Differentiated Instruction in the Music Classroom

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    My elementary school is starting a 3-5 year plan to become heavily driven by differentiated instruction. We have had 2 in-services about it already and we as a faculty are reading 2 books. Each month we set personal goals to work towards and we share successes/failures at our faculty meetings. I am having a hard time taking all the information and modifying it for the music classroom. I do Learning Sequence Activities that have easy/medium/difficult patterns which is certainly differentiated instruction, but I don’t know how else to “differentiate” my classroom.

    My goal this month was to use learning profiles to meet students in their individual needs. I have some students that are successful in performing the ostinato pattern and others who are not. I could tell you even before attempting the ostinato pattern who would be successful immediately and who would require more help, but how can I use that information to structure my lesson? The students who are unsuccessful simply need more time and exposure to reading rhythm patterns and performing rhythm patterns in an echo. Most of the unsuccessful students are new to the school (most previously home-schooled) and most likely haven’t had as many experiences as the successful students. My strategy would be to keep doing rhythm echoes and have the successful students be models. Is that differentiated instruction?

    Does anybody use differentiated instruction in their classroom? The classroom teachers are doing “Anchor Activities” and pre-assessments and formative assessment and I’m having a hard time putting that in the music classroom.


    For something like an ostinato, a way of differentiating instruction could be to have a speech or vocal ostinato that they say/sing while playing…. the students who are getting it quicker can opt to just audiate the speech/vocal ostinato when they feel ready, while the kids who need the additional help should continue to say the speech ostinato out loud. When I have my students say their ostinato out loud while playing (either with rhythm or solfege syllables, or if they haven’t learned those yet, a pattern that takes words from the song), I notice that they almost always have much more success. Some kids don’t need this, but others definitely benefit. You can also go around as the students are playing and give additional guidance to those who need it by doing hand-over-hand with them so they can feel the ostinato, or play it along with them on the xylophone bars from the opposite side if they need a visual cue. Of course you can’t help all the students at once, but if you repeat the song/activity a few times you usually can get around to assist the kids who need it. And things like seating students who need more help closer to you so you can easily assist and they can see/hear better, and/or seating them next to kids who have higher aptitude, etc. are also technically differentiating instruction–preferential seating is a common modification that is included in some students’ IEPs for academic disabilities, so I think it would definitely qualify as a method of differentiating instruction if you were to do this in music. You probably are already doing some/all of these things, but I just want to point out that this IS differentiating instruction whether or not we recognize it as such.

    For additional classroom activities with rhythm beyond your LSAs, just continue to keep the kids’ aptitude in mind. You can do individual rhythm echoes as part of games (in between turns of the game–the kid who is “it” would echo a rhythm), or in between repetitions of a song when you’re teaching or reviewing a song, independent of and in addition to the LSAs. If you’re working on a particular rhythm for an ostinato, make sure you include frequent repetitions of this rhythm pattern for whole group patterns, as well as giving it individually to the students who need more work with it, while giving more challenging rhythms to the higher aptitude kids when it is their turn. This is actually often a more productive way to give students rhythm practice than LSAs, because you’re not tied to the specific easy/medium/difficult rhythms that are in the rhythm register book; you can pick rhythms that you know your kids need extra practice with. If you have a stretchy band/coopera-band, that is a fun way to get in extra rhythm practice–the class moves to the beat with the band while singing a song, and then when the song’s over they can continue to tap the beat while echoing rhythms–and you can point to individuals to echo, or choose colors from the band (whatever color a kid is holding) for those students to echo, etc. There are some activities that are difficult to differentiate–such as working together to sing a song or perform an instrument part where everything is playing the same thing–but if you have those breaks in between repetitions of the song to focus on specific rhythms, you can include some differentiation within those activities. I’m thinking that even in a math, reading, science, social studies, etc. class there are always some activities where all the students are working on the same thing–like in reading, even though the students are reading books on their own level with their reading group, they may also be reading a book all together as a class. It’s more difficult to differentiate with a performance-based subject like ours, since all the students perform together at at least certain points during the class (and if you have different groups of students practicing different things all at once, it just creates cacophany and confusion)–it’s not like you can spend your entire class period doing individual, independent things like you can with reading or math. Plus, we only have 40 minutes (or whatever your weekly schedule is) per week to work with our students, and we don’t get additional support to help kids who are lagging in music like reading and math teachers get (help from basic skills teachers, pull-out to resource room, additional tutoring after school, etc.). You have to be realistic and do what you are able to do.


    You may find the NAfME online article “Differentiating Instruction” helpful:

    Linda Brown, NAfME Staff


    This is such an important topic right now. I think that you are probably doing a lot of differentiating already — when you mention that you know which of your students will likely be able to perform the ostinato accurately, you take that into consideration when you choose initial sets of students to demonstrate. I think that a lot of differentiation is labeling what we already do, without thinking, those small things that show that we understand that our students come to us with different skill sets.

