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Elementary music can be so much fun– or it can give you a giant headache. Seriously, it gets loud– especially when you are using instruments. So how do you handle classroom management for instruments? Is it possible to have a chaos free classroom when you are using instruments?
The short answer? Yes.
The longer answer is that in order to have chaos free classroom management for instruments, you need to be very particular about how you go about giving out instruments, what you say about them, which ones you use, etc.
The good news? By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly what to do!
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Before We Get Instruments
Classroom management for instruments– or just in general– is often about the prep. Prepping students to get instruments is almost more important than anything else.
First off, make sure the kids already know what to do. We NEVER go straight to the instruments. We practice first by patting our legs, clapping, or pretending to play on our “air instruments” whatever we will be doing on the actual instruments. This means that kids will know what to do when they get the instruments– and it can be exciting enough that trying to learn something new with them can be difficult.
Secondly, before we get instruments, we remember how we use them. To do this, we first go over our four music room expectations:
- Follow directions
- Be respectful
- Be responsible
- Be a participant
I clap and say these and the students repeat them. Then we talk about how to be responsible and respectful with the instruments. Is it responsible to break them? Is it responsible to throw them? Is it respectful to bang them really hard so that it hurts our ears?
Yes, we go over this every. Single. Time. from kindergarten to fifth grade.
When you go over this, don’t forget the why. Why shouldn’t we throw our instruments? Well, it could hurt someone. It could break the instruments. What happens if all of our instruments break? Then we will have no instruments to play.
When kids understand the why they are more likely to follow the rules.
And of course, I remind them that is they do anything disrespectful, not following directions, etc, then they will lose them.
Passing out instruments and picking them up
Passing out instruments can be a whole thing in and of itself. I have two main ways that I pass out instrument depending on the instrument, the time, etc.
- Me passing them out. I hand them to the students. Students put their instruments on the floor and their hands on their shoulders. You can’t play your instruments if your hands are on your shoulders.
- Students pick them up. I call a row at a time and the kids walk in a big circle around the room, following the person a the end of their row. Students put their instruments on the floor and their hands on their shoulders.
As far as picking up instruments, there are three main options in my room:
- I pick them up by bringing around a large box that the students set them into. If I’m doing this option, then I typically have a song that the students are keeping the beat to so that they have something to do as a I move around the room.
- Students put them away in the circle order that they did before.
- I put a bucket in the middle of the room. Students pass their instruments to the front, then to the middle to the bucket.
Also read: Routines you need in the music room
If you play before I say…
The number one way that I do classroom management for instruments is by stealing a phrase that Mrs. King describes in this blog post (which also has helpful tips!) “If you play before I say, I will take your instrument away.” I usually add, “The very first time.”
(Read more about Mrs. King’s ideas here)
But even more important than telling the kids is MEANING it. Seriously. If someone makes a sound before I tell them to, it goes away. I do not care if it is kindergarten or fifth grade– it’s the same throughout.
And I take it the first time. There’s no extra warnings.
Mean? Yes. Does it save your sanity? Yes.
Typically, for a first offense, they will just lose it for like a minute, and then I’ll let them collect them back. If they do it a second time, though, they don’t get it back. They must clap or pat their legs instead.
Usually, you’ll only need to take one or two or the class to get the message. If you do this consistently, then they will cut down on the chaos so much that you won’t have many problems.
Keep them busy
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, especially when it comes to classroom management for instruments and especially with the littles. The more you can keep them busy, the better they will be. Avoid long periods of non-playing. Explain directions before the get the instruments. For a transition or if you’re picking up the instruments, then play a song and have them keep the beat so that they aren’t sitting there too long.
Another practical tool that helps is having particular positions for the students to keep their instruments. This gives them something to do when they are not playing.
Here are ours:
- Magic X: Students make an X with whatever they have in their hands– rhythms sticks, mallets, etc. Sometimes we just use our hands.
- Ready: Ready means you are in the correct form to play but you haven’t started.
- Rest: Rest means instruments are all the way down, hands are all the way off. If your instruments are resting, they are asleep and not making noise.
Also read: Classroom management tools you already have
Choose Your Instruments wisely
One of the best ways to cut down on the chaos is to choose your instruments wisely.
Rhythm sticks or castanets are a lot quieter than drums are. I love drums, we use drums, but it depends on what we’ve got going on.
Especially look at groupings of instruments– I get headaches when we have too many metallophones. Especially if we have metallophones and xylophones. So we don’t use many metallophones at a time, and I often chose the xylophones over them.
If you have a particularly loud instrument, try to pair it with some quieter instruments.
Let the kids take turns rotating through different instruments or swapping with someone so that not everyone is playing something super loud at the same time, but they still get to play.
If you’re doing groups, consider having a non-playing group. Some people use a “singing group”. I actually don’t like that, because they feel like they are being punished and I don’t want singing to be a let down.
But the non playing group could do actions along with the song, or they could use scarves or ribbons or something along those lines that are still fun.
I also like to put students in pairs or groups of three (especially older students with ukuleles or xylophones). The kids help each other to play, but not everyone is playing at the same time so it’s not as loud.
You could also have students rotate– I often do this with the younger students. There will be lines of three or four students and the one in the front is playing while the others are practicing. After a minute, we switch. Everyone gets to play but not at the same time.
Specific Classroom Management for Instruments
Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s talk about a few things specific to different instruments.
Specific to Drums
- Do not let students lean on the drum heads.
- For smaller drums, have students flip the drum upside down so that it looks like a bowl when they aren’t playing. This discourages excess noise while also protecting it against accidentally getting stepped on.
- Have students practice playing at different volumes so that they know how to play quietly.
Specific to Rhythm Sticks/Drum Sticks
- Always play sticks together or on the carpet– not on tile or linoleum. If you only have hard floors, get mouse pads, carpet squares, or even old textbooks to muffle the noise.
- Take advantage of magic X!
Specific to Recorders
- Emphasize low breathes and warm air.
- Have students play in small groups– cut the group in halves or thirds and then have each group play before playing all together. This helps students to be able to hear themselves without playing really hard (That is the number one concern my kids have– they can’t hear themselves. Then they get louder.)
- Have recorder partners where one plays and the other helps, then vice versa. This way only have the kids are playing and the other half can watch and make sure holes are covered and the correct fingers are played.
- If they aren’t doing things correctly, take the mouthpiece away and let them practice with the middle piece. Or give them a pencil so they can practice fingerings.
- Let them hear you play while they do the fingerings before they play so that they know what they are aiming at.
Specific to Barred Instruments
- Always put it on your body first! Have the kids pretend to play the instrument before they get it. Ask them questions about how many bars you played, how high it is, etc.
- Make sure they know which side is high and which is low.
- Make sure kids scoot away from the xylophones before they stand up so that they don’t knock it over.
- Do. Not. Step. Over. The. Xylophones.
Specific to Ukuleles
- Do not let students touch the tuning pegs until you teach them how to do it. This does not need to be on day 1.
- Emphasize that they are hollow and fragile– be careful of dropping them.
- Try ukulele partners so that one student can play and the other can help. This is especially great if you don’t have enough for everybody.
Alright friends, that will help you with your classroom management for instruments. The main thing to remember? You are in charge of your classroom. If you don’t like that it is too loud or too chaotic, change it. You have that ability.
What are your best classroom management for instrument tips? Let me know by messaging me over on instagram @beccamusicroom. I can’t wait to hear!
Also read: Classroom management for music teachers