Differentiation Part 3 – Recorders

In a few weeks my fifth graders will dust off their recorders and begin using them in music class again. Many of them loved playing recorders in fourth grade, but some of them struggled. We spend the bulk of our time on whole class recorder instruction, but I also offer recorder tutoring two mornings a week for anyone interested in attending, and post some folk songs for practice on our school website.

When students say they can’t read the notes fast enough to keep up with the class, how can I help them? I don’t want to add letter names to the songs we’re working on, because it feels like adding a band-aid to a bigger issue. Instead, I’ll share a few things that have helped some students.

Selective Labeling

In the past, I’ve experimented with adding letter names under tricky spots in the music. After students have the opportunity to study the music, finger and sing the parts, and play it once or twice, I tap the letter names on the SMART board and they fade out. Usually it is met with gasps and giggles, and a few, “Oh, no!” responses. But we jump right in and play it again while it’s fresh on their minds. The best way I’ve found to do this is only labeling a little, and if it’s more than one spot in the music, letting students play all the way through again before taking away another labeled part.

Did you know the first phrase of the song “Phoebe in Her Petticoat” spells BAGGAGE? It is fun for students to decipher the word BAGGAGE, and then they usually go home and practice that phrase over and over again.

Repeating Motives

Build up to the whole song slowly. Each time we approach a new song in class, we take a minute to study it. We look at the first note, last note, highest, and lowest. Then we look for measures or patterns that repeat and students highlight them on the SMART board.

As a class, students sing the letter names and finger them on the recorder in chin position before trying to play. Then we start at the beginning. Students only play the highlighted parts and I play the other measures. By beginning with the repeating parts, students are not responsible for playing the whole song, but they must follow the music independently and play an accessible section. By the same token, students who need an added challenge may be invited to finger the parts the teacher is playing, or peer tutor those who are struggling.

In the song “Big Fat Biscuit,” students who have just learned “low E” could play G E, G or ‘chew baloo’ in each phrase. Those who need a bigger challenge might be asked to aurally deduce the pitches and rhythms for the rest of the song.

In the song “Chatter with the Angels,” students highlight and play ‘chatter with the angels’ in each phrase, and the teacher plays the rest. This is a great way to practice G E,D, and getting the ‘low D’ to speak. The next step would be adding ‘soon in the morning,’ and then ‘in that land’ and ‘join that band.’

Simplify or Add Harmony 

Consider providing a simplified version of the song for a struggling player, or a counter-melody. In some instances, writing a counter-melody using only BAG with quarter notes and eighth notes would allow students to be part of the group even if they cannot play a melody with more pitches. If both parts are posted on the screen like a duet, I’ve found that most students will choose appropriately.

Solo and Small Group Opportunities

If some of your students are recorder masters, it’s a good idea to let them play independently or in small groups occasionally. Some of them may even come to recorder tutoring to help other students. You’ll never know if you don’t invite them!

How do you help your struggling recorder students?

Differentiation part 2

Several years ago I wrote a post titled Differentiation in the Elementary Music Classroom. It was one of my first experiences providing leveled worksheets for my students that would be appropriate for their varying levels. Today’s post takes this a step further.

Each time my students complete a worksheet in class, a few students finish before the others. Rather than let them goof off, I try to provide a flashcard match or simple game they can work on independently while I help other students. This idea blossomed into a new differentiation technique. Why not create leveled packets? Students can work at their own pace and each level is slightly more challenging than the last.

Getting Started

Let’s use half note practice as an example. This scenario assumes that students know quarter notes, paired eighth notes, quarter rests, and half notes. Using known song material, all students would start with a 16-beat song with laminated flashcards cut into 4-beat phrases. Students put them in order to match the song and check their work. I highly recommend creating color-coded packets. Post the song order or color codes students should follow.

Checking Their Work

There’s only one of you and many more of them, so you may consider preparing manila folders with “answer sheets” inside. After they put the flashcards in order, they may check their own answers or have a friend check for them. If any flashcards are out of order, students should choose another packet in the same color/level. In this way, they only move up a level when they’ve mastered the previous level.

Creating Levels

A few 16-beat songs appropriate for Level 1 include I See the Moon, Sea Shell, and Let Us Chase the Squirrel. You might choose to cut these into 4-beat phrases or create another level by cutting one song into 2-beat phrases.

Level 2 may include Yellow Bird and Who’s That Tapping at the Window. Both of these can be written out completely, or you could include the repeat signs for an added challenge! These songs can be cut into 2-beat phrases or 4-beat phrases.

Level 3 might include Here Comes a Bluebird and Are You Sleeping since they are 32-beat songs. These songs can also be cut into 2-beat phrases or 4-beat phrases.

Just be sure to use songs that your students know very well. 

Hint: Be sure to cut the flashcards about the same size so students don’t try to “piece” them together like a puzzle. Cut after the bar lines and make each phrase the same number of beats.

Yellow Bird rhythms without the repeat sign

Yellow Bird rhythms without the repeat sign

Yellow Bird rhythms with the repeat sign.

Yellow Bird rhythms with the repeat sign.

