All posts by Maia Hamann

Five Tips for Surviving the First Five Years

I just finished my fifth year as a music teacher. This feels like a significant accomplishment because I’ve beat the alarming statistics on high teacher turnover rates within the first five years. According to the well-known Ingersoll and Smith study of 2003, approximately 40 to 50% of teachers leave within the first five years and half of those leave the field of teaching entirely. Other studies indicate that the rate of attrition may be even worse for music teachers than for other teachers.

This is not encouraging for those newly licensed music teachers preparing for their first jobs or those who are still in their first years of teaching. These new teachers are motivated to share their passion for music with students, but teacher training programs, especially for music education majors, are so packed with requirements for licensing that many new teachers are entering the profession without an understanding of the realities and challenges that face music teachers. Many of these are out of the teacher’s control, but how a teacher reacts is not. Here are five lessons I’ve learned about dealing with the realities of music teaching that have helped me make it to five years.

Be flexible.

I’ve never had a lesson go exactly as I planned. For new teachers who don’t have the “bag of tricks” that those with more experience have, this can be extremely frustrating. There are changes in schedule (that you may or may not be informed of in advance), individual students being pulled out of your class for various reasons, behaviors that disrupt class, and a million other things that will change your plans in small and huge ways. You can prepare yourself by considering different teaching methods to match different levels of student energy, by adding extension activities to your lesson plans, or by having a variety of activities ready to use if your lesson plans have to be completely thrown out. But there are many situations teachers encounter that they can’t be prepared for. In those cases, accept the situation and be creative. To avoid burnout, you must develop ways to be flexible in your teaching without being paralyzed by frustration.

Understand your role.

It’s easy for music teachers to become possessive of their programs. Most of us teach multiple grades, so we are able to see and take credit for how the students grow over the years. It can be easy to feel that we have complete authority and control over our programs, but dangerous and frustrating for a new teacher (or any teacher) to think that he or she owns a program. We are custodians of our programs, maintaining and gently improving them for the school and the community. There will always be demands from the administration and the community that you must listen to. As a trained music educator, you have the right to stand up for what you see as being best for students and the program, but you must do so collaboratively rather than defensively. Be willing to make your own changes gradually out of respect for the traditions that predate your involvement with the school. The more you can present yourself as a team player, the more autonomy you will be given.


Listening is essential for learning, building relationships, finding support, and becoming a successful teacher. For new teachers, it’s even more vital. Two of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving music teaching are isolation and classroom management challenges. Listening can be the best treatment for both of these problems.

Make an effort to seek out advice (in person, not email) from other teachers in your building. If you’re offered advice that you don’t agree with, use it as a catalyst to start a discussion and respectfully share ideas. Find opportunities to collaborate and help other teachers. Some new teachers worry about being taken advantage of if they volunteer too much of their time. However, it’s a lot easier to explain to a colleague with whom you’ve built a respectful relationship that you can’t take on an extra project than it is to recover from giving a first impression of being unhelpful and defensive.

Listening to students is equally important. It builds trust, helps you find the root of behavior problems, and builds a collaborative classroom culture. Listen to what students have to say about their previous teacher to show them that you honor the relationship and memories they had with him or her. You’ll learn what the students expect of their music class and teacher. When behavior problems arise, listen to the individuals involved whenever possible to learn their perspectives and motivations. When the whole class is having behavior problems, ask for the students’ ideas to improve the situation. The more you hear your students, the more you will understand them.

Teach like yourself.

One of the greatest and most important challenges of the first years of teaching is figuring out who you are as a teacher. If you had a host teacher or mentor whose teaching you admire, take what you can from their example, but don’t try to become them. Teaching is hard enough without the added task of acting like someone you’re not. The one thing you can always do better than anyone else, even at the beginning of your career, is teach like yourself. There are a million different ways to teach, and although each comes with challenges, the easiest way is your own.

Always put students first.

Music teachers face countless difficult decisions in their work. It can feel overwhelming to try to balance the pressures of administrators, colleagues, the community, and others. Whatever your decision–programming a concert, recruiting students for an ensemble, choosing a curriculum, etc.–let it be guided by what’s best for students. When you make mistakes (and every teacher does), nobody can fault you for trying to do what you believed was best for your students.

Teachers learn to be teachers by teaching. There will always be challenges and bad days, but the more quickly you can learn to handle and learn from them, the more resilient, successful, and fulfilled you will be.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Co-Teaching Music Across Grade Levels

This spring, I had the opportunity to co-teach with my music colleague, Andrew Kendall. In our small school district, the two of us make up two-thirds of the district’s music teachers. I teach kindergarten through fifth grade general music, and Andrew teaches sixth through twelfth grade vocal music. We’ve had many planning conversations, we’ve taught collaboratively in each other’s classrooms, and earlier this week, we co-directed a concert. Collaboration across grade levels and across programs within a department may not be as common as collaboration between teachers with similar teaching assignments, but it’s equally, if not more, beneficial to students, teachers, and music programs.

Building a Cohesive K-12 Music Program

A strong music program is one in which students transition easily from elementary music to higher-level performing ensembles, but this is only achievable if their teachers are communicating and collaborating. Andrew and I chose to co-teach fifth and sixth grade to help students with this transition. My fifth graders were able to meet and work with their future music teacher while in a familiar environment with their elementary music teacher. In Andrew’s choir room, I gained an understanding of the abilities and expectations of sixth graders.

