Category Archives: Today In Class

March Madness: The Music Edition


So it’s March.

Two-thirds of my students are boys.

Many of my girls love sports.

Next up is teaching music vocabulary and critiquing performances.

What’s a middle school music teacher to do?

Call it March Madness and throw in every basketball connection possible!

And that’s how we arrive at March Madness: The Music Edition.

The Music Edition of March Madness is divided into two basic parts: (1) learn music vocabulary and (2) apply music vocabulary. Each part involves practice and varying levels of application – the final application being the March Madness Tournament.

We spent 3 days a week on this unit – week one was building vocabulary strength.

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The “strength training” component was completing guided notes to define specific vocabulary words.  I also gave demonstrations on the piano and drums of what each word sounded like in action.

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After getting down definitions, we had a “shoot around” with the vocabulary words. I explained that a shoot around is used for warming up and the goal is for everyone to make as many baskets as possible. Students got into teams of 2 or 3 and I passed out cards with the vocabulary words.  I then played an example on the piano or drum and students would hold up the card that correctly identified the musical element. When I gave a team a thumbs up for a correct answer they would say “swish!” as they “made their basket”.  Some even figured out that if they got it wrong they could “rebound” and try again.

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Once I felt students had a handle on identifying one term at a time, we had a scrimmage. I played another example that demonstrated several vocabulary words. Their teams pulled out all the cards that correctly described what they heard.  As I visited each team, the students had to use the words in sentences to describe what they heard. Each word was worth 1 to 3 points, depending on it’s complexity.  Teams added up the points for words they used correctly to compete in the “scrimmage”.  Below you can see the terms we used and their point value.

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I rolled out these terms over three days and followed the same routine each day – note taking, shoot around, scrimmage.  Since some terms were familiar to the students and some were new, I tried to pair new and old concepts so students weren’t overwhelmed with all new concepts all at once.


Next, we were on to week 2 –

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In Week 2, we worked on applying vocabulary to write about an entire piece of music.  For this first exercise I chose Brahm’s Hungarian Dance, No. 5.  It’s full of musical elements to identify, isn’t too long, and is usually well-received by students.

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We start out writing an introduction that includes the composer, title, and background information about this music. I provided a short paragraph of background information where students could pick one or two bits they thought the reader would find interesting.

The body of the paragraph is where the music is described in a much detail as possible. I remind students to give a “play by play”, being sure to help the reader “hear” what happens in the beginning, middle, and end of the piece.  Students underline the vocabulary words they use and “score” their paper just like they did in the vocabulary scrimmage.

Before writing the body of the paragraph, students listen to the music and collect evidence on a paper similar to the vocabulary list above.  This way they can focus their listening without having to formulate their writing at the same time.

Finally, they write a conclusion where they restate the composer and title, and give their opinion based on the evidence they heard.


Week 3 brings us to tournament time!

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 2.09.55 PMI created a tournament bracket where students have one “game” a day in which they listen to two pieces of music, identify what they hear, and write their opinion based on the evidence they collect when listening. Along with their opinion, they choose the piece of music they like best as the winner.  The piece with the most votes moves on to the next round.

We take 4 days for the first round. Since students have already heard the music when we move on to rounds 2 and 3, we re-listen to remind them of the music and allow them to choose another winner. During this time students choose one piece from all the selections to write a complete critique with introduction, body, and conclusion. (I originally thought I’d have students write a complete critique for every piece they chose as a winner but very quickly realized that was way too much writing and time consuming. Revising it to identifying the elements/vocabulary, writing their opinion, and one critique seems better balanced.)

Here’s what our bracket looks like …


Just for fun, we invited staff to vote on the music in the bracket, too. I kept this separate so we could compare tastes in music. The kids always love to see what their teachers like and it creates the opportunity for conversations about what’s going on in class.

One more extra – we usually do world music drumming on Fridays, but during this unit we brought in basketballs to use instead! I knew it would either be a great success or a disaster – luckily the kids loved it and did and awesome job!  I led them through using the balls to actively demonstrate tempo words (bouncing the ball at the appropriate tempo) and meter (creating strong beats on one and adding the appropriate number of beats afterward.)

Finally, students picked a form or concept to demonstrate, such as call & response, theme & variation, and complimentary rhythms (or moves in this case.)



