How to help young children to have fun and retain more in music.

I had this question posted to me a few weeks ago and after careful research and consideration have posted this reply. I know this will be of value to many music teachers out there and although the answer is to address teaching at kindergarten level, it is applicable and adaptable to teaching any young class. Please add your own experience and add feedback to the comment box below I would love to hear your perspective on this important issue.

I have a part time job teaching children in Kindergarten Music Prep. (Music Theory). I am constantly having to remind them of what we have talked about. How should I go about helping them to remember what we learned in class. Their parents are paying me money, and I would like for the children to actually remember things.”

Teaching kindergarten music sounds so easy – doesn’t it. After all, the children are so small and cute, seem well behaved and all the literature on growth and development suggests they are capable of retaining massive amounts of information at this age. How could this be causing a teacher any stress I hear you say?

The real truth is that this age requires innate understanding of each individual child and a real strategy and recipe for success. Children of this age can be plain hard work and it takes real courage and honesty for any teacher to identify an area of their own teaching where they don’t feel fully fulfilled. I just want to say from the beginning that I really respect those qualities in this teacher and I understand the frustrations that go along with it.

The reality is immense pressure is placed on the teacher when parents are paying extra money for their child’s lessons outside of usual school curriculum. The expectations are enormous. I know that the act of paying extra money from a parents perspective is that the children should receive all the benefits. They believe that it should be fun and easy, they will instantly be able to play songs, will naturally gain the discipline of practice and will remember everything that is said to them.

However To young children, music is a foreign language. It’s that sound that plays in the background all the time everywhere we go and has done so since pre-birth, it looks easy to do until you try it and if you make mistakes and forget things it looks and sounds terrible.

The long and short of it all is that if music becomes too hard, then children will not remember any of the content and will not enjoy it.

What I would like for you to do as you read this information, is to grow with it and I want to emphasise that you do not have to implement it all straight away. Instead just read it and use it as a spring board to finding out more. If you don’t agree with what my advice is, just stand back from it and say to yourself hmm… just think maybe if i just tried it in a small way without upsetting my usual routine too much, maybe I could test it a few times, just to see.

These strategies can also be used and adapted for all class sizes whether it be a one -on -one lesson or huge classes. I know that as resourceful people we can always find a way to implement the ideas so they can be effective . My advice would be don’t be afraid to ask for help. At kindergarten level, some parents could take a teacher aid role and could really help you keep the momentum flowing throughout the lesson while you facilitate.

The very nature of music is that it is an active lesson (even when you’re teaching music theory), because to make music you need to do it total immersion that works best. Just think, the best way to learn a foreign language is to visit the country for a while ! I fully believe that Music theory works in the same way.

Music is just not a “passive “style of learning. To sit there and talk about it would simply not be enough. To fully retain concepts of music theory, we need to fully engage our children, have them up and buzzing with excitement and have them immersed in the activity of learning music from the outset. Research has shown that active style learning can help retain over 80% of the content given.

In my own experience with this active learning approach, parents always marveled at how their children could remember so much even when the parent was still sitting in the room watching the lesson. The children would often remember much more than the parent, and they often couldn’t understand why it was that their children remembered more until it was explained to them. The reason was that the children were actively immersed in the learning where as the parent was looking on passively – it’s an amazing difference!

The great news for teachers is that anyone can start active learning at anytime and in a big or small way. It doesn’t require any type of personality or extra materials to what you would already find in any general music classroom . It does however require a different road map on how to get there and requires the teacher to grow and change their perspective. This is also often quite different from the way we have often been taught to teach!

So let’s get started:

Here are four advice tips and some suggestions for implementing active style strategies to
a music theory class for kindergarten children:

Tip#1 : Separate individual Concepts :less = more.

Learning Music requires a child to interpret new information about all sorts of things.

Imagine learning to ride a bike and we were told all the steps. Now keep your weight in the middle, pedal hard,change gears, look where you want to go, steer and ring the bell if you get too close to someone and you use the brake by applying pressure with our hands or our feet. Its all just too much! If you were given this advice, chances are that you wouldn’t have known where to start and would have taken years to master it.