Our hope is to create a seamless flow through our K-12 music program. Moving from elementary classroom music to middle school performing ensembles is often considered a big “step up” in difficulty and behavior expectations. Ideally, it should simply be a move between two types of classes with connected content. When teachers in a department get to know each other’s teaching, they are better equipped to guide students from elementary to secondary music. Knowing my colleague’s teaching style helps me to prepare my fifth graders for the focus on performance in his classes and decide what elementary music experiences I want to ensure my students have before they move to middle school ensembles. Next year, those new sixth graders will know Andrew’s expectations and he’ll have an understanding of their prior knowledge.


Once we settled into our co-teaching routines, it was liberating to have two music teachers in one classroom. We each took the lead on one or two concert pieces with each grade while the other accompanied on piano. When the active teacher was able to be directly in front of the students, without the barrier of the piano between them, students were more focused and attentive. Meanwhile, the accompanying teacher was able to see behaviors and hear issues in the music that the active teacher may have missed while dealing with other issues in the ensemble. Co-teaching helps students learn content, but also models collaboration, professionalism, and respect to students.

Creating Collaborative Concerts

Andrew and I went into our co-teaching with the goal of co-directing a concert. When two teachers of different backgrounds choose repertoire, the result can be an interesting, multi-perspective program. Being able to divide the duties of set-up, logistical planning, promotion, and student supervision drastically reduces pre-concert stress. Concerts are a big deal for music teachers, and perhaps above all, it’s been nice to have someone to share that with.

Growing as Professionals

In a small, rural school like ours, there aren’t many professional development opportunities that apply to our content, and we don’t have department of teachers teaching the same levels and ensembles with whom we can share ideas. It’s important that Andrew and I work together for our own growth as music teachers, but working across grade levels and programs could benefit any music teacher, no matter what the size of their school. In addition to getting to know each other as teachers, we are getting to know each other’s content areas to enrich our own. Almost all of my training and performing experience is instrumental, but elementary music class includes both singing and playing. When we began co-teaching, choral conducting was outside of my area of expertise and my comfort zone, and therefore, this experience has resulted in me growing as a musician and as a general music teacher.

Co-teaching music across levels benefits the students, teachers, and the entire program. Students learn more from having two teachers with varied backgrounds, knowledge, and skills. Teachers learn to be better teachers from each other and from interacting with students outside of the grades that they usually teach. As Andrew and I left the stage after our shared concert earlier this week, we were already talking about how we can’t wait to do this again next year.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

General Music Skills for Beginning Instrumentalists

Elementary music teachers provide students with the foundation for all future musical experiences. Our students might choose to join a high school ensemble, to start a rock band, or to end their formal music training with their sixth grade general music class. This week, my fourth graders had their school band try-outs. It’s exciting to see them make this big choice about how they will continue to participate in music, and I hope I’ve done everything that I can to prepare them for it. As an elementary music teacher, I instruct my students on note and rhythm reading, instrument families, performing as a group, and many other skills that will help them succeed in ensemble classes. However, with so many different ways to teach those concepts, I was curious to know about the specific ways in which great general music teachers are teaching what instrumental teachers appreciate the most.

Teachers who communicate with their music colleagues will have programs that ensure student success at any level within a district, but many instrumental teachers find the same specific general music skills to be especially helpful. I talked with band and orchestra teachers in large and small, rural and urban, elementary and secondary schools to learn what general music skills help students who choose this one-of-many post-elementary musical paths.

Rhythm Reading

When asked what helps students in his band, Nick Syman, a high school band teacher in Hudson, Wisconsin, says, “Rhythm reading! Particularly fundamental pulse and subdivision.” Nearly all of the band and orchestra teachers I’ve talked with stress the importance of students having a solid understanding of rhythm. Bands and orchestras usually use a numbered counting system, but students who have used Kodaly, Takadimi, or any other syllable-based counting system understand the concepts of rhythm and subdivision, and therefore, will be able to switch to numbers without much trouble. One Twin Cities area orchestra teacher has also noticed that some of her beginner students have trouble reading pitched rhythms and need to be taught that the vertical position of rhythms on a staff doesn’t change the rhythm.

Steady Beat

Students need to understand how music moves to a steady beat. It doesn’t pause for mistakes or for careful reading. Ben Bussey, an instructor at MacPhail Center for Music in the Twin Cities, has noticed that many beginner instrumentalists try to read music at their own pace, just as they are taught to read language, taking the time to avoid errors. In music, keeping up with the beat is just as essential as playing correct notes.

Clef Reading

General music teachers can help band and orchestra teachers by giving students a solid foundation in clef reading. If students can read in both treble and bass clef, they will have an advantage, but as one band teacher in southern Minnesota pointed out, “kids pick up bass clef just fine as long as they understand the basics of how to read.” Even if general music teachers aren’t able to fit bass clef into their curriculum, students who know how reading on a staff works will be able to learn bass clef much more easily than if they haven’t been reading music at all.

