Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

Monday, February 19, 2018

Left Hand on Top!

For many elementary music teachers, the new calendar year coincides with the start of a unit on playing the recorder. If you're like me, you teach recorders to third graders for several reasons: as a way to reinforce their knowledge of absolute note names, to prepare them for band instruments they can play in the future, and to get their hands on an affordable, accessible, rewarding musical instrument.

One of the biggest hurdles I find when teaching recorder is getting my students to remember which hand goes on top of the instrument. Despite posting reminders around my classroom, there's always a few students who instinctively use their right hand when playing B-A-G. I recently polled the members of a music teachers facebook group to see how they model the left hand for their students.

The results were clear that most teachers value modeling the proper technique. What do we do, then, for the kids who still just don't "get it" and can't remember which hand to use? As a way to help them remember (and hopefully get the correct posture into their muscle memory), I created "Left Hand on Top" wristbands! You can download them for free in my store:

After using them for a few years, I've found a few tricks that help me to use them most effectively. It's all about preparation. On the day that I introduce the wristbands, I want to be able to quickly and efficiently get one on each child. I have to be the one to place it on each wrist because otherwise they will inevitably end up on the wrong side.

In order to prep them as much as possible, I cut them all out ahead of time and place a piece of clear tape on each one so it's ready. All I have to do is wrap it around the child's wrist and it's done. But what do you do with 25 paper wristbands that each have a piece of tape hanging off of them? This year I came up with a system to store the wristbands that already have tape on them so that they are ready to peel and stick: I attach them all to the clear plastic cover of a three ring binder!

Before the class comes in, I just bring the binder over to my classroom door. I have them line up outside my room and announce that today they will be entering "Club Recorder." It is a very exclusive club and to be a member they must wear their exclusive recorder wristband. Then I instruct them to hold out their left hand and tape a wristband on each student as they enter the room.

My students are always excited when they get to be part of an "exclusive club" and they love having the wristbands. When taping them on, I make sure to wrap the wristband so that the blank side gets covered up and the words are on the outer portion. For most kids, they only need the physical experience of wearing the wristband once to remember the proper hand position. For others, I will save extras in case they need to wear it during the next class. Works like a charm!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Bounce High, Bounce Low: A Favorite Game to Teach La

This time of year, my first graders are usually getting ready to add la to their melodic arsenal. They've been practicing so-mi songs for a while and it's time for the next step in their learning sequence. Since I completed my Kodály Level I last summer, I learned a lot about selecting quality songs to prepare, present, and practice la. I'm writing about one of my favorites today:


This is a great song to prepare la. For those of you who are not familiar with the Kodály method, there are three stages to learning a new concept: prepare, present, and practice. During the prepare stage, the students are playing games and singing songs that include the new concept but they haven't made it conscious yet. The prepare stage is all about exposure and aural immersion. When preparing a new concept, I like to use songs that invite lots and lots of repetition, and it doesn't get much more repetitive than Bounce High, Bounce Low! 

For this stage, I like to play the classic playground game, Over Under. Any time I can bring a playground ball into my music room, my kids go nuts! (When I taught on a cart, I would modify this by playing using something smaller like a tennis ball and they still loved it.) My musical version is slightly different from the traditional game. Here's a video version of the original:

The object of the game is for the students to pass the ball backwards around the entire circle without dropping it. Have students stand in a large circle, all facing the same direction. Make sure there is plenty of room between each child. Choose one student to hold the ball to start. The students will pass the ball on the second and fourth beat of each measure (either on a la or on a mi.) If passing on the high note, the student must pass it over her head, and if passing on the low note, the student must pass it between her legs. The student behind her needs to be paying attention and ready to catch it because otherwise it's easy to drop the ball in this game- literally!

A common pitfall with this game is that the students get so excited about passing the ball that they forget to match it up with the pitches as they go. I will assist with the singing or play the pitches on a melodic instrument so that they can clearly hear how it is meant to align. If they start passing slowly I slow the tempo of the song to match. Likewise, if they are in a groove and passing faster, I will sing faster to match.

Once a class has mastered the large circle formation, I will let them play it competitively. I will break the class up into two or three teams and give each team a ball. Instead of standing in a circle they stand in a line and the object is to get the ball from the front to the back. 

For an added level of complexity, you can lengthen this game: when the ball gets to the back of the line, the last person has to run up to the front and start it over again. This continues until every player on the team has had a turn to be up front. 

This can get chaotic with different teams singing the songs at different tempi, so if the noise is too much for your class, you can have each team go one at a time and use a timer to see which team can perform it the fastest.


After several weeks of singing a variety of songs that include la, it's time to formally present the concept. In my Kodály level I class, I learned that a good song for presenting a concept needs to meet certain criteria. First, it should contain mostly known concepts. In this case, the known melodic material is so and mi. There should only be one instance of the new note, preferably appearing close to the end of the song. Since Bounce High, Bounce Low is such a short song, it doesn't fit this criterion perfectly, but I've had success using it nonetheless. (Some other good la present songs: Bell Horses, Snail Snail, Lucy Locket, Hickety Tickety Bumble Bee.)