I’ve done March Madness brackets before where students write about and vote on their favorite music but I was very pleased with how we incorporated learning music vocabulary into this unit.  The students were very motivated to use as much vocabulary as possible when they earned points for every word.  Obviously, anyone can take as much or little from this to use in their own classroom and make it work for where their kids are.

Have fun!


Should We Be Judging Our Kids’ Musical Performances? (Spoiler alert: I think no)


Would this performance get a “I” rating? Probably not.  Is it a worthy musical experience? Yes!

I live and teach in a state where adjudicated events are a standard part of music education. Schools prove their worth – (read directors and students) – by the ratings they bring home from marching band contests, solo & ensemble contest, and large group contest.  The very high school I attended had a wall full of plaques declaring superior ratings at state contest. My band uniform was covered with blue ribbons I received at solo & ensemble contest.   The single II I received on a piano solo because of a memory lapse was a source of shame and disappointment.  My senior year, with a new, young band director, we received a II at state contest.  Even though that young man was (and still is) a fine musician and a remarkable teacher, we felt as though we had failed. It didn’t matter that we were playing college level music that had moments of brilliance.  We had failed to convince the judges we were worthy of a “superior” rating.  As far as I was concerned, our  worth and accomplishments as musicians were reflected in ratings at contest.

And, like many aspiring music teachers, this is the attitude and philosophy I took with me into my undergraduate music education program and first year of teaching.

Then I had my own bands and choirs.  And later my own children.

They didn’t all get Is. They didn’t even all get IIs. There were the dreaded IIIs and even an embedded IV from an occasional judge.

These ratings broke my heart. Not because of the crushing blow to the ego as a director, but because of the blow to the musical spirits of my students and my own children.

You see, there wasn’t one single judge who knew where those students started.

Not one who spoke to a student to learn how he or she connected with the music.

Not one measurement of the aesthetic experience on stage as everything faded away and a child became lost in the music (as if such a thing could be measured!)

No judge sees the band on the practice field for the sixth hour on a hot, summer day or the bruised lips from hours of playing.

No judge knows the courage it took for a particular soloist to decide to even try a solo, let alone walk into a room and play for someone they don’t even know.

No judge knows that a choir director lost 1/3 of her choir two months before contest because of schedule conflicts.

No judge knows the number of students that can’t afford to take private lessons even though their parents already work two jobs.

No judge knows that a band or choir lost a member earlier in the year and making music together has helped heal their hearts.

Judges are not heartless people – but their task is to evaluate the performance on a certain day at a certain time. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If one of the goals of music education is to instill a love of music making, a love for the experience of getting lost in the experience, how can we allow a rating to steal the joy and pride our students feel when they complete a performance they know was their best? How can we allow a judge to tell them that was nothing to be proud of?  I can think of no better way to crush the musical spirit of a student or director than to tell them it doesn’t matter what you felt as you were playing – the worth of that performance is decided by my rating. Is this said outright? No (at least I hope not) … but it is too often the message received from years of tradition and expectations.

Is there a place for adjudicating music? Yes – for those who wish to pursue professional careers in music performance, their playing ability will be judged – often harshly.  But even then, musical spirits are crushed when the love of creating something beautiful is found to not be beautiful enough.

So what is the alternative to judging our students? Allow them to experience the joy of making music together. Easy music. Difficult music. Songs we love. Songs we’ve heard. Songs that are new to us. Music from far away places and music from our past. And don’t forget listening to music. Listen to music together. Listen to different styles, different performances of the same piece, listen to instruments you play and those you don’t.

Standards don’t need to be lowered, but perhaps they need to be changed. Instead of judging a performance by being “grand champion” or getting a I, look at the young musicians reactions. How did they feel about their performance?  Was it something that instilled pride? Did it move them? Teach our students that a performance isn’t good because someone else says it was – they have the ability to determine its quality on their own, with their own ears.

Take it a step further and it doesn’t even have to be a performance. High quality musical experiences can happen in a drum circle in a middle school general music classroom where students improvise rhythms that gel into a groove that everyone in the room feels – and no one wants to stop playing.  They can happen the first time a student realizes she has the power to create her own music on a ukulele or guitar. They can even happen outside of school – as students jam together in a garage band (on instruments that often can’t seem to find a place in school music.)  They can happen as friends and family sit around on an evening singing songs of their faith or childhood. Maybe even at a barn dance as a hodgepodge of folk instruments compliment each others melodies and harmonies.

