Friday, March 2, 2018

Washi Tape for your Whiteboard

I have to display my learning targets in student friendly terms. I used to write these on a laminated poster but it became difficult to erase and clean each time.

I have now divided my whiteboard into sections with Washi tape so I can erase my objectives more easily and cleanly. Below, you can see photos of my objectives in the music room and in the art room.

Here is a brief video tutorial showing how I divided the board into sections and kept the lines straight without using a level.

I used less than one roll of washi tape for each board. You can purchase a roll of washi tape for less than $3. It comes in many different colors and designs. For the music board, I used glitter washi tape.

The whiteboard wipes off so much easier than laminated posters. Comment below if you have any more questions or if you would like to share your favorite use for washi tape.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Start a Music Library

I love to use children's literature in the classroom. I have acquired many books over the years. I used to keep these books on the top shelf of my bookcase, but recently to move them to location more easily accessible to students. I am in love my new music library and my students are excited too!
I purchased the white cardboard magazine holders from IKEA. They came in packs of 5 for only $1.99. I created labels to organize my books alphabetically. I have created labels with 1 letter, 2 letters, 3 letters, and 4 letters per label to accommodate libraries of many sizes. I also have 2 separate holders for Non-fiction books--Biographies and Other.

I found the canvas music banner at the Target dollar spot during the holidays for only $3. I painted the letters spelling "library" by hand. I have recreated a printable banner available for download. You could customize your banner by printing on colored or decorative paper.
 I often use centers when I want to assess individual students. One station is the assessment and the other stations are music related games or activities. I have decided to use the library as a station in my center rotations.  I posted these rules as reference for the students. Simple directions for the library center have also been added to my Emergency Sub-Tub. Even subs without a musical background could manage this center.

I also created a book review template so students can recommend books to others. They can share things they like about the book, connections they made to the book, and can rate the book with star emojis.

I have bundled the alphabet labels, banner, rules poster, and book review sheet in a pdf file. It is available for download on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. I have also included tips for selecting books and acquiring books on a budget. Download this Music Library Starter Kit and all you'll have to do is add books!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Intro To Melodic Improv

I am a member of the MusicEd Blogs Community on Facebook. We are collaborating for the month of February to share our best ideas for teaching melody! If you are not already following us on Facebook, you should click the link above. For today's post, I will give you some tips on how to teach melodic improvisation.

Improvisation! Does that word scare you? It used to scare me. I was not offered many opportunities to improvise as a student in school. Without experience and frame of reference, I had no idea how to approach teaching it. Thanks to my training in Orff Schulwerk, I have become very comfortable teaching melodic improvisation. I regularly provide opportunities for all my students to create and improvise both rhythmically and melodically. I hope some of the advice I explain below will help you feel more comfortable teaching improvisation.

1) Choose a Familiar Medium 

If you would like your students to improvise, they should have lots of experience playing or singing in unison on the chosen instrument. If you choose an instrument that is unfamiliar to the students, they may not feel comfortable or confident exploring their creativity. 

2) Start With Body Percussion

When presenting students with a new, challenging task, gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. Before I ask my students to improvise with pitch, they have lots of experience improvising rhythmically. Body percussion can provide a variety of sounds while still focused only on rhythm. Body percussion is also a great connection to something familiar. The 4 basic body percussion sounds are patsching (patting), clapping, stamping (stomping), and snapping. We first improvise on our "leg-a-phones" by patsching. Then, I allow them to have 2 sound choices--patsching and clapping. We gradually add stomping and then snapping. If I started with 4 sound options, they may be too overwhelmed. Remember to add only 1 element of change at a time. Start with a steady beat and then gradually add paired eighth notes or even rests. Improvising rhythmically with multiple body percussion sounds will make melodic improvisation with multiple pitches less intimidating.