When children are playing the piano for the first time, just think of all the components they get told to remember at times.They get told to sit up, think about what notes to play, read the notes or remember them, how to hold their fingers, know how long the notes are held for and then on top of all this to play while remembering all of this sometimes while playing along with a sequence or background music. Sounds crazy when you put it this way !

How many times do we as music teachers do it in music theory classes?

This is a Middle C it goes for one crotchet beat and lives in between the treble and bass clef, this is how you play it now lets do a worksheet.
There are ljust too many concepts here- knowing where middle C is means that the child needs to know concepts of rhythm, pitch and musical terms all at the same time. I didn’t even mention the grand stave and manuscipt in this example and the kids would already be confused. If this was all new, as a child you just wouldn’t know where to start.

Just imagine how much easier it would be for a kindergarten student to receive one new piece of information at a time and use it in many different ways so that they can have the chance to fully understand it and retain the information.

Tip #2 : Start with the known and move into the unknown

Have you ever asked someone what a crotchet is and they just look back at you and say something like

“Is it a type of knitting?”

The reason they say this is not just to be funny . They have heard of knitting called crochet before, but they haven’t heard of the musical term crotchet so they relate it to something they know over something they don’t.

I know when I was working with kindergarten aged children, I used the age old story of a house to introduce the manuscript- just like so many teachers out there already do.
A first lesson would start on a whiteboard with just the stave lines on it. Five for the treble and five for the bass just like conventional notation has, but it would become a story.
I would say to the children something like “Who can guess what I am drawing?”- rather than
telling them (to help keep hem active and involved in the process). and would draw two walls at the end of the stave,then after I paused and would get no answer I’d draw a roof, a chimmney maybe a door and some windows until the children get it and yell out – a house! It seems simple doesn’t it, but They never forget this and then because they understand the original foundation skill, it’s easy to build adding characters in the house being the music notes and the treble and bass stave and making them into people.

If I had of told them that this is the manuscript stave lines or the grand stave – unless I related it to something that every 4 year old would know, they just wouldn’t get it from the beginning. The house was something they all knew.

The really fun thing about using this concept was watching any parents in the room . They had often gone through years of music as a child themselves, often without really understanding it. By learning it as a four year old again, they would get it after all these years too. You could almost hear the penny drop as they understood the fundamental concept as their children were learning it. Many parents still ask me to print out a copy of the musical house, just so they can help and understand with their children even years later.

Tip #3 Use different medium to help repeat and reinforce information

As with anyone learning a new concept, it’s important to explain it over and over again in a
way that will build the information, rather than forget it.

In teaching, the general music notes concept of some go on lines and others on spaces for example, you could approach the same idea in several ways. You could:

-bring the class to sit in front of a whiteboard and share a story. You could build the musical house and then simply explain that inside the music house live all the notes on all the lines and spaces.
-get some magnet round music notes to fit the stave and show the children how they are
– get some children to put a music note up themselves ask some to put them in lines and
others in spaces.
-have a race where teams would race against each other (or against the teacher) to put
notes in lines and spaces,
-practice drawing notes in lines or spaces on the whiteboard with the children
– become music notes and stand on a line or space using masking tape lines on the floor
-do a worksheet where children draw around notes in lines or in spaces and perhaps even
draw a couple of their own
– play a game based on notes on lines and spaces – you could make up a “musical twister”
or “lines and spaces match game” or something with general music notes in lines or spaces.
– put music note magnets on lines and spaces using hand held musical magnet boards.

The ideas are endless- but they all teach the same concept in visual, auditory and kinesthetic ways. All you need to do is pick a mixture of each or the best ones to suit your learners.

Tip#4 : Provide Challenge to let the children they are Achieving.

Even in the most interesting lessons, I have found that that Team or individual Challenges tie the learning together and keep children on task and focussed.

Ideas could include:

– a sticker or incentive chart that keeps the class inspired. You might have a class that
just loves games – so inspire them to play more games by completing other tasks and using
a sticker or tick chart to show their progress as they complete each activity to aim for
the goal.