Effective Stations in Kindergarten

Everyone talks about setting up stations in elementary music classes, but some of the materials I’ve perused don’t seem to further a Kodály curriculum. Since I basically see my students once a week for 50 minutes, I have to be choosy about how we spend our class time. That brings us to the topic of this post – Kindergarten stations.

My kindergarten classes can keep a steady beat and we’re beginning to prepare long and short, or “the way the words go.” This is a tricky time, because they must learn to differentiate between beat and rhythm. Just like any melodic or rhythmic concept in upper grades, kindergarten students must demonstrate prior knowledge before working on kinesthetic, aural, or visual preparation of a new element. This week we practiced beat using beat stations. Each station incorporated a known beat activity.

My four stations included: beat charts, toy hammers, hand drums, and cardboard guitars. I placed the supplies for each station inside a hula-hoop and assigned students to a station. The groups picked up their supplies, I named a song, gave the cue “one, two, ready sing,” and the class performed the beat while singing the selection. Next, I called out the hula-hoop station colors and asked them to point to their next station. They transitioned, performed a different sixteen-beat song, and moved through all four stations practicing beat. On average, this activity took fewer than five minutes for all four stations and the students loved it! Here’s a quick shot of one of my classes enjoying their stations.

Do you have an idea for a fun beat station? kinder_stations_hughey2016

Listening for ta-dimi

My third graders just learned ta-dimi, an eighth note followed by two sixteenths, so we listened to “Fossils” from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns this week. My students have heard this piece in the past. In second grade they heard it and read the first four beats of rhythm: takadimi ta takadimi ta.

It’s always interesting to bring back a piece they know and go deeper musically. This week they read the first eight beats of rhythm and listened for that repeating motive throughout the piece. Did they mind hearing it again? Not at all! They were very excited and the discussion that followed was more insightful, probably because they were already familiar with the piece.

For those of you who are looking for visual aids, I’ve posted the first four and first eight beats of rhythm for “Fossils” on my Resources for Teacher page under Listening Examples, as well as the rhythms to “Marche du Toréador” from Carmen. (Thanks for pointing out this piece, Karen Fincher!)

"Marche du Toreador" rhythms

“Marche du Toreador” rhythms

Post Office Rhythm Game

It’s the beginning of another school year and time to review, review, review! All those previous concepts must be reinforced before preparing new ones. I put a new spin on a game Lamar Robertson taught in Kodály training called Post Office. There are three free sets for download: quarter and eighth notes; quarter, eighth, and quarter rests; sixteenth notes, quarter, eighth, and quarter rest. The patterns in these sets come from familiar folk songs, so they should tie into your curriculum easily.

I prepare students for the activity by telling them there’s a secret code or message in each rhythm pattern and I’ll share it with them when they find the correct one.

Every child receives an identical envelope of 4-beat rhythms. They’re instructed to lay them on the floor in front of them with the meter/time signature on the left and stand when they’re done.

Here’s my sequence. I clap the pattern and they clap it back. Repeat. The third time I clap the pattern, they clap it and say the rhythm syllables to match. If the class is correct, I ask them to find the pattern and hold it at their foreheads. A quick visual check lets me know if they need help. When the class is correct, I tell them the secret and they put the rhythm in the envelope. After two-three patterns, ask the students to find the pattern on their own without saying the rhythm syllables aloud.

Examples of secret messages or codes: Count the number of quarter notes in this pattern. That’s how many dogs I have at home. Which beat has eighth notes? That’s how many people are absent today. How many beats are in this pattern? That’s how many games we’ll play today, etc.

I copied my post office rhythm sets on card stock and didn’t need to laminate them. Feel free to change the game to suit your situation, and have fun!

What are your favorite ways to practice rhythm?

Post Office - Quarter Rest quarter_eighth_post_office_rhythms takadimi_post_office_rhythms

Choosing Elementary Choir Repertoire

Each Fall semester, my after-school choir performs six pieces, give or take. The choir is made up of fourth and fifth graders and meets for approximately fifty minutes once a week. Students have the opportunity to perform a variety of pieces and experience musical training beyond the classroom.

Program selections usually include unison or two-part octavos from the following categories: Patriotic, Foreign Language, Musical, Classical, Folk Song Medley, Round or Canon, and Novelty. It’s likely that one or more will be lyrical, but there should be variety in tempo and style. Once I’ve made the selections, it’s time to consider program order.

When programming the concert order, I always decide on the final piece first. It’s the last thing the audience will hear, and will leave a lasting impression. Therefore, the choir must know it and sing it with confidence!

Next, I choose the opening piece, usually an upbeat selection. Sometimes it is a foreign language pick if my choir loves to sing it and it showcases them well. In every case, I try to choose a song that will grab the audience from the opening notes.

The pieces between the opening and closing are carefully planned as well. I consider tempo, key signature, choreography, and style. If the classical selection is not in English, I may place a song between the classical and foreign language selections.

Finally, the students become stakeholders in the choir with opportunities to shine. Choir members  introduce each piece and give opening and closing remarks. (I write the speaking parts.) Others bring out flowers for the accompanist, fold programs, and various other tasks throughout the semester.

