It is a truth universally acknowledged, that as music educators in possession of good intentions, we want to engage kids in their learning. The very definition of the word engage is to attract and hold fast. It is also universally acknowledged that, as music educators, we are in constant search of activities which will engage young learners. When this happens, when young learners are engaged, they want more because it’s fun to learn and grow.
Enter: 10 cool, engaging activities that you can use in both in-class and virtual situations.
1. Write What You See/Hear
- Sound system
1. Tell your students that you are going to play a piece of music (1-2 minutes in length). Their task is to write down any images that come to mind.
2. Encourage them to be as descriptive as possible. The more detail, the better. Tell them this will be fun because there are no wrong answers (isn’t music great?).
3. At the end of the excerpt, ask them to describe the images that the music suggests. Give positive feedback.
4. After they finish sharing (the number of responses you allow is up to you), play the same music again but this time ask them to write, specifically, what they hear in the music that suggested the images they saw the first time. For example: what instruments are they hearing, is the tempo fast or slow, is the music loud or soft, is the texture thick or thin? Again, encourage them to provide as much detail as possible.
5. Discuss responses. You can do this with any music you choose (I tend to use music that is cinematic in nature as it is written specifically to accompany a visual component). Whatever works. I guarantee, this kind of focused listening will open their ears.
Kids will begin to see and hear things in the music they weren’t previously aware of and they will begin to understand how composers organize the elements of music to express various emotions and ideas.
2. Guided Listening
Ok, here’s a really simple way to illustrate how composers can take the listener on a musical journey. When I started attending concerts years ago, I would notice everything that was going on visually—the trumpet players changing mutes, the percussionist changing mallets, not to mention the conductor’s antics. Afterward, when someone asked me what I thought of the Beethoven piece, I realized that I couldn’t recall much about it.
At the next concert, I closed my eyes for the duration of each piece and what I noticed was amazing. A whole new world opened up to me! The music was telling a story, painting a picture. The composer was taking me on a journey, leading my ear forward. I heard so much more from then on. That’s what you can do with your students.
- Sound system
- Student ears
1. Choose any piece you like and play it for your students. A great example of this is Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World (2nd movement). Just the first minute or two of this piece is sufficient. I’ve heard this hundreds of times and I still get goosebumps every time. It’s amazing to think how many times Dvorak repeats a simple three note motif and still manages to make the music so expressive and lead the ear forward.
2. The important thing is to make sure and tell them to close their eyes as they listen.
3. Fade the music out at an appropriate point.
4. Discuss student responses.
Students gain a greater awareness of how composers develop themes.
3. The Word
Music creation is about two things: 1) thinking in sound, and 2) organizing sound. This idea gets kids to do just that. No theory required!
- Student imagination
1. Instruct students to close their eyes. Tell them you are going to give them the title of a piece they are going to compose (they don’t really have to compose the piece). Students have to think in sound for 10 seconds as if they were going to.
2. Remind them to notice what they are hearing specifically as they imagine what their composition will sound like (instruments, tempo, volume, texture).
3. The word is TIME.
4. Remind students that the human brain is the most sophisticated computer on the planet yet it’ll only do what we ask of it. So don’t let it be lazy. Push it.
5. After 10 seconds ask students what they heard specifically. They don’t have to answer out loud, just in their head.
6. Repeat the above steps but this time for 15 seconds and the word is JOURNEY.
7. Once more for 20 seconds and the word is STORM.
This simple activity illustrates very clearly what composition is really about and when done regularly, will make your students’ creativity muscles strong.
4. Creating Soundscapes
Here is another quick, “no preparation required” activity. Creating soundscapes is a lot of fun.
- Assorted percussion
- Non-musical objects
- (or) Music creation apps (for individual music creation)
1. Assign each student a percussion instrument or auxiliary percussion instrument; snare, bass, cymbals, timpani, shaker, tambourine, cabasa, etc. If there aren’t enough to go around, get creative with traditional instruments. Trumpets can blow air through the horn for ten seconds, then have a cymbal roll for five seconds. None of this needs notation. Just start organizing sound.
2. Start a quarter note pulse on the bass drum. Five seconds in, have someone else do a soft cymbal roll. Just keep adding and coming up with creative ideas.
3. Over top of this, kids can hum and winds can click their flute keys. For choirs there are lots of possibilities. In addition to singing, use spoken words, repeating syllables, whispers, finger snaps, and tongue clicks. The key point in this activity is that you are making decisions as a group. Remember, there are no wrong answers. Just have fun taking musical risks. This activity is just layering sounds and experimenting with how they can be combined. After you’ve polished your soundscape, invite someone into your room or call the office on the intercom and play it for them. Kids will be thrilled to have someone listen to them and they will definitely have fun putting the soundscape together. There are a host of fun apps that kids can use to start building soundscapes on their own. SongMaker, Beepbox, BandLab are just a few.
Soundscapes are another great way to get kids to start thinking in, and organizing, sound.
5. Film Composition
Using video as a starting point for composition makes it easier for students to form a concept of what they are going to compose (for example, a chase scene will mean more suspense, more intensity, and the composer will choose a faster tempo, thick texture, and louder dynamics, etc.).
- Film clip (2-3 min.)