Instrument Playing

Providing students with experience playing any instrument while reading music in elementary music will prepare them for band or orchestra. Playing simple music on xylophone, recorder, or piano helps students develop the coordination and cognitive skills required to read and play at the same time.


Band and orchestra teachers don’t rely only on written music in their classes. Twin Cities band teacher Steve Herzog incorporates aural skills into his teaching. If his students come into band with the ability to sing on pitch, they have skills necessary to learn to play their instruments by ear and in tune.

Ensemble Experience

Making any kind of music together as a group will provide students with valuable ensemble skills that will help them to be successful in any ensemble class. In his teaching, Ben Bussey has found that “if they know what it feels like to sing with one voice or really land some rhythms on percussion together, that translates immediately to any aspect of music making.”

Knowledge of Instruments

If students have knowledge of instruments and instrument families, and a basic understanding of how instruments work, they will be better equipped to make an informed decision about what they want to play and how to produce sound on an instrument. Dennis Benson, a former band teacher at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, found that inviting musicians to demonstrate instruments in elementary music classes was beneficial for students considering band. In addition to having some live instrument demonstrations in my classes, I also prepared my fourth graders for band try-outs by showing MPR’s Class Notes Videos on instruments of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families. MPR’s Audio Backpack also has dozens of high-quality audio examples of individual instruments.

General music teachers who know how band and orchestra are taught are able to prepare their students for those ensembles while teaching their own content. Ensemble teachers who know how general music is taught are prepared to teach beginner students by building on what they have already learned. According to one St. Cloud area band teacher, students who transition easily into band have had elementary general music teachers who are great at teaching general music. She doesn’t expect or want the general music program to feel that their sole purpose is to prepare students for ensembles when it is her responsibility to teach band concepts to her students.

The most effective way to ensure that students are prepared for instrumental ensembles is to teach them the standards and curriculum appropriate for each level while communicating with the future teachers of those students. When teachers share a mutual respect and understanding of what each group is trying to accomplish, the entire K-12 music program will be successful at all levels.

(Many thanks to the band and orchestra teachers around the state (and even Wisconsin) who helped with this post. Your dedication to your instrumental programs and respect for general music teaching certainly benefits your students and your districts.)

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

The Question Board

Most teachers have been in this situation: In the middle of some important lesson, a student asks a great, but completely unrelated question. Do you follow the tangent and try to pick up your lesson plan another day? Or do you leave the question unanswered and risk discouraging students from expressing their curiosity?

This seems to happen frequently in my classroom. To manage these questions without derailing lesson plans or discouraging dialogue, we use what we what we call “The Question Board.” Ours is a large dorm room whiteboard that a colleague was giving away. It sits on the floor where all of my elementary students can reach it easily. Students are welcome to add questions to the board as they think of them. Sometimes I’ll ask a student with a question to write it on the board, either because it would take more class time than we have available for questions (e.g. “What made Stravinsky, Hildegard [von Bingen], Rossini, and Chopin want to be a composer and songwriter?”), or because I don’t know the answer (e.g. “How many words are in the longest song?”). Sometimes I’ll address the questions in a future class, but I often simply write an answer for students to read on their own the next day.

I’ve been impressed by the how the question board has increased student learning and engagement in music class. Some of the benefits were intended, but many were pleasant surprises.

• Questions don’t take class time. If I don’t want to discuss the answer to a question in class, I can write an answer after school and the students can read it the next day. No time is taken away from the planned instruction.
• Students can ask questions anonymously. When I was a kid, I was very interested in learning about music, but I was so shy that I never raised my hand to ask questions. The question board is a way to reach some of my quieter students who I’ve noticed writing questions that they wouldn’t ask in front of the class.
• Students can ask any question. The question board allows students to ask questions that are unrelated to the current lesson or unit. Some questions aren’t related to anything we’ve done in class, but probably reflect a musical experience that the question writer had outside of school. Others show students processing content that was learned earlier in the school year.
• Questions reflect the connections that students are making between concepts taught at different points in the school year. My favorite questions are those that tie together topics that they’ve learned about separately. These questions are evidence of students’ deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of music. Or they can provide an opportunity to fill in context (e.g. “Did Stravinsky, Chopin, Rossini, and Hildegard write a song together?”)
• Questions can inspire new teaching ideas. Sometimes my students questions give me ideas for teaching. For example, one question on my board right now is, “Did Chopin like rock and roll?” Maybe I’ll make a lesson exploring hypothetical questions about how well-known composers might react to genres of music that they didn’t write. Would Chopin like rock and roll? If he wrote a rock song, how would it sound?
• Demonstrating how to find answers models research techniques. I believe that it’s important for my students to know that adults aren’t omniscient. It’s not as important to know everything as it is to know how to find the information that’s needed. When I find a relevant question on the board, I sometimes show my students how I find an answer. If they develop good research skills, they can continue learning by finding their own answers when they’re not in class.
• The teacher becomes the learner. My students’ questions ensure that I keep learning more and more about the topics that I teach. In the last month, I learned that the shortest recorded song is “You Suffer” by Napalm Death at 1.316 seconds, and the longest is Thom Yorke’s “Subterranea” at 432 hours. I found out that Chopin wrote his first piece, Polonaise in G minor, when he was only seven years old. I now know that it is estimated that the first known flute is about a hundred times older than the first recorder. And I continually learn about my students’ interests and the depth of their understanding through the questions they ask.
• Have two simultaneous conversations with students. The question board makes it possible to have a dialogue through written questions and answers while we are engaged in the usual oral and musical communication of class. Time is very limited in music class periods, so I seize any opportunity increase communication and connection with my students.

