Nutcracker Music Lessons: Engaging and Standards-Based Ideas for Creative Elementary Plans

Embark on a musical voyage with me as we navigate the art of structuring elementary music lessons on the mesmerizing notes of the Nutcracker!  Lately, I've noticed a crescendo of inquiries from fellow teachers seeking guidance on organizing their Nutcracker units. It's time to unlock the secrets together! 

In this exploration, we'll not only answer those how-to questions but also dive into crafting lessons that compare and contrast the elements of form, tempo, meter, and dynamics. Picture your classroom as a stage where students become music detectives, unraveling the intricacies of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. Let's orchestrate an educational experience that leaves your students tuned in and inspired.

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Vertical Planning

While my main focus was third grade because they attend a district-sponsored live performance, I found it beneficial to spread these lessons across both older and younger grades. Each year I review and introduce new elements or deeper understanding. It certainly helped my third graders if they had learned about a few of the pieces in earlier years. This outline is how I planned for various grade levels.
  • Kindergarten: Read the story, Nutcracker March, Sugar Plum Fairy
  • 1st Grade: Review the story, Nutcracker Overture, review the Sugar Plum Fairy, Dance of the Reed Pipes
  • 2nd Grade: Duple & Triple Meter focus, Waltz of the Flowers, Nutcracker March
  • 3rd Grade: Read the story & take notes, what is ballet discussion, tempo, form & instruments focus, Trepak, Dance of Coffee, Dance of Tea, review March & Sugar Plum Fairy, audience etiquette (this unit is longer than other grades because of our field trip)
  • 4th Grade: Instruments focus, review meter, Nutcracker March, Dance of Hot Chocolate, Dance of Tea, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Waltz of the Flowers
  • 5th Grade: Genre focus, compare/contrast traditional Nutcracker music with Hip Hop Nutcracker and Duke Ellington's Jazz Nutcracker.


In my elementary music world, I usually hear this word connected with the word kindergarten. Kindergarten comparatives are the concepts of high/low, loud/soft, fast/slow, smooth/bumpy, etc. But comparatives aren't just for kindergarten! Several educational researchers, Marzano being one, point to identifying similarities and differences as a powerful instructional strategy. Higher-order thinking activities are certainly appropriate for older students! 

I chose to apply this strategy to my Nutcracker Ballet lessons. While most of my activities involve active listening and movement, it is important to explicitly teach students the music vocabulary and movement vocabulary as a part of your lesson. Then, we actively participate in the listening & movement. Finally, we discuss what we just did, making use of that music & movement vocabulary.

Organize by Musical Element

After doing my own study of the pieces of the Nutcracker Suite, I was able to select pieces to showcase contrasts in meter, tempo, form, and instruments of the orchestra. My learning targets were focused on being able to identify the element, use appropriate vocabulary to describe it and use movement to demonstrate it. 

Some of my activities encourage students to use freestyle and improvisational movement to reflect what they are hearing. Others are more choreographed and come from well-known music resource collections. 

The National Music Standards for General Music include identifying, demonstrating, and describing expressive qualities. Here is an example from the third grade standards:
MU:Re8.1.3a  Demonstrate and describe how the expressive qualities (such as dynamics and tempo ) are used in performers’ interpretations to reflect expressive intent.  


Learning Targets
    I can identify duple & triple meter when listening.
    I can create movements to show meter.
    I can identify changes in dynamics, tempo, and rhythm.  
Music Resources for Learning
    Waltz of the Flowers
    Nutcracker March

Learning Activities
    Waltz of the Flowers: flowing movement with scarves. focusing on the strong beat in each measure. 
    Nutcracker March: steady beat movements. Locomotor marching during the A section, stationary beat movements during the B and C sections.
    Nutcracker March: movement activity from Kids Can Listen, Kids Can Move by Lynn Kleiner


Learning Targets
    I can compare/contrast the tempo of Trepak and Arabian Dance.
    I can describe the tempo using music vocabulary.
    I can identify changes in dynamics, tempo, and rhythm.
    I can use appropriate vocabulary to describe pitch, tempo, and dynamics.

