The two words we hear in education more than anything else: Classroom Management. One of my former colleagues and close friends has a plaque in her office that says, “I teach music, what’s your superpower?” No group of words has ever been more true.
But seriously, that phrase says so much because it’s true! I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both the general music classroom setting and large ensemble/small lesson group settings, and this year especially, I’m experiencing both realms and seeing how they relate to one another.
If you read my article called Build it. Sustain it. and tried some new recruitment strategies, well then chances are your program is either starting to build up or perhaps bursting at the seams with a huge number of students! Awesome, right?
Of course it’s awesome, but now it gets tricky: how does one person manage something like this? Those half-hours go by so quickly, but in our minds, they are long and exhausting. We need to keep the momentum going and have every minute planned.
I’m going to tackle this in two sections, starting with the general music classroom.
For classroom management tips in the large ensemble classroom, read part 2.
Classroom Management in General Music Settings
First off, can I just say it? We are in no way general music teachers: we are foundational music teachers! We have a huge role in creating an entire generation of music lovers that enjoy music and have a love and an appreciation for it. When your 2nd graders are raising their hands enthusiastically every time they hear the famous four-note motif from Beethoven’s 5th symphony, we’ve done our jobs. So, have that in your mind when you read this section and enter your classrooms next week.
Nothing made me a better teacher than teaching in the general music classroom setting. Whether you’re teaching on a cart and rolling into classrooms or the students come to you, classroom management in this setting is always a challenge. As I stated earlier, I get to teach both general music and instrumental music in the same school, and in doing so, I set the expectations and groundwork for my little musicians and can positively feed my own programs. This means that my little kindergarteners, who may one day sign up for orchestra in third grade, will either love music and want more of it or consider their last three years of experience and want nothing more to do with it.
If you are like me and feed your own programs (i.e., teach general music but also teach instrumental like band, strings, or ensembles like chorus), your classroom atmosphere directly impacts such programs. And even if you teach general music only, you are a critical component in fostering a love for music, thus impacting such programs.
While I speak primarily from an elementary standpoint, please remember that many (if not all) of these strategies can be applied to the middle and high school levels, albeit adapted.
- Set the guidelines from day one. You can do this in one of two ways or even mix both:
- Classroom Constitution: collaborate with your students and talk about what your classroom should look and sound like. What words come to mind? Have them share and write them down, then you can create a visual classroom charter that you can refer back to.
- Utilize your school’s classroom behavior policy: most schools have one, but feel free to tweak it for your needs. Your students (except for kindergarteners) will already be familiar with it, so they know the expectations but will likely need to be reminded/redirected often.
- Using the above examples, neither approach can work without modeling. At the beginning of the year, I always ask for a volunteer student to model (which they love doing) and have them act out a scenario to which I must respond. “Okay Charlie, I’m going to start talking about something, and I want you to ignore Mr. Granata and start up a conversation with Julia.” The student does it, and I simply say, “Charlie, you have one reminder.” Have a discussion with the students on what they saw, and ask them what a reminder means. Then, follow up and have Charlie do the same thing again. “Charlie, go take a break and join us when you’re ready.” It’s a fun way to demonstrate what can happen, but it shows the students that Charlie is not in trouble but he just needed a moment to himself.
- Don’t just have students take a break. Have the whole class model a similar scenario in which you’re talking, and they’re talking over you. Get their attention and tell them how you’re feeling (use descriptive adjectives like “I’m feeling sad or ignored), then tell them you need to go and take a silent break. They’ll watch you in silence (seriously), then come back when you’re ready with a smile and talk about it. They need to see such scenarios played out.
- Follow through. This is especially important if it happens within the same class period since students won’t know you’re modeling. They’ll then say to themselves: “Oh, that’s what this looks like.”
- Be fair. You cannot single out certain students that have more pronounced behaviors. In fact, I would try to enact such management tactics (reminders, taking a break) with students that are often quiet and well-behaved. This shows all students that you see them as equals and no one is a favorite.
- Know your students … ALL of them. Know their names, take time to learn about their favorite activities outside of school, and know their strengths and weaknesses in and out of your classroom. Always focus on their strengths, but never stop trying to help them overcome their weaknesses. Taking this time to get to know your kiddos means building trust and safety, and they’ll know that even if you do need to approach them about behaviors, you care for them.