When I started using a question board, I was pleased that it fulfilled its intended purpose of recording questions that I couldn’t answer during class, but it has become much more. The question board is a way for students to connect, engage, and explore their curiosity. One of my second graders has become so interested in the question board that she told me that she wants to be a music researcher, and she has big plans to discover a new kind of note. Anything that inspires that kind of interest is worthwhile. I can’t wait to hear about her findings!

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Free Apps to Make a Music Teacher’s Life Easier

Education technology can enrich lessons and engage students in learning, but it can also help teachers with the day-to-day operations of running their classrooms. Although a huge variety of websites and apps exist to manage organizational tasks–such as lesson planning, grading, tracking behavior, and communicating with parents–it can be hard to find products that are suited to music teachers (or other specialists) with unusual schedules and hundreds of students. I’ve found three free apps that have made my life as a music teacher significantly easier. Although they aren’t marketed specifically to specialists, their flexible features make them suited to my needs as an elementary music teacher.

Planning and Grading: Chalk
Desktop & iOS

Chalk is comprised of Planboard for lesson planning and Markboard for grading. These versatile and integrated apps save time when planning and grading, accommodate even unusual specialist class schedules, and conveniently sync between devices. Both Planboard and Markboard are visually clean and appealing, and offer a variety of views and reports to make it easy to quickly see the information that is needed. Improvements and new features continue to be added to both of the Chalk products.

Why It’s Great for Music Classes

Accommodates Rotation Schedule: One of my biggest challenges in finding a lesson and unit planning tool was finding something that could accommodate my complicated rotating schedule. Having a product that can keep track of and plan lessons and units within that schedule is a huge organizational help.
Integrates Planning and Grading: Having a planner and gradebook integrated makes it easier to track standards coverage and units. It’s also just handy to have both on one site.
Provides Multiple Views: Planboard has day, week, month, and unit views that are easy to toggle between. In any view, clicking on a lesson shows all of the details. Markboard also provides a variety of views and reports for individual students, units, and entire classes.
Customizable Lesson Plan Templates: Planboard makes it possible for teachers to create their own custom lesson plan templates. This is convenient in classes that don’t use a traditional lesson plan format. I’ve created a simple template that I typically use, and a more detailed template that can be used for sub plans or lessons that I share.
Customizable Grading: Markboard allows for more than just the typical point scoring. Teachers can assess on a binary scale or create their own rubrics. Additionally, comments can be be added to students’ scores for richer and more detailed assessment.

Behavior Management: ClassDojo
Desktop, iOS, Android

ClassDojo is a behavior tracker with which teachers can award or take away points for customized positive and negative behaviors. Additional features include student and parent accounts, teacher and parent messenger, and class pages.

Why It’s Great for Music Classes

Motivates Positive Behavior: The primary purpose of ClassDojo is to encourage students to engage in positive behaviors. Its point system is basic enough that it’s easy to incorporate ClassDojo into a larger classroom management plan. (For more on how I use ClassDojo points in my classroom management system, see Managing Behavior with Composer Houses.)
Customizable: The list of behaviors that are assessed, and their point values, can be customized. This is especially useful in elementary specialist classes where default behaviors, such as “No Homework,” might not be relevant. Guiding students to create their own list of class expectations to be used as ClassDojo behaviors makes a great start-of-the-school-year discussion.
Aids in Teacher Record Keeping: It can be difficult to remember specific behaviors or even to notice trends in behavior when working with hundreds of students. ClassDojo helps me track behavior trends as well as any other information I need to track. For example, I’ve included “Forgot Recorder” as a behavior in my fourth grade classes. I don’t count points for this behavior, but it shows me who is habitually forgetting their instrument.
Gets Students’ Attention: When students are getting off task, all I have to do is pull up ClassDojo on my board, and they are instantly in their seats and quiet. Students don’t want to miss an opportunity to earn points, and they enjoy looking for their monster avatars.
Provides Parents with Instant Feedback: Students and parents can set up their own Class Dojo accounts. Students can see the points they’ve earned and customize their monster avatars. Parents can view their children’s points, read comments entered by the teacher, follow the news posted on the Class Story page, and communicate through instant messaging with the teacher. Students LOVE to customize their monsters so they can show them off in class, which motivates parents to set up accounts, too!

Parent Communication: Bloomz
Desktop, iOS, Android, SMS

Bloomz provides a secure platform for sharing class updates with families, communicating directly with parents, coordinating donation and volunteer requests, and scheduling events and conferences. All of these functions can be tremendously useful for specialists trying to keep in touch with the families of hundreds of students.

