I have a nasty habit that has dogged me for years. I implement something good in my beginning band classes and then don’t follow through consistently. The rush to cover material and finish the beginning band book as soon as possible takes over my thinking, and the good idea fades into the woodwork. However, I have found a solution. Workshop presenters and regular classroom teachers often use icebreakers, a simple activity that enables members of a group to know each other better. When developed more fully, it can be used in any number of ways, including work on musical concepts. Starting class each day by spending five or ten minutes on one concept has helped me to be more consistent in reinforcing them. Below are some ideas I have used. Some are instructional, some just for fun. If you have like-instrument classes that meet the same period, these are best done as a group before dividing into sections.
Getting to Know You. Icebreakers of this variety are particularly important early in the year when there are a lot of new faces. We have beginners that come from two different elementary schools, so group activities are a great way for them to get to know each other and for us to learn their names as well.
There are a variety of games on the Internet that can be used, but my favorite is called “I Like My Neighbor.” For this activity, chairs should be arranged in a circle. One person is standing in the middle, and all others are seated. The person in the middle says his or her name, and everyone else responds, “Hi” and then repeats the name. Then the person in the middle says, “And I like my neighbor who…” completing the sentence with a statement that is personal, observable, thoughtful, and appropriate. For example: “My name is Mark.” “Hi, Mark!” “And I like my neighbor who has a pet.” At that point, all those seated who have a pet get up and quickly move to another seat, while the person in the middle (person who just said, “I like my neighbor…”) quickly makes his way to an available seat. The person left without a seat stands in the middle and starts a new “I like my neighbor” statement. Hilarity usually ensues as they scramble for seats each time.
Another activity is the birthday circle: See how quickly the students can form a circle (or line) with everybody in chronological order, beginning with January 1. When this is completed, have the students tell the others something they think would make a great birthday gift.
The six-word memoirs game is also fun. Give students an index card and have them use only six words to tell others about themselves. For example, as the teacher you might write “I love kids and teaching music.” Then have them share their memoir with the class.
Procedures. It is particularly important early in the year to spend each day teaching and reviewing all of your class rules and procedures. Method-ically presenting and reviewing these over several consecutive days should get you off to a good start. A short written quiz would help you get your points across even better.
Joke of the Day. Kids really enjoy this. They enjoy telling jokes also, but be careful, you never know what they might say! I often combine this with other icebreakers since the jokes are often short.
Breathing Exercises. The Breathing Gym by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan has some very good breathing exercises you can use. This icebreaker should be used daily at the beginning of the year and then at least two times a week the rest of the year.
Superhero Stickers. We have students play off lines from their method books. When a student has played an exercise perfectly, we stick colored hole reinforcers around the number of that exercise. Sometimes at the beginning of class we give students the chance to play off a line we have not rehearsed. This encourages them to work ahead. If they play off the line, they get a superhero sticker that counts twice the value of a regular sticker. (Their chair placement and other things are based on the number of stickers that they have.)
Writing in the Rhythms. Have the students write in the counting on selected exercises in their method book; select an early exercise as a review or a later one as a preview. The variety of ways you can approach rhythm study is endless, but the important thing is to isolate rhythm study apart from other concepts and focus on it consistently.
Writing in Note Names. It has always amazed me how many students will slide through beginning band without learning note names; they somehow survive by memorizing fingerings and slide positions. Do not let students write in note names all the time, but from time to time have a speed contest on selected exercises to see who can write their note names in the fastest and with the least mistakes. Written quizzes are good also.
I Wish My Teacher Knew. Hand out index cards and ask the students to complete the sentence “I wish my teacher knew…” This is a good activity for later in the year when students know you better and may open up more. This can provide some real insight on what is going on in a student’s life.
Addressing the Mental Game. I have legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success on a poster in the front of the band room. It has many important concepts for achieving success not only in athletics, but band and life. Just picking one of them (such as industriousness, cooperation, enthusiasm) and discussing it for a few minutes makes sure I address more than just musical concepts in my classes.
Interesting Facts and Music Trivia. Any number of books will work for this. My particular favorites are The Word Museum and Informal English by Jeffrey Kacirk, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Music, and The Greatest Music Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer. The two books by Kacirk contain amusing musical and non-musical terms and their definitions. A few examples: buzzback (an old organ that is out of order and playing badly), begrumpled (displeased), blutterbunged (confounded), and barber’s music (rough music so named for a poorly-conditioned guitar that was formerly kept in a barber’s shop for the amusement of customers while taking their turn.) The Uncle John’s Reader is a storehouse of trivia on topics like the most musical presidents and the benefits of a musical education. The Greatest Music Stories has many interesting stories on musicians and events from Mozart to Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May.
Transposition. The icebreaker time is also good for challenging students to go beyond what is in their method book. Give them a handout with simple melodies transposed into several different keys to teach them the basics of transposition.
Composition. Once students know enough notes, have them compose a fanfare. This may take several days to complete, but once learned, students will have a good time taking turns beginning the class period with their own personal fanfare.
Fabulous Prizes. We keep a store of silly little prizes that we buy in bulk from places like Oriental Trading Company and periodically have a short awards ceremony for good things that the kids have done. We really ham it up as we present what we call our fabulous prizes: rubber duckies, pencils, stickers, candy, and the like.
Rhythmic Dictation. Just do a little bit each time and gradually increase difficulty throughout the course of the year. Alternate between clapping a rhythm and playing the rhythm on an instrument. Things will go faster if you provide the students a template showing the staff, time signature, and bar lines.
Illustrations and Stories. Icebreaker time is a good time to give illustrations of various musical concepts. I tell one about the importance of remembering the musical tools that we give them to avoid repeating mistakes.
Flash Cards. Use these to increase the speed of student response. You can go old school if the classes are smaller, but having them projected on a screen using a smartboard or other similar technology would be best.
Music Theory. Method books typically have some exercises to test musical knowledge. Complete these as a class. Teaching and drilling the order of the sharps and flats would be great during this time.
Conducting. Teach students how to conduct the different time signatures they have encountered in class. Have tryouts on an exercise from their book and let the winner conduct a song at a concert.
Right or wrong? I will get out my instrument and play an exercise two ways. The class has to tell me which one is correct and be specific about what was incorrect about the other.
Although I have presented the previous ideas as activities for beginners, they easily can be adapted for more advanced groups. It may be as limited as using them only once or twice a week because older groups have more performances, and rehearsals are at a premium. Even then, the change of pace will add variety to what you are doing and enable you to monitor learning.