Thunderball dynamics!

I did this really easy activity with my 1st graders to reinforce piano and forte. I put the students into five groups:

  1. Tap
  2. Scratch
  3. Stir
  4. Shake
  5. Bounce

I have them pantomime the motion with their hands, then transfer to instruments:

  1. Tap each end of a clave on the floor, basically rocking it back and forth.
  2. Scratch the membrane of a hand drum with their finger tips.
  3. Stir a maraca (I tell them to pretend they’re mixing chocolate milk).
  4. Shake a tambourine.
  5. Students bounce their hands on a conga drum whenever the “thunder ball” touches to floor.
    1. Two students bounce a ball back and forth. This part is a lot of fun, especially when they drop the ball and the conga drums get to create long, thunderous sounds!

The groups enter one by one to create a thunderstorm. Then we write the numbers on the board and label where it sounds piano and forte. You could also have the groups drop out group by group, then label the dynamics of the new pattern. Super easy, quick and gratifying for the kids!


Pianissimo & Fortissimo (pp & ff)


This is my favorite activity for teaching pp & ff. The kids have a great time doing it and the final product is so interesting to watch. I did this activity with my 4th grade classes. I spread out what I did below over a number days. If you want just the juicy project details, skip down to the red text.

I start out reviewing all the dynamics the students already know (p, mp, mf, f) with the visual below. 

dynamics reviewThen I reveal the dynamic extremes.

dynamics revealI have the students find scattered spot in room to lie down. I play the “William Tell Overture” and ask the students to listen for pp and ff dynamics throughout piece. The students sit up and I play the recording again. I use my index fingers to tip-toe the beat on my legs, arms and heads so the students can copy. When it is ff I use my whole hand instead.

Then I have the class listen to “O Fortuna”. We discuss the extreme dynamics heard in music. (I sometimes do a Venn diagram here to compare the two pieces.)




Finally, I we started the project:

  1. The students will work with their group to create two statues. One must be large to represent ff. The other must be small to represent pp.
  2. We discuss some aspects they could think about when developing their statues:
    • Levels (high, medium, low)
    • Line (curved, angular, straight)
    • Symmetrical or Asymmetrical
  3. I explain to the class that they will be putting their group statue behind a scrim (I rigged some PVC pipes to hold up some white butcher paper. It would work even better with a white sheet though.)
  4. Then I give the groups about 10 minutes or so to develop their shapes. (I visited each group as they finished each statue).
  5. The next day we put each group behind the scrim and shine a projector at them. The colors you see in the video are their group colors that I assign at the beginning of the year. scrim
  6. Each group goes behind the scrim with their color shining and gets their statue ready. I give them a few suggestions and take photos of their two statues.
  7. Later, I sync the photos up with “O Fortuna” using some video software. I used Windows Movie Maker, because that’s all my school computer had. It would be easier in iMovie.
  8. Once I timed out the pictures, I was able to go in to the same files and just replace the photos for the other classes.
  9. I posted the videos on my Youtube channel and showed each class their final product.
  10. I use a rubric to assess pp & ff with this project. This is student version that I display on the board. I show them so they fully understand where their grade is coming form.

There are a lot of other variations you could do with this project. If you try this and do something different, let me know! I’d love to try something new.

Best Day of My Life

So much popular music overly sexual and violent. I’m always really happy to hear a positive and appropriate song on the radio. One great song that’s popular right now is “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors. Here’s an arrangement I created for this song and my teaching process.


Best Day of My Life 2

Above is the complete arrangement. Feel free to skip my overly detailed and long teaching process and use your own!! Everyone has different tricks that work well for them. Here’s how I taught it to my 5th graders.

Best Day of My Life 3

1. We started with the glockenspiel part. This was the most challenging part to learn. Here is the visual I used to teach it to them. I sang it and asked them to figure out where the snap was going to fall (in the parenthesis). They snapped along with  me. When they were comfortable with the melody they sang along. We also practiced tapping the rhythm of the words on our laps as we sang.

Best Day of My Life 4

2. Next we transferred the part to the glockenspiel. I showed them this visual. I had them locate the bars used in the first part of the phrase. We then played it really slowly together.

3. After they could play the beginning of each phrase really slowly and out of time, we practiced playing the rhythm (tika-ti ti-ti) on the table next to the instrument. Then we said the corresponding letters as we played it. I had them lift their mallets in the air and sing “best day” and “coolest day” instead of playing it.

4. FINALLY, we played the beginning of each phrase on the glockenspiel. We lifted our mallets and sang the end of each phrase.

Best Day of My Life 75. On another day introduced “best day” and “coolest day” on the glockenspiel with the following visual. Some of the students had already figured it out by themselves, so it wasn’t hard for them to pick up.

6. This part was too challenging for some of my students to play up to speed. So, students had the option to play just the blue parts or only play only the downbeat A (circled in yellow).

7. Next, I introduced the conga by patting it on my leg and repeating “beat goes on, the beat goes on…”. I had students watch me do it and jump in when they felt the pattern.

8. Then I introduced the guiro part in the same manner. (Up, down-down, Up down-down…)

9. On another day I introduced the bass xylophone using the phrase “Won’t you be my friend” on my knees. One knee was G and the other was D. I had the students watch until the could jump in a play with me.

10. I introduced the alto xylophone pattern in the same manner.

11. After all of the parts were learned we put everything together with the melody they already knew from the radio. We didn’t perform the entire song, just the first half. Here is how I layered it in. You could do it however you like. You could easily perform the whole thing.

Intro: Conga, then guiro, then glockenspiel (glock plays pattern twice)

Verse 1:

(Guiro and glock drop out, conga continues.)

