A teacher successfully manages his or her classroom when students are willingly doing what they are supposed to be doing. Students are able to do this if at all times they know what they are supposed to be doing, and know how to do it. This demands that the teacher’s instructions be clear and specific. Routines are useful because once learned, they provide predictability for both the “what” and the “how.”
Music classrooms are often more challenging to manage than others because there are more moving parts, and more sound. Whereas students remain seated for most of a math or language arts class, and whereas student responses are written or spoken in a math or language arts class, children are likely to be moving around the room to music, singing, or playing musical instruments. Their vocal responses are often sung instead of spoken. With more sound and more moving come greater management challenges. In spite of this, the methods for managing a music class are fundamentally the same as managing a math or language arts class. Only the particulars change.
When a music class begins with recognizable routines used in other classes, students learn that expectations are at least as high in music as elsewhere. A good way to start is with a “do now” activity. The activity must be one that the students can successfully complete in five minutes or less with no assistance. The activity should be available at the same location every class; either posted at the front of the room or on a handout which the children pick up from a table on their way in. The activity should be a good lead-in to the lesson you are about to teach, and may be a review of material from the last class.
After five minutes, have students pass in their papers, using a procedure you have established and practiced if necessary, so that the papers can be collected quickly and efficiently. It should not take more than 30 seconds to collect all of the papers. Have your room set up with chairs in pairs in rows so that there is an aisle next to every student. Move through the class in the aisles throughout the class, not just when a student needs correcting. This way the students will understand that it is your room and you can go wherever you want whenever you want and they cannot claim any part of your room as theirs.
From the “do now” move quickly to the first learning activity. Be sure the students know the objective for the lesson, and be sure you have everyone’s attention. Here’s where clear and specific is important. Do not say something like “may I please have your attention now” because “have your attention” can be open to interpretation. Some students will insist they are paying attention while they talk to their neighbor. Some will say they are paying attention while they are doing math homework. You must be specific. Teach them how to give their attention to you: legs in front of your chair, sitting straight, hands in front of you, looking at me, making no sound. Teach them to always look at you when you are speaking, and to look at other students in the class when they are supposed to be talking. Insist on this all of the time, using a calm, friendly, confident, and firm attitude.
With your students’ attention appropriately focused, give clear and specific directions on what they are to do, and how they are to do it. If you are teaching a song from notation, tell them to silently read the first line. Tell them you need to see them looking at their sheet music, and silent reading means that they are silent while they are doing it. Tell them to look up at you when they reach the end of the first line, and that they should be finished in a specific amount of time, perhaps one minute. After one minute ask the class to look at you, then begin calling on students to sing one measure each from the first line. You can call on other students to help, if necessary. Do not necessarily call on students who volunteer, but do call on the students whose learning you want to check. When the line has been sung one measure at a time by one student at a time, have the class sing it in unison. If everyone does not sing, or if it is not sung correctly, have them do it again so that it is done better, and so that the students understand that things must be done right in your class.
Going through the whole song like this would be time consuming. The students have practiced sight singing, so you can move to a more efficient method to continue with the song. You could sing the next phrase alone, or better have a student sing the next phrase and then have the class repeat the phrase. You could also have one student sing the next phrase alone, and have the class sing the next phrase in unison. The solo singing allows you to check individual student learning, and the unison responses keeps the whole class engaged, forces them to keep their place in the music, and provides practice opportunities singing the song with others. When all of this moves along at a quick pace, students stay engaged and accomplish much.
If a student whom you call on does not respond, tell them that you will have someone else sing the solo, or that you will sing the solo, and then after they have heard it done by someone else, you will call on them again. It’s important that “no response” is not an option. Students who are unsure of what to sing will be given the opportunity to succeed doing what they weren’t sure they could do after hearing the correct response from someone else. Commend the student who repeats the correct response. Doing so will build their confidence, and the fact that the student has done something s/he were unable to do before deserves public commendation.
Practicing these management techniques and using them regularly will cause your music classes to run smoothly, and student learning to show greater gains. An excellent resource for learning more about these and other strategies is the book Teaching Like A Champion by Doug Lemov. I used my experience with the techniques described in this book as the basis for this article, and I highly recommend the book to any educator.