Sunday, October 28, 2012

Traditions in the Band Class

I can't say the word "Tradition" without hearing Topol in my head.

"Fiddler on the Roof" aside, I am contemplating the role of Traditions in the band classroom. I am the type of person that completely supports traditions as long as the tradition benefits the program.

This year, I found that one tradition regarding band in my district would not be beneficial to my students. In fact, I have struggled mentally with this tradition for the past few years. I met with my principal and with my supervisor over the summer to discuss my concerns and ask them for advice. Both people agreed that it would be in the best interest of the musical education of the students to not follow the tradition this year.

So, I planned the beginning of this year minus the tradition. I did not make a big deal of it; I just didn't mention it. If a parent or student asked about the tradition, I was careful to answer the exact question that was asked and not to offer more information than was needed (this was the advice from my principal). It has been a constant source of low-level anxiety for me since the first day of school.

Yes, there have been questions asked. No, I have not had anyone seriously upset about the change. I still have 2-3 more weeks until we are past the "tradition" and there could still be more conversations; I look forward to no longer feeling this anxiety. Yes, my principal and supervisor have been extremely supportive and helpful. Yes, I have missed participating in the tradition. I still firmly believe that my students will be better musicians based on the path that I have set before them... minus the tradition.

Has anyone else made changes to traditions in their band program, even knowing that the community expected participation in that tradition?

Saturday, August 25, 2012


I love using Icebreaker activities for the first few class periods to help the students get back in to the school groove and for us all to get to know each other better. The challenge for doing this with band classes is not using the exact same activity each year since I have the students for multiple years. Sometimes they really like the activities and constantly ask throughout the year, "Can we play that game again?" However I do like to keep things fresh and exciting for myself as well as them.

So this year I mixed and matched activities I have done in the past to create 2 activities that aren't necessarily new: they just have a new spin.

I purchased 4 types of patterned card stock at the dollar store to use as note cards. I could very well have used plain note cards, however the patterns are used as part of the next activity. I chopped the card stock into note card size and then mixed them all together to get an equal amount of each pattern for each class.

As the students arrived at the door, I handed them a note card and invited them to select a seat in the classroom. This is one of the few times that band students get to choose their seat instead of sitting in sections... they love it! Once everyone arrives, I verify that they all have a card and then give them 5 seconds if they want to trade patterns ("Pink is for girls!" "I want the stars!"). The next instruction is to have a writing utensil in their hand.

On one side of the card, they write: instrument played, favorite food, and favorite color. Yes, they can do multiple answers if they play many instruments, love all sorts of food (one student wrote: "anything edible"), and have a set of favorite colors. On the other side of the card they are to write one interesting detail that makes them unique. I give them a list of suggestions to get the mental wheels turning: sports, vacations, awards, activities, and "special" talents (aka Stupid Human Tricks, like wiggling ears). THEY DO NOT PUT THEIR NAME ON THE CARD.

I collect the cards and then randomly distribute them to everyone. While I am distributing, the instruction is to silently read the card they are handed and begin using "deductive reasoning" skills to narrow down who the card possibly describes. When I say GO they have 60 seconds to locate the owner of the card and return to their seat still holding the same card.

The final step is to go down the row and have each student share one detail from the card ("Evan's favorite food is Sushi") and then hand the card back to the owner. Even when I've known the student for multiple years, I still learn something new about them from this type of activity.

Using the same note cards, the student form teams of 4 based on the patterns of the note cards (cannot have 2 pink polka-dot cards on the same team). We clear the chairs to the perimeter of the room and the teams sit or stand in a circle. Each team receives a tennis ball. The goal of the game: create a pattern of movements using the tennis ball that progressively gets more challenging.

EXAMPLE: Student A gently tosses the ball up and catches it. A passes to B. Student B does A's motion and adds to pass around the back. B passes to C. Student C does A's and B's motions and adds switch hands. C passes to D. Student D does the entire pattern (toss, around, switch) and adds under the leg. D passes to A... and the game continues until someone completely gets lost in the pattern.