How do you plan your programs? Do you have a winning octavo to share?

Book Review – Jazz Baby

BookJazz Baby 

Author: Lisa Wheeler

Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie

Publisher: Harcourt, Inc., 2007

“Brother’s hands tap.

Sister’s hands snap.

Itty-bitty Baby’s hands


Jazz Baby uses body percussion, singing, scatting, and dancing. The text mentions drummers and bass players, but we do not see any instruments, only a record player.

The rhythm of the text is fairly consistent throughout. Adult readers should be able to read this selection aloud with ease. The rhythmic form of the first eight pages is AAAB and continues in this vein with slight variations (i.e. Bass players strum.)

Classroom use: Using only quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests, students could easily deduce the rhythmic structure of this book.

The illustrations leave plenty of white space and emphasize the characters and their movements. My only concern about the illustrations is the incorrect notation on two pages. The noteheads on eighth notes are facing the wrong direction and look like “b’s” on one page, and then pairs of eighth notes are turned to become hands and feet in an abstract image on the next page. However, this might create a wonderful teachable moment and open avenues of cross-curricular connections.

Simplify Concentric Circle Games

My classroom is rather spacious, but pull out the risers and a few instruments and suddenly the movement space dwindles. Here are a few ideas for implementing exciting lessons in small spaces.

Tideo and John Kanaka both have concentric circles as part of the game formation. However, I teach Tideo in second grade because of the takadimi tadi tadi ta pattern. Teaching young students to play in concentric circles takes more time than I’m willing to spend, so I simplify.

tideo_lyrics_CSimplified version: Scattered partners. Students play the clapping portion (patsch, clap, partner clap) each time they sing Tideo, and they add a dishrag during the last “jingle at the window, tideo.” When I’m ready to teach high do’ (fourth grade), the song comes back into circulation, but the game will be played in concentric circles. All students move one step to the left at the beginning of phrases one through three (on the word ‘pass’), performing the clapping pattern on all ‘tideo’ words. Students then stay with that partner and trade places on the first and second ‘jingle at the window.’ On the third ‘jingle at the window,’ students end the song with a dishrag.

Note: If there are chairs and desks in the way and there’s not enough room for the whole class to play in concentric circles, why not divide the group into two or three sections? Can you find two or three smaller places in the room for eight to ten students to play? This tactic works well with passing games, too. If one or two people make mistakes in the game, the whole class isn’t involved. The teacher can focus attention on the group that struggles and allow the rest of the class to continue practicing and playing.

John Kanaka is similar to Tideo. Rather than beginning with concentric circles, why not teach the game with scattered partners first? Students work with their partner until the high do’ in phrase five, then move to a new partner. In my class, I encourage students to find a partner within one step of their current position. If no one nearby is available, they raise their hand and walk to someone else with their hand up. It works remarkably well. I usually teach this game at the end of 3rd grade or early in 4th grade. By changing the game slightly and increasing the difficulty level, older learners don’t get bored. It’s also important to use well-known songs to prepare or practice known concepts and these songs are little treasures!

Look for reading examples of each of these songs under Resources for Teachers.john_kanaka_F_lyrics


Yesterday two groups of music education students from the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor visited my elementary music classes to observe drumming lessons and they were great! In my district, we teach twelve 25-minute classes on Fridays and see half the school. I like to use these class times to reinforce concepts, usually with instruments.

My third and fourth graders learned Let’s Go to the Farmer’s Marketa poem I wrote to match a rhythm exercise in Gunild Keetman’s Rhythmische Übung, p. 7, number 18. I chose this exercise because I wanted the students to practice ta-dimi as well as playing tones and bass tones.

from Gunild Keetman's Rhythmische Ubung

Although they could have read the rhythms, I clapped each phrase and they deduced the rhythms aurally.

Tip: One of the easiest ways to teach rhythm exercises is to add words. Always teach the song or poem first, and then transfer to an instrument. Students should “say and play” several times before audiation.

The students played the whole piece with tones first. In my SMART board presentation, I also colored the accented syllables purple because I wanted the students to play a bass tone only on those downbeats.

For more Orff-inspired resources, see my Resources for Teachers page and click on Orff Visual Aids.

What are some of your favorite, go-to drumming pieces?


Quarter Rest Prep

My awesome colleague, Cindy Hayes, shared this idea with me and gave me permission to share it here. This technique could be used with multiple songs, but the chart I made matches the rhythms to Pease Porridge Hot.

photo 1

While you’re preparing quarter rest, show the students the page with the flap down with the porridge pictures visible. Once they’ve learned rest, flip the flap and the quarter rest is visible.

photo 2How to make your chart: Print both pages. Cut the page with porridge pictures about 4 1/8″ vertically from the edge with pictures. Fold it in half vertically. It should only be wide enough to cover beat four of each phrase. Glue the pictures back to back. Line it up along the right edge of the full sheet of paper and tape it in place. Too much tape may keep it from laying flat. Enjoy!

Pease Porridge Page 1

Pease Porridge Page 2