– a happy face sad face chart on a whiteboard. If the class has more happy face ticks than
sad faces ticks at the end of a lesson then they might get to do an extra game or
something else they like to do.

– give children individual challenges where they needed to complete a certain amount of
activities in the lesson and check them off to get a choice of activities at the end of a

I had a class once that didn’t like singing solfege, and always complained that it was too hard so I made it into a class challenge. I came up with a “Hall of Fame “ idea where as a class finished an exercise as a group, they would be able to pick out a team or class sticker and put it on their chart. I also gave each child a sticker to take home as well. The children just loved this and it eventually became a whole wall of my classroom. It just turned the whole activity around from something the children didn’t want to do into a highlight of the lesson.

Action plan:
Here are some lesson ideas you could use in an First Music Fun (Theory) Lesson designed for Kindergarten Children.

Dancing: Get the children up, active and moving from the beginning and move with them. A simple dance gets their heart rate up and in a state that they will be ready to retain more. Use anything they love and add simple actions like clapping and moving side to side. Do several songs if you wish. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you use, just that it creates a “feel good” atmosphere and the children love it. Get the children more excited as the music continues by lifting the tempo and by the end they will be jumping and excited – perfect retention mode!

White Board Story time: Tell a story about the pitch theory concept for the day! (Use my story in tip#2 as an example) or you could make up your own – it doesn’t matter as long as it’s one clear simple message and it begins and ends quickly. When drawing, the children love to become involved and love to join in.

Note Race Game: Check their knowledge by making a game out of it. Divide the class into two groups and have two racers at a time. You can check how much the children have learned from the story and get them involved in retaining the information. They love doing this game! An example: put music notes on lines or spaces, make the notes Doh Reh Mi, CDE – use the concept learned in the story to set the race content.

Do a worksheet: Have a simple design practicing the content of the story. practice tracing around particular music notes, treble clefs etc. Make it clear how to do it with arrows and demonstrate on the whiteboard or on your own sheet. Concentrate on only the known concepts to help reinforce understanding rather than using it as a test.

Play a Song :Use a class set of instruments (Xylophones or Keyboards) in the classroom to help reinforce the content. For example if you have just told a story about Middle C, then play a song with middle C’s. Play along with a sequence or teacher accompaniment to keep it in time and give them a cue to come in. Use paper templates to explain and practice what to do before doing it on the real instruments. (Remember rhythm hasn’t been covered yet in the lesson) so it should be a song where it is natural to play in time. A song like “Wheels on the Bus” works well to play along with for beginners.

Learn Rhythm using percussion Instruments: Have a simple rhythm drawn up on the white board using time signature, rhythm and a repeat sign. Point to the symbols and clap. Less explanation is the key more movement helps retain. The children ask questions as you go and pick up on the symbols quickly. When the children can clap it then get them a class set of percussion instruments. Demonstrate how to hold them properly and show them how to play- then let them play along. Add accompaniment music to help make it really fun. Classical music works well as an accompaniment. Count 1,2,3,4 and start playing together. The power of “doing” is enormous.

Music Appreciation: Find a piece of classical music and act out a story. “The Elelphant” and “The Swan” from Carnival Of The Animals by Saint Seans are perfect pieces to help children dance like Dinosaurs or swim like fish. A Classic like “March Of The Toreadors’s” (From Carmen by Bizet) will have your children understand what it feels like to be both the bull and the bull fighter. Make up some stories of your own and let your imagination go wild- the children love it and easily make up their own after a while.

Sing Solfege: Start with simple songs such as “Hot cross Buns” and sing them in solfege. The children over time can remember enormous amounts and take real pride in getting to the end of a solfege version and performing it. (The reason why I suggest solfege is because it’s easier to remember and sing than the musical alphabet). In my experience, use the Hall Of Fame in Tip#4 together with this idea as some children find this activity more difficult and need an incentive challenge to focus on.

Play Games: Games are a great way to revise and extend knowledge. Anything from snap, matching games, dice games, spinner games, guessing games, bingo games to board games work extremely well with children of all ages. Have a new game ready each week and your class will always be on side and retaining!