Using Differentiated Instruction in Music Lesson Plans

Using Differentiated Instruction in Music Lesson Plans

Yesterday we talked about how incorporating differentiated instruction into your classroom can help meet student needs, empower them, and help them learn new skills faster. Today we’re going to look at five concrete ways you can get differentiated instruction into your lesson plans.

1. Try “Compacting” for Advanced Students

Strong players often get bored when it’s time to play another F major scale in half notes. “Compacting” is a fancy way of saying “keep them engaged with harder music!” Offering breakout chamber groups for advanced students is one option. Advanced students get to work on more advanced music in a self-guided environment while you catch up other students on the concert repertoire. Other options include more difficult sight-reading exercises or etudes to help with phrasing and articulation.

The implementation of compacting can sometimes discourage students; it can feel like the reward for doing well is simply more work. To combat this, give these advanced students choices about how and what they can learn next. For example, the advanced high school jazz student who has mastered the soli in their big band part could spend their practice time working on improvising over their choice of standard tunes.

2. Provide Choice

Students who get to exercise some kind of choice over their assignments and assessments will be more engaged. Letting students choose music to practice is easy. Rather than suffering through a never-ending stream of bad Star Wars assignments, make it a multiple choice test. If your learning objective is to perfect a C minor scale, allow students to work on an exercise, an etude, or an excerpt from a piece you’re performing at the concert. Offering a variety of repertoire to practice means that students will always be moving toward your learning target, but in a way that helps keep them engaged and focused.

3. Use “Scaffolding”

Scaffolding on a building isn’t an elevator to the top, but it certainly makes climbing up much easier. Similarly, giving students the answer is different than giving them the tool they need to get there.

In the music classroom, that means giving students tools they need to succeed. Is there an easily accessible reference recording for the difficult piece of repertoire you have programmed? Have you listened to it in class? Students who are auditory learners (there might be some of those in a music class) will find it much easier to follow phrases, dynamics, and articulations in their parts once they’ve heard an example.

Students still have to do the technique work to master their instruments.  Providing an example gives them a target to shoot for and help in getting there. Better yet, students will work on their ear training skills at the same time.

4. Create Quality Assessments

It’s difficult to differentiate your instruction if you don’t know where students stand. Give yourself more information about student progress by writing really good assessments. Not only will formative assessments help improve your rehearsal, they’ll also improve future assessments!

Rubrics are a great way to ensure that you’re using assessments that give students quality feedback. Using clear language that students can understand to describe the skills they’ll attain as a result of the assignment encourages student buy-in while also clarifying your goals for other teachers and administrators. I like this Edutopia article for tips on building better rubrics.

Here’s yet another option for creating assessments: have students assess themselves (or each other). Self assessment is a vital part of musicianship. Encouraging students to assess their own intonation, tone production, and performances will make them better overall musicians.

5. Balance Group Work and Individual Work

I know what you’re thinking: ensembles already balance this work, because we do group rehearsal in class and individual practice at home. But some students learn better in groups, and some learn better on their own. Some students need the opportunity to work on things we traditionally consider “home practice” (notes, rhythms, instrumental technique) in groups at school. Others will learn “ensemble skills” (intonation, careful listening, musical interpretation) better on their own.

Flipping these traditional roles around can be a great way to work differentiated instruction into the heart of your lesson plan. Instead of having students play scales for homework, have them play a trio with a friend and a tuner (yes, I’m counting the tuner as a member of the ensemble). Students who need that group experience will get valuable time working on scales. Students who are out of tune because they don’t know what to listen for will be able to focus on just the tuner and their partner.

Create a Lesson Plan

I hope you find these tips for implementing differentiated instruction useful as you plan for the upcoming year. To give you a leg up on planning, we’ve built a free template you can use to build your own lesson plans. It even includes space created specifically to address differentiated instruction!

Including differentiated instruction in your lesson plan is critical to ensure that students are engaged and learning effectively. Ultimately, it’s a win-win: your ensemble will move on to more advanced music and sound better at the concert, and kids will have more fun in your class.

Editor’s Note: We’ve also created completed differentiated lesson plans, both for teachers using standard or premium SmartMusic subscriptions, and for those using SmartMusic free.

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. In addition to his teaching, performing, and social media managing, Ryan serves as vice president for the non-profit Technology Institute for Music Educators.

Although he no longer spends his days teaching band, Ryan does differentiate his coworkers based on their learning styles.


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