just a few options to choose from for which chores they did, but this time (now that they are 5.5 years old) I gave them the option to choose whatever chores they were most interested in doing. I was pleasantly surprised with their choices!


I've written before about how my girls have been cooking dinner together once a week for a few years now. One of my daughters loves it, but the novelty had worn off for the other one. So now just one of them cooks once a week, and the other chose things like sweeping and vacuuming. 

Unless they are really involved in doing something that they don't want to leave, I honestly never have trouble getting the girls to take care of their "jobs"- none of them are very time consuming, and since they picked them out themselves, it feels even less like they are being forced to do something. That's a win for everyone!

I'm sure eventually the girls will find out that there's this thing called allowance and realize they're being scammed, but I'm holding onto this sense of shared responsibility as a natural part of daily life for as long as I can! And I'm hoping that, even when they do start to be more resistant, that having this foundation at an early age will serve them well in the long run.

How do you handle chores in your family? What did you do as a child yourself? I know there is a wide spectrum when it comes to chores- I'd love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comments below! 

If you want to read about the specific chores my girls have been doing at different ages, here are my past posts:




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Friday, October 27, 2017

October Favorites 2017

Another month has flown by, and I can't wait to share some of my highlights with you! And don't miss the fun announcements at the end of the post...


1. Annual "Faerie Village" visit



I can't believe I forgot to add this to my fall family bucket list this year, because it is seriously the highlight of the season for us! This is our 3rd year visiting the "faerie village" that is set up every October and it is so much fun. Different artists (including some students from local schools) make fairy houses centered around a different theme each year and they're set up all around the grounds. Visitors get a map with an explanation of each house and a small item to look for in each house, which is the best part for the kids (some are really hard to find)! My daughters love getting dressed up in fairy costumes every year, and this year we were lucky enough to have beautifully warm weather, which made for the perfect fall outing.

2. Floral planner spread



I wish I had a better picture of it but I am just obsessed with this weekly planner spread from a couple of weeks ago. Normally I'm pretty minimalist with my planner decorating, but I was flipping through some paper pads and was just awestruck by these gorgeous florals! It took a little time to cut them out but it was so worth it.

3. Q&A sessions!



I can't tell you how much fun I had putting together the Q&A blog posts and videos this month. I've never done Q&A sessions before and it was so great to hear your questions and just chat about things we're all interested in! If you missed them, I did a Q&A post on home questions, one with planner questions, and two posts on teacher questions- click here to see them.

4. Music education blog posts

I love reading all of the fantastic ideas from other music teaching blogs each week! Here are some highlights from October:





5. Newsletter fun!

And now for the first fun announcement I mentioned...

I'll be sending out my next monthly newsletter on Sunday, and I'll be including an exclusive seasonal calendar for 2018 in the email just for my subscribers! Be sure to sign up below so you don't miss out on this and other goodies coming your way! If you missed it this time, don't worry- you can still get the "plain and simple" 2018 calendar in my store right here- but be sure to sign up below for my newsletter so you don't miss out on future resources! I always include exclusive, timely content in each and every email, and it's a great way for me to stay connected with you without all of the extra "noise" on social media :)




6. More monthly favorites inspiration!

My second fun announcement: Jennifer from The Yellow Brick Road is joining in on the "monthly favorites" fun! Check out her first post below- she is a lot nerdier than I am, in the most adorable way possible, and it definitely shows in her favorites list this month ;)


That does it for my October Favorites- now it's your turn! I'd love to hear about what you enjoyed this month! And if you want to see my everyday "favorites" in real time, be sure to go follow me over on Instagram- all of my favorites photos above are pulled straight from my feed ;)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lesson Planning for Elementary Choir

I've talked a lot about lesson planning for general music (see this post for an overview of what I do), but today we're talking elementary ensembles! I currently teach only choir (and that is where the majority of my ensemble teaching experience is), so I'm going to talk specifically about planning for elementary choir, but most of these lesson planning strategies will apply to instrumental ensembles as well.


