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Using musical instruments in the classroom

Starting with a framework

Having a ‘framework’ is often useful for work giving a structure to develop skills on instruments, exploring instruments and performing together. There are many examples of frameworks, for example:

  • story or storyboard
  • song or piece of instrumental music
  • musical purpose
  • series of colours
  • particular musical structure
  • musical phrase

The possibilities for using instruments are endless – from creating soundscapes to bringing stories to life, adding rhythmic/melodic accompaniments to copying rhythms or melodies, learning musical passages aurally or from written notations, to focussing on developing a particular skill, technique or sound through learning together. Children love performing together, and there are many ways you can develop even very simple ideas to help them to develop their instrument-specific skills, the ability to listen to themselves and others and to grow as musicians.

Some specific ideas to get the class playing include:

  • keeping a beat (using an instrument, tapping part of the body, moving in time to the music with a scarf or marching) when chanting or singing
  • playing rhythms of word phrases from songs on an instrument
  • adding an ostinato (repeated pattern) on an instrument whilst a piece of music is being played or sung
  • call and echo – copying rhythms/ melodies
  • creating ‘calls’ for others to echo
  • following a conductor to start / stop/ get louder, softer, faster, etc
  • learning melodic parts of a known song and play together in unison (all together), solo (on their own) or in different parts
  • taking something they know already (e.g. a melody) and adapting it to make it their own
  • manipulating musical phrases to explore different elements.

Many published and school-developed units of work and resources offer flexible suggestions on ways to incorporate instruments. Whatever you choose to focus on in each lesson needs to be led by the learning you are seeking, rather than just being a nice activity without a specific learning purpose. Defining this desired learning outcome will help you choose appropriate repertoire and to differentiate accordingly.

For example, is your purpose:

  • to help children develop their ability to maintain a steady pulse?
  • to copy a rhythm accurately?
  • to be able to play the chorus of a song fluently?
  • to provide them opportunities to practice changing between chords?
  • to be able to play a simple melodic ostinato in time with a small group?

Start simple – with things that you are confident with. Perhaps observe and talk to other teachers and get advice and guidance from them.

There is more information on defining learning in Daubney and Fautley’s (2014) guide to assessment and progression, freely downloadable from the ISM website (click image below).