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How to Teach Elementary Music Online

The pandemic forced us all to teach elementary music classes online. These ideas, tips, and tools are still helpful in your classroom or for teaching elementary music online. Technology enhances your lessons.

Teaching during a worldwide pandemic has taught us a LOT! This post was originally written in response to the abrupt shutdowns of all of our schools and the challenges we as music teachers faced. Thank goodness for technology and the online support we provided for each other.

One important thing we learned is technology CAN be an important tool for teaching elementary music. But technology alone is NOT the answer.

Smiling little girl holding stylus and a tablet

Undoubtedly, you never thought you would be faced with the challenge of teaching elementary music classes online in response to a global pandemic. This was not on our radar. When we were thrown into this situation with NO time to prepare it brought up more questions than answers.

Education has been changed forever. And online elementary music teachers are still needed in various settings. Read on for ideas and suggestions to use a more vertical, family-oriented approach rather than a horizontal, grade-level approach.

Create Graduated Difficulty Lessons

Rather than create completely different lessons for each individual grade level, consider creating graduated difficulty activities. Use the same song for each grade level but assign graduated activities of varied difficulties. This has several advantages.

  • This style of lessons will be easier for teachers to create. The lessons will be more focused and in-depth.
  • Families who have more than one child in elementary school will be able to complete these lessons together with the older child guiding and helping the younger. Then the younger child can join in at their simplified level to accompany the older child. 
  • Invite the whole family to participate together in a culminating project. This can create fun, meaningful activities for the whole family.

Sample Graduated Difficulty Lesson – Hot Cross Buns

Adjust each activity to meet the specific levels of your students. Introduce each of these activities in a short video or screen capture. 

Kindergarten

  • Learn the song – echo sing after the teacher 
  • Add a simple Hand Clap #1 – pat, clap, pat, clap.

Grade 1

  • Read rhythm – quarter note/rest version
  • Learn and sing the song
  • Simple Hand Clap #1

Grade 2

  • Read rhythm – half note version
  • Sing and sign the pitches – solfege (Do, Re, Mi)
  • Sing the song
  • Add Hand Clap # 2 – pat, clap, partner, clap. 

(If a student has no partner available, students can perform hand clap “with the teacher” through their device.)

Grade 3

  • Read rhythm – half note version
  • Sing and sign pitches – solfege (Do, Re, Mi)
  • Sing the song
  • Add Hand Clap # 2 – pat, clap, partner, clap. 
  • Extra credit – Perform the song on an instrument, piano, toy xylophone, etc. Include a link to an online xylophone.

Grades 4-5

  • Read rhythm – half note version
  • Sing and sign pitches – solfege (Do, Re, Mi)
  • Sing the song
  • Add Hand Clap # 2.
  • Create their own hand clap with embellishments. Students may use their feet, elbows, etc. The only rules are they have to keep a steady beat and they have to be safe.*
  • Play the song on the recorder.

*Depending on the activities you assign, it will be important for you to establish rules as you would in the face-to-face classroom

All Grades – Stage a PBL Performance

Consider culminating a unit with a PBL (Performance Based Learning) activity. This takes student learning to a whole new level. Do NOT announce this large project when you begin the unit. Otherwise, many students will jump ahead.

At the end of a unit after students have practiced and learned each song, assign students to “Stage a Performance.” Their performances can be as elaborate or simple as desired. Give students a basic framework and outline of requirements for their performances. Then allow them to embellish the performance as they want.  

Create Tickets for the Performance

Tickets should answer the following questions.

  • Who are the performers? Does your group have a stage name?
  • When is the performance?
  • Where will the performance be held?
  • How much does the performance cost? (Students may create or use play money.)

Create a Written Program for the Performance

Programs should include the following.

  • Names of the performers
  • Date and time of the performance
  • Venue or location (living room, basement, backyard, etc.)
  • Songs or pieces in the order of the performance
  • Artwork for the cover of the performance (This part could be coordinated with the art teacher.)

Create a Poster to Advertize the Performance

Posters should include the following.

  • Performers
  • Date and time
  • Venue or location location
  • Artwork

More Possible PBL Elements to Include

  • Costuming. Challenge students to come up with costumes or “concert attire” for their performance. 
  • Publicity Shots. Students may want to take publicity shots to “advertise” the performance to their families.
  • Staging. Challenge students to create a performance atmosphere. This may include the following set enhancements.
    • Rearrange the furniture.
    • Turn off the lights and use a flashlight as a spotlight.
    • Perform from a landing on their stairway.
    • Stand on a sturdy chest or old coffee table for a stage, etc.
  • Announcer. Students may create a concert atmosphere and designate a family member as an announcer.
  • Sound effects. Students may use online sound effects such as applause during their performances. An older sibling could serve as the “sound engineer.”
  • Video/Camera Crew. Ask a parent, older sibling, or another adult to video the performance. These performances may be shared online with grandparents and/or other relatives.

