It happens every year.  It never fails.  We reach the end of the school year and a fourth grader excitedly comes up to me in the hallway.  

Student:  When do we get to take our flutes home?! Me:  Flute?  I don't have any flutes.Student:  You know those things, what are they called?

Now, mind you, I have been calling those things RECORDERS multiple times during each class since October and this child still doesn't know the name of the instrument.  This same phenomenon is true for orchestral instruments.  Thank heavens for Squidward, we now get clarinet right most of the time.  

What is a music teacher to do?

My students have had greater success in correctly identifying instruments of the orchestra, both aurally and visually, since I have built these 3 things into my curriculum.

1. Map Out a Plan to focus on specific instruments for each grade level based on the resources and field trips that are available. That way, students aren’t trying to memorize 25 instrument names all at the same time.

In my district, we are fortunate to take all second graders to a performance of Carnival of the Animals, third graders to a performance of the Nutcracker Ballet, and fourth graders to a Link-Up concert by the local symphony.  These trips have helped me create my plan for introducing the orchestral instruments.  I have until October of second grade to be sure the students can identify all of the Carnival instruments, so I spread those out over Kindergarten and first grade.  I continued my plan by adding in instruments featured in the Nutcracker, and then in fourth grade we add in the rest of the major orchestral instruments.  

Students are better able to master the names and families when they are introduced and practiced in smaller sets.  Choose your sequence based on the resources that you have available in your school and town.  Here is my map:

  • Kindergarten:  violin, flute, glockenspiel, xylophone, tuba, piano
  • First Grade:  (review flute & violin), clarinet, trumpet, trombone, double bass
  • Second Grade(review glockenspiel & xylophone), piccolo, viola, cello, harp 
  • Third Gradeoboe, bassoon, French horn, timpani, bass drum, along with science sound unit-how each instrument makes a sound & how size affects pitch
  • Fourth Grade:  piccolo, snare drum, cymbals, review classification by families
  • Fifth Grade:  saxophone, electronic piano, electric guitar, electric bass

2. Use the Vocabulary and provide opportunities for students to use the vocabulary, spread out over time.  Listening lessons, class games, and center games can distribute these opportunities across many lessons.  Draw pictures of the instruments as you listen, or create a drawing center with a sample instrument pictures.  Practice writing the instrument names in a journal, or use a "write the room" activity like this one:

I can arrange the instrument posters and names around the room, selecting only those that have been introduced to the students. 

Perhaps you already have instrument posters and don't need to purchase the complete set, or perhaps you might like to try this idea before investing any money in a new resource.  Check out this free sampler that includes 5 write the room worksheets, but no instrument posters.  Students love the scavenger hunt aspect of  this type of activity!  

I know I am a bit "old school," but there is something about writing things down that just seems to make that information stick in my brain so much better.  I think it works for my students, too.  

By third grade, we have learned enough instruments to play around the world and team challenge flash card games.  These are fast paced, and really test the students' recall.  

Sorting instruments into families supports the science curriculum when we focus on how instruments make their sound, and how size affects pitch.  Classification by common characteristics is also a science process skill.  This is how we, as music educators, support other disciplines without compromising our own discipline.  

3. Engage ALL of the Learning Modalities to create stronger neural pathways. Visual, Aural & Kinesthetic modalities are all important!  

It is especially helpful to use single instrument recordings when live performance is not possible.  I have found some awesome recordings folk songs played by solo instruments to be very effective, especially in the younger grades.  I use these CD's in conjunction with the folk songs that we sing already, along with the visual of the instrument that is playing. I think it helps the students to hear the one instrument playing a song that they know, rather than trying to pick out an instrument from a band or orchestral recording. Aural and visual modalities are easily activated. "Air play" the instruments and draw pictures while listening to activate the kinesthetic modality. 

 Simple Gifts

Don Gato, You Are My Sunshine, and Simple Gifts are published by GIA Music, and each have 100 FOLK SONGS recorded by a solo instrument with simple accompaniment.  That's 300 songs!  Don Gato features the string family, while You Are My Sunshine and Simple Gifts feature woodwind, brass and percussion instruments.  

Please comment with your favorite teaching tips to help elementary students learn the instruments of the orchestra!


I'm linking up with Pitch Publications for Tech Talk Tuesday.

Assessing student performances is time-consuming!  It is often difficult to make an accurate judgement on the fly, because things happen so fast that it is hard to "record" all of the info in our brains in real time.  Recording student performances for assessment purposes has been a teacher trick that solved this problem for many years.  With the growing use of individual technology devices in schools everywhere, recording student performances is easier than ever.

I am fortunate to have access to a class set of iPods.  For this assessment project, we used the video camera that is built in to the iPod for the video and a Google Form for the rubric.  The following steps assume that your students are ready for performance.

Step 1 Demonstrate
Most kids have some experience with pictures and recordings on phones, so you may or may not have to do too much explaining.  I moved through a quick demonstration just to reinforce the fact that students should all be working with the video camera, how to switch from the still camera to the video camera, how to switch to the front-facing camera, and how to start and stop the recording.

Before passing out the iPods, the school/class rules for use were reviewed.  My backup plan for students who choose not to follow the rules is to take their iPod away, then I recorded them with my iPod.

Step 2 Record
I am fortunate to have a nice sized room and medium sized classes, so we were able to spread around the perimeter of the room, with a few scattered in the middle, so that students had personal space and the sound from one student didn't end up in another's recording.  If space is an issue, try the buddy approach, with one student as the videographer while the partner is performing.

My 5th grade students were singing a blues verse that they composed to a prerecorded track.  I played the track and let them record a practice version.  They ended up getting 3 or 4 chances to get a recording that they were satisfied with.

Step 3 Student Self-Assessment
Students were given time to watch their video several times, and then it was time to complete a self-assessment rubric.  We used a rubric that students had helped to create in a previous lesson.  I created a Google Form with one question for each performance dimension.  The levels of performance were checkboxes, to facilitate ease of use for the students.

As an extra layer of technology fun, I created a QR code to link to the Google Form.  Students scanned the code to bring up the form on their iPods.  QR codes could be displayed on your IWB, enlarged to post on classroom walls, or printed on paper and distributed to students.  Once the rubric is open on the iPods, students only have to tap the checkboxes to record their ratings.

 You can see the actual rubric by scanning the code above, or following this link.

Step 4 Teacher Assessment
I couldn't wait to see their videos!  After school, when all was quiet, I watched each one.  Using the exact same rubric, I recorded my rating for their performance.  To indicate which rating was the teacher rating, I entered the student name followed by **********.

The cool thing about Google Forms is that all of the responses are recorded into a spreadsheet, making it very easy to read, and even allowing the resorting of data if necessary.  You can see from the excerpt below that many times the students were harder on themselves than I was!

Step 5 Reflection
I loved this project because the student engagement was so high that the ratings were a very accurate representation of the student's work.  In the future, I think I will add a short written component to the student self-assessment, asking them to explain why they gave themselves the rating that they did.

Please comment on whether this use of technology would be useful to you!

More on how QR codes can be used to facilitate student research projects can be found in this post: QR Codes & Student Engagement

Click on the picture to see more Fermata Fridays posts!