Every teacher knows how difficult teaching in December can be. Energy levels are at their highest and attention spans are at their shortest. Many music teachers have the additional challenge of trying to come up with something meaningful to teach in just a few class periods between the holiday concerts and winter break. I am in that awkward period right now and trying to use my most active activities to keep students engaged and excited.
Harness the antsiness of students with dance activities. As long as it doesn’t involve too much icky hand-holding, elementary students often have a lot of fun learning choreographed dances to accompany songs they’ve learned, or improvising dances to new music. Movement activities can be very effective tools for teaching music concepts like song form (changes in direction or step type for different sections), dynamics (larger movements for louder dynamics), accents (special movement on accented notes), and of course, tempo and rhythm. As an added bonus, there are plenty of holiday musical traditions involving dances that can make this kind of activity especially relevant at this time of year. For example, my third graders just learned a dance meant to be done around a Christmas tree to go with the traditional Swedish song Nu är det jul igen. In order for the dance to be successful, all students must have an understanding of the sections of the song.
Body Percussion Composition
Challenge students to create a body percussion composition to accompany a piece of music. Some of the dances of The Nutcracker work especially well. Because time and attention spans are short, I typically have my elementary students use some kind of graphic notation rather than standard notation, no matter what their grade level. Encouraging students to create their own notation system can also illuminate some of their thought processes and their understanding of concepts. Students could use any kind of classroom instrument, but body percussion works especially well with extra-wiggly students.
When you can’t get students to focus enough to learn new music, take the opportunity to have them make up their own music. To keep it simple and painless, give students constraints that are appropriate for their level. When I introduce improvisation in my primary-level classes, we spend some time echoing four beat patterns using only quarter notes and pairs of eighth notes, as a class and as individuals. When students are able clap, say, or play the patterns confidently and are getting the feel for four beats, start having individuals improvise the same type of four beat patterns. I find it works well to alternate group singing with individual rhythmic improvisation. This helps students get a feel for the meter, and makes their improvisation window short and painless.
Teach students about the traditions associated with caroling, then take students around the school to sing in other classrooms. I love to do this with my kindergartners. It’s an exciting and memorable experience for the students, and classes are usually very tolerant of interruptions caused by adorable five and six year olds. However, it’s always good to get permission from classroom teachers to visit during this busy time of year.
Imaginary Musical Field Trips
I love teaching imaginary musical field trip lessons, and they can be especially fun at this time of year. I use them to teach students about music in holiday traditions around the world. These lessons tend to be interdisciplinary and include a variety of activities, including some of those listed above. The variety, fast pace, and imagination involved in these field trips keep students engaged and excited.
Good luck, and enjoy these last few energy-filled days before winter break!