3) Pentatonic Power

The pentatonic scale is a great place to begin with melodic improvisation. By removing fa and ti, there won't be any notes that "sound wrong". I use this "fake instrument" as a visual to show my students which bars to remove. When we are first improvising, we are mostly in the key of C so they know do (tonic) is the lowest pitch. But, I teach movable do and we often modulate to F and G. I also use la-based minor. If we improvise in minor, they know to end on la.

4) Limit the Freedom

Students will have greater chances of success if you limit their freedom of choice. Take baby steps. and gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. When I begin teaching melodic improvisation, I simplify the rhythm and begin with quarter notes only. I also limit the number of pitches the students can choose. We start improvising on one note do. Next, they can choose from 2 notes (do and re), but they must end on do. Then, they can choose from 3 notes- do, re, and mi. Eventually, they will have freedom to improvise with the entire pentatonic scale, but that would not happen in the first lesson. I also make sure they can feel the phrase length and successfully end on do before we add more complex rhythms like paired eighth notes. 

5) Provide a Framework

In addition to simplifying the rhythm and limiting the pitch choice, you should also provide a clear framework to structure the improvisation. I like to begin with short 4 beat phrases. In this example, I use the song, "Snowflakes". Each phrase begins with a skip from do to mi on the word "snowflakes". The full notation is below, but the lyrics are: Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes dance around, Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes touch the ground.

When we improvise to this song, I ask the students to repeat this phrase--"Snowflakes something else, Snowflakes end on G". During "Snowflakes" the students continue to play G and B as they did in the melody of the song. During "something else" and "end on", they improvise and choose any pitch in the pentatonic scale. Their final note must be G, which is tonic for this song. By alternating the improvisation with something familiar, the students are less intimidated. For a final performance, we would perform in ABA form. The "Snowflakes" song would be the A sections with the improvisations as a B section.

Another example can be found in a previous post with the book "Leap Back Home To Me". Students improvise on the phrase "Leap a-way" and then "Leap back home" This is the same rhythm with 3 quarter notes and a rest, but this time playing 2 measures at once. The phrases are still separated by a rest on beat 4 to provide a familiar structure. Eventually the phrases can get longer.

6) Rhythmic Building Blocks

When students can improvise successfully with quarter notes, you should add paired eighth notes. Orff utilizes speech to make rhythms seem more familiar to the students. We often pair 2-beat rhythm patterns with words and call them rhythmic building blocks or rhythmic building bricks. Here is an example of these rhythms with types of shoes--flip flop, tennis shoe, penny loafer, boot.

This activity was used with the poem "Cobbler, Cobbler". You can find more information about this lesson by clicking the link. Before improvising, we would compose 4-measure rhythmic patterns. Each student creates their own pattern to perform verbally and then notate. Before moving to the barred instruments, we choose one rhythm and notate it on the board. When we improvise, we are still in rhythmic unison performing the rhythmic phrase we notated on the board. After a few times experiencing this stage with different types of building blocks, I will give the students the opportunity to improvise with their own rhythm instead of a group rhythm. In order to end cleanly together, I always ask them to choose a quarter note and quarter rest as their last rhythm. This note will also be do. So, for the first 3 measures, it may feel like chaos, but on beat 4, we are in unison again. 

7) Gradually Shrink the Ensemble

Performing solo is very intimidating. Performing something you have created can make you feel even more vulnerable. So, here are some tips to gradually ease your students into improvising a solo.
First, they must be comfortable singing/playing in unison with the group, then in unison with small groups, in unison with partners, and finally performing a provided melody as a solo.

When approaching improvisation, continue the same pattern with large group, small group, partners, and soloists. On the barred instruments, I like to separate into 2 groups with woods vs. metals. For 4 groups, I separate like this: 1) glockenspiels; 2) soprano/alto xylophones; 3) soprano/alto metallophones; 4) bass xylophones/metallophones. You may separate differently based on your instrumentarium. You may choose to separate based on rows or numbers.

