Five Ways to Keep Your Class Totally Engaged in Music

What was your first experience of music? Was it dancing in the kitchen? Listening to a parent sing along to the radio? Or perhaps, pounding the piano keys with your sister or brother?
Male Teacher Playing Guitar With Pupils Having Music Lesson In Classroom


As educators, we aspire to re-create the experience that made us want to learn more about music. At their most fundamental level, we want our classes to be havens for self-expression, where students feel safe to explore and learn. Here are five simple strategies to help you keep that spark of learning in your classes, with an eye toward children’s developmental levels, the intrinsic need for play, and maintaining control of the class.


1. Maintain Eye Contact

Whenever possible, stay at the students’ level. Young children are bound to get distracted, for example, if you need to walk across the room to sit behind the piano. This is why the guitar works so well when teaching music to children. Its portability and positioning is ideal for instruction within the intimacy of a circle. Sit down with students to set the tone that music is something to be shared.

2. Modeling

Sometimes nothing is more powerful for spreading the music bug than to watch the depths of human expression come alive in a performance. Sharing one’s passion about something can be contagious. You may try spontaneously playing something you’ve been working on or inviting a guest to the class, such as a peer from the high school or a parent who makes his or her living in music. Save time for questions and answers, and make note of what intrigues your students.

3. Allow for Movement

According to the Orff approach, children learn best when teachers create an atmosphere that is similar to a child’s world of play. An Orff-inspired classroom is based on “things children like to do: sing, chant rhymes, clap, dance, and keep a beat on anything near at hand.”(1) Use echo clapping to call the class to attention or teach rhythms, and march together to the beat of a drum. Make instruments available to children that they can easily play, such as xylophones, tamborines, and maracas, in order to access their natural curiosity.

4. Use Collaborative Classroom Methods

When students’ interests and choices are incorporated into the lessons, they will inevitably be more invested in the class. What do your students know? What real-world examples can they bring to the forum and how can you capitalize on this? For example, older students may be asked to share some of their favorite pop songs. Play them in class and analyze different elements of the piece (instrumentation, rhythm, beat, notation). For a lesson on composers, ask collectively, then write student-generated questions on the board: What do we know (about Mozart)? What do we want to know? And after the lesson, What have we learned?

5. Keep Instructions Concise

Try using singing or sound cues to signal various routines in class, such as a chime to tell students when to quiet down for meeting time. Have students choose from a variety of songs in various music styles to use for a cleanup song (one class I taught chose Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” as a cleanup song). To help students internalize routines and understand desired outcomes, keep verbal instructions to a minimum and instead, model or show students what you want them to do.


i American Orff-Schulwerk Association. “What is Orff Schulwerk?” Copyright 2011


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1 Comment

  • By Jordan Reply

    What a great blog! I feel that the characteristics you listed are very useful techniques in the general music classroom. I wanted to provide a list of six strategies to keep students involved in the band classroom:

    1- ALWAYS give students an “assignment”. Students, especially in the grades that I teach (6-8) need constant entertainment. With the new technology that is available today, students get bored, quickly. Most student disengagement or behavior problems stem from boredom. Students always need to have an “assignment”, or a goal throughout the whole rehearsal. For example, when I find that I will need to work on a clarinet part extensively, I tell the other students to tizzle their parts, and to focus on any missed notes or rhythms because I will be evaluating them next. This minimizes interruption and promotes student engagement throughout the class.

    2-Model or provide appropriate models. We assume that students know what an appropriate sound is on their instrument. Do not erroneously make this assumption; students need to hear what a good sound on their instrument is. Do not play an instrument for students that you cannot produce a good sound on; in that case, find a recording that can appropriately model the correct sound for that instrument.

    3- Divide time equally among sections. Once again, students get bored without a particular assignment or goal in mind. Not only that, but students have a short attention span when doing individual work. Even though I may have the other students tizzle while I am working with the clarinets, they will get bored of this activity after a minute or two. Know when the boredom hits, and turn your attention to other sections of the band. This keeps the momentum of the rehearsal going and equally involves all students.

    4- Provide opportunities for improvement. In the typical band room, there will be students who are above average at their instruments, some who are average, and some who are below average. The above average students need to be provided opportunities to further their learning; chances are in class, these students grasp the material rather quickly, and to keep them from becoming bored with band, provide opportunities to take their musicianship a step further.

    5-Provide opportunities for leadership/divide and conquer.
    One of the characteristics of a good teacher leader is that roles for leadership are “created to distribute the work of running schools to others besides the principal and to enlist teachers as partners in school improvement” (Danielson, 2006). By dividing the responsibilities of the band director (passing out papers, making copies of music, keeping lists, etc.), life is easier for everyone. Also, as a result of this delegation, student leaders emerge.

    6- Use descriptive language/imagery. Students thrive on imagery. One of the best ways to get a point across to a student is to paint a visual picture in their head. I find that majority of my band students are visual learners. Telling them to play “legato” holds very little meaning, but when I tell them to play it as if they are “singing a lullaby to a baby in hopes of putting it to sleep”, I then get the effect that I am looking for.

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