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A 5th Grade Orchestra (YouTube screengrab)

General Music Skills for Beginning Instrumentalists

Elementary music teachers provide students with the foundation for all future musical experiences. Our students might choose to join a high school ensemble, to start a rock band, or to end their formal music training with their sixth grade general music class. This week, my fourth graders had their school band try-outs. It's exciting to see them make this big choice about how they will continue to participate in music, and I hope I’ve done everything that I can to prepare them for it. As an elementary music teacher, I instruct my students on note and rhythm reading, instrument families, performing as a group, and many other skills that will help them succeed in ensemble classes. However, with so many different ways to teach those concepts, I was curious to know about the specific ways in which great general music teachers are teaching what instrumental teachers appreciate the most.

Teachers who communicate with their music colleagues will have programs that ensure student success at any level within a district, but many instrumental teachers find the same specific general music skills to be especially helpful. I talked with band and orchestra teachers in large and small, rural and urban, elementary and secondary schools to learn what general music skills help students who choose this one-of-many post-elementary musical paths.

Rhythm Reading

When asked what helps students in his band, Nick Syman, a high school band teacher in Hudson, Wisconsin, says, “Rhythm reading! Particularly fundamental pulse and subdivision.” Nearly all of the band and orchestra teachers I’ve talked with stress the importance of students having a solid understanding of rhythm. Bands and orchestras usually use a numbered counting system, but students who have used Kodaly, Takadimi, or any other syllable-based counting system understand the concepts of rhythm and subdivision, and therefore, will be able to switch to numbers without much trouble. One Twin Cities area orchestra teacher has also noticed that some of her beginner students have trouble reading pitched rhythms and need to be taught that the vertical position of rhythms on a staff doesn’t change the rhythm.

Steady Beat

Students need to understand how music moves to a steady beat. It doesn’t pause for mistakes or for careful reading. Ben Bussey, an instructor at MacPhail Center for Music in the Twin Cities, has noticed that many beginner instrumentalists try to read music at their own pace, just as they are taught to read language, taking the time to avoid errors. In music, keeping up with the beat is just as essential as playing correct notes.

Clef Reading

General music teachers can help band and orchestra teachers by giving students a solid foundation in clef reading. If students can read in both treble and bass clef, they will have an advantage, but as one band teacher in southern Minnesota pointed out, “kids pick up bass clef just fine as long as they understand the basics of how to read.” Even if general music teachers aren’t able to fit bass clef into their curriculum, students who know how reading on a staff works will be able to learn bass clef much more easily than if they haven’t been reading music at all.

Instrument Playing

Providing students with experience playing any instrument while reading music in elementary music will prepare them for band or orchestra. Playing simple music on xylophone, recorder, or piano helps students develop the coordination and cognitive skills required to read and play at the same time.


Band and orchestra teachers don’t rely only on written music in their classes. Twin Cities band teacher Steve Herzog incorporates aural skills into his teaching. If his students come into band with the ability to sing on pitch, they have skills necessary to learn to play their instruments by ear and in tune.

Ensemble Experience

Making any kind of music together as a group will provide students with valuable ensemble skills that will help them to be successful in any ensemble class. In his teaching, Ben Bussey has found that “if they know what it feels like to sing with one voice or really land some rhythms on percussion together, that translates immediately to any aspect of music making.”

Knowledge of Instruments

If students have knowledge of instruments and instrument families, and a basic understanding of how instruments work, they will be better equipped to make an informed decision about what they want to play and how to produce sound on an instrument. Dennis Benson, a former band teacher at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, found that inviting musicians to demonstrate instruments in elementary music classes was beneficial for students considering band. In addition to having some live instrument demonstrations in my classes, I also prepared my fourth graders for band try-outs by showing MPR’s Class Notes Videos on instruments of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families. MPR’s Audio Backpack also has dozens of high-quality audio examples of individual instruments.

General music teachers who know how band and orchestra are taught are able to prepare their students for those ensembles while teaching their own content. Ensemble teachers who know how general music is taught are prepared to teach beginner students by building on what they have already learned. According to one St. Cloud area band teacher, students who transition easily into band have had elementary general music teachers who are great at teaching general music. She doesn’t expect or want the general music program to feel that their sole purpose is to prepare students for ensembles when it is her responsibility to teach band concepts to her students.

The most effective way to ensure that students are prepared for instrumental ensembles is to teach them the standards and curriculum appropriate for each level while communicating with the future teachers of those students. When teachers share a mutual respect and understanding of what each group is trying to accomplish, the entire K-12 music program will be successful at all levels.

(Many thanks to the band and orchestra teachers around the state (and even Wisconsin) who helped with this post. Your dedication to your instrumental programs and respect for general music teaching certainly benefits your students and your districts.)

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

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