Fun and Games with Young Instrumentalists

Dr Scott Watsons Classroom Image

You’ve no doubt heard the old saying, “You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Likewise, sometimes you can get more out of your young instrumentalists when you embed the learning in a game! Robert and Richard Sherman had it right in the lyrics to their song, “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the film Mary Poppins:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap, the job’s a game!

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The following are a few games and challenges I’ve used with beginning-intermediate students to push them further while having fun:

1. Long Tone Contest
I strongly believe in beginning each lesson group or rehearsal with a brief warm-up. Establishing this routine will pay dividends for student and teacher along the way. As soon as I teach first year band students their very first note, a long tone on that note becomes their first warm-up. I challenge students to beat their own time from week to week, but what they like most is when we make it a contest to see who in the lesson group or band can hold a note the longest. That student is dubbed the long tone champion for the day.

To make it more of an event, I ask students to stand in place, breathe, and start the note together. As they run out of air, they take their seat and the last boy or girls standing wins! When I need to teach a new fingering for a concert selection, you can bet that will be the note we use for our next long tone contest.

2. Accuracy Race
In this game, each student in a lesson group or sectional plays a selected passage to see who can make it the farthest in the music before making a rhythmic or pitch error. I use this game to encourage students to keep chipping away at an especially difficult exercise or concert music excerpt.

In my band room I normally project our method book (Alfred’s Sound Innovations) or concert music using SmartMusic from my laptop onto a large IWB (interactive whiteboard).The first student plays. As soon as he/she makes a rhythmic or pitch (fingering) error I write his/her name or initials with a dry erase marker at that place in the music. The next student goes and I do the same.

This continues until everyone has had a chance. You’ll sense the excitement. Each successive student really, REALLY tries hard to make it past the previous student…and they’ll beg you to let them try another round!

3. Pencil Check
We all want students to come to rehearsals with a pencil for marking in counts, accidentals, and other helpful items. If I notice this habit waning, I turn to a pencil check challenge to help turn things around.

At the start of a rehearsal I’ll call out, “Show me your pencils,” and I write down the number that hold one up. (When a colleague of mine does this, she asks her students to place the eraser on their heads with the pencil point facing up – it’s quite a sight!) Challenge the students to do better the next rehearsal: “34 of you remembered your pencil today…thank you! But 11 of you forgot and I know we can do better. When we do our pencil check next time do you think 100% of you can come prepared?”

4. The Longest Phrase
A hallmark of a beginning or less mature band is choppy phrasing, where students breathe after every note or two. As bands mature, they play longer phrases. While the long tone contest should demonstrate to students that they are capable of playing several measures in one breath, most first and second year students – as a matter of habit – will still breath far more often they they should.

To help, I challenge students to play a scale or phrase of music breathing only when they need to. For instance, in a small group lesson or sectional I ask each student to play an ascending/descending B-flat major scale on half notes while I watch to see when they inhale. Under this scrutiny, many who normally breath every 4 or 8 beats will play the entire ascending scale, or even more, in one breathe! Each student tries to beat the others. In a band rehearsal I’ll have students count off – “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2,” etc. – and have the 1’s watch the 2’s and visa versa to determine who can play the “longest phrase.”

5. Candy Incentive
This may be the most controversial tip here (note how I avoided using the word “bribe”!), but I don’t have a problem springing for some candy treats which I offer here and there throughout the year to students who are willing to spend a lot of effort in a short time to learn a passage of music I know to be pretty tough.

For instance, if I know my clarinet section will really have to apply themselves to attain a passage, but want to “jump start” the process, I’ll say, “If any of you can play measures 30 through 68 with no more than one rhythmic or pitch error by next lesson, you’ll earn a pack of M&Ms.” The next week there may be only one student who has met the challenge, earning the treat, but now I have a nucleus around which the rest of the section can aspire.

6. Staff Wars 2
This is a really cool, space-themed, note recognition video game for instrumentalists. What’s more…it’s free! After launching the program, choose which instrument will be playing and adjust the settings for note range, key, and level (speed). In this way, beginners and more advanced players can be appropriately challenged.

As the game starts, notes fly across the staff in outer space. As the player recognizes the pitch, he/she plays it. The internal mic on your computer will listen for notes played. If played correctly, the note explodes off the staff advancing the player. If the note reaches the other side of the screen without the player sounding the correct pitch, one space ship is removed from the players fleet (of three). This is a great incentive game: “If we can get through these three items in our lesson today, we’ll have time to play Staff Wars!” The program, designed for use on IWB’s, can be downloaded at Click here see a video of Staff Wars 2 in action.

I regard my time with students as both limited and precious. The longer I’ve been at it, the more I am interested in my teaching being efficient and enjoyable. I’ve found using games and challenges like the ones described above to be one way to do both. If you have a game or challenge to which your students really respond, please share it in the comment section below!

scott_watsonDr. Scott Watson is a veteran music teacher (Parkland School District, Allentown, PA), an award-winning, frequently commissioned/published composer (Alfred Publishing, and others), and a highly regarded music technology specialist. To learn more about his music for band and orchestra at all levels, and other activities, visit, or Watson’s widely-praised book, Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity (©2011, Oxford Univ. Press), reflects his interest in creative, tech-infused music learning. Contact Dr. Watson at [email protected].

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