Offering Choices, Part II


In my last blog, I wrote about offering students choices in the general music classroom (visit to read.) Today I’ll continue this topic with more ideas that have worked for my students.

  • Highway No. 1 by the Shenanigans: This is a wonderful dance the students absolutely love. Highway No. 1 is a highway that goes around the perimeter of Australia. During the dance, students pretend to drive, and then do dance steps that are spoken to them, like “walk, walk, clap, clap, clap,” and “skip, skip, and bob.” They drive around again, then do the next movement sequence. The music can be purchased through I-tunes, but also look for the “backing version with instructions.” This version has the same music, but leaves the narration for the dance steps blank so students can fill them in. Students can brainstorm seven different ways to move; those can be written on the board and students can do them in order. Conversely, students can be chosen to create them on the spot. I’ve done the dance with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, all with success!
  •  “Oh A Hunting We Will Go” by John Langstaff and Nancy Winslow Parker: This children’s book has the lyrics for “Oh a hunting we will go,” in which we’ll catch a mouse and put him in a house, catch a snake and put him in a cake, etc. Students immediately recognize that it is a rhyming song, so after the book is sung, they can create their own lyrics. I have students first think of an animal, and then they think of something that rhymes. Always fun when students leave the room singing their own verses!
  • Flashcard improvisation on Orff instruments: After I present a new rhythmic concept, I often have students improvise using rhythmic flashcards. For example, if my students are practicing tika-tika (sixteenth notes), I’ll first have students read some rhythmic flashcards with tika-tika. Then they’ll go to barred instruments set up in C pentatonic (with the F and B bars down.) I’ll say “1, 2, ready and,” and students will play whatever they want melodically to the rhythm they are being shown. Students can use 1 mallet or both mallets. Then we’ll do the next pattern with a different melody. For example, if the pattern is “ta ta tika-tika ta,” students might play “C D EEEE G” or “G C DDDD C.” The great thing about C pentatonic is anything sounds good, so it is a non-threatening environment for students to create their own patterns. And it’s a great way to practice those new rhythms!

A few more ideas to come soon! Have fun!


Offering Choices, Part I


As Kodaly-inspired teachers, we are sometimes criticized for being too scripted in our lessons, for not allowing the students to choose and create as much as we should. While Kodaly-inspired lessons offer the students a chance to sing, play, move, dance, read, write, and more, I think there is some validity to this criticism. We write lessons with smooth transitions from one activity to the next, but often, many of our activities are chosen by us, instead of the students.

At last year’s  OAKE conference in Phoenix, I attended two excellent sessions about student choice, presented by Crystal Schlieker and Nyssa Brown (see Nyssa’s blog at Both offered wonderful ideas about how to increase opportunities for student choices. After these sessions, I began to offer more and more choices to students, and found that letting go of this control was actually freeing! The next few blog entries I write will be about this topic, with my own ideas as well as ideas from Nyssa and Crystal (thank you to both of them!)

Activity 1: Aiken Drum

This is a song I learned in my student teaching, and have used ever since. It’s a wonderful listening experience for the students, and they get to choose the food for each body part of Aiken Drum!  After singing “eyes are made of jellybeans,” we sing the melody again and students decide what his nose is made out of, then mouth, then shoulders, etc. I do as many body parts as time allows, but typically start at the top of the body down to his feet, and then end with hair. I have accompanied the song with autoharp, dulcimer, and guitar, and the students are just enchanted and thrilled by this odd man made of food!

Activity 2: “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema

Nyssa presented this book at her session about divergent thinking. It is a cumulative book, so for each part that is repeated (“this is the cloud,” “this is the grass,” “these are the cows,” etc.) students choose a sound or a motion that could represent that part. The first time I used the book, I read through it all and asked the students what the story is about and what pattern they noticed. We compared the cumulative aspect of it to “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” (the students made that connection without me asking!) Then we had time to choose the motions/sounds for the first three parts. In the next lesson, we recalled the motions/sounds they’d already come up with, and then continued and finished the book. I had planned to continue this process in another lesson with instruments—having students choose what to play on which instrument—so I was excited when students were one step ahead of me and chose the thunder tube, rainstick, and glissandos on the glockenspiels without me mentioning the use of the instruments. Each class had different motions and sounds, so it was lovely as a teacher to hear several different versions of the story!

