What do you consider essential when setting up your room for music teaching?
Whether you teach an instrument in a studio or at home, in a school music classroom, or from a cart, there are some things we “must have” in our music room.
These are my suggestions for things I consider “essential” for music teachers. Some of the ideas are organisational, others are for manipulatives or tools for teaching music. I find manipulatives are indispensable for giving students a visual and /or kinaesthetic representation of a concept and use them extensively in my teaching.
1. Large staff lines
It’s a lot more fun to learn the notes on the staff on a large floor staff than on a piece of paper. If you have a big room and a good budget then the Note Worthy or FootNotes rugs are great, but even lines taped to the floor will work very well. If you are in a smaller area or don’t have a permanent room, I use washi tape to make temporary lines on the floor or even on a chair. With a giant floor staff, students can play games standing on the lines/spaces, or if you are using a smaller version, toys can be used to place notes. Mini student whiteboards are also great, and if you have a magnetic one, you can use fun magnets for the notes.
I find drumsticks are indispensable for rhythm teaching. I use them for keeping a steady beat while listening to music or singing, for developing rhythm skills by sight reading rhythm patterns, or to learn the rhythm of a new instrumental piece or song. You can drum on buckets, but these are optional; I use the floor or the back of a chair or a table, or the drumsticks can double as rhythm sticks (tap sticks on each other).
3. Popsicle sticks
Popsicle sticks are probably one of the most versatile manipulatives for music lessons. Just a few ideas are: use the sticks for rhythm notation or rhythm dictation, for composition of rhythms, or students can make can a staff from the sticks, then use playdough or coloured buttons for notes.
A game with popsicle sticks which students of all ages really enjoy is “Busted!” Write short rhythm patterns on one end of the sticks, and the student then has to perform the rhythm of the stick they draw out from the jar. If they perform the rhythm correctly they keep the stick, if it is wrong they put it back in the jar. Several sticks have the word “Busted!” on them, and if a student picks one of these, they must return all their sticks to the jar. The game can continue as long as you want, or you can stop at any point and the winner is the person with the most sticks. This game also works well with one student, by keeping a record of how many sticks they can collect in four minutes, then see if they can better this number the next time you play. “Busted!” can also be used for concepts other than rhythm, for example, pitch reading or to learn Italian musical terms.
4. Repertoire system
Music teachers generally have much more repertoire than can be used in lessons, so it’s important we have our resources systematically organised. Not only does this mean we can find music quickly, it also enables us to match repertoire to a particular student’s needs. Some teachers like to use folders or binders, or maybe a filing cabinet. Others prefer to have everything organised on their computer or tablet; all of these methods work well and it’s worth spending the time to sort all your repertoire.
Cards are great for many different activities: flash cards, rhythm pattern cards and beat strips with matching rhythm cards are effective for both rhythm dictation and for composition. The beat strips are helpful for students to understand how rhythms fit into a beat and how many beats are in a bar; some teachers prefer to use heart shapes for the beat and put notes within the hearts. I also use lots of music card games as students enjoy these and you can teach many different concepts with them, such as Bags the Beat! (rhythm values), Dynamic Dynamo (meaning of Italian terms and symbols) and Domino Fingering (connection between note name, the note on the staff and the fingering for wind and string instruments, or keyboard position for piano).
6. Games props
In previous articles I have written about the value of games in teaching. If children are having fun, they will be much more engaged, have better learning outcomes and look forward to their music lessons as a positive experience. I use games throughout every lesson and have boxes clearly labelled with the props needed for each one. Some of the games most requested by students are “Catch a Bar”, “At the Races”, and “Famous Faces”. There are templates for these and more games in my book “Fun & Games for Music Lessons”. These games are suitable for instrumental students or for music classes and also work well in online lessons.
Another way to include games in your music lessons is to convert existing board games into a music game, for example the game “Guess Who” can be modified to “Guess the Instrument” or “Guess the Note”.
7. Scarves or bean bags
Scarves are handy to get kids moving to music, whether for free expression, or moving the scarf up and down to the beat, or to show high and low pitch. I also like doing body percussion with scarves or ribbons. For small children it is often easier to gently tie the scarf/ribbon around their wrist rather than have them hold the scarf.
An alternative for movement activities is to use bean bags, for example throwing the bean bag from one hand to the other, or between students to a steady beat, or for floor staff games, placing their bean bag on a specified note.
Many students work better with extrinsic motivation. It might be a team challenge in the classroom, or maybe you could have a box of nice comments which students can draw from. Stickers work wonders in both the classroom and instrumental studio, as do certificates for challenges, or to reward great effort.
9. Puppets and soft toys
Depending on the age of your students, you may also want to have some puppets or soft toys in your room. These are fun to use in games, but you can also use these characters for communication; if you have a very shy student, they might find it easier to chat with a puppet than with the teacher.
10. Self care
Remember it’s also essential to have items to look after YOU! A water bottle is a “must have”, as we spend so much of our day singing or speaking. If you are teaching online or have a lot of screen time, I find saline eyedrops are very helpful. If you teach in a studio and spend a lot of your day sitting, a comfortable chair with good back support is very beneficial. If you are teaching in person, you will of course need disinfectant wipes etc. to keep your teaching space and manipulatives clean.
I haven’t included class instrument sets in this list, as these are very much related to your budget and the programs you run. I have tried to keep to items which are small enough to fit in a small studio and are also inexpensive to purchase, yet which will provide many activities for your students.
Was it hard to choose just 10 “must haves”? Yes! Have I left out some of my other frequently used tools? Yes! But I’ll stick with these as my top 10 “essentials” for music teaching.
Karen North has been teaching flute and class music for over 35 years. She is the author of the popular method series "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and is currently working with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.