I had a dream so big and loud

I jumped so high I touched the clouds



I stretched my hands out to the sky

We danced with monsters through the night



I’m never gonna look back

(add egg shakers on beat) Woah never gonna give it up

No, (everyone stops playing) please don’t wake me now

One, Two, Three, Four!


(Guiro, Conga, BX and AX enter)


This is gonna be the best day of my life

My li-i-i-i-i-ii-ife


This is gonna be the best day of my life

My li-i-i-i-i-ii-ife

(Glockenspiel enters and plays their pattern twice. End song with BX/AX on D and one final conga hit.)

Click the link below to see one of my 5th grade classes practicing the piece. It’s still a work in progress, but we had fun filming it anyways. 🙂

The Best Day of My Life performance

Peter & the Wolf

I think most elementary music teachers study “Peter & the Wolf” with their students at some point. I know everyone does it a different way. Here is how I do it with my kindergartners.


1. I start by reading the story. I use a very old version of the book that I found in my classroom when I first started teaching at my school. I always planned to buy a more updated version, but I’ve grown to love this one.


Then I have the students identify the different characters in the story and discuss the ending. My book ends with the Grandfather saying “But, what if Peter had NOT caught the wolf? What then?” We end up sharing a few stories about how sometimes parents tell us not to do things to keep us safe.






2. After reading the story we listen to the individual audio clips for each character. The clips I use are from Denise Gagne’s Listening Resource Kit: Level 1.

I have the students lay down in the room and close their eyes. I ask them to imagine each character walking through the forest as they hear their music. After we’ve listening to all the clips, we listen again and pretend to quietly play each instrument.





3. During another class, the students review the story using movable characters on my SMART board.


We go through the entire plot.


They each take turns moving the characters to act out the story. 








We use a dotted “pen” to tie the rope around the wolf’s tail.









4. Next we move to each character’s theme with props. 



We use ribbon sticks and scarves.


The arrows above each character is the shape we create with our prop.


At first, I play all of this clips in order. After awhile I mix them up. I use their movement to assess if they know which theme is which.





5. In the next class we match up the instruments to each character by sliding it over. 



I usually do this a few times to really make sure they really get it.





6. If we have time we watch the Disney cartoon version of “Peter & the Wolf”. This sometimes gets skipped sadly. As students are watching I pause and point out each instrument as it first enters with its corresponding character. The ending of the Disney version is a little different. When it’s done we talk about the differences. 

Beginning Recorder Song Learning Process

I remember my first year of teaching being hard for many reasons, but one of the toughest things to learn was process.  In what order do I teach materials that will help my students be the most successful? Some things were obvious, others took many repetitions before I had a lesson that I felt really good about. Anyways, enough rambling.

Here’s a simple process that I use to teach “Merrily We Roll Along” to my 4th graders as a review of BAG on recorder. It will work for any song.

On the board is a copy of the song, along with three pictures of the fingerings for B, A, and G.

1. Students speak the pitch names with their recorders in rest position (for me, resting vertically on their left knee, in their left hand.

1a. (If needed) Repeat exercise while clapping the rhythm.

2. Students speak pitch names and match the fingering on their instrument.

3. Students play the song on recorder. Repeat.

I will have a 75% or better success rate on the first playthrough if I follow these steps. When I skip a step, that percent drops considerably.

Sometimes, to help some of the lower students, I will write the letter names of the notes underneath the notes. On each repetition of the song, I will erase all the letters of one pitch, eventually leaving the song without the letter names.

When I’m Gone – soprano recorder

Like all preteens, my 5th graders are obsessed with the cup song.  We just finished learning middle C on the soprano recorder, so I came up with this simplified arrangement of the the melody. Before playing it we discussed how neither the cup game or the melody of “When I’m Gone” are originally from Pitch Perfect. I explained the following things:

1. The melody was originally recorded by The Carter Family in 1928.

2.The cup pattern is a game that people have been playing for years in music class.

3. It was then combined with the cup game by Lulu & the Lampshades (a British Band) in 2009. Check it out here…

4. Finally, it was then featured in the hit movie “Pitch Perfect” in 2012.

Here is my soprano recorder arrangement…You're Gonna Miss MeI didn’t present it to the class in this format. I wrote letters on the SMART board and we learned it bit by bit. I sent home the sheet music with some of my advanced students to practice. Eventually we combined it with the cup game and some ukulele!

Popcorn sight reading!

Coming back from winter break I needed something fun to review B-A-G-E with my 3rd grade recorder players. I combined a couple other games I found and came up with Popcorn! It was very successful and I was really happy with it.

1. I handed out slips of white and yellow paper. I had the students write down a short 4 note composition using B, A, G, or E.

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a. They couldn’t use any skips in their pattern.

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2. Then they crumbled up their paper so that you couldn’t see what was written on it. We put all of their “kernels” in a basket.

3. I then wrote “pop!” on 7 pieces of paper, crumbled them up and added them to the basket.

4. I pulled out my two popcorn tubs ($1 from Target).

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5. I chose students to come up and pick a popcorn kernel from the basket. They opened it up and put it under the document camera for the class to read.

If they could play it correctly, they got to put the kernel in their bucket. if they got it wrong it went into mine.

I they chose a paper that said “pop!” they kernel automatically went into my bucket as well.

If they made any mistakes on their paper (e.g. putting a skip in their pattern) the kernel also went into my bucket.

Whoever had the most kernels at the end was the winner. The class had a really good time trying to beat me. I lost each time which made me happy. 🙂 Next time I do this I will have them add rhythmic notation above their letters. In the future I’ll also have the students play solo to earn their kernels!