8) Differentiation

Differentiation seems to be an education buzz word in recent years. Improvisation is the best way to provide differentiation for your students. By letting the students improvise, they have the power to create a melody appropriate for their skill level. If they are struggling, they may stick to more simple rhythms and limit their choice of pitches. If they are more advanced, they may choose more complex rhythms and may explore more than one octave on the instrument. Remind the students that if they feel overwhelmed they can always simplify their rhythm or pitch options.

9) Self-Assessment

Exploration is usually unstructured and would consist of hitting random notes. Improvisation may begin as exploration but should move past that phase into purposeful musical choices. I provide a few questions for my students to assess their own performance.

Keeping a steady beat is important to feel the ends of the phrases. If your students cannot keep a steady beat while improvising, they need to simplify the rhythm or have fewer pitch choices. Ending on do is a must. In order to sound finished, we should end on the tonic. Lastly, they must ask themselves if their melody was sing-able. Could they try to sing and repeat what they just improvised? If they are leaping all across the keyboard, the likely answer is no. Encourage them to begin with stepwise movement, gradually adding skips or leaps. By giving them a rubric, you make them responsible to assess themselves and they will begin improving their performance each time.

10) Be a Model

My last tip for you is to BE A MODEL!!! If your students don't see you improvising, taking risks, and making mistakes, they won't be as confident to attempt their own improvisation. Create an environment that is safe and welcoming of all musical ideas. Show your students how to give praise to those who are succeeding and positive support to those who need extra guidance. If you are relaxed and comfortable, they will have fun and have no idea that melodic improvisation is supposed to be scary and difficult. Best of luck!!!


I hope you found something of value to help your confidence in teaching melodic improvisation! If you have any additional tips you would like to share, feel free to leave comments below. I would also love some feedback if you have done activities similar to these. If you would like more ideas about teaching melody, don't forget to follow our MusicEd Blogs collaboration for the entire month of February. You can find all past posts on the Facebook blog.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Finding Do with "Leap Back Home To Me"

I am a member of the MusicEd Blogs Community on Facebook. We are collaborating for the month of February to share our best ideas for teaching melody! If you are not already following us on Facebook, you should click the link above. 

For today's post, I am sharing a lesson on how to introduce melodic improvisation with a picture book. I love using children's literature in the classroom. Books are magical and can capture the attention of even the most challenging class.  about the book "Leap Back Home to Me" by Laruen Thompson. This book is featured in an old post from 2012, but I have updated my lesson procedures after many years of refining.

If you are not already familiar with this book, watch this short video:

When singing with solfege, I always call do home base. I use this book with second grade to introduce melodic improvisation on the Orff instruments and ending on do. 

The book is very rhythmic and is set up in stanzas of 4 lines. In each stanza, the first 3 lines are different places that the baby frog leaps when playing and exploring away from the momma frog. The 4th line always repeats the phrase "leap back home to me." Here's an example:

"Leap frog over the  lady bug,
Leap frog over the bee,
Leap frog over the tickly clover,
Then leap back home to me."

 I start reading the text in a speaking voice. But, on the last phrase, I sing "mi, mi, re, re, do." The students soon catch on to the form and anticipate the recurring phrase to join in the singing.

After finishing the book, we read notation of the phrase on the board and sing with solfege and hand signs. I also review the form of the poem asking how many places the frog leaps away from the momma before leaping back home. (Answer: 3)

We move to the Orff instruments and set up our instruments in C pentatonic, removing F and B. The students echo short melodies I create with mi, re, and do. We compare these melodies and I ask them which phrases sound finished.  We conclude together that it sounds more complete to end on do.  Then, we learn the phrase for "leap back home to me" (mmrrd) and perform it again while reading through the book.