I leave them to work in the small groups for a few minutes, wandering around to check out the creativity and see how "long" they can get the pattern (such as 9 different motions). I add a little competition by calling out updates: "This group is up to 13!"

When they seem to have a pretty good grasp on the game, then I call "FREEZE" and ask the teams to combine with one other team to form groups of 8. We repeat the same process, now having to work with more people. Again, I leave them to work for a few minutes, calling out updates as I wander.

If time allows, we form one circle with all members and try to get a pattern all the way around the circle. Usually, it only makes it to about the 10th or 12th person before it's totally confusing or someone refuses to play. I don't make a big deal about it; I ask the students to grab a chair and sit approximately where they were before we cleared the chairs.

Now we discuss the game. What was easy about the game? What was most challenging? And the best question of all: Why did we play this game? I LOVE the connections they make between the game and playing an instrument in band: progressively gets more challenging, following directions, memorizing patterns, working together, helping each other, small versus big groups, doing the same motion over and over is easy but boring, and how the actions of one person can affect the whole group (remember the kid who refused to play?)

I took pictures of this activity, however I still need to verify the "permission status" of the students in the photos before I can post any. I will update when I have some I can use :)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Musicals Madness

One of my favorite units to do for general music classes to finish out the school year is Musicals. I have completed this activity for groups of students from 6th grade through 12th grade. Depending on the resources I have available and the amount of classes remaining until the end of the school year, I pick and choose from these activities. Each activity can be adjusted based on the age and abilities of the class.
  • Introduction: What do you know about musicals?
  • Background: What is a musical? Where did the tradition begin?
  • Current Trends: What are current musicals? Which musicals are personally appealing to you?
  • Example: View and discuss a musical
  • Project: If you could create a musical, what would it be?
The Introduction is pretty self-explanatory. It is a class discussion where I pick the students' brains to find out what they already know. For many of them, their only experience with musicals is "High School Musical" or "Mary Poppins." Sometimes they relate Disney movies with musicals and believe musicals are "for little kids." It is a lot of fun to complete this unit and change their impression of musicals!

The Background is tweaked depending on resources and time. With access to computers, I have done a WebQuest (combined with the Current Trends portion) where the students discover the information by visiting designated websites and answering specific questions or completing specific tasks. My favorite websites to use are Musicals101, Broadway, and StageAgent. If I am short on time or resources, I may simply display the "What is a Musical?" info from the first website on the large screen and gather some basic info as a whole group activity. I may also shorten the Current Trends activity by discussing and displaying shows that are very "far" from HSM and Mary Poppins, such as Sweeney Todd (some have seen this one, but do not categorize it as a Musical), Avenue Q, and Spider-Man.

The Examples I use for class are "Newsies" for 6th-8th grades and "The Phantom of the Opera" for 8th-12th grades (the 8th grade selection depends on the maturity level of the students in my class). I do not have them complete a worksheet while watching the movie; I would much rather have them be fully engrossed in the music and the story. I do pause the movie at specific places to discuss the use of music, review key plot moments, answer their questions, or have them make predictions.

The Project is a blast to complete, for me and for the students. I tell them that I am a famous Broadway producer and that they have an idea for a musical that they must pitch to me to earn funding. They can work alone or in groups. They have to create the title, character list (including descriptions), synopsis, and song list (3-5 examples, they may use music they are familiar with or invent titles that go with the synopsis). They present this information to the class, including a publicity poster. Before they start the project, we complete the requirements using the musical we just viewed (Newsies or Phantom) so they have a better sense of what to do. I also show them examples of publicity posters from the Broadway website. Over the years I have gotten some awesome and some strange ideas, including Batman, Dogs vs. Cats, Robot & Zombie Invasions, as well as realistic ideas based on their lives.

If you would like more information on this unit, please leave a comment and include your email. This unit keeps them focused, entertained, and learning as the school year winds down.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting Students to Reflect

Every year, I have insisted on having my students reflect on their musicianship. In my first year of teaching, I started with Post-Concert Reflections: having them write what went well, what can be improved, and their overall feelings in regards to the recent performance. After 10 years of teaching, it now has many layers.