Lesson planning for choirs, or any ensemble, is not talked about as much as it should be in my opinion. Far too often we just pick out performance repertoire, rehearse it until the concert, and hope for the best. What I've realized over the years is that my groups are far more successful, and my rehearsal time is far more productive and meaningful, when I plan out my rehearsals the same way I do for general music:

starting with the end goal in mind and planning out the most effective 
sequence of lessons to get the students to that end goal.

1. Clarify the end goal(s)

The "end goals" for an elementary choir will depend a lot on the overall music program. If choir is a required class, you can expect to cover more general music concepts than if the group is an elective/ extra-curricular. If choir is the only music class those students are taking, you will need to cover more general music skills and concepts than if the choir is an additional class alongside general music.

My choir classes are elective, pull-out classes in addition to the required general music classes, so my goals for choir are focused specifically on singing and ensemble skills. I cover some of these same skills in general music, but at a much more surface level.

As an example, for my beginning choir (3rd and 4th graders), my goals are:
1. sing partner songs
2. follow a conductor
3. read simplified sheet music with 2 vocal parts
4. sing a tiny little bit of parallel harmony
5. follow rehearsal procedures
6. sing with different vocal timbres to match each piece
7. demonstrate staggered breathing

2. Choose repertoire that addresses the end goals

Once I know what skills I am aiming to teach, it is a lot easier to choose appropriate repertoire for each ensemble. I'm a firm believer in starting with the skills and concepts rather than the theme, but keep in mind that often it's easy to modify a song to fit your needs! I often will simplify an arrangement by taking out the majority of the parallel harmony, for example, or introduce students to score reading by printing out a version with just the vocal parts (side note: be aware of copyright restrictions if you do this).

3. Test out new songs for 1-2 rehearsals

It's hard to tell how quickly you can expect the choir to learn a song that you've never done before, especially if you don't have as much experience with elementary choir or you don't know your students' music backgrounds. I usually go into the first 2 rehearsals without a long-range plan- I introduce each of the songs and see how it goes, changing out songs or adjusting the voicing/ arrangement if something unexpectedly bombs, sometimes adding a part or even adding another piece if they learn it more quickly than expected.

4. Backwards plan

Once I have a better sense of how quickly I can expect the group to learn each song after the first couple of rehearsals, I make a basic outline for the rest of the rehearsals I have leading up to the next performance. Ideally, I reserve 2 rehearsals before the concert for run-throughs and polishing, including time to practice the logistics of staging etc for the performance. Then I space out my sequence of learning each song so that they finish learning it just before those last 2 rehearsals. This means that sometimes I will skip a song for a week here and there to avoid learning it too quickly- I don't want my students to burn out on a song! I account for learning the basic vocal parts, putting parts together, developing expressive elements (tone, dynamics, balance, etc), and memorization for each piece and break it down over the rehearsals I have.

5. Revisit and adjust

The beauty of having a long-range plan laid out, besides obviously giving you a clearer direction for each rehearsal, is that it's easier to see when groups are going to learn a piece too quickly or not quickly enough to be ready for the concert so you can make adjustments to your performance plan before it's too late. I'll address some specific tips for adapting the performance plan to make sure the group is prepared in a future post, but I've already mentioned a few ideas in step 3 above :)

Bonus: organized performance preparation

Of course there is a lot more that goes into getting ready for a performance (whether it's a full-scale staged musical production or a straight-up, "stand and sing" concert) besides preparing the music itself. I've already written previously about planning ahead for all of the logistical considerations for performances- be sure to check out this post for more on that topic:


If you want to read more about how I teach elementary choir, check out these posts:



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Monday, October 23, 2017

After School Routine for Kindergartners

Kindergarten is a time of big transitions. They're taking on more responsibility and independence, but they're still, you know, 5 years old, which means they're not quite ready to totally handle the responsibilities they're taking on by themselves yet. I've found myself adjusting a lot of our routines at home to better align with their growing responsibilities (at school and at home), so today I want to share our after school routine that helps my daughters take care of their responsibilities while also giving them time to decompress from a long day at school.


1. Empty backpacks

The first thing they do when the girls come inside the house is take out their lunchboxes, snack bags, and school folders. They put the lunchboxes and snack bags on the kitchen counter for me to wash and give the folders to me for me to go through any notes that have come home. Getting this done first works well so we don't forget about anything!

