Herding Cats: Lessons Learned from Elementary Music Classes

Trey Reely | December 2022 January 2023

As a university supervisor for Arkansas State University, I observe music interns in a variety of settings before they enter the real world. For many, it’s an opportunity to bring their goals after graduation into sharper focus. At ASU, students spend a portion of their internship in an elementary setting. While many find this a little disconcerting and not aligned with their career goals, most ultimately find the experience rewarding and much more enjoyable than expected.
I felt the same way the first time I observed an intern teaching a kindergarten music class. I wondered if I would have any worthwhile suggestions because my entire school experience was teaching band in 7th-12th grades; I had not been in an elementary music class since college. (I do not predate Orff and Kodaly but am probably close.) How would I evaluate an intern’s work with kids who still talk to imaginary friends and believe monsters live under their beds? Because I was the upper elementary director at my church, working regularly with 4th-6th graders, and had grandkids all under the age of 8, I was quite familiar with kids of preschool and elementary age. The best way to teach them music was somewhat foggy.
Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. As I observed the intern’s work, the similarities to my experiences with junior and senior high bands were obvious. There were advanced teaching concepts that lent themselves to younger music students as well, even kindergarteners. Over time, I have compiled quite a few suggestions for music interns in an elementary setting.
First, have high expectations for behavior, effort, and results. Don’t assume that kids in elementary grades cannot behave and should be given more slack. It’s all about expectations. I remember being told during my first year of teaching that all of my wonderful sixth-grade beginners would turn into monsters over the summer and would return the next fall to terrorize our school as zombie-like beings. I was skeptical but still a little wary. Three months later, with a couple of notable exceptions, most had not returned as raving lunatics. They may have seemed that way for the other teachers, but I didn’t experience it. It was my first clue that results are connected to expectations and subject to the perils of self-fulfilling prophecies.
It is also important for even the youngest children to learn how to give full effort in musical endeavors and realize the importance of their responsibility to their fellow class members. Everyone pays attention, follows directions, and plays or sings together to the best of their ability. This serves as a basis for a successful musical program for friends and family and trains them for future musical endeavors. Is this taking things too seriously at this age? I don’t think so. Again, it’s all about expectations.
Elementary students need to be presented with goals. This is typically easier for a more structured band class, but young kids will respond when they know what it is they are to accomplish and where their newfound knowledge is leading. Classes should not be a “one and done” experience – they should be set within the context of a larger whole.
Even young students need to know why they are learning various skills. When presenting information, tell them why a particular concept is important and why you are teaching it. It is much easier just to tell students to do something but more learning takes place when they understand why. If you don’t have a good reason why, then maybe you shouldn’t teach the concept in the first place, particularly if you are only doing it that way because it is how you were taught.
Conversely, I observed that there was much that band directors can learn from elementary music classes. The first thing that jumps out at me when I enter a typical elementary music classroom is the vast amount of colorful encyclopedic information on the walls; even the carpets are impressive and educational. I must admit that one of my weaknesses as a director was not making my band room more inviting; I decorated one bulletin board in 34 years of teaching. I must humbly add that it was very well done and looked great; that is, until it faded after remaining unchanged for seven or eight years.
My typical mode of redecorating was getting a renovated band room or a new fine arts facility every few years, but this is not practical for everyone. However, I did work hard to keep band spaces neat and orderly and demanded that band members respect and maintain what we had, even if conditions were not ideal. (At one school, I inherited a soda stain on the carpet that resembled Abraham Lincoln.)
It may surprise you that young kids, as wild and crazy as they are, still love order and routine. I’ve subbed several times in elementary classes since my retirement, and those kids did not hesitate to correct me when I didn’t do something the right way. The best elementary music classes I’ve observed have a routine from the time the kids enter the room to the time they exit.
The same should be true for band classes. Can your students run a band class in your absence, or do they take advantage of the musically-challenged substitute? You know you are doing things right as a band director when you receive a glowing note from the sub about how great the kids were during your absence. This results from good discipline and a steady routine.
Elementary students, particularly the younger ones, believe they can do anything and are eager to volunteer even before they know what the teacher is going to ask them to do. The best teachers never quash this enthusiasm and sense of confidence. Directors would do well to coax this quality from their more cautious and self-conscious teenagers, using their own enthusiasm as an encouraging example.
Elementary music concerts are fun but stressful, often presented with limited rehearsal time. Teachers regularly have to pull together several classes that only rehearse once or twice a week. One thing you can count on is a presentation that will have parents as proud as peacocks. High school band directors would do well to remember this as they decide whether to present a marching contest show along the likes of “The Life of Molecules in the Vast Cosmos” or something more understandable to the average parent.
I’ve also noticed that elementary music classes are filled with movement, games, and activities. Variety is key no matter the age, so a good dose of it with older kids is a key element of an engaging class that makes band the highlight of a student’s day.
So, while on the surface the teaching of elementary music and junior/senior band classes might seem radically different, the similarities far outweigh the differences. Taking the best practices of both and applying them in an age-appropriate manner will produce the best of both worlds.