At any moment during class, I can teach students to reflect. We play an exercise out of the method book. I ask the students to think of one compliment and one critique for themselves, their section, or the entire group. Depending on time, I ask for them to share ("I would like 4 compliments and 4 critiques"). Then we play the exercise again with them applying what they just shared. Sometimes the results are amazing!

I have also create Progress Portfolios where the students set goals and then monitor their progress over multiple classes and/or weeks. Depending on the age and level of the group, these can be simple goals ("I will use proper posture every time I play") to more complex ("I will improve my intonation by adjusting breath support and embouchure").

After every performance, every student completes a reflection. We reflect on individual accomplishment and group accomplishment. If judging and comments were involved with the performance, I ask the students to reflect on which comment "stuck" with them the most and which suggestion they could immediately implement.

I sent a proposal to the State Conference planning committee and I hope to be selected to present a session on Student Reflection in the Performance-based classroom. I just have to wait and see :)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Music Bingo

You don't need to purchase a music bingo game; I have made my own that I can pull out at any time and change to fit the music topic my class is learning. It can be used for note names, rhythms, vocabulary, practically anything that can be drawn on the board and then a "clue" given for them to find it on the board.

The bingo board can easily be created in any word processing program or created by hand. I created a blank board: 25 blank boxes (5 x 5). At the top of each column I spread out the word MUSIC (like the word BINGO on typical boards). I copy as many of these boards as I have students who will play the game. The idea is that each student will create their own board, ensuring that each student has a unique board.

My 6th grade general music class is currently learning to read the treble clef, so they filled in the boxes with the letters of the music alphabet (ABDCEFG). I give only 3 guidelines to the students: each box contains only one letter, no letter can be repeated in a column, and there is no "free space." I also encourage them not to copy from their neighbor... it's a game right? You don't want them to beat you to the prize :)

As they are creating boards, I am putting 2 spoonfuls of M&Ms or Skittles into bathroom-size cups. I love using these candies for them to mark their boards!!! The students love nibbling on a few while they play, and then eating them all when the game is done. I do not have to worry about losing pieces or storing pieces. I encourage them to reuse the cups, either giving them back to me at the end of the game or taking them and using the cup for their own purpose.

Now the fun begins. I have a container with slips of paper that have every clue in every possible combination they could have in their boards. For "treble clef" bingo, the slips say such things as "M space 2" or "I line 4." To play, the students have to know the lines and spaces of the treble clef. "Space 2" corresponds to "A," so for the first example the students would look to see if they placed an "A" in their "M" column. The second example, "D" in the "I" column. We usually do the first 3 together (call it out, discuss it, look on the boards) to make sure everyone understands how to play, then away we go!!!

I personally like to have a few winners (3-5) before I have them clear their boards and start over. I keep track of what I have "called" by using either a white board, a document camera, or some sort of tech app (such as a Promethean slate). That way I don't get confused, the students can see what has been called, and while I'm checking if a student has gotten "Bingo" the others can check their boards and/or catch up.

And, yes, we play for prizes. It could be simple stuff: lollipops, pencils, erasers, additional M&Ms or Skittles. Depending on my class size, I may bring in larger items: full-size candy bars, PopTarts, treats, doodads from the dollar store.

For rhythm bingo, it could be based on note values ("M 4 beats") or clapping simple rhythms for an audio version. For vocabulary, it would be definitions dependent on your unit ("M quick and lively").

I have found that all middle school students love Bingo, whether they are 6th grade or 8th grade. They are having a blast and I am reinforcing the lesson in my unit.

Starting Line

On the advice of other music education professionals, I have decided to start a blog a covering my classroom: my lessons, my ideas, my thoughts, my successes, and my failures. It is my hope that other educators will find help and hope in these posts. I'm not sure where to start, so I will be back later with my first classroom related post.