Why It’s Great for Music Classes

Asking for Donations: Many parents are happy to support music classes through donations of basic supplies (i.e. pencils and tissues), materials for special projects, props and costumes for shows, or even instruments. With Bloomz, teachers can instantly communicate what they need and when with all connected parents.
Finding Volunteers: Parent volunteers can be so helpful when preparing for concerts or other special events. Bloomz allows parents to see what help is needed and how many volunteers are needed. And teachers can instantly see who has signed up to help!
Features Performance/Event Calendar: Teachers can reduce the number of times they have to answer questions like “When’s the spring concert?” by keeping families informed of upcoming performances and events on the Bloomz calendar.
Facilitates Conference Scheduling: In many schools, classroom teachers schedule conference times with families, but specialists have to be on-call for anyone who wants to stop in. With hundreds of students, in can be stressful to never know who is going to walk in the door for a conference. Bloomz allows teachers to set up conference times that parents can sign up for. Music teacher still might need to be on-call for drop-in conferences, but at least Bloomz allows them to be prepared for those conferences that parents are concerned enough about to schedule in advance.

Finding the right technology-based tools for your purposes can help you to use planning and teaching time more efficiently, connect with families, and build support for your program. These three have helped me to be a better and more organized music teacher!

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Planning for Stress-Free Sick Days

Taking a sick day
Leaving a classroom full of students with a sub doesn’t need to be a stress (MPR | Jackson Forderer)

My immune system’s good luck finally ran out this week, and I ended up sick at home, leaving my elementary music students in the care of a substitute teacher. Planning for a music sub is uniquely challenging. I’ve had subs who are very competent musicians, subs who can’t read a note of music, and everything in between. Most subs have had experience subbing in a regular classroom, but teaching back-to-back classes in a specialist’s room can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t been in that setting (or even for someone who has). Being mindful of the challenges that face music class subs, music teachers can prepare plans that will help the day run as smoothly as possible for the sub and students.

Create a sub folder. Keep all of the general and unchanging information that a sub might need in a folder. This should include class lists, classroom management procedures, daily routines, and emergency procedures.

Write a detailed schedule. Provide a detailed schedule for the day that includes the names of the classroom teachers of each class, good times to run to the bathroom, classes that will come with paraprofessionals or teachers aids, etc.

Appoint helper students. Choose one or two students in each class to act as helpers for the sub. My strategy is to pick two in each class–one very responsible and well-behaved student paired with a capable student who could be tempted to cause behavior problems in the class if not given a responsibility.

Write lesson plans that don’t require reading, singing, or playing music. It’s hard enough for a sub to walk into someone else’s classroom with confidence, but a lot harder if the sub doesn’t have the necessary skills to carry out the lesson plans. Assuming that the sub might not have any music-specific knowledge will ensure that anyone will be comfortable with the lesson plans. For those days when you’re too sick to write your own plans, you might consider investing in one of the many commercially produced books of music sub plans.

Plan the same activities for multiple sections. If at all possible, plan the same activities for multiple grades. It can be overwhelming even for me to try to remember my plans when I have to teach something different to each of the eleven sections that I have in a day. Repetition can make the day more manageable for a sub.

Don’t plan anything that requires any kind of technology. I’ve made this mistake in the past, and inevitably, there is always some problem with the technology. It’s annoying when that happens in my own teaching, and it can derail a class for a sub. There are plenty of technology-free music activities that can cut out that risk.

Plan fun, engaging, and educational activities. It would be easy to just have a sub show a movie, but we want our students to be learning something while we’re away. Plan activities that review skills that students have been working on, so the sub won’t be required to teach new content, and if possible, activities that students have done before. Educational music games are great for sub plans because they’re fun and engaging, which reduces the chance of behavior problems.

Invite subs to share their own musical experience and skills. Students can really benefit by learning from another musician. Invite subs who are musical to make room in the lesson plans to share their own musical talents with classes, whether through teaching a new song, demonstrating an instrument, or telling about their experiences. I recently had a sub who brought her guitar, and the students loved it!

Ask for the feedback that you want. Give your sub some guidance in providing the kind of feedback you need when you return to your classes. If you’re looking for specific information about behaviors or what happened in class, ask for it. You might even consider creating a form for your sub to fill out for you.

I was happy to return to school to find thorough sub notes, evidence that my plans had been followed, and assurance that my days of absence had gone well. Being a substitute teacher is a challenging job, and I am so appreciative of those who are willing to step into unfamiliar classrooms and unfamiliar content. Consideration of what will help a sub have a good day in the music classroom ensures that we can worry less during our days away and be better prepared to return to school.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Making the most of music class guests

Class Notes Artist Visit
Students at R.L. Stevenson Elementary in Fridley, Minn. take in a visit from Class Notes Artists, Lux String Quartet (Nate Ryan | MPR)

These late winter weeks can get long in an elementary school, as routines start to feel more tedious and spring break feels far away. It’s the perfect time to add some excitement to music class by inviting a special musical guest to meet students! My elementary classes will be visited by a freelance composer next week, just as the students are finishing their composition projects. It doesn’t have to take much extra time or effort to find an expert in the field to invite, prepare students to get the most out of the experience, and reflect and connect to learning afterward.

How to Find a Guest

The first step is, of course, to find someone willing to visit your school. There are musicians and ensembles who book professional workshops at schools, but it’s also possible to find experts in the field who are willing to come for a more informal visit.

