Developing a Successful Substitute Plan

Substitute Plan

Need to develop a substitute teacher plan for instrumental music class? It’s simple: “Connect a TV to a DVD player loaded with a copy of Mr. Holland’s Opus and you’re done!”

Of course I am only kidding. With a little advanced planning for both you and your students, it is possible to develop plans that allow your substitute teacher to extend students’ musical development, to reinforce your existing plans and ensemble goals, or possibly even offer a new perspective to your young musicians. The following suggestions are intended to help you ensure that students continue learning and improving as musicians during your planned absences.

“Behind the Scenes” Preparations

While your students likely know your daily routines, procedures, and/or expectations, your substitute may not, especially their first time in your classroom. Your substitute and students will benefit if you briefly describe (in writing) how your students are expected to enter the classroom and prepare for learning. Providing photo rosters and an instrumentation list will not only make attendance procedures and substitute-student interactions easy—it may also prevent some sections from gaining new members!

Additionally, outline attendance procedures and other logistical matters in writing. Your substitute and students will have a low-stress day if you clearly and succinctly detail emergency procedures (e.g., fire alarms), lunch counts, tardy and absence policies, cell phone usage rules, bathroom guidelines, and other such concerns.

All materials used during learning activities or rehearsals should be neatly organized for the substitute. Simple steps like securing musical scores (by class) with a rubber band or placing materials in separate piles will help to minimize wasted time.

Editor’s Note: SmartMusic has put together a sub plan template for you to use in your own classroom, including a sample lesson for a sub without music training.

Activities for High and Middle School Ensembles

High school orchestra teacher Julie Nelson utilizes her student leadership (i.e., section leaders) to refine performance aspects of music during her absences from the classroom. Says Nelson: “I write out a very specific sectional plan and give it to my section leaders when I am not there. I often include questions for them to answer on how the sectional went, what went well, what still needs work, and any questions they still have. I have found that this helps my leaders to take more ownership of the music and I am always surprised by how aware they become.” Although this may be challenging for music classrooms without sufficient space, students (when prepared in advance) tend to value such small group experiences. It is important, however, to keep in mind that students may not possess sufficient error detection abilities. Providing the students with goals or collaborating with the ensemble to create goals may be a more effective approach.

Depending on their maturity and motivation, students may benefit from individual practice in the group setting. Three notes of caution, though:

  1. Students may not practice effectively for the full class period;
  2. Students may not possess the necessary practice or self-assessment skills; and
  3. It may be too chaotic and noisy for a substitute teacher.

These potential pitfalls could be minimized by structuring practice segments (e.g., “Brass will practice for the first half of class, then engage in another activity” [see below for non-performance suggestions]), or by scheduling practice segments or performance assessments using SmartMusic.

Activities for High School Ensembles

Dr. Lisa Martin suggests that when possible, music teachers “contact the substitute ahead of time to find out what musical knowledge (if any) he or she and then creatively structure lessons around what your substitute can uniquely contribute to the classroom while still working toward your overall objectives. When substitutes get to showcase their musical expertise, classes always go better. When they’re too far outside of their comfort zone, things become increasingly more complicated.” With this knowledge, ensemble teachers could plan for their substitute to rehearse sections of music.

Combining the substitute’s strengths with the rehearsal efforts of your student leaders may also be an effective approach. Middle school band director Haley Scheuerman has used this blended approach with her classes, stating: “the best thing is to not have the students do anything out of the ordinary. For example, it might be better to not make a performance class write—let them play. Train some student leaders to help the substitute lead the class, if necessary.”

A few high school students (possibly students who plan to major in music or music education in college) could be selected in advance to rehearse the ensemble, under the supervision of the substitute. Providing these students with instruction on conducting and with specific rehearsal goals would help their success, as would preparing ensemble members for their peers’ upcoming teaching.

Depending on the location within the rehearsal cycle, another learning activity might include having high school students listen to and critique a recent class performance recording. High school band director Chris Barchesky uses this type of activity for planned absences (e.g., a conference) because it helps students to refine their assessment abilities while also allowing students to write about music. Barchesky recommends that ensemble directors “create writing prompts that students must respond to in an appropriate way (e.g., complete sentences and thoughts, proper grammar) and then grade students’ responses using the same rigor and rubrics as communication or language arts teachers.” For either ensemble or individual performance, students could write about one good aspect and list two suggestions for improvement.

Activities for Middle School Ensembles

If your substitute teacher is uncomfortable leading an ensemble or teaching music, one alternative may be for them to help your students to create literacy-based music projects.

If your middle school possesses enough age-appropriate music books, you could reserve some so that students can read or skim through a short book of interest (e.g., musical group/band/artist/composer) and then create a poster or brochure with key facts or other items of interest. The inexpensive option consists of using printer paper and markers, but butcher paper and/or poster board might be available. Space and availability may also dictate whether this activity occurs in the library or in the band classroom.

Another learning activity for planned absences includes students researching a career in music. Students could explore a career in music (e.g., teacher, performer, church director, recording engineer, composer, producer) and then create a presentation to give to the class (poster, PowerPoint, etc.). The teacher provides students research suggestions and a rubric in advance, which might include job description and duties, salary ranges, education and necessary specific skills, and/or public demand.

Students could also write a narrative about a piece they are currently studying. Chris Barchesky prompts his young students to “write a story that comes to mind when they hear the piece or what they want the audience to imagine when they perform the work at a concert. Narratives should have the same expectations and criteria as a narrative for their English or Communication Arts class and be graded using a similar rubric.”

With these activities, student posters, brochures, or narratives could be displayed in the halls near the band room or showcased at an upcoming concert.


Substitute teachers can play a valuable role in continuing your students’ musical development. By balancing your substitute plan with the needs of your students and the comfort of your substitutes, you can ensure success for all parties.

Bryan David Koerner 2Bryan Koerner is a music education doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Mr. Koerner remains active as a music education researcher, with areas of interest including conductor expressivity, music teacher mentoring, teacher resilience, music practice, and music teacher education. He has presented research findings at both state- and national-level music education research conferences. Mr. Koerner holds music education degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Master of Education, both from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.


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