 Activity 3: Students choose the next activity

This was a suggestion by Crystal Schlieker during her session. Often, when we write lessons, we decide what song will happen when. Instead, have a portion of your lesson in which one of three songs could work, and students get to vote on which one they’d like to do next. I’ve also had reward days after students have exhibited good behavior for a marking period or semester. They brainstorm a list of songs, games, and activities they love to do, and then they vote on their three favorite activities, and the class gets to do their favorites during the rest of the class.

Activity 4: Jump in, jump out

This great name game was presented by Nyssa during her session. You can see it here:

The words I learned (which are slightly different than the video) are:

Jump in, jump out,

Turn yourself about, I said

Jump in, jump out,

Introduce yourself.

My name is _________________ (yeah!)

And I like ________________ (yeah!)

I’m gonna keep likin’ it (yeah!)

For the rest of my life (for the rest of your life!)

I did this name game with my third, fourth, and fifth graders at the beginning of the year, and they loved it! It’s a great way to learn more about each student, as they choose what they’d like to share. They can also choose different lyrics; instead of “I’m gonna keep likin’ it,” they might say, “And it is awesome,” or whatever they choose.

I’ll be following this up with more ideas soon! Have fun!

Sub Plans


Today is my last day of maternity leave. I feel conflicted—excited to see my students again and teach, but sad to leave my baby girl. My students have been very fortunate to have a wonderful substitute teacher during my maternity leave. She is Orff-trained and has taught really creative lessons with the students, while also following my written lessons and year plans. She will be subbing for me again in the next couple of weeks, and I know I can leave my normal lesson plans for her and it will go very well.

That, of course, is not always the case. We do not always have musically trained teachers subbing for us, and it can be very difficult to write something that both meets musical goals and can be followed by a substitute. I have found sub plans to be a very frustrating part of my job—as organized as I am with writing my typical plans, I have felt very disorganized with sub plans. I find myself spending hours each time I have an absence, trying to come up with something that will work.

Recently, on pinterest, I found this idea of a “sub tub”:  I also found this blog about writing music sub plans: Both offered great ideas about putting together sub plans, so I decided it was finally time to get myself organized with sub plans!

In years past, I’ve created sub plans for the entire day, which included several different lessons by grade level. I decided when organizing my sub plans that it would be much better to save the sub plan to my computer by grade level, so they are easier to find and organize. I found all of my old sub plans, and re-organized them by grade level. Now, when creating my sub tub, I will have a plastic tub with file folders containing the following:


  • Procedures, rules, and schedule: This will include standard classroom procedures, music rules, consequences, duty and drill procedures, instructions on using the SMART board and I-pod, and my weekly music schedule.
  • Grade level sub plans: I will have file folders labeled by grade level, and each folder will contain at least three different sub plans appropriate for that grade level.
  • Materials: I will put materials in the sub tub such as props, books, and DVD’s needed for the lesson. If I often use one of the needed materials, I will indicate in the written lesson where to find that material.
  • Checklist: I have created checklists for each grade level, with the class names listed in horizontal rows and the lesson plans listed in vertical rows. Each time a sub plan is used, I can check off which lesson and which class. This way I can easily keep track of which lessons I can still use.


Now, when I have an absence coming up, I can look through my sub tub and easily compile sub plans. I’ve saved all of these lessons to my home computer, so if one of my daughters gets sick in the wee hours of the morning, I can simply go to my computer, figure out which lessons to use, and write the sub directions, referring her/him to the appropriate lessons within the sub tub.

Below I am including two sample sub plans that you could easily use. For the 4th grade lesson, if you do not have a SMART board, you could use a LCD projector hooked up to your computer, or with the proper connection, project the website onto a TV.

4th Grade Young Person’s Guide

1st, 2nd, and 3rd Grade Jazz Fly

Any other ideas for sub plans? Please comment below. Happy lesson planning!

Guest Blog: How to write a song for a group


Today I welcome Julia Amisano, Founder of Grace Music Studio NY (, as our guest blogger. Thank you Julia for your insight into writing songs!

