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Tips for adapting the elementary music curriculum to online teaching

Teachers of the performing arts are adapting their classes to go online. The problems and challenges range from ensuring enough physical space for movement around each student’s computer to overcoming audio and video syncing delays during the live feed. Some of the solutions include doing less movement during the class and turning off students’ video so there is less latency in the audio. But what about elementary music?

Young students are inspired by seeing others move with them. The teacher can assess comprehension by observing student movement. Moving to contrasts like fast-slow, loud-soft, and high pitch-low pitch helps internalize this knowledge. Movement helps for deeper understanding and engages the student in a richer experience. In Praxial Music Education, Heidi Westerlund and Marja-Leena Juntunen make the argument that movement demonstrates musical thinking. How then do we adapt this inherent part of the elementary music experience? How do we adapt movement for online?

This article offers tips for elementary teachers who want to include music in their online lessons on how to build a successful set up and lesson strategy.

Creating an online music environment

First, develop easy to follow guidelines for parents to setup their home computer area for limited movement. Suggest that the kids sit in a chair facing the screen with at least four feet open space behind them for standing and moving in place. It’s helpful if a parent or older person can stay with the child during the lesson and do the movements with them.

Then, structure your class schedule while keeping in mind the electronic issues. Feisworld Media recommends turning off your students’ video; their website says it helps reduce audio delay. Evaluate your own situation and notate the issues. How bad are the syncing issues with all students unmuted with video? Does it work better with half the students muted and off screen? Maybe just a few students at a time? While working this out, confer with your school to determine their flexibility. Karen Salvador and Rob Lyda from the NAfME Webinar: Teaching Elementary and Early Childhood Music in the Time of COVID-19 recommend writing a letter to your administration to clarify how you want to approach your music classes. Maybe instead of having an entire class at once, you could schedule several shorter classes with less students at a time. This may make it more manageable and the students can get more individual attention.

Adapting the lessons

Salvador and Lyda also suggest going back to the “anchor standards” during this extended online school year. Teachers can create lessons for all their different grade levels on the same basics but approach them differently for each grade level. A recent Frau Musik USA article suggests using the same songs for all the grades but adapt the learning level appropriately. An added bonus is that this will help parents with practice time if all their elementary age children are learning the same song. They include a great example of how to do this with the song “Hot Cross Buns.” Choir Directors Kathy Alexander and Bev Grant say that using vocal recorded music can make online singing more enjoyable, helping the students experience something closer to in-person classes.

The main idea is to teach the basic concepts in smaller “chunks” or “capsules” using simplified objectives and reduced activities. Here’s an example. Students learn the song “Lucy Locket,” but instead of playing the circle game, students can stand in place and march to the beat or clap to the rhythm. Have students make up their own “beat” movements like shrug their shoulders or dance. Play follow the leader. Practice the solfege (sol, la, sol, mi) with the hand signs, but save reading the notation for another time. Use pictures to help with the vocabulary words “pocket” and “ribbon.”

Other ideas are to reduce the amount of movement to what stays manageable. Include more call and response songs and taking turns. Another option is to do alternate activities. Elizabeth Caldwell from NAfME suggests use other types of music learning like interviewing family members, drawing instruments, using recorded music or creating lists of songs. This will inspire engagement and help get the most out of the online music experience.

Tips for adapting the anchor curriculum

  • Movement: run, jog, skip, jump, hop, tiptoe, gallop, side-step (sashay), patsch (pat the legs), pantomime, and movement-in-space.TIP: Remove gallop and sashay. Retire any dance or partner dance moves for now. Adapt run, and jog to movement-in-place that can be performed in front of the screen.
  • Beat and rhythm: beat, tempo (fast/slow), stop/go (sound/silence), rest, note duration (long/short), rhythm (feeling quarter, eighth, and sixteenth variations), inner hearing, increased subtlety in rhythmic changes, strong and weak beat, bar-line, reading rhythmic notation, identifying written songs using rhythmic notation, time signature.TIP: Retire percussion instruments for now except for making and using homemade instruments. All of these concepts are doable online by adapting your presentation to a small screen. For example, to demonstrate strong and weak beat, flip your hands palm to back, back and forth while singing or listening to music in front of the camera.
  • Melody and singing: pitch (high/low), note duration (legato/staccato), dynamics (loud/soft), form (verse, chorus, phrasing), solfege (do, re, mi…), group singing, individual singing, reading pitch notation, identifying written songs using pitch notation, key signature.TIP: The main change will be less group singing. and more listening to each other. Retire melodic instruments like the xylophone for now. While learning the solfege hand signs, have students practice, demonstrate, and perform for each other. Work on music notation with melody separate from rhythm. Then later put them together to form songs to read.
  • Other ideas: Do instrument families, classical music listening, composers, elementary acoustics, composition, and conducting. By using pictures, charts, and worksheets students can experience all of these activities. Preparation is needed for handouts and the teacher needs PDF files ready to display for students.TIP: Retire specific STEM activities like language arts unless there’s time. Focus primarily on music anchor objectives.

For many first-time online teachers, this will be a year of trial and error. Be kind to yourself and know that some things will work and others won’t. Keep on the look-out for resources online that will help.

Featured image: Kim Milai teaching a song to students online

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