Lesson Planning for Music Teachers

Lesson Planning for Music Teachers

Why create lesson plans? After all, music ensembles are largely judged on their performances – at concerts, at festivals, at contests, and at school assemblies. If the kids sound good, why should you take the time to plan for every lesson?

For the ensemble director, having a great performance is a goal worth striving for. Lesson planning is the most important tool at your disposal for achieving that goal. At its heart, lesson planning is the framework that makes it possible for students to learn. Without a lesson plan, you sacrifice efficiency, don’t serve every student, and risk students ending the year having only improved through sheer luck.

Of course, for some music educators, creating a lesson plan is a weekly ritual because of campus or district requirements. Those requirements don’t always fit nicely with the constraints of an ensemble classroom. It’s easy to think that buzzwords like “cooperative learning” and “differentiated instruction” don’t really apply to your ensemble. After all, your trumpets already cooperate every time they play in tune. They’re already differentiated; the all-state student is playing the solo.

Luckily, it IS possible to create a lesson plan that helps kids (always goal #1), makes your life easier (always goal #2 since you’re a teacher with no time), and shows administrators that the ensemble classroom is still a classroom. In this article, we’ll look at the general elements that go into a high-quality lesson plan, and discuss how to adapt each of them for a teacher who holds a score instead of a textbook. Then we’ll talk about how to take your lesson plans to the next level by including those education buzzwords – and properly applying them to music.

To help you get started, we’ve created a free, downloadable lesson plan template.

Standards

The first step in creating a lesson plan is to identify which standards you’ll address in the lesson. Keeping your lesson tightly aligned with standards (at both the state and national level) provides daily focus for your teaching the same way that focusing on a specific movement (or even section) of music provides focus for your rehearsals. (Indeed, pairing repertoire with standards is a great technique for building ensemble lesson plans).

It’s often best to approach standards from two directions. First, look at the activities you already do (for example, in your warm up routine) and find ways to apply standards to those activities. Then, figure out which standards may be missing from your classroom and devise new activities to specifically address those standards.

Integrating standards into your lesson plan is easier than you think. For example, having students work in groups to write – and then sight read – short rhythmic exercises covers standards relating to notation, performance, instrumental technique, and creativity.

Your state education agency website will have more detailed information on music standards for your area and grade level, but a number of national organizations also have posted standards. These can provide a great starting place – and a reference point should you need to defend music as being a standards-based class. Using these national standards in your lesson plan gives you even more evidence for the value of music education. I recommend both NAfME and TI:ME as good places to start exploring these national standards.

Standards don’t need to be an enemy. Use them to your advantage in your lesson planning.

Outline Objectives

Once you’ve identified standards you’ll be addressing in the lesson, distill those standards down to specific learning objectives. What do you want students to accomplish today? One good way to keep these objectives focused on music and frame your plan is to ask the following questions about repertoire:

  1. What can my students play already?
  2. What can my students not play yet (that I want them to play)?
  3. Can I identify repertoire that “goes in the middle” and gets us from A to B?

Keeping these things manageable goes a long way. If my answer to question 1 is “a Bb major scale” and my answer to question 2 is “Lincolnshire Posy,” answering question 3 will be difficult. Instead of making things so broad, set a time limit. For example, if my timeline is one week for a beginning middle school band, I can answer the questions this way:

  1. My students can already play a Bb scale in quarter notes.
  2. I want my students to play an Eb scale in eighth notes.
  3. They should play an Eb scale in quarter notes to learn pitches, and a Bb scale in eighth notes to develop technique. Then we can combine them.

Obviously, this is a simple example, but this process automatically covers two of the most difficult parts of lesson planning: determining what do students already know, and what activities they should do to accomplish the learning objective.

Too often, teachers struggle with lesson planning. Coming up with a learning objective is easy but executing it is hard. That’s ok – doing the actual teaching is never easy – but by starting with these questions, coming up with activities will be easy.

More importantly, there’s an appreciation for what the students already know baked into the lesson plan itself. At first glance, this seems like a step you can gloss over, but the quickest way to “lose” students is to make the lesson too hard or too easy. Basing lesson plans on what students already know avoids this issue entirely. It also provides a sense of continuity that helps students learn. If we worked on a sight-reading exercise with triplets last week, it naturally follows that there will be triplets in the new concert repertoire we work on this week.

Once you have an objective in mind, finish with a final question: “Why is this important?” Ground all your teaching by making sure you have a clear grasp of why you want students to learn this concept. This eliminates extraneous concepts and keeps you focused on the most important goals. It can be useful to go back to the standards you’re addressing in the lesson as well. Aligning objectives with state and national standards will provide sequenced progress and also illustrate exactly how your rehearsal activities aid and extend student learning.