About Grace Music Studio NY:

Grace Music Studio NY is a place where people come to take Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons and Brooklyn acting lessons, but also they come to be inspired. Every year, Brooklyn voice lesson and piano lesson students perform in February and June. It’s inspiring when a person gets up and performs a piece they could not sing or play before. It’s even more inspiring when they wrote the piece themselves!


Songwriting -Part of Julia’s Mission:

When I opened the Studio in 1999 part of my mission was to change peoples’ minds about music and what kind of people get to call themselves ‘musicians’.  I believe everyone is a musician, and set out to prove it. How do you change someone’s mind if they think they are not a musician? One of the quickest ways is to help them write a song. Since songwriting is a criteria that the outside world would use to deem someone a musician, the person’s concept of themselves changes as they learn to write songs. My job, as a music teacher, is to teach them the skills needed to become great musicians and songwriting is a really fun skill.


Group Songs – What Qualifies for Grace MusicS tudio NY Recitals:

Whenever I am helping a voice lesson student or a piano lesson student write a song, I am listening to see if it has the potential to be the ‘Group Number’ at our next recital. All Brooklyn voice students and Brooklyn piano students perform a solo piece at our bi-annual recitals. At some point in the recital I like everyone to perform a song together; I call this piece the ‘Group Number’. There are five criteria i use to determine whether or not a song will work for our ‘Group Number’. The first is whether or not its appropriate for all ages. Currently at Grace Music Studio NY Brooklyn, about half our students are adults and half are children. In order for a song to qualify as a good candidate for our next ‘Group Number’ it has to be appropriate for adults and kids. The second criteria is it has to be positive. Grace Music Studio NY has a mission to inspire and for this reason, the ‘Group Number’ must have a positive message/moral, or be uplifting in some way. The last three criteria I use to determine whether or not a song would make a good ‘Group Number’ are 1. The key, 2. The range and 3. The Rhythm. The piece needs to be in C Major/A Minor, easily transposable, or in an easy key (not a lot of sharps and flats). I love for Brooklyn piano lesson students to accompany us so when it comes to the key, easy is better. The range needs to be within one octave or just outside it. With a mix of people singing (male and female, children and adults) a range a lot bigger than an octave sounds a bit unstable. The last criteria is rhythm. The rhythm also has to be easily felt and not too complicated. For example, if a songwriter writes a piece in 5/4, or the piece has a lot of syncopated passages, I’m not likely to use that for our ‘Group Number’.


Group Songs- How to start:

All songwriting starts with an idea. It can be a melodic idea or just words or both.  When I am working with voice lesson students or piano lesson students who are children, I usually ask them to think of something positive, something they ‘like’. When they respond with ideas that are too personal, for example: ‘I love Transformers’ or ‘Hello Kitty’, I ask them to think of positive things that everyone would like, even their parents. Sometimes I nudge them a bit by giving a bunch of examples like: Happiness, Safety, Peace, Smiling, Heaven, Beauty, Sunshine etc.. Usually this will help them to think of something. In the case of Grace Music Studio NY’s  most recent ‘Group Number’, written by 10 year old Donovan, all I had to say was ‘we need to say something positive, what should we write about Donovan?’ He responded immediately with ‘Peace and Love!!!’.


First Create ‘Hook’/Chorus:

Once you have an idea or a theme, then you take what you’ve got and create whatever is missing. If you have words, create the melody. If you have a melody create the words. If you have neither a melody nor words (just a theme or idea), I suggest creating the words first (especially with kids). People are used to expressing themselves through words, so this is easier than asking them to create some music that sounds peaceful or happy or safe.


Create the Words for ‘Hook’/Chorus:

Just start talking out loud about the theme or idea. Ask the student to do the same. Once they are talking, you are on your way. Have them keep talking about the theme until they come up with a phrase they like. Encourage them to keep their phrases short and simple. Give BIG praise for the discovery of the phrase they like most, this is, most likely the ‘hook’ (most memorable phrase) of your ‘Hook’ (most memorable part of the song – usually the chorus). Now create the other lines in the Chorus. There are many different ways to create a chorus, I like to use a simple three or four lines that somehow rhyme. So, once the student has written the first line, encourage them to come up with two or three more phrases that rhyme with the first and/or with each other.