    The big thing that I try to do is to simplify (or add challenges) whenever ready. When working on decoding rhythms with third grade, for example, a lower-performing student would identify the rhythm that is occurring on one beat (and an easier one at that, a ti-ti perhaps), while a more skilled student might be asked to identify the rhythm for a full four beats of music. With beat competence for kindergarten, a well-developed and confident students would be asked to chant a poem alone while keeping the beat, while a less-skilled youngster would be asked to do it in a small group, making sure to “make your beat just like Tamir’s” (a particularly strong student in my kindergarten class this year).

    One issue of General Music Today has a series of articles on differentiating, and two of them refer to general music classes. The issue was in 2011, issue 97. I also wrote an article on this topic for the Kodaly Envoy, if you have access to that, published in 2012, issue 39. The online article that Linda referenced is great, too — I hadn’t seen that before. They all give great suggestions.

    Viva la differentiation!
    Christopher Roberts
    Seattle, WA
    Council for General Music Member-at-Large


    Chiming in here!!! I’m finishing a big project that completes a Master’s degree so I’ve been working on this topic. I love the work Carol Ann Tomlinson has done so looking up things she has written might be helpful. This article is a succinct overview of differentiation: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/263/

    I used flexible grouping for recorder- that way everyone was practicing exactly where they needed to be and I could easily add or change music as necessary. For our composition projects I created a flexible rubric that allowed students to work at the level they were most comfortable in while meeting that requirements set by my state standards. I made sure to offer student choice wherever I could. I also learned that providing the right scaffolding for kids really matters. I used color coding for some, fingerings for others, writing in note names for a few… whatever it took for them to hear their success. And I pulled the scaffolding back as they needed it less and less. It takes time and energy but is worth it.

    As for assessment… that really is important to differentiate effectively. Personally, I think most of us informally assess but it is worth creating a record in some way. Even taking a recording helps you evaluate later. Ask your IT person to help you set up a camera, ipad, or laptop that the students can use to help record performance.

    According to Tomlinson, you can differentiate content, process, product, and learning environment. I think as musicians, we get caught up on the performance aspect and are used to the whole group doing the same thing (even though parts can be differentiated). I was happily surprised with a very difficult group of students this year when I finally figured out they worked really well in small groups. I told them what I expected them to be able to do and they found their way to get there- they also asked for help when they needed it. They were successful.

    Good luck!


    I do- (well- no students at the moment- I’m finishing up a DMA) and I teach Strings/Orchestra, not General music. There was a really interesting Thesis on using DI/Kodaly teaching techniques that would be worth reading (so here’s one I remember off the top of my head- using the rhythm beach balls- but ALSO having the simpler and the more difficult beach balls as necessary for groups of students needing either less or more challenge). If you only see your students once a week you might want to streamline some things- like learning profile testing possibly…. Part of what you’re aiming for is flexible grouping so maybe see how it works to let the students make appropriate choices. Composition and Improvisation are two ways to expand their horizons as well as differentiate instruction- short written exercises that are open-ended/flexible can also do so (especially if they allow for students to evaluate themselves/compositions etc- allows those capable of moving up Bloom’s Taxonomy) Even having them respond to music in a manner of their choice- either tell the story (written if they’re old enough) with movement or by drawing a picture of what they think is happening. Those responses connect directly to their prior knowledge, interests, imagination… Feel free to drop me a note- off to conference first thing in the morning 🙂
    Anne Bell abell@su.edu


    I think easier ostinati are important to use. You can have more than one ostinato at a time. ALso, lots of kids like to work in teams – so even though it kind of goes against the grain – sometimes letting them find a way of playing the ostinato in a cooperative manner – can help.

    Definitely use a language based chant to anchor the rhythm.

    Use fewer or no rests initially. IF you eventually want a rest – put something else there first – a complimentary pattern on a different instrument, for example.

    Have them MOVE the rhythm in their bodies first – walk it, etc.

    Use Kodaly strategies to teach
    1) copy – have them copy you kinesthetically – and they can sit cross-legged and practice on their knees or floor with hands or mallets before they get to the xylo. If they can’t copy you – even slowly, they are going to have trouble.

    Teach PART of the rhythm first – simplify – and then start layering in “challenges”
    even something like a 4 beat quarter note pattern, then change something slight. Have THEM figure out what you changed and what changed in the notation, FIX the notation, and slowly work your way to the rhythm you want.

    2) have them hear and recognize the pattern you want them to play. When you are playing it, when you are not playing it, etc.

    3) have a visual symbol of what you want them to play. use COLOR to highlight a special part or something they really need to pay attention to. Sometimes icons can represent an entire measure. Have them compose with these so they start to “own” these rhythms.

    Another way is to teach the hard part first – say the hardest measure – but teach it a beat at a time and keep adding in another beat. By the time you add the other stuff, they have practiced the hard part the most and will be competent at it.

    Just some ideas…

    For recorder I sometimes have on group play ONE NOTE only so they only play the c’s while others play the a’s etc. so they really have to pay attention and COUNT. You can color code to help with focusing on that.

    Just some ideas…

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