What Do Middle Schoolers Want to Do in General Music? Play Instruments!
Encouraging a Life-Long Love for Music
By NAfME member Elizabeth Fetters
“Unified Arts” or “Specials”—call them what you will, but they appear in almost every middle school schedule. We offer students short courses in Technology Education, Family and Consumer Science, Health, Art, Foreign Language, and Music because this age is a time for exploration. It stands to reason then that we should embrace this philosophy in our general music classes as well.
Middle School General Music runs the gamut from 9-week sessions to full school year, alternating days or every day. The curricula are just as diverse. Music teachers are often hired for band or orchestra, and then they are handed a general music class.
So, what are we to do? Play instruments!
Middle schoolers love to “do.” Let’s keep them engaged with music by having them play instruments so they become life-long music lovers. Music teachers worry about teaching general music instruments because they think they don’t know enough about the instrument, they think that classroom management will be out-of-control, or that classroom instruments are too expensive.
Mastery v. Pedagogy
You don’t have to be a master of the instruments you teach in general music! Musicians often confuse mastery with pedagogy. Yes, we should be excellent musicians on our own instrument, but as music educators we also have pedagogical skills that transfer to whatever instrument you’re teaching even when it is not your primary performance instrument. We are all highly proficient on our main instrument. A half-hour with a general music instrument such as the piano, guitar, dulcimer, or ukulele will be enough to make you comfortable teaching it. After teaching a general music instrument for a while you might not learn how to play it, but you will learn what aspects students struggle with the most and you can be ready to address those.
Many teachers worry about classroom music instruments being damaged by students. It’s a valid concern, and you need to have clear and concise classroom procedures established for the instruments. I let my middle schoolers think that they have hit the “big time” when I tell them that I have real instruments for them to play.
- Make it clear that musical instruments are not toys, but costly tools.
- Establish clear procedures for how students get out and put away instruments.
- Assign students to individual instruments.
- Put numbers on the pianos and guitars and create an instrument assignment sheet.
- Tell students to report tuning problems or other issues immediately.
To hold students accountable, I have created a “sign-off sheet” for each instrument. Students are required to complete a certain number of songs or complete songs to a certain score. I write the sign-off sheet based on the piano or guitar books that I have. One music teacher I worked with required that students sign off a specific number of songs on the guitar before they were allowed a day to play the electric guitar. She only had about four electric guitars, so that was a special treat for those students able to sign off the required number of songs.
Finally, be strict. If, for any reason, a guitar is bumped against anything, the student loses it for the day. I made an eighth grade student return to his seat from playing the pianos because he was banging on the keys. There’s nothing worse than losing your chance to play a cool general music instrument and that mistake will only happen a few times before students get the point.
Music Program Budget
Schools are strapped for money, and it always hits the music department first. I know that there isn’t money in your budget to buy classroom instruments. Consider these options. Ideally you would want enough instruments for each student, but 30 pianos or guitars are hard to come by.
Consider purchasing fewer instruments and get your general music room up in stations. For example: station A is pianos, station B is music theory worksheets, station C is iPads with a music app, station D is guitars. Divide students into groups, and each day have them rotate through two of the stations. Or set up partners, and one student plays the piano while the other completes a written assignment. Halfway through the period have them switch.
There are other ways to incorporate instrument playing in your classroom. Find other ways to get items for your music room. One year my financial secretary kindly purchased me 30 piano stools under the “furniture” budget. Piano books are “materials of instruction” and need not come out of the music budget. They would be the cheapest textbooks your administration has ever purchased.
You never know until you ask.
Stocking Your Music Classroom
Let’s talk specifically about outfitting your room with instruments, from lowest cost to highest.
Drumming. This is by far the cheapest unit I have ever done with general music. I have asked the band teachers to give me all the weird, mismatched drum sticks that inevitably collect in the band room. I asked my custodians to save for me 5-gallon buckets. These buckets are incredible and all kinds of stuff comes in them from industrial soap to floor wax. We clean them up and then what do we have in general music class? A bucket band. Start by having students play the rhythms in their laps. Graduate to adding drum sticks, making a big deal out of the correct grip and stick height. Finally, add the buckets. It makes a tremendous noise, but, oh, the fun. And any student who isn’t following directions loses their drum sticks.
Dulcimers. I use the dulcimers as a “step-up” instrument to guitars, and they are remarkably inexpensive. We have purchased ours from Backyard Music, and the reason they are so inexpensive is that they are made of cardboard. They hold up very well—we’ve been using the same instruments for years. $65 buys you one complete dulcimer, but you can save even more money by purchasing the $50 kit and asking students, parents, an after-school club, or the Technology Education teacher to assemble them for you. And the best part is that each kit comes with a book, so you don’t have to purchase additional books. I invested in a $20 “Pick Punch” which punches guita r picks out of old credit cards. The students love it and I haven’t bought guitar picks in years. Added bonus: If your school is part of a “Green School” initiative, then you are also recycling!
Pianos. A piano lab does not have to cost thousands of dollars and come with computers, software, and fancy desks. (Although I wouldn’t turn one of those down!) There are plenty of 61-key pianos for under $100, some even under $50. Middle schoolers don’t need an 88-key piano with weighted keys. I’ve even had electric pianos given to me. A beautiful matching lab would be great, but make do with what you can get. If you find yourself a few pianos short, talk to your administration and see if they’ll buy you a few of the small $50 electric pianos. You can also save a little money by requiring that students bring their own headphones.
Before long you’ll have a busy general music class with students engaged in their own learning. Let the playing begin!
Guitars. By far the most expensive classroom instrument, you may find that you are simply not able to purchase 30 guitars for your room. And there’s really no way around the high cost of this instrument. In addition, you’ll need guitar foot stools, books, replacement strings, storage of some sort, and guitar stands. Try to purchase a few instruments a year, look for classroom grants, ask your parent-teacher organization for assistance, or reach out to local businesses. A $200 guitar might be a lot for your music budget, but it wouldn’t be for a local business. What if every local business in town bought your classroom a guitar? You’d have a full set in no time, and you’d have made a great connection with the community.
Other options. Don’t lose hope: just because your dream guitar lab is out of your reach, students can still have a fulfilling music class experience. Don’t forget other inexpensive instruments like classroom rhythm instruments, bell sets, and Boomwhackers. Before long you’ll have a busy general music class with students engaged in their own learning. Let the playing begin!
About the author:
NAfME member Elizabeth Rusch Fetters holds a music education degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a master of music in performance from Kent State University, and a library science degree from the University of Maryland. Her articles can be found in The Double Reed Journal, The Instrumentalist, and The Maryland Music Educator Journal. She is a founding member of the Hunt Valley Symphony Orchestra and freelances as a soloist. She currently teaches middle school general music and chorus for Harford County Public School, Bel Air, Maryland. She tweets at @TeachMusic2001.
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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, November 10, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).