- Laugh with them. Make your environment fun and joke as often as you can. This ties in with my previous point. Never underestimate the power of humor.
- Share stories with them about you, and show them pictures of your family.
- Acknowledge when you make a mistake and emphasize it. “Oh man, did you all see that I made a mistake? Everyone makes mistakes, so don’t ever worry about it.” It makes your students feel comfortable making mistakes and shows that you’re human.
- Routines are essential. Every time I enter a classroom, I sing, “He-llo mus- i-cians” (using the notes Sol, Mi-Mi, Sol, Mi). They echo back with an appropriate singing voice, “He-llo-Mr. Gra-na-ta). It tells them immediately that they’ve transitioned to a new subject (music), and it’s familiar to them. Plus, it gives them practice time to strengthen their vocal cords. When they leave, change it to, “Good-bye mus-i-cians” which they echo in return. This needs to be taught at the beginning of the year and reinforced, even if you’ve had them consecutively.
- Have a warm-up in place that is musically engaging, rigorous, and familiar. I use an adapted one that a close and former colleague friend of mine taught me involving stretching, keeping a steady beat, echoing simple call-and-response vocal patterns (those of us with deeper voices, use your falsetto for the elementary level), lip trills, shushing on different rhythm patterns that they echo back, and using your finger to model low-to-high and high-to-low pitches. You can make this more fun by incorporating high-order-thinking games utilizing the Curwen hand signs. I teach them the hand signs and the corresponding solfège syllables (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do), then play a Simon Says game where you say and do the hand signs/solfège, and they do them back. Try and trick them and do weird hand signs that aren’t music-related. Likewise, get them to identify certain pitch patterns (e.g., sol-la-mi is a fun one because it sounds like salami and it’s melodic and easy to remember) and make it into a game. They can echo everything except sol-la-mi.
- This warm–up can take up some time, but it’s a wonderful way to hit many state standards, assess and monitor growth, and get their brains thinking musically. And again, it’s a routine that’s familiar, and students need (and crave) structure and predictability. I have many students on the spectrum that know this warm-up back and forth and have memorized it!
- Constantly point out when students are doing things appropriately, and make it a goal to find and address those students that are actively participating and who need positive reinforcement.
- I use recorders and instruments and teach students from the beginning what rest position, ready position, and playing position looks (and sounds) like. This will tie in directly with instrumental study on more advanced instruments like band and strings. For singing, talk about posture (standing/sitting up tall, relaxing your legs, etc.).
- Consistency. You must be consistent and hold them accountable for all behaviors.
- Keep assessments short and secret. Students in a music classroom don’t need to know they’re being assessed, but we need to know that our students understand what they’re being taught. I encourage you not to say things like we’re having a quiz but rather to find alternative ways to assess them.
- Intrinsic versus Extrinsic motivation. I covered this in my article Build it. Sustain it., and it motivates students to use music as a way to bring joy to others and not to simply do something and expect a prize/reward in return. Schedule in-school field trips where older students can go to classrooms and play for the little ones. I put colored zip-ties on the ends of my students’ recorders, and it starts to create a chain. I then tell them that they can walk around the school proudly and that the little students are so intrigued about the zip-ties. Visually, it shows your older students how they’ve grown while also pulling in your future students.
- Most importantly: have a plan! There can be zero downtime in the general music setting, so really plan to utilize every minute. Activities need to be fun but demanding, and never underestimate the power of simple games such as “Quack-a Dilly Omar” (my students pass around a rubber chicken, sing, and I use a metronome, so they use a steady beat). Think of the game “Hot Potato.”
- Never forget: positive reinforcement is better than pointing out flaws.
I love what I do, but it’s a challenge every day. Be positive, and always remember why it is we do what we do. I have found that consistency and positivity is the key to successful classroom management. It’s not necessarily about rules but following through and developing real relationships with kids. Students, young or old, know if we care about them. Ask them about how their soccer match went or how they did in their gymnastics competition. Relate to them (“I watched the Superbowl last night!”), but don’t be afraid to push them to be better musicians and better people.
As always, I hope you have nothing but success with your little musicians! That’s what they are, right? Musicians! Call them that, and let them know that’s what they are.
Best of luck!