To begin melodic improvisation, I have students echo this short phrase with a speaking voice and clicking their mallets-"leap away, leap back home". The rhythm is ta ta ta rest, ta ta ta rest.  I instruct students to choose new notes on their instruments for "leap away" but play mi, re, do for "leap back home". We practice this phase several times together and in small sections. Then, I ask them to choose new notes for "leap back" as well. The only note we must play together is "home". We take turns sharing as small groups and then I offer individuals to perform as well. If all the students feel eager to solo, I will provide a steady beat bordun on C and G as we take turns performing quickly, one after the other.

The students always enjoy the book and are eager to explore the instruments and improvise. By the end of the year, I introduce rhythmic building blocks and to get students comfortable improvising with rhythms using quarter notes and paired eighth notes.

I hope you and your students enjoy this lesson! It is one of my favorite activities I look forward to each year. If you would like more ideas about teaching melody, don't forget to follow our MusicEd Blogs collaboration for the entire month of February.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Paper Organizer

Papers! Papers! Papers!  I hate having stacks of papers lying around waiting to be returned. Sometimes, it can be as many as 8 school days before I see a particular class again. Sometimes, I admit, papers linger in my room because I simply forget to pass them out. I knew I had a problem but wasn't sure how to fix it ... until now!

A fellow teacher was getting rid of this pocket chart and I decided I could use it to tame my paper problem. I created labels for each class. I color coded them according to grade levels. I have organized them according to the day I see them in our rotation. When we complete a paper, the stack goes in the appropriate pocket. This chart is hanging on the back of the door. There are 2-3 people in each class who will check the door before we leave and remind me to return their papers before we line up. Placing this by the door means I will notice it more often.

There were even some empty pockets at the bottom that I labeled "EXTRA" for each grade level. When I copy papers for the entire grade, I place them in these pockets and leave the extras hanging until everyone that was absent has made up the assignment.

I'm very happy with this new system. Getting rid of the paper piles on my desk and table has brought me so much joy! How do you tame your paper problem?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tech Tip: Multiple Windows

It's time for a tech tip! Watch the video below to see how I view multiple windows at the same time. I use this most often during lesson planning to copy and paste between two documents. I've most recently used this feature during classroom instruction to display a YouTube video along with a Flipchart or Powerpoint slides. Watch below for more details!

Tech Tip: View Multiple Windows
Tech Tip: Increase productivity by viewing multiple windows at the same time. I use this feature during lesson planning and during classroom instruction.
Posted by Music With Mrs. Dennis on Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Although I am primarily a musician, I try my best to integrate all art forms into my curriculum. Returning from Christmas break, I always teach a lesson on drama to most of my grade levels (2nd-5th). We explore pantomime. This is a great follow-up for our Nutcracker unit because ballet dancers must use pantomime to communicate on stage when they are not dancing.

When I introduce pantomime, I first perform a scene by myself from a familiar story--Snow White.  My students must watch for clues and guess the story

I enter a cottage, am shocked at the filth, and start cleaning. Then I yawn and take a nap. I wake up to greet the 7 dwarves. I stand tall and bend over to shake their hands. There is a knock at the door. I greet the guest, accept the apple, take a bite, and die.

We discuss what actions and facial expressions were good clues and what other stories they may have thought were a possibility. Then, I divide the class into groups of 5-6 to pantomime a story together. I have created story cards with familiar fairytales and nursery rhymes. Each group draws 3 cards and then selects one to act out.

They usually have about 15-20 minutes to rehearse together. I ask that their performance be 2 minutes or less. During the last 5-10 minutes, I allow them to choose props that are essential to telling the story. Scarves are very versatile and become costumes or scenery. Other common props include: chairs, stuffed animals, and random objects around the room.

I save the last 15 minutes of class for the group performances and discussions. I encourage good audience behavior while each group is performing. I created a rubric to assess the performance.

This lesson is a great success with students of all ages. Students love the opportunity to explore their dramatic and creative sides. The 17 page Powerpoint, 24 story cards, lesson plan, and performance rubric are available for download on Teachers Pay Teachers.  I'm certain your students will enjoy this lesson as well!