Create the Melody for ‘Hook’/Chorus:

Once you have the words, sometimes you can ask the student to just start improvising a melody until they find a melody they like. It’s best for the teacher to encourage the student with every step.  I like to sing, what they have created, back to them and ask them if it is what they want. Always encourage the student to sing pitches within their talking range. Sometimes, my voice lesson or piano lesson students need more help. In this case, I start by saying the words with the student out loud and tapping my foot. All spoken word has rhythm, see if the student can keep a simple, steady beat while you speak the first phrase with them. Repeat the first phrase until the student feels the beat. Encourage the simplest rhythm inherent in the speech. Have the student start improvising a melody on la while you tap and speak the words out loud. Eventually a melodic pattern will emerge that the student likes. Have the student then teach you the melodic pattern. Keep guiding them toward simplicity. Now, switch roles; the student says the words and rhythm out loud and the teacher sings la. Once the melody is memorized by both student and teacher, both can start singing the melody with the words. Repeat this process for each line of the chorus encouraging them toward a feeling of finish (Cadence to the Tonic) at the end of each line or, at the last line of the chorus. With little kids, I suggest they create a couple of question phrases (these go up in melody at the end) and then an answer phrase for the last line (this goes down in melody to Tonic). Point out to them the feeling of ‘finishing’ when the melody goes back to Tonic. If the student is more advanced, this is a great time to

teach them about cadences.


Create the Verses:

Use the same method as above to create the verses to the ‘Group Number’. The only difference is I use four lines or phrases for the Verse, instead of three. You can rhyme all the phrases at the end or every other phrase. At this point, I like to give the student some freedom to decide whether he/she would like the phrases to be question phrases (go up at the end) or answer phrases (go down at the end).  I typically like to create three verses with the students. So, start with one verse and write the lyrics and melody to that and then write words for another two verses. I like to introduce the idea that songs can be stories so, the next verse is the next part of the story.


Create the Bridge:

This is my favorite part because it can be completely different from the verse and chorus. I use the same method to help the voice lesson or piano lesson student write the Bridge with one added thing; I tell the student ‘Ok, what else do you want to say about this subject?’, and/or ‘Is there an action we can suggest to our listeners?’. In Donovan’s song, Peace and Love, the bridge says ‘Maybe we can make a brighter world together, Maybe all we need to do is sing together’.


Structure: Put all the Pieces together:

Every song is different and a structure might emerge that is different from a typical structure, if it feels right, just go with that. If a structure doesn’t emerge, just keep things simple. A format that is tried and true is one that has a Verse, then Chorus, then Verse, then Chorus, then Bridge, then Chorus, and one last Verse then two choruses. If your Bridge feels like it goes better with the chorus, then follow it with the chorus, if it feels like it’s a bridge to the verse, then follow it with the verse. If it feels like it doesn’t go with either, don’t worry, some of the greatest songs have memorable departures and returns to the main material in the piece. If you need to, when you are creating the accompaniment, you can create a musical bridge to/from the Bridge with chords.


Last step: Create Accompaniment:

Now that you have the words, melody,  Chorus, Verses and Bridge, it’s time to put it to music. The first thing to do is go to the instrument you are most comfortable with and figure out which pitches are your melody. Then just add the simplest chords you can think of and you’re done! You’re song is finished.


Teaching the song to a Group:

Once my student finishes their song, I teach it to everyone who is going to sing in the group. In each student’s private voice lesson or piano lesson, I go through the song at least once or twice. I like to start teaching the song to everyone at least two months before our recital. Everyone learns the same melody, and Group songs are mostly sung in unison. Sometimes the songwriter wants to sing parts of the song solo (like the verses) and have the group sing the rest, I leave that up to the songwriter. If the songwriter is a child, I help them decide what they think will sound best. Because music students are creative, they will often come to me with a harmony or embellishment for the song. I also encourage students to think of harmonies, once they know the song pretty well. All harmonies and embellishments are subject to the songwriter’s acceptance or rejection. The songwriter gets the last word. At the Grace Music Studio NY recital, I make sure I introduce the voice lesson student or piano lesson student who created the song to our audience. This kind of recognition is the very best encouragement you can give to any songwriter. That person, whether it is a child or an adult then thinks of him or herself as a musician. Mission accomplished!