- Musical instruments
- Pen and paper / Music notation app or software
- Sound system
1. Take a segment of a film with little or no dialogue (remove the sound so students aren’t influenced by the actual composer)
2. Form groups of 3 to 5 students
3. Ask students to create a timing sheet which is a breakdown of what happens in the scene. For example, at 5 seconds in there is a mysterious noise outside. At 10 seconds the camera pans in close up on Granny’s face looking surprised. (You get the point.) This will help students make decisions about where to start and stop music in a scene.
4. Allow students time to discuss the psychology of what is happening in the scene.
5. Allow students to start experimenting with musical ideas.
6. Show your students how to create a graphic score. Create a timeline across the top of a sheet of paper (or computer screen) and the instrumentation along the left side (like a spreadsheet). It can include notation if the student is comfortable with that or just arrows and text as well. Whatever works for your students. Notation is not required.
7. Designate a conductor and have them put a stop watch on the stand with the graphic score.
8. Project the movie scene on a large screen or wall and set up your ensemble in a U-shape in front of the screen. The conductor’s job is not to conduct time but simply to look at the score and the stopwatch and cue the various entries. This may take several classes but it is worthwhile.
Aside from being a lot of fun to create music to film, students will work collaboratively to understand the emotional arc or psychological requirements of the narrative and make decisions as to how music can be constructed to function in a supportive role. They can also practice notating their musical ideas.
6. Composers Table Presentation
Because it’s programmatic, film music is a great way to get kids to begin to think about how music is constructed. Asking why a composer made certain choices can help guide student choices in their own compositions. Here’s the task.
Students will choose a scene from a movie and answer three questions. They then present to the class with examples from the scene they chose. There really aren’t any wrong answers. Here are the questions.
1. Where does music start and stop in the scene? This gets kids to think about the composer’s rationale. In other words—what is the psychology or emotional intent behind the scene?
2. How does the composer handle music under dialogue? and three…
3. How does the composer use music to heighten the drama: for example
- What instruments are used and…
- What types of ideas are used (ex. rhythmic, melodic, harmonic)
Student presentations can be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. Allow time for
questions and discussions from the class.
Students gain insight into the motivation and/or psychology of how composers construct (organize) sound.
7. Easy Improv for Kids
Kids can have a lot of fun with improvisation if it’s broken down into bite-sized chunks.
1. Find a straight ahead rhythm track with a nice, easy groove (Bb or F blues).
2. Choose a very comfortable tempo. Students don’t need to know anything about chords at this point, so just ignore them.
3. Instruct students (on the first time through) to just play the tonic note, concert Bb, two whole notes tied (each note is 8 beats long). This is really simple, anyone can do it!
4. The second time through, instruct students to play just two eighth notes with a swing feel followed by 7 beats rest, still using only one pitch, Bb concert.
5. Third time through, two 8ths, 2 short quarter notes, and 5 beats rest). Again, all on concert Bb.
6. When they feel comfortable, students can begin to improvise and mix up the rhythms.
7. Students can then play the track many times and start to add other notes from the Blues scale (or other scales).
Let this process take as long as necessary for kids to feel comfortable.
What a great way to ease into improv and work on scales!
8. Pocket Guitar
Speaking of play-along, why not turn playing tests into play-along tests. This can help ease students’ performance anxiety significantly. My friend Mike is a band director and an excellent guitarist. For playing tests, he opens up his Pocket Guitar app and comps playing a rhythm to accompany each student while they play their scale.
- Sound system
1. Connect your device to the music room audio system.
2. If you’re not a guitarist, how about playing the piano, or using a rhythm track. You can discover thousands of professional backing tracks in SmartMusic’s vast repertoire library, in all keys and styles. Find some way to change things up and get outside of the box.
3. Count students in and watch them go!
4. If you are in a virtual situation, simply record your accompaniment and drop it in your shared drive. Kids can even record their playing test at home and drop it back into the drive for you to evaluate.
Reducing or eliminating the anxiety of playing tests, as we know, results in a much better performance and helps to build confidence.
9. Sneak Previews
Every once in a while, invite another class in to listen to your students perform. It doesn’t have to be an entire, polished work. Just something in progress.
- Your students
Simply nab the next person walking past your room. Ask them the following, “Hey, wanna hear eight bars of ‘Bang Zoom?’”
Kids love to perform and sometimes the best progress is made in front of a live audience. Kids get super excited to show what they can do. ‘Nuff said!
10. Creating Cool Ideas
Have you ever taken things that are unrelated and put them together in a new way? That’s the creative process and that’s how we put ideas together. Let me explain.
Remember idea #7, Easy Imrov? I created that by taking an idea from a concert band piece I taught a beginner class years ago called “Fidgets.” It was very simple, but it worked and the kids loved it. I took the rhythms from that piece and combined them with a rhythm track I found on YouTube, and in my notation software wrote out the blues scale and some variations on the rhythms from “Fidgets.”
Out of these four unrelated things came a new, cool idea that you can use! I want to illustrate that you aren’t limited to teaching kids just one idea (in this case, improv). You can use this process any time you wish to create your own cool ideas to teach literally anything. I’m sure you already do. So look around. What’s in your classroom, your home, your computer, the internet? Search through your past experiences and see what you can creatively recombine to use in a way that enhances the experience of your students and, ultimately, you.
Isn’t it exciting to know that there are so many possibilities? The sky’s the limit… VIRTUALLY!
Well, that’s it for now. Ten engaging, cool ideas that work. And there are so many more just waiting for you to create. So get to creating and start sharing your cool ideas!