2. Grab a snack

It's amazing how hungry they are when the girls get home! I've found the rest of the day goes a lot more smoothly, even with an early dinner, if they get a snack before doing anything else. I pretty much let them choose what they want: usually it's something like a handful of crackers/ chips/ popcorn, a cheese stick, a bagel with peanut butter, or a piece of fruit. Sometimes we go crazy and bake some cookies or stop by the grocery store on the way home to get a donut ;)

Snack time is also the perfect time for us to chat about their day while it's still fresh in their minds, and for all of us to take a breather and sit down for a few minutes!

3. Homework

Thankfully the girls don't have a huge amount of homework yet, being in kindergarten, but they do have a small assignment to complete each day. Once they eat their snack I tell them they have to do their homework before they start playing. Usually I'm able to wash out the lunchboxes and tidy up a little while I help them with their homework.

4. Play time!

After being told what to do all day the girls are anxious to have a chance to choose what to do themselves and relax for a while! Although admittedly they almost always want to play school and pretend to be teachers these days.... :) I try to spend some time relaxing with them myself, although sometimes if dinner is a little more involved I am prepping dinner during this time.

5. Dinner and chores

I share chores with the girls, so sometimes the girls are making dinner, setting the table, or putting away the dishes, or some days they have other chores like vacuuming or sweeping. Since a lot of the chores are related to dinner, we all do our chores before and/or after dinner.

6. Unwind

Ever since the girls were infants I've been conscious of gradually unwinding before bedtime. I'm less rigid about this now that the girls are older, but it's still something I do most of the time and the whole evening is much more pleasant when we do! I try to gradually turn off or dim lights after dinner, turn off or down any music we have playing, and decrease the activity level. Maybe we play a card game, read a book, draw, or go for a leisurely walk around the block- something to ease us into bedtime ;)

And that gets us to the end of the day! What is your after school routine with your elementary school- aged children? I'm still trying to get us settled into our new routines, and I'd love to hear what you do! Leave a comment below :)

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Q&A Music Teacher Edition (part II)

A couple of weeks ago I asked you all to send me your questions, and I was thrilled with the responses I got from all of you! Today I'm tackling some of the teaching questions I got, but be sure to check out my other Q&A posts on home life, planners, and music teaching as well! And if you have any other questions for me, feel free to leave a comment below. I'd love to do another Q&A in the future :) For each question I've included a video and written answer.


1. How do you organize for a sub?


Honestly, solving the sub plan problem took me over a decade (and my system still has its hiccups- I just finally have something that is workable and low maintenance for me). I'm pretty happy with what I have set up for subs now, though, which has been life changing for me! I wrote a full post last school year after I finally got it set up, and also put up my emergency sub plan template which you can grab right here. This year I have tweaked my setup just a little: instead of putting the log of which classes have done which lessons in the sub plans themselves, I've now taped them to the tubs that hold that lesson's materials. Takes some of the clutter out of the sub plan sheets and puts them in a place where the sub is guaranteed to see it before they teach the lesson! Check out my video answer to see what I'm talking about, but here's my previous blog post on how I have my sub plans set up and what is included in them:


2. What books do you like to use in the music classroom?



My collection of books that I love to use in music class has grown every year, but my favorites have to be Mortimer and My Many Colored Days (click on those links to see my lesson plans for those books). If you want to see more of my favorite books for music class, and the lessons I use them for, be sure to check out this blog post:


One related tip for books: I keep almost all of the books I use in different lessons, plus other ones I don't always get to in class but are related to music, in one spot in my classroom. Whenever we do centers, I include reading as one of the center activities. The quiet ones (or the ones who happened to be tired that day) especially appreciate having this activity, and they love seeing what I've added to my collection! Watch the video answer to see my book station, and check out my blog post below for more ideas for center activities:


3. Do you implement drumming in everything you do, or do you just do a unit once or twice a year?


My answer to this is going to be similar to my answer to a question I answered last week about ukulele: I do a little of both.

