Doing Music Class Activities Outside

Several months ago, I wrote about keeping kids moving in the classroom. Believe it or not, keeping kids moving within certain parameters actually cuts down on classroom management issues, keeps them engaged, and helps the brain.

Well, now, of course, is spring. It's early spring, and it might be a while before some of you will be able to take your students outside. SHOULD you take your students outside? Why not?

  • It's a change of pace for you and for them.
  • It helps them learn how to work in an even less restrictive environment.
  • It can help with frayed nerves.
  • It's good for them physically and mentally.
  • It's good for YOU.
These are the types of things I would do with my classes outside:
This had to be the absolute favorite of my students. Usually, I wouldn't start this until second grade so they would be big enough to help carry the drums out. 

students drumming outside
I woud plan the following activities:
  • Question/answer
  • Call/response
  • Echo
  • Grooves
I discovered the students benefitted from the opportunities to improvise and lead at their own comfort levels. A shy student could incorporate small "color" or beat in a groove, or a short question in question/answer. In addition, there was something about being outside that loosened inhibitions, but surprisingly, not in any misbehaving way.
Folk dances are fun outside, plus you have plenty of room. My classes have done a variety of "alley" dances and "under the bridge" dances such as Alabama Gal. I found The New England Dancing Masters resources to be the most helpful with a variety of suitable outside dances.

Students dance outside-Alabama Gal
The North Skelton Sword dance (found in Welcome in the Spring) was a huge hit with my older students. My husband developed "swords" with lattice board and foam insulation. The goal for each group is to interlace their "swords" to form a star.

North Skelton Sword Dance
North Skelton Sword Dance
"T'Smidje" is another dance, one my students initially resisted until they fell in love with it. The challenge of "T'Smidje" is the "driver/passenger switch". The dance consists of two concentric circles of partners, with all standing next to each other in promenade style. (See video link). In the driver/passenger switch, the "driver" is the left partner and the "passenger" is right. The "driver" slides to the "passenger" spot, while their "passenger" goes to the "drivers" side of the couple ahead of them. This is what I used to chant while the students learned it:

1, 2, 3, turn around
Backwards, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, turn around
Backwards 2, 3, 4
Change with your partner.
Driver-passenger switch.

Here are the original moves for T'Smidje, as "performed" by one of my classes several years ago:

*. Concentric circle, partners side by side.
*Partner on the inside is considered the "driver". Partner on the outside is the "passenger"
*4 Steps forward, turn, and 4 steps backward in the same direction
*Partners jump in, out, and switch places
*Jump in towards each other, jump out.
*Here's the tricky part, one that Sanna Longden (who taught this at an Orff conference I attended) calls "driver/passenger switch": driver goes to the passenger side of the couple in front of them. Passenger switches to their driver's side, so it's a zigzag effect.

Since the kids are outside, they found out they had opportunities to teach others! With the drum circles, younger students would often be outside at recess. Forgive me for my similie, but the little ones were drawn to older students with drums like moths to a flame.

Students play on a tubano outside.
Sometimes, even adults who were passing through the recess area got involved. In this picture, the assistant principal joined in on T'Smidje (Several of these students are now freshmen in college!):

Assistant principal learns the dance "T'Smidje"

I liked using relay races for review. The picture below is from a recorder fingering relay game: 

Student finding the letter name for the recorder fingering in a relay game.

Kagan activities are also great outside, like Fan-n-Pick or Quiz, Quiz, Trade games.
You and your students need this. Schools are wrapping up an extremely stressful year, and the stress seems to just generate from other sources. GIve yourself a chance to keep your class student-centered AND provide yourself an opportunity for a much-needed change of pace, if even for a few hours. Aren't YOU worth it?


Music Class Manipulatives: Why Not?

 Ah, manipulatives! Kids like to touch things, so using little something to help teach is so popular. Manipulatives in music class enhance the tactile and visual learning styles. A manipulative is a small tool or toy that students can handle to see concepts differently; thus, it gives the students one more means to understand the idea.

Manipulatives work wonderfully for the following:

  • Visualizing form patterns
  • Creating solfege patterns
  • Creating rhythm patterns
  • Illustrating phrasing
  • Vocalizing

You can purchase manipulatives, or you can create your own. That may sound like a daunting task, and some of these do take some time. You may not be able to use them right away if you take your time creating them, but that's OK. They will be available for the next school year.

Here are examples of some manipulatives that I have used in the past that take little time to make.

Flat Marbles

Flat marbles look beautiful at the bottom of the vase or scattered on a table, but they are also excellent for melodic dictation. All you will need are flat marbles from the dollar store, little round sales stickers, and staff pages (you can decide on 3 4 or five lines on your staff.).

Using flat marbles for solfege dictation

  1.  Write solfa syllables on the stickers, color coordinating them. For instance, put all the SOs on red stickers.
  2. Put stickers on the marbles. This task would be a perfect job for some of your students who might want to come in to help during their recess if you do that.
  3. Divide all the marbles into Baggies by solfege name (color). Or, you might want to divide them for individual people or games by putting a few marbles of each syllable into a bag. Dividing the manipulatives by activity set will make it easier to pass everything out.
  4. You can divide your students into small groups, or the students can work individually. The students can compose melodies or use the marbles for dictation.
Using flat marbles in music class for solfege dictation

Craft Sticks

Craft sticks are probably almost as popular in a music classroom as in an Art Room. Using craft sticks has been a famous trick to make rhythmic dictation more fun. The students can also use large craft sticks for singing solfege patterns. You will need the sale price stickers again.

