What Are The Fundamentals of Teaching Elementary Music?

Version 2Whether you will be starting your music teaching career next fall, are assuming your first ever elementary music position after previously teaching at another level or an instrumental program, or are a seasoned elementary music teacher who benefits from reminders and self-challenges (that’s me, by the way), I thought it would be helpful to go over the nuts and bolts of what goes into teaching elementary music. There are  several approaches or philosophies that most of us are familiar with, including Kodaly, Gordon, Orff, and Dalcroze, and there several published curriculum or packages that many find beneficial. What I will discuss today overlays all of these. I see these as means to an end, and I will be discussing mostly the end, the goal of an elementary music program. While I have my preferences, it is more important that you meet the goals with your students than with which philosophy you use to do so.

Develop singing in head voice. This is essential not only to teach good singing habits, but singing in a head voice also facilitates singing in tune. Sliding sounds, especially descending from the upper range, and songs that accommodate making high pitched animal sounds like whimpering dog or cat meow are helpful. These can be used as a vocal warm-up at the beginning of each class, and can be made fun with a little imagination. I did sliding sounds for years just as a warm-up, and was amazed to see how excited my students got when I added a yo-yo or a pop-up puppet for them to follow movements of with their voices.  Some students will use a screeching or shouting voice, or just do the sliding sounds too loud, so you must monitor exactly how they are using their voice, and make sure they are using their voice in the same way that they do for a singing head voice.

Develop audiation skills. Gordon defines audiation as hearing and comprehending music “for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present.” This is done with echo songs and call and response songs, and also with tonal and rhythm patterns. With echo songs, the children repeat a phrase or song fragment that they have just heard. To do so, they must remember what was sung, and then recreate it from their memory. Call and response songs are more challenging, because the child must remember the response, retaining it in memory while the teacher sings the call, and then sing the response from memory. With tonal patterns, the teacher sings a two- or three-note arpeggio, pauses for a second, and then has the child repeat the same pattern. With rhythm patterns, the pause is not necessary, but they otherwise work the same way. Once a class has become familiar with an echo song, call and response song, tonal pattern or rhythm pattern, children should be asked to sing their part by themselves. Most learning and the best assessment comes from solo singing. I recommend John Feierabend’s “First Steps” series for song repertoire, especially The Book of Echo Songs and The Book of Call and Response.

Develop independent singing and whole song assimilation. Children also need to gain confidence singing on their own for longer than a measure or two, and they need to comprehend a whole song as having phrases, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whole songs also provide the opportunity for them to audiate tonality and meter more easily than from a short song fragment. For this, it is best to use short simple songs and ones that are in a comfortable key for young voices. Songs in the key of F or G and that utilize a range of a third to a fifth are good. The teacher should first sing the song for the children until they are familiar enough with it to sing it accurately. While they are listening to the teacher sing, they can be given movement to do which both develops a stronger sense of beat and also gives them something to do while they listen. This is sufficient for the first class in which the song is used. The next time, the teacher sings the song for the class again in the same way, and then can have the whole group sing without the teacher’s help. It is important not to sing with the students so that they must rely on their memory of the song and each other. If the group falters, the teacher can sing the song for them again and then have the class make another attempt. At a later session, the students then sing the song individually. There can be several songs at various stages of learning so that one song is sung with solos and then in the same class another song is sung by the whole class. The first priority is that students at least attempt to sing the whole song, not just a part of the song. Each song should be presented at at least four different sessions.

Develop listening skills and perception of the expressiveness of music. Elementary teachers know the value of reading to their class. Doing so develops vocabulary, a love for books and reading, critical thinking, and demonstrates expression and emotions as children follow a story through it’s parts. All of those benefits also come from singing stories to children. Song tales are a major part of American folk traditions. These songs have lots of words and verses, so they are sung to the children. As they listen, they develop listening skills and experience the expressiveness of music.

Develop awareness of the body moving in space and of expression and form of music interpreted with the body. Music activates the same location in our brain that controls movement. Even when we are sitting still in a concert hall at a concert, our brains are perceiving music as movement. When we physically move in ways that closely resemble the motion our brains perceive in the music, the music becomes powerfully expressive to us. Because we are looking for certain kinds of motions and not others, it is best to direct children how to move, at least at first, instead of letting them freely move while listening to music. It is also best to use classical music because it has a clearer line of motion and more variety of expression than popular genres. When doing movement activities with my classes, I like to use swinging and rotating arms, and also raised and lowered arms as the primary movements. I use non-locomotor motions so that the strength of expressiveness does not go unnoticed due to moving feet. If I see a child doing a motion of their own that matches the music well, I will tell the child publicly that I like the motion, and then I will begin using it. The children listen to the music while watching me and imitating my motions throughout the music. Later, once the children are familiar with the activity and the music being played, I let them create their own motions, but monitor them so that only well-matched movement is used.

Develop a strong sense of beat. When students are moving to interpret the music, they are not necessarily moving to the beat. They are instead making shapes and gestures that bring out the expressive meaning of the music. Moving to the beat of music is a separate activity. For this, I have the children do a beat motion that does not make any sound. I don’t want them to clap or do anything that produces an audible beat, because I want each child to arrive at what they perceive the beat to be. This also leaves open the possibility that students will find different beat levels; that is, one child might move to the micro-beat, while another might move to the macro-beat. I consider both correct and am, in fact, pleased that some of my students can perceive both levels of beat. I again use classical music for this. Elementary children enjoy classical music and the beat is just subtle enough to require careful listening to perceive. I keep the music to no more than 2-3 minutes. Another good activity for developing beat is to give one child a non-pitched instrument and have the child play a beat. I then sing a song or chant a rhyme to whatever beat the child plays. This gives the child control over the tempo, and allows him or her to explore different tempos. I do insist that they maintain what ever tempo that start with throughout their turn.

Develop musical imagination. As students are learning to sing in tune, to a steady beat, and expressively, they should also be learning to use their imaginations to create musical ideas. This can be done in several ways with young children. One activity is to have them make up tunes to sing to familiar rhymes, or to short statements about the color of their shoes, or the number of brothers or sisters they have. The idea is for them to have a pretext for inventing a short tune in a singing head voice. An easier activity for younger children is to simply sing an improvised motif and have individual children sing a different motif. Children are apt to just copy your motif at first, so I sometimes make mine complicated enough so they can’t remember it all, which forces them to think of something on their own, or of what they think they heard me do.

As I said earlier, these are the essential things that an elementary music teacher should be teaching his or her students. They are all usable in Kodaly and Orff programs. For example, improvisation and movement is greatly emphasized in Orff, so that aspect of what I have discussed will be a natural fit. Singing and music reading is highly emphasized in Kodaly programs, so likewise those activities will immediately be a good fit. As long as the fundamentals are covered, there is great flexibility in how they are delivered to students.

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