If you’re looking to book a musician or ensemble, there are many different avenues to funding. If the school itself is not able to pay for a visit, look for grants or work with a local public library to find funds. A few years ago, our public library brought the Grammy-winning children’s folk group, the Okee Dokee Brothers, to our school through the Minnesota Legacy Funds. And some professional presenters don’t charge schools at all, such as Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s Class Notes Artists.

Finding someone in the area to come for a more informal visit can be just as good, or even better, than booking a professional show. The intimacy of a musician coming to talk to or play for students in an small, casual setting can create more personalized connection and communication. There are a variety of ways to find someone to visit:

• Keep in touch with old music friends. Many of the people I’ve had visit my classes are musician friends from high school or college, or former music teachers. I met the composer who will be coming to my classes next week in college.

• Be active in the local music scene. There are many reasons that music teachers should be active in a local music scene, and one is for the networking opportunities that could benefit teaching. Even in the rural areas where I’ve taught, there are regional orchestras and bands where I’ve connected with many skilled and knowledgeable musicians.

• Invite individual members of a visiting group to your classroom. The Minnesota Orchestra once visited our community to play a concert. One of the orchestra members came to my elementary music classes to do an impromptu and inspiring presentation. And all I had to do was ask!

• Use your online social network. Even if you don’t personally know experts in the field that your students are learning about, it’s possible that one of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers might.

In-Person or Virtual Visits
The most engaging way to connect is through live, face-to-face interaction. However, this might not always be possible, especially when teaching in a rural area. By using technology, “virtual visits” can broaden the musical worlds of students, wherever they are.

• Video Chat: The next best thing to having a guest visit your classroom in person might be a video chat. Easy, free applications like Skype or Google Hangout can allow your students to interact with an expert in real time.

• Recorded Video: When you want students in several classes to meet an expert, recording a video that can be played over and over can work well for teaching and demands less of the guest’s time. Recorded videos to be especially useful when communicating with musicians in different parts of the world where the time difference can be an issue. I also prefer recorded videos when they contain specific instructional content that we might want to repeat, such as pronunciation of non-English lyrics.

• Email: Although kids always enjoy the novelty of hearing someone other than their regular teacher talk, email can also be a way for students and experts to connect through personalized communication. It could be as simple as emailing student questions to an expert and reading the reply to the class. This uses minimal class time while still building a connection with an expert.

Preparing for a Visit

• Connect to what students are learning. My students have been working on composition projects over the last couple of weeks, so the timing of our guest is intentional. Meeting a composer after they have had some experience doing what he does professionally provides a musical connection before they even meet him.

• Introduce the guest before he or she arrives. To make the most of a visitor, students should be prepared. This week, my students have been learning about our composer guest and discovering what they have in common with him. They were excited to hear that he had attended a college in the area, a place that many of them had visited. One student’s grandma lives in his hometown. Another told me that his mom has one of the games that he has composed music for on her iPhone. Hooking students with a personal connection will make them more engaged when the visitor is in the room.

• Generate questions. Emphasize the purpose of the visit to avoid personal questions lacking in education substance, like “What’s your favorite football team?” or “Do you like chicken?” (actual student questions). With a little guidance, even primary students can come up with very thoughtful questions related to the purpose of the visit.

• Publicize your guest. Consider informing teachers and staff at your school, and even your community, of your visitor. I’ve known teachers to give up their prep time to sit in on music class when we’ve had a guest they were interested in meeting. And next week’s composer visit will likely be covered by our local newspaper.

After the Visit

• Connect to what students are learning (again!). After we’ve talked with our composer guest, I plan to spend some time talking with students about what they learned and how they can apply that learning as they finish their own composition projects. Make sure they understand how their own music-making connects to that of the person they just met.

• Thank the guest. Never pass up an opportunity to teach social skills to young students! After a visit, make sure that students understand how special it is that they were able to meet an expert. I like to have my students write thank you cards for their visitors, not only to be polite, but also as a way for them to reflect on what they learned and connected to.

Music teachers can have very broad knowledge of music, but no one person can be an expert in all areas of such a large, diverse, and ever-changing field. Inviting guests to music classes  expands the musical worlds of students, helping them to connect their learning to the many kinds of music making taking place outside of school.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Engaging, Empowering, and Educational In-Class Performances

Girl at the piano (Pixabay | Public Domain)
Girl at the piano (Pixabay | Public Domain)

I recently had one of those delightful teacher moments when my third grade students suddenly seemed to be running the class by themselves and doing a better job of it than when I’m the one “in charge.” Every day, students arriving at music class ask me if they can do performances. Sometimes they’re students who are in piano lessons and want to practice a recital piece for an audience, but more often, they’re kids who don’t get lessons and don’t have instruments at home who just want to explore and have the experience of performing. On this particular day, we had two long, improvised performances on piano. After both were finished and the audience had applauded, the students started a discussion that compared and contrasted the musical elements they had heard, emotions they had felt, imagery and stories they had imagined in the music, and more. They talked to the performers to compare what was intended and what was communicated. With just a little training in performer and audience etiquette and some guided listening experience, my students have shown me that they are capable of taking ownership of their own learning, and empowering each other to be creative performers and thoughtful and respectfully opinionated audience members.