Assessment and Accountability

To hold students accountable, require them to turn in some form of evidence of their performance as suggested below. 

  • Students may submit a short video of their family performance. With written permission, you may be able to share some of these performances with other families at your school. This would encourage creativity and lessen the feeling of isolation.
  • Students could submit photos of their performance.
  • If families do not want to share videos or pictures, students could submit a written reflection worksheet to recap their performances. The youngest students may draw a picture of their performance and dictate a sentence or two to their parents.

Other PBL Activities

If you’re faced with long-term online teaching, do NOT use up all of your PBL activities during the first few weeks. Assign one activity per unit. Below are more ideas to expand learning and keep lessons fresh.

  • Recycled Rhythm Instruments. Create a recycled musical instrument to accompany a song. Students may only use items that are considered trash and will be be thrown away or put in a recycle bin. See Lesson Plan Ideas for “Found” Instruments for more ideas.
  • Create Rhythmic Ostinato Patterns. Challenge students to create ostinato rhythmic patterns to accompany a simple song. Provide a “play-along” video to support students.
  • Google Song Maker. Create an original composition with Song Maker.
  • Chrome Music Lab. Explore other music activities with Chrome Music Lab.
  • Explore Instruments of the World. Click the “Magic Globe” to change the style of the music in PBS Kids’ Carmen’s World Orchestra.
  • Classics for Kids. This is an educational outreach program of 90.9 WGUC. They generously offer a TON of different activities from learning treble clef note names, musical terms, composers, instruments, and more – Classics for Kids Online Activities. (Note: I do NOT like the Match the Rhythm game. But, there are MANY other valuable resources available at this site.)
  • Instruments of the Orchestra. This is a FABULOUS resource for learning about the orchestra. The “Play the Instruments” sections have VERY short quality sound clips. Scroll all the way down to see the various activities available which include online Instrument Bingo, Music Maps, Rhythm Composition tool, and more – Inside the Orchestra.

Online Teaching Tips

As luck would have it, I was a little more prepared to teach online than many teachers. I recently earned an Instructional Technology Certification in Instruction and Curriculum Design which proved to be a HUGE advantage.

Below are a few recommendations if you feel like you’re venturing into uncharted territory.

  • Choose a theme for each unit to tie activities together.
  • Keep your lessons short and focused. Reinforce previously learned concepts and songs. Allow students plenty of practice time in various ways.
  • Provide support. When teaching students to read music, create a screen capture and point to each note with the cursor as you read the rhythm or sing the pitches. Change the cursor on your computer to a pointer finger to focus student attention. 👆
  • Use clean formatting. When you post directions and or text, don’t post big blocks of text. Instead, when possible, use bullet points so students easily see what they need to do.
  • Create checklists. If several tasks are required in a lesson, post each task so students may mark them complete using your school LMS (Learning Management System).
  • Use “just in time” design. Post tasks “just in time” within the lesson. Instead of giving students a list of 4-5 tasks at the beginning of the lesson, embed each task into the lesson so they “learn and do” throughout the lesson. Repeat a complete checklist at the end of the lesson to ensure students completed everything.
  • Keep videos short. Do NOT simply try to fill up the same amount of time you would in the classroom. If you want to accomplish several things during a particular lesson, assign several small videos instead of one longer one. This will also make the information easier to repurpose later if desired.

Ways to Differentiate Lessons

  • Young students can simply learn the song and play a simple game or activity.
  • Older students can read rhythmic and melodic notation.
  • Add rhythmic ostinato patterns to differentiate songs. Provide a “perfom-along” video to support students.
  • Sing the song in a round or add simple harmonies. Simple partner songs work well for this purpose. Again, provide a video in unison and with all parts.
  • Add an instrumental element such as playing a recorder or a virtual online piano/xylophone to challenge older students.

If you need more ideas on how to differentiate lessons for various grade levels, click to read this post How to Create Differentiated K-5 Music Activities.

Other Important Considerations

  • Team up with other teachers in your district or a nearby district to create and share lessons. Teaching elementary music classes online is still a challenge for everyone. Divide and conquer. (Take care to observe copyright. Resources you have purchased for your classroom should not be shared with other teachers.)
  • Create FUN lessons. Be upbeat. Make it a goal to bring some joy into your students’ and families’ lives with your lessons.
  • Create a digital checklist. If do not use an online LMS, create a digital checklist to help guide students and families.
  • Archive recordings for possible use later. Name and archive your videos so you can easily find them for use on sub days, for students who are quarantined at home, or for virtual classes on snow days or inclement weather days.

Conclusion

We have ALL learned a lot about teaching through a worldwide pandemic. And technology is an important tool both in the classroom and for distance learning. While we much prefer to see our students face-to-face, it IS possible to teach elementary music online.

I hope we have given you some concrete, actionable steps and ideas for teaching online and in your classroom. Take a peek at all of the links we have gathered to help.


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