  1. Color coordinate your stickers by solfa syllables.
  2.   Starting with the lowest pitch, put the stickers in order from bottom to top, making sure to leave space for any skips or leaps.
  3. If you are preparing for a new pitch, use another color, add a question mark, and put it where the new pitch will be. The students hold the sticks, you hold a stick, and as you are singing, ask the students to point to each syllable. This tactic gives them a visual reference and a tactile one as well.
Using large craft sticks to help with singing solfege patterns

Mini Erasers

How many of you love to go to the Target dollar bin and look over all the cute erasers? They make cute manipulatives as well. I would often buy little erasers that fit the topic of a song or a book that was a springboard two rhythm practice. With these little guys, you can do a couple of types of dictation.

  1. Put the number of erasers you need in separate Baggies.
  2. Use the staff paper previously mentioned for melodic dictation, with the erasers as the noteheads.

Using craft sticks to dictate rhythm

  To use the erasers for rhythmic dictation, you can either use one eraser for quarter notes or two erasers for an eighth note pair. If you like, you can include small diameter dowel rods (cut into thirds), little coffee heat savers, small craft sticks, coffee stirrers, or even all those recorder cleaning rods in the bag. Using these sticks for stems and beams makes using erasers easier when you begin 16th notes.

Using craft sticks and mini-erasers for rhythmic dictation

Chenille Stems

This is an idea I got from the marvelous Artie Almeida. Divide the class into groups and instruct them to rhythm patterns by shaping the stems. Using stems is a fantastic way to dictate half notes.

Using chenille stems to create rhythmic notation

Chenille, Foam, or Wooden Shapes

If you go to a craft store, you will probably find a variety of small shapes packaged together. Use these for form. Again, you will probably want to sort them out in Baggies so that you can pass them out quickly. Designate shapes to go with the parts of the listening example. Students map out the pattern with their shapes on the floor.

Tiny Wooden Cubes

I got the following idea from my Kodaly Level 3 pedagogy teacher, Jamie Parker. Draw either a solfege syllable or a rhythm on each side of the cube. Students can work together or individually to create and perform new patterns.

Using wooden cubes in music class


Yarn is wonderful for kids to use to create contour so they can follow the patterns with their voices.

Students use yarn to help with vocal practice

Resources for Teaching the Music of Ukraine Thoughtfully

Image for blog-Teaching the music of Ukraine. Ukrainian flag

This is a short blog entry, but it's something that's been on my mind for several days.

Like most everyone else, I have been saddened and horrified at what took place in Ukraine in March. It reminded me, once again, how we are all one world and in situations together more than we realize. Many of our students definitely do not understand this. It is up to us to understand.

For one, chances are good you have students who are of Ukrainian descent. If you choose to do a short unit on Ukraine, it is important to have resources that provide music as authentically as possible. Ukraine, like other Eastern European countries, has beautiful folk music that goes back generations. Music is a means to hold them together, even in difficult times. Never was this as apparent to me as when I saw a little girl on a news clip, a little girl hiding in one of the many refugee shelters such as subway stations. She was quietly singing to her doll. I couldn't understand the words, of course, but in her singing, there was hope and a sign that she is still a little girl. What a testimony to the way music soothes us!

The Great Gate of ??????????

Most of us are familiar with The Great Gate of Kiev, part of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian composer from the Romantic era. The movement is also known as "The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev)". The gate exists and was built to protect the cathedral of St. Sophia. Kiev (also known as "Kyiv") was part of the Lithuanian Duchy, then the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, and then part of the Russian Empire, where it was known as "Kiev". When Ukraine gained independence, the city was called "Kyiv" (one syllable with a long "e" sound) and the gate was restored.

So, why are there two different spellings and pronunciations of the city? 

More information on the gate and city:

Ukrainian Folk Songs

Ukrainian folk music can be divided into two categories: ritual and non-ritual (Smithsonian Folkways). Children in Ukraine start becoming involved in national art from a very young age.  The strength and popularity of Ukrainian folk music stem from its focus on the history of Ukraine, society, and the people themselves. Ritual songs can include incantations for healing, laments (dirges), ritual songs of the folk calendar (songs of the winter cycle and spring cycle), wedding songs, and work songs. The songs are heterophonic, or the same melody is divided among parts. 

The Ukrainian People Website has an extensive description of the history and variety of folk instruments common in the country: folk fiddles, lyres, pipes, drums, accordions, and an instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer. Traditionally, instrumental music was used for dancing, for traditional signals, and for funerals.

A treatise by Rev. Humphrey Kowalski is research that focuses on the topic of folk songs, with a focus on historical/political songs and various eras.


The best way to learn about the music of a culture is to listen to musicians of that culture. The following links lead to recordings of Ukrainian musicians:

Spotify: Ukrainian Folk Songs album

Soul of Ukraine-Top 20 Ukrainian Folk Songs

Samples from Smithsonian Folkways (a terrific resource for various folk music).

Audio recordings: Library of Congress

Also, the Ukrainian national anthem is available in various arrangements from online sheet music sites. I even found an arrangement for flute trio. If you choose to do an arrangement for recorder or other pitched instruments for elementary, you might want to consider transposing or simplifying. Many of the copies I found were in key signatures of at least 3 sharps or flats.


As I did the research for this blog, I honestly had no idea of the extension and variety of Ukrainian instrumentation and folk songs and their usages. There is beauty in a country or culture having their own folk traditions, something they can share, something that unites them. Kodaly was correct in his focus on children learning the music of their own cultures as the foundation for learning other music. He considered it an emotional, intellectual, and personality necessity. (Trinka). 

A little Ukrainian girl, waiting in a shelter to leave for safety, understood this need probably more than many adults from other cultures do.