I do a focus on music from Mozambique with my 5th graders each year in the spring, and I spend some focused time teaching students about the in's and out's of drumming circles, drumming techniques, and specific drumming patterns. You can read more about my favorite lesson activities for drum circles in this post:


With that said, I also incorporate drumming throughout the year in every grade I teach (K-6). Any time students are learning and practicing a new rhythm, I'll have students practice speaking/counting the rhythms, clapping them, and then playing them on instruments- for my youngest students I usually start with rhythm sticks but otherwise I usually pull out the djembes to keep everyone excited about rhythm drills haha! It's a great way to mix things up and keep things interesting.

There are, of course, specific lessons where I will incorporate drumming, whether it's part of an instrumental ensemble, student compositions, or a lesson tied to a book (see above!), but the other more general situation when I will sometimes incorporate drumming is when a class as a whole is stuck in a negative rut. Sometimes the best cure in that situation is to force everyone to look each other in the eye, listen to each other, cooperate, take turns, and create something fun and awesome together! This ties directly into my focus on incorporating more "circles" in my classroom this year. You can read more about how I'm using circles in this post:


4. Have you done any coding in the music room yet? If so, what and how?


Short answer: no :(

BUT I've got some ideas for you! If I had the time and resources, I would totally have my students do some actual coding to create a real, playable video game for the video game composition project I do with my 5th graders. Since I don't right now, I send home a note to parents with recommendations for some resources they might want to explore with their child at home after we finish the project in class: Tynker, Scratch Jr (and it's older brother, Scratch), and Gamestar Mechanic are a few of my favorites. Here's a list of some more free resources to teach students how to code.

Beyond games though, I think the coolest-looking coding option for music is the Pixel Kit, which allows you to code a set of lights to light up in different combinations with different colors, including responding to sound. Imagine what you could create to teach students about mood, form, timbre, dynamics, and more with this thing!!!!

5. Could you possibly share some music lessons you use for the beginning of the school year? Instead of using an entire class to go over rules and procedures, is there a lesson you use to remind students of the class rules? How to play instruments properly? How soon do you introduce instruments?



I change up the specific lesson I do for the beginning of the school year every year, but my basic plan stays the same. In the first lesson, I try to include:
1. assigning seats
2. going over (VERY QUICKLY) my behavior expectations and management systems
3. singing
4. movement

My behavior management discussion is honestly 5-10 minutes max, and I spread it out within the lesson with singing and movement thrown in between different topics. I touch on my overall classroom expectations and what that looks like, the letter system for how the class earns "points" and my individual rewards and consequences for behavior, and my hand signals for standing/ sitting/ transitions. I do think it's important to set those ground rules right from the beginning, but I don't spend a lot of time getting into the details of each aspect- they get it when they see it and experience it happening "in real time" ;)

Other than that, I usually do some kind of fun, upbeat, active song to get everyone having fun and making music together. One year I taught everyone Funga Alafia (sidenote: this song is NOT a traditional song from any part of the African continent- it was written by an American in an African style- so be careful how you introduce it, but it's still a great way to start the year!), with singing and movement, other years I've done something I call the "Beginning of the School Year Rap", complete with rhythm ostinati that students perform with body percussion (hint: I send the full lesson plan and visuals in my newsletter every summer!), and some years I've picked different silly/fun songs for each grade and added movement to go with each one.

The only time I have gotten out instruments on the first day is with my oldest students, who have known me for a few years, when they have a 60-minute class. In that case I will take one of the songs/ lessons mentioned above and add instrumental accompaniment parts to them. Otherwise, I wait until the 2nd or even 3rd class to bring them out, and when I do, I start with easy things like rhythm sticks and hand drums to teach appropriate procedures and expectations for playing instruments (I am VERY strict about playing out of turn- even if the instrument accidentally hits something, if it makes a sound before it's supposed to I take it away). Yes, it's great to get them playing instruments early on, but it's also important to have the time to teach them the proper procedures for using them! When we do first get out instruments, I usually have them either use them to play rhythms we are reviewing from the previous year, or play on the steady beat with some recorded music.

I hope you enjoyed reading and watching this Q&A- I loved putting it together and hearing all of your questions! Be sure to leave me a comment below if you have any other questions so I can answer them in a future post :) And if you missed any of my previous Q&A posts you can check them out below:




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