If we want the value of music education to extend beyond traditional ensembles and ratings, we must realize the harm we are doing to ourselves and our students when we make them compete to see who’s music is worthy of recognition. When students make music it is worthy of recognition. When this is the standard we strive to meet, we will truly be able to say we are providing music for all – for all times.



Music & Health (a.k.a. 1 of my favorite units EVER)


Anyone who listens to or makes music will tell you it often makes them feel better.  You may even know of situations where music helps improve medical conditions like dementia or speech impediments.  In recent years, we’ve moved beyond casual stories of the benefits of music to research that suggest the effects of music are physiological.  All of this creates the perfect setup for a Music & Health unit in our Music+STEM class.

Two of the goals for Music+STEM are:

  • Reveal to and engage students in the ways in which music is part of our lives and society
  • Engage students in the practice of the scientific process, critical thinking skills, and 21st century skills

We may take music in our daily lives for granted, but if students understand its direct effect they will be able to make intentional choices about its use – for themselves and those around them.  In addition, we move beyond answers that include phrases like “I think…” to researched-based responses such as, “The research shows…”

So…how did we do all this?

First, we did a very limited review of the research that shows the benefits of music.

We focused on five areas:

  1. Music reduces stress and anxiety
  2. Music decreases pain
  3. Music may improve our immune system
  4. Music helps us exercise
  5. Music may aid memory

We looked at the research in each of these areas, being sure to understand the research process, included control groups and variables. We also talked about replicating studies and comparing the results.

Next, we narrowed our focus to music and memory.We watched the documentary, “Alive Inside“.  This is an amazing look at the effort of one man to “awaken” nursing home dementia patients with music from their past.  My students were absorbed in listening to the stories of the patients and seeing their reaction to music. I debated whether or not to show “Alive Inside” to my students, thinking it might be too serious for them, but decided to for three reasons. First, it’s message matches our course goal of discovering how music is a part of our lives. Second, many students have family members with dementia or may someday and it’s important for them to have the knowledge to help their loved ones. And third, the documentary shows the power of social media in the hands of young people to make a difference in the world.  In the end, I’m glad I took two days to show the documentary.  The responses of my students show it made an impact.

Someday I hope to partner with a nursing home so that my students can create playlists for residents – just like in “Alive Inside”.  Since this was the first time we attempted this I decided to start closer to home.  My students set out to create a MEAM – Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory  – for a teacher.  Teachers volunteered the year they graduated from high school and students chose one teacher for whom to find music (some students were so into this they did more than one teacher!)

Students then found the top 5 songs of the year the teacher graduated from high school and the year they were in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade.  Students then chose one song from each of those years to share with the teacher and get their reaction and memories.  A few students did this in person with their teacher, playing the songs for them and writing down their reaction.  To make it easier to schedule, most students wrote a letter to their teacher (in Google Docs) and included links to the songs and questions to answer.  The teacher then listened and typed their response when they had the time available. I was afraid I was adding one more thing for already busy teachers to do, but  MANY said this was great fun and they looked forward to doing it every semester!  The students also had a great time listening to popular music that their teachers listened to and reading their responses.



Finally, we needed a way for students to put everything together and showcase their learning.  I initially considered filming news broadcasts. This is often a challenge with middle school students, however, because so many are self-conscious about how they look on camera. As an alternative, we recorded podcasts – an audio version of a news story.  This exposed students to a form of media many were not familiar with and eased the anxiety when it came time to record.


Students had to include specific items in their podcast:

  1. At least 3 benefits of music to mental or physical health
  2. At least 1 piece of research to support one of the benefits
  3. A “real life” example of one of the benefits


In groups of two to four, students spent about two days writing and practicing their scripts for the podcasts. We then recorded them using the Podcast feature on Garageband. This was very easy to do and even allowed for editing when students were struck with the giggles or lost their place in the script.

The podcasts really showed what the students learned and the range of kids we have in middle school – from very serious, down-to-business to goofy, adolescent jokes and funny voices …. all while summarizing what they learned about Music & Health.

We put the best ones on our class youTube channel – here are a couple samples…




In the end, this is one of my favorite non-performing units I’ve ever done with middle school kids. My students were engaged and gaining knowledge that will truly help them throughout their lives, the teachers who helped us had fun and deepened their relationships with kids, and students created a final product that went public and informed others. Win – Win – Win!