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Rhythm Instruments: Cutting Down on the Chaos

Mrs. King's Music Class
I have had the opportunity to present workshops for regular classroom teachers and soon-to-be teachers.  Usually in these sessions I talk about how to incorporate music into their regular classroom reading and math plans.  I give them practical ways to incorporate music while teaching children's literature, working on spelling words and introducing new concepts in math.
One of the most frequently asked questions by regular classroom teachers is "What can I do with this box of instruments I have in my closet?"  I have heard some scary stories about teachers just sitting the box of instruments on a desk and calling it a "Music Center".  Yikes!  They didn't even have to tell me what happened next.  I knew! CHAOS!
Without guidelines, this would turn into noise, not music in milliseconds!
I've talked with music teachers that feel the same way.  They feel that they SHOULD use the classroom rhythm instruments but just haven' found authentic ways to use them other than keeping the steady beat.  I get it.  For my first few years I only pulled them out occasionally and hated it.  Now?  One of my favorite things to do!  I love the excitement on my students faces and how engaged they are!
Here are a few tips for cutting down on the chaos:

1.  Be the meanest teacher in the school.

No, really.  I have a couple of rules that I repeat every single time we get instruments out.  "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."  It doesn't matter what color your rhythm sticks are or if you start with a tambourine or maraca.  We are ALL making music together.  I also say "If you play before I say, I will take your instrument away!"  And I do it.  First time.  Just once.  Instruments don't ever "accidentally" play themselves.  I follow through.  This means that next class period I have a classroom of believers.

2.  Choose whole group activities that keep students playing.

One of my favorite activities to do with rhythm instruments is to have students read icons for their instrument.  I use a 16 block grid to lay out 4 measures of 4 beats.  Each of these beat boxes has an instrument in it.  This represents a quarter note.  I also include quarter rests and eventually barred eighth notes (for two sounds on one beat).   Scroll up to the top of this post to see a picture of this activity taking place.  Once we are great readers, I'll play music in the background and have students play the patterns with the music.  Since they are in a common meter there are many songs that work.   You can find the file I use for this lesson HERE
I use Greg and Steve's "The Freeze" for one of our first beat keeping experiences with instruments. We take turns playing and when the music stops we switch.  This helps students identify the instrument that they have in their hand and gives them the opportunity to hear the different timbres of all of the instruments.  I also love Hap Palmer's "Tap Your Sticks".
Later when we are great at identifying instruments we'll play a round or two of Mystery Instruments.  Such fun!

3.  Combine rhythm instruments with children's literature.

I use rhythm instruments to accompany poetry quite often.  Sometime we will play the steady beat as we chant the poem.  Other times we will substitute words in the poem for an instrument sound.  This is a fun and creative way to get students thinking about how to organize sound.
The same thing can happen with children's books.  Use the instruments to create sound effects or accompaniments.  Students listen closely for their part and get to experience great literature AND music making.  Win win! Artie Ameida's Mallet Madness books have tons of great ideas for this kind of activity. 

4.  Organize

Have a plan for how students will get instruments and how they will be put away.  I usually call rhythm sticks up by color.  "If you have red rhythm sticks, bring them up and put them away."  If we are playing several different kinds of instruments I call the noisy tambourines and maracas up first.  I think they make noise when kids just LOOK at them!!!
By following some of these guidelines I've really come to love putting instruments in the students' hands.  Please feel free to share your tips for cutting the rhythm instrument chaos in the comments section.
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  1. This is SUPER-helpful! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love your quotes! I've used the "you get what you get" but the other is great. Thank you for the ideas! Can't wait to use your instrument reading activities.

  3. Would love more information on Greg and Steves Freeze and Hap Palmers tap your sticks - or a link to them?

  4. I LOVE number one because it's so true! I too would repeat those similar phrases every single time we got out instruments, and I always followed through. If no students got their instruments taken away for that day, I would give them 30 seconds at the end of the lesson to play their instruments using any rhythm they chose. They all played them at the same time, and most students quickly realized during all this noise why I had the rules that I did. It was entertaining to watch this realization spread across their face. I would just stand back and smile :)

  5. I've been using rhythm instruments for years! My favorite is Frank Leto’s Rhythm Band Jam! I use this with my Pre-k students up to 1st and 2nd grade. Some songs can be performed by just listening while others require a chart. The children love them!

  6. I've started using "You get what you get and you appreciate it". A bit more positive. Not sure where I heard it first.

    1. Pete the Cat..... You get what you get and you don't pitch a fit. You get what you get and don't get upset. You get what you get and you appreciate it! We say that before we get anything out.

  7. Our school uses You Get What You Get and You Don't Get Upset. It works nicely especially with scarf colors. Thank you for directing me to Artie Almeda's book. I wish there were more hours in a day and more class periods in a week. Once a week makes it tough to incorporate Orff AND Kodaly. I tend to teach the Kodaly approach but would love to have the students do even more playing.

  8. I want to know where/how you got the cool colored floor squares in the picture at the top of this blog...