For more information about Julia Amisano, Brooklyn voice lessons, Brooklyn piano lessons or Grace Music Studio NY, visit

Check out the new DVD Julia has made on how to sing: Three Pillars of Singing can be found at or

AND, the workbook on how to write music for beginners: Music Theory Grade 1 on and

Setting up your music classroom


To educators, the beginning of August brings with it a sense of anticipation, as the school year will soon begin. Many of us start to head into school to set up our classrooms—to create colorful bulletin boards, to hang posters on the wall, to get instruments out of the closet and dust them off.

As I set up my classroom this year, I decided while there were some aspects of my classroom I would keep the same from years past, I wanted to try out a few different ideas—many of which I found online! Below are some of those ideas:

“MUSIC” Rules: I found these on the website “Teachers Pay Teachers,” which offers free teaching downloads as well as inexpensive resources. The site also allows members to upload their own resources; members can choose whether to offer these resources for free download or for purchase.

The rules are like an acrostic poem for the word “Music,” and can be found for $2 at this link:

National Music Standards: I found this on the same website, for free, at:

I made a poster out of the sheet with my school’s poster maker, and am thinking of labeling which standards we are working on that day with grade level stars. I think it’s a great way for students to reflect on what we are doing in music class.


 Music is for everyone: I post this above my white board—it’s a great reminder to me, and to all of my students, that music is meant for everyone! I made the letters with a Cricut. If you don’t have one, ask any of your friends that scrapbook. They may have one and might be willing to let you use it—it’s a great tool for making fun, attractive letters!


Flat and sharp pencils: I found this idea on Pinterest, and thought it was a wonderful way for students to easily sort the flat and sharp pencils in your room, before and/or after they use the pencils. If you don’t have a Pinterest account, I highly recommend it. Go to for more information.


“Around the World” Bulletin board: I use this board year-round, to map songs we’ve learned throughout the year. Let’s say we just sang “Sorida” from Zimbabwe…I have a student volunteer come up and find Zimbabwe on the map. Then, I have the printed out title ready, and we pin it to the board.

“Musicians from Ohio” Bulletin Board: This year, my school has a “WILD Ohio” theme. Because of this, I will have a bulletin board focusing on musicians from Ohio; the art teacher will have a bulletin board focusing on artists from Ohio. The librarian will focus on authors from Ohio, and the P.E. teacher will focus on athletes from Ohio. I was excited to find all of the great talent from Ohio! Of course, this idea could be adapted to any state.

“Wild about composers” Bulletin board: This is another board I use year-round with my students. As we do a listening lesson, I post that composer’s picture and name on the board, until by the end of the year, the board is full. Again, I used Cricut letters to create this board.

Thinking Chairs: I got this idea from the P.E. teacher at my school. When a child needs a time-out, he/she will go to the chair labeled “I need time to think.” When he/she is done thinking and is ready to join the class, he/she will move over to the chair labeled “I am ready to go!” It’s a great way for students to monitor their own readiness.

Have a great idea for setting up your classroom? Please post it below!

Also, if you check out the Teachers Pay Teachers website, please visit to download some free visuals I’ve uploaded. If you like what you see, please review it. I’m waiting for some reviews so I can post some more free files.

Have fun setting up your classrooms, and have another exciting year!

Guest Blog about Creativity


Recently, I was asked by the Grace Music Studio to be a guest blogger. This was my first invitation to guest blog, and I was excited to do it!

Many of their blog entries are about creativity and songwriting, so I chose to blog about creativity. To view it, go to

Check out their other blog entries, and look for Julia Amisano to write a guest blog on this site soon!

New lesson plan templates


Now that the state of Ohio has finalized the new music standards, I changed my grade-level lesson plan templates with all of the indicators and am uploading them. The standards can be found here:; I believe they are expected to be fully implemented during the 2013-2014 school year. Hope you’re enjoying your summer!

Kindergarten lesson plan new

1st grade lesson plan new

2nd grade lesson plan new

3rd grade lesson plan new

4th grade lesson plan new

5th grade lesson plan new