Making the Mundane Musical

February 19, 2015

As any teacher can attest, a portion of every day is taken up by the mundane, but necessary, tasks that keep a classroom running smoothly. Seating arrangements, grouping procedures, behavior management, and structuring lessons may not teach content, but are essential to creating a learning environment in which content can be taught.

Clear procedures are essential at any grade level. However, I am very aware of how much of my short, 25-minute general music class periods can be taken up by these necessities — especially when establishing expectations at the beginning of a school year — and how the time I have to teach music is reduced as a result. Therefore, my goal is to make every possible element of my classroom management into a lesson about music.

  • Orchestral seating arrangements: At my school, general music classes and the bands share the same classroom. With no time between classes, changing the arrangement of chairs is not an option, despite the band set-up not being ideal for my primary-level students.However, sitting in chairs arranged for an ensemble creates a teachable moment. When my students are assigned new seats, they are handed a card with a picture of an instrument on it. They use what they’ve learned about the arrangement of an orchestra to find their “sections.” This makes it easy to set up group work or to assess performance in groups of different sizes­–for small groups (around 4 students), we use specific sections like “2nd violins”; for larger groups (about half of a class), we use instrument families, like “strings.”

Orchestral Seating Cards
  • Musical roles in cooperative learning groups: Clearly defined roles are essential in cooperative learning groups. My students’ role assignments teach them about the variety of careers and roles in the field of music. For a recent third grade project in which groups created an instrumental accompaniment, an orchestrator chose instruments, a director assigned parts to group members, and a librarian collected and put away materials.

  • Rhythmic behavior management: I aim to create an ensemble attitude in my classes. The whole class works toward common goals, whether those are musical goals or rewards for positive behavior. In each class period, I randomly select a few students to have the opportunity to earn a quarter note (a point) for the class if they are demonstrating positive behavior when they are selected. Students put quarter notes into their class pocket on a bulletin board, and are able to trade them in for larger rhythmic denominations, working toward a certain number of whole notes. Reaching the whole note goal earns a whole-class reward.

Rhythmic Behavior Management
  • Programmatic lesson structure: I like to structure my lessons as if my students were attending a concert. When they come into the room, they see the day’s plan written out as the “program.” The class begins with an “overture,” which is usually a very short written assignment, similar to an entry slip, which assesses previous learning and connects to what the students will be encountering in class that day. The class period is divided into “acts” (learning segments or activities). At the end of the period, a “coda” summarizes and concludes the lesson.

Many elementary music teachers feel that they never have enough teaching time. By infusing content into everything that takes place in a music classroom, we can get more out of the time we have with our students.