Music Resources for Learning
    Trepak (presto)
    Dance of Coffee (largo)

Learning Activities
    Trepak: Steady beat movement using scarves, rhythm sticks, or hand movements.
    Dance of Coffee: encourage improvisational continuous flowing movement with scarves. Movement can be stationary or locomotor. Encourage the use of different levels.


Learning Targets
    I can identify repeated sections to label simple forms.
    I can use movement to show form.
    I can name same and different sections.
    I can identify examples of some basic musical forms.

Music Resources for Learning
    Dance of the Reed Pipes (ABA)
    Trepak (ABA)
    Nutcracker March (ABACABA-Rondo)

Learning Activities
    Dance of the Reed Pipes: I love the listening maps in this book: The Nutcracker Suite Active Listening Strategies for the Music Classroom.  My younger students also love following along with this fingerplay:
    Trepak: parachute routine shared in Artie Almeida's Parachutes, Ribbons, and Scarves, Oh My! (I didn't have a parachute, so we used scarves!)
    Nutcracker March:  movement with paper plates from Artie Almeida's Parachutes, Ribbons, and Scarves, Oh My!

Instruments of the Orchestra

Learning Targets
    I can identify orchestral instruments when listening.
    I can create movements to represent specific instrument sounds.
    I can listen to and identify orchestral, band, and electronic instruments by sight and sound.

Musical Resources for Learning
    Nutcracker March (trumpet, strings, flute)
    Dance of Tea (flute, strings, bassoon)
    Dance of Hot Chocolate (piccolo, trumpet, castanets) 
    Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (celeste)
    Waltz of the Flowers (harp, French horn, clarinet, strings, flute)

Learning Activities
    Nutcracker March: This is a wonderful listening map that highlights the instruments as they are playing:

    Dance of Tea: Here is another great listening map. The only thing missing on this map calling attention to the bassoon during the introduction. If you use it, prepare to show your own picture of the bassoon! 
    Dance of Hot Chocolate: Call attention to the familiar instruments and those that might be new. By the time I focus on this piece in 4th grade, trumpet is familiar, and piccolo may be somewhat familiar. I have a set of castanets that I demonstrate before we listen to this piece. 

    Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy: The celeste has a beautiful and distinctive sound. 


Learning Targets
    I can identify specific music elements when listening.
    I can compare the musical characteristics of two or more pieces representing different genres.
    I can use music vocabulary to describe a music performance.

Music Resources for Learning
    Why Toes Tap, Winton Marsalis
    Hip Hop Nutcracker
    Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite

Learning Activities
    Listen and compare different versions of the same piece. Use music elements as listening criteria to drive the class discussion. This ensures that students will use music vocabulary! 

    Compare & Contrast: When I need a sub day in December, I leave this video for my 5th grade students. Winton Marsalis discusses rhythm and uses two versions of the Nutcracker Suite, by Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington,  to demonstrate the concepts. If you just need a shorter clip, a comparison of the Waltz of the Flowers versions begins around 7:20.

    Hip Hop Nutcracker: One version of the Hip Hop Nutcracker has been aired on PBS and another on Disney +. Check your current listings to find which version is available this year. While the entire production may be too long for our purposes in elementary music, I use this in a similar way to the Winton Marsalis version above. Choose one movement to listen/view in this version and contrast it with another genre version.

    Duke Ellington's Jazz Nutcracker Suite can be found in this playlist:


As our musical journey through the Nutcracker crescendos to a close, I hope these insights into structuring elementary music lessons have struck a harmonious chord with you. As we explored the realms of form, tempo, meter, and dynamics, picture your classroom transforming into a stage where students become music detectives immersed in the art of compare and contrast, unraveling the intricacies of the ballet's composition.  Remember, the magic lies not just in the music but in how we guide our students through its intricacies. 

Let's orchestrate an educational experience that leaves your students tuned in and inspired, turning each lesson into a harmonious blend of learning and creativity!

Musically yours,


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