Hook and Introduction

Getting off to a good start can set the stage for a great rehearsal. Ensemble directors have a natural advantage over other subject teachers when it comes to introducing a lesson: the warm up. “Warming up” English or math skills doesn’t always feel right to students; warming up fingers, tongues, and voices makes perfect sense.

Find a way to create consistency for students while also keeping things interesting. Tuning can be a great way to develop consistency while also putting concepts like tone matching, cooperation with peers, and ear training front and center. “Passing the pitch” is my favorite way to start every lesson. At the same time, you can easily mix this up so students stay engaged.

Working on something that taxes high brass range? Pass the pitch up a half step every time so that trumpets and horns are forced to play long tones on new partials. This technique kills two birds with one stone: students are working on weaknesses using a consistent lesson framework while at the same time preparing for the work to come in the rehearsal ahead.

Activities

Activities can vary widely, but it’s worth your time to make sure they don’t all involve “play [piece] from section [X] to section [Y].” You wouldn’t practice that way, and neither should your students. Instead, generate engagement and speed up the learning process by isolating specific tasks you want students to perform. “Carry this accidental through the bar,” “focus on articulations in this fast passage,” or “improve tone in the low register” are all specific tasks that don’t require mindlessly running measure 33-48 again. Make these tasks the foundation of rehearsals by designing activities around them, then return to the performance repertoire to put them in action.

Here are some questions to consider as you come up with activities:

  • How does this activity illustrate the concept I’m teaching?
  • What will I do to explain the topic in a different way?
  • How does this activity engage students?
  • What will students still need to better achieve their learning objectives?

Finally, do some logistical planning (it’s a lesson plan, after all). Include, in writing, the materials, technology, and tools that your students will need to complete the activities. If you’ll need to play music, access the internet, or pass out new music, the plan will tell you. Hopefully, it will also save you time.



Check for Understanding

Teachers often complain about “teaching to the test,” but we do need to evaluate student learning. Lesson plans offer a way to evaluate students on a daily basis. Consistent, constant evaluation and assessment means that you can better understand students’ strengths and weaknesses. Better yet, you can adjust future lesson plans and give more relevant feedback. Students can’t get better if they don’t know what they’re doing wrong. Plan times throughout each lesson to gather information and give feedback.

One effective strategy for this is to create an activity toward the end of the lesson that combines the activities and tasks from the day. This is where having difficult performance rep becomes useful. Rather than spending all day “rehearsing” by playing the same thing over and over, synthesize the day’s activities using the concert repertoire. Students will still be actively working on the material for the concert (which really is important), but end up learning faster because each activity isolated a specific task necessary to accomplish the goal.

Concluding the Lesson

Finally, end the lesson plan with a concluding statement or activity. This can be as simple as a quick poll of students comparing their abilities at the end of the lesson to the end. Another easy technique for music teachers is to record students playing at the beginning and end of the lesson. These recordings not only develop critical listening skills, but clearly illustrate for students their improvement (or lack of improvement).

Differentiation

Now you have a lesson plan drafted. Before putting it in action, go over it again. Think about how your plan – the hook, activities, standards integration, etc. – serves students with different learning styles or needs. Write down which strategies you intend to use and which students you think will be most likely to need them.

One common way to include differentiation in your plan is to group together strong and weak students. This keeps strong students engaged with content they may otherwise find boring and keeps weaker students on task. For example, a student who feels very confident switching from 6/8 to 3/4 can help students who struggle by playing an example or helping them count an exercise. Accounting for a variety of student ability levels helps make sure that you’ll be able to execute your lesson plan.

Ensemble directors sometimes struggle with this. If the cellos just can’t seem to play a section properly and the violins are having no trouble, it’s tempting to focus on the cellos and bring your rehearsal to a standstill. Including differentiation in your activities ensures that some students aren’t left behind.

This is also the part of the lesson plan where you can address activities for English as a Second Language or Special Education learners in your classroom.

Resources

Here are a couple of my favorite resources for lesson planning:

(We’ll be publishing related articles in the next few months and we’ll add links here as they become available.)

Over to You

Making a lesson plan takes practice, but will ultimately make your life easier – and help your students learn. They help you to make sure your ensemble arrives at the concert having mastered new techniques and sounding great.

Whether you’ve never made a lesson plan or made hundreds, I hope this article had some useful tips for you. Questions? Let me know on Facebook.

Ryan Sargent is MakeMusic’s social media manager, an active jazz and funk trombonist, and an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. A graduate of Baylor University, Ryan has taught middle school band and low brass lessons in Texas and Colorado.

Despite not currently teaching middle school band, Ryan still regularly creates lesson plans and insists that every marketing meeting conform to state standards.