Performer Preparation

Some general guidelines can help students to feel comfortable and have a positive experience while performing in the classroom. We talk in class about the difference between music that’s learned before a performance and music that’s improvised. Students are welcome to do either type of performance, opening the opportunity to those who don’t have training in music outside of school.

Especially when improvising, students need to have an understanding of what is appropriate for the setting. Banging on drums as loud as possible might be expressive, but it could damage instruments and disrupt neighboring classes. A ten minute exploration on the piano can bring out some interesting musical ideas, but it’s not considerate to take up so much of a twenty-five minute class period when there is a lesson planned and others who want a turn to perform. Learning to manage performance time is thoughtful and good musicianship.

Students can also be taught performer behaviors, such as waiting for everyone’s attention before beginning, introducing the piece they will be playing or singing, and bowing during the applause. It’s important for students to understand why they do these behaviors. Waiting for attention ensures that everyone will be able to enjoy the performance, and shows the performer’s pride in what he or she is about to do. Introducing the piece provides the audience with information that can help them to follow and enjoy the performance. And bowing during applause is the performer’s way of saying thank you to the audience for their kindness and attention.

Audience Preparation

In order for a performance to be a performance, it needs an audience. In-class performances are opportunities for students to practice good etiquette in both roles. Just as with performer behaviors, students should have an understanding of why certain behaviors are expected of audience members. Quietly listening while facing the performer helps audience members get the most enjoyment out of the performance, is polite to others who are listening, and shows respect and support to the performer. Reacting to the music is natural and encouraging to the performer, but students can learn to react in a way that won’t distract the player.

Young students can have a lot of fun learning respectful audience behavior. Invite students to demonstrate both the right and the wrong ways to behave, practice behaviors during student performances, or take students to a concert outside of school. My students particularly enjoy the Class Notes video “What To Do at a Concert.”

Guided Listening

Providing young students with guiding questions will help focus their listening skills. Prepare students to listen for general elements, such as how an instrument is used, and what feelings the music evokes. After a performance, ask more specific questions about what was just heard. Ask about techniques, musical elements, how the music made the students feel, what it made them think about, if it reminds them of any other music they have heard, etc. As students come to expect these kinds of questions, their listening becomes more focused and their answers become deeper. And when they do their own improvisations, their performances become more focused and musical because they know what their audience is listening for.

Dialogue with Performers

Creating a dialogue between performers and audience gives students an understanding of communicative purpose of music. When students in the audience offer an idea of a story they heard in the music, we can ask the performer if he or she had a story in mind while playing, and if it aligns with what members of the audience were thinking about. If it’s the same kind of story, we praise the performer for communicating it well; if it’s different, we celebrate how amazing it is that music can have different meanings for different people. We talk about specific elements of the performance that made up different parts of the story. Slow, smooth, high notes could sound like someone sleeping. Short, quiet notes could sound like a robber tiptoeing into a house. Students can come up with incredibly creative ideas whether listening to Mozart or an untrained first grader’s improvisation.


Elementary students are at a pivotal stage of development as musicians. Before they reach the stage when inhibitions could scare them away from trying out performing for an audience, give students in-class performance opportunities to bolster their confidence and the value they place on their own and others’ musical ideas.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Teaching Kids to Compose

Sculpture of Mozart in Salzburg (Viator | Flickr)
Sculpture of Mozart in Salzburg (Viator | Flickr Creative Commons)

Music composition can be one of the most inspirational and enjoyable activities to teach, but it is often neglected in music classes. With the pressure of preparing students for performances, those standards that aren’t on display to the public can become a lower priority. Personally, I also struggle with feeling less qualified to teach composition than the other standards. I’ve taken countless instrument lessons, I perform regularly, and I’ve taken classes to learn the history of the music that I play and how to analyze it. Yet, like most of us who chose any musical path other than a composition major, I managed to get through my many years of music education writing almost no music myself. Despite and because of this flaw in my own training, I’m doing what I can to make composition accessible to even my youngest students. Here is some of what I’ve learned through teaching my elementary students to write music.

Composing at All Levels

Composition can and should be taught at all levels. Even students who haven’t started reading yet can use graphic notation to communicate their musical ideas. Primary students’ compositions might include only a single musical element, such as a curving line to indicate pitch, while older students with more extensive training could write music in standard notation that includes pitch, rhythm, and expression markings.

Exploring Composition Tools

Guide students to explore the tools of composition — pitch, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, etc. — through improvisation before they start writing down their ideas. For example, my third graders have been improvising on bells to familiarize themselves with a pentatonic scale before using it in their compositions. Students can quickly begin to hear the relationships between notes and identify what sounds “good.” The same kind of exploration can be used to gain familiarity with rhythms, chord progressions, etc.

Composing in Many Ways

When I’ve asked composer friends what they would recommend to my young music students, they give a variety of answers. Many stress the importance of learning harmonic progressions to drive composition. Others recommend starting with a melody. When teaching composition in standard notation, I often have students begin with a rhythm as a simple way to start writing. I find it useful to guide young first-time composers by using a step-by-step method that adds only one or two musical elements at a time, building their confidence by not overwhelming them. The wider the variety of approaches to composition that we can teach, the better.

Making Meaningful Musical Decisions

It’s not hard to write a bunch of notes and rhythms on a staff, but students need to be taught to make purposeful and musical decisions in their composing. They need to have an understanding of what melody notes sound good with a V chord, why the tonic makes a good ending note, where it’s appropriate to add a crescendo. A technical understanding of music and notation is useful for a composer, but the musical understanding is what makes creative expression possible.

Writing Small Compositions

Small compositions can be used to enrich content being taught in any music curriculum. Using short composition exercises focusing on the specific concepts being studied can ease students into writing music. If students are using composition to show their understanding of concepts, it won’t be difficult to move to using those concepts to write compositions.

Learning about Composers

It takes years of practice and study to build a repertoire of compositional tools. In the meantime, young students can learn about more complex composition by studying a variety of composers. My students have been studying a few composers in depth this school year. After learning about these composers’ works, students are able to reflect on specific compositional techniques, their purposes, and their effectiveness. Students are also able to form their own opinions about what they like and dislike in the music music they’ve studied, helping them make their own compositional decisions.

Meeting Composers

Be sure to remind students that not all composers are dead! I find opportunities to invite composers to be a part of my music classes, through commissioning new pieces for my students to perform, emailing students’ questions to composers, or inviting composers to visit our classroom. It’s easy to think of writing music as something elite, unattainable, and in the past if kids only see composers who wear powdered wigs and funny, old-fashioned clothes. It’s important for students to meet composers who are regular, living people of all different backgrounds, just like them.

Just like performance, composition is a skill that should be accessible to all students, no matter what their age, level, or background. Writing music can enrich any music curriculum and might be the spark that motivates students to continue creating music outside of our classrooms.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.

Do We Sing in This Class?

Children learn about conducting from Maestra Sarah Hicks (Screengrab from YouTube)
Children learn about conducting from Maestra Sarah Hicks (Screengrab from YouTube)

A student who recently transferred into my school approached me after music class and asked, “Do we sing in this class?” She joined our school just after the winter concert. Without the pressure of an upcoming concert, I’ve been enjoying teaching lessons focused on participating in music without performing it. Actively engaging in music in ways in which the participant isn’t making sound can provide young students with alternative ways to connect with our content. And my students seem to be enjoying it, too.


Conducting is an interactive activity that helps students explore a variety of music concepts, and it’s something that young students really enjoy. As part of their study of meter, my third through fifth grade students have all been learning to conduct at different levels of complexity. The students made a list of elements that can be shown in conducting, such as meter, tempo, dynamics, and who should and shouldn’t be playing. We practiced basic beat patterns, changing the speed, showing dynamics with gesture size, and simple cueing. Students watched the Class Notes video “What Does a Conductor Do?” (see video below), conducted recordings together, followed my conducting while playing the beat on basic classroom percussion instruments, and took turns conducting small groups of classmates.

The students took their leadership roles seriously and were impressed by their power to change the sound of others’ instruments without saying a word. Student conductors are removed from the technical challenges of producing musical sound themselves, yet they’re able to explore and affect elements of music. They can find a new perspective on music and how it works through “playing” an ensemble as a conductor.

Dancing and Movement

Dance is a natural accompaniment to many types of music, and movement can be used to help students grasp musical concepts, too. Primary students enjoy finding ways to use their bodies to demonstrate musical concepts that they hear, such as pitch, dynamics, tempo, beat, articulation, note length, etc. Movement can also be used to direct music. For example, my first graders sometimes volunteer to lead vocal warm-ups by showing high and low movements that the other students mirror with the pitch of their voices.

While it’s important for elementary students to learn the technical skills to sing and play instruments, their musical creativity should be fostered, too. For some young students, managing the technical aspects of producing musical sound can distract them from the creative aspects. Incorporating activities that allow students to express musical creativity without focusing on technique can help to make them into more thoughtful and innovative musicians once they have gained more vocal and instrumental skills.


So many pieces of music are composed to tell a story, and those that weren’t can still inspire listeners to imagine their own stories. My students have been learning about music in opera and ballet recently–two genres that involve collaboration between multiple art forms to tell a story. Before telling the students the stories that inspired the pieces we were learning about, I had them imagine their own stories to accompany the music. They told their stories by drawing comic strips showing emotions, actions, and characters that reflected what they heard. Visual art and creative writing aren’t dependent on time like music is, but the students created their comic strips as they listened, so their stories unfolded with the music. They participated in music as it was happening, expressing their imaginative ideas through their artwork and writing. Their stories were amazingly creative. They varied widely in some ways, but were remarkably similar in others, demonstrating how music can create a common experience among listeners or touch people very differently.

I assured the new student who asked if we sing in music class that we do. But it’s important for elementary students to experience, create, and participate in music in as many ways as possible, whether they are making the musical sounds themselves, or engaging in music in another way. General music teachers teach students with a variety of learning styles, abilities, and experiences; the more ways in which we can expose them to music, the more likely that one of those experiences will be the one that sparks a thoughtful and creative interest in music that could last a lifetime.

Maia Hamann currently teaches music at Holdingford Elementary, grades K-5. You can read all of her blog posts here. View our entire portfolio of educational resources on our Music for Learning page.