When the new note occurs, it should be surrounded by its closest known neighboring pitch. This means that songs including the mi-la leap are too difficult to use for present songs. It's best to find songs that go from so to la directly. 

Once your kiddos know the song very well (and after playing the game for a few weeks, they definitely will!) they are ready for the present lesson. You start by deriving the rhythm on the board. For this reason, you always want to pick songs with familiar rhythms when doing a formal present lesson. My first graders learned ta and ta-ti at the beginning of the school year, so this song meets the criteria perfectly. 

After they derive the rhythm, you will add the solfege pitches underneath. You always want to go from the known to the unknown: first finding all the sos and mis, and then finding the new note. 

The students should be able to aurally distinguish the fact that the new note is higher than so. At this point, you give the new note a name, la, and show the students how to label it and sing it. I also use this time to teach the Curwen hand sign that goes with it.


The final step in the sequence is to practice the new note. With Bounce High, Bounce Low, I like to take advantage of the fact that a bouncy ball fits perfectly like a note on the staff! I use it as iconic notation and show a large ball for quarter note and two smaller balls for paired eighth notes.

There's plenty of other ways to practice la as well: reading and writing the note, singing solfa games, improvising on instruments, playing a melodic ostinato, etc. This is the stage in the process where small group centers and individual work can be used to reinforce learning as well.

Have fun teaching musical concepts through this great game!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Teaching Melodic Contour

Hello all, it's great to be back! I came back to work from maternity leave a few weeks ago. Baby Tanenblatt was born in October and is absolutely perfect. Now I'm learning how to navigate life as a working mom and every day certainly brings its new challenges. 

One of my favorite ways to tackle challenging teaching situations is through collaboration, and this month I'm collaborating with some fantastic music teachers to share our favorite tools for teaching melodic concepts. Today I'm going to share with you some of my favorite tricks for teaching melodic contour. Please note that this post contains Amazon affiliate links and I receive a small commission from items purchased through the links.

When teaching melodic contour, I find that a lot of young students get confused with the language. They hear high and low and confuse it with loud and soft. By actively engaging them in listening and singing, I find that this confusion generally clears up after a few lessons. I usually use a combination of the tools listed below to help my students understand what upward and downward melodic direction really means.

Slide Whistle

My slide whistle has been one of my favorite additions to my classroom this year. I introduced it to my Kindergarteners at the beginning of this school year and their faces just lit up the first time they heard it! 

Students always love listening to patterns that I play. I will play a glissando on the whistle and then ask the students to show the direction that the melody is going. Once I feel like they all understand the difference between upwards and downwards motion, I make each example more complicated, involving lots of high and low leaps. I ask students to act them out by standing/sitting or waving their arms to show the high and low sounds. If you're looking for an inexpensive slide whistle to play, you can try this one: 

Pitched Percussion

I love to use my pitched percussion instruments to reinforce melodic contour as well. I love to use Boomwhackers for this: I'll line up eight kids each with one scale degree and have them play up and down the major scale. We compare the size of the tubes to the pitch they produce to tie-in to the science of sound. I make them wait and only tap their tube when someone points to them, so one person gets to be the conductor and the eight kids playing love to "be a note" and play on their turn. We will do this along with simple songs that outline the steps to the major scale, such as The Snowman, Ebeneezer Sneezer, and Down, Down, Yellow and Brown. If you don't have Boomwhackers, the same thing can be done with handbells or tone bars.

Vocal Exploration

A great way to help students make a visual connection is by displaying vocal explorations. A friend of mine gave me these great pathways that she made out of paper and I have fun going "old school" using them. 

I typically designate one student to be the leader and he or she will guide us through singing the shape. I usually have students singing along on a neutral vowel, such as "oo." I will have my leader use a pointer or hold a manipulative (for example, a big foam snowflake in the winter time) to show where we are along the line.

I've been keeping these red shapes attached to my dry erase board with magnets and when they're not in use, I just push them off to the side. Then, my older students all want to know what those big red things are for and we have fun playing with them, too!

If you are more interested in a high-tech version, there are lots of vocal explorations available for download on TpT that you can project. 

One of my favorites is Flying Freddie, an animated version where students can follow the little aviator as his airplane goes up and down.


OK, I will admit that I have a bit of an impulse shopping problem. I saw a video demonstration of this little guy last year and just had to have it for my classroom:

It's an electronic instrument and has a crazy sounding timbre that kids love. You can play melodies on the neck of the instrument and it has a little switch on the back to change between low, medium, and high octaves. You can play distinct notes or glide up and down to create a flowy melody. Students can listen and respond by stretching up high or down low. No written explanation can really do this thing justice, so here's a video demonstration by the manufacturer:

The Otamatone is a fun teaching tool and also a great behavior incentive: as soon as students hear it they all immediately want to get their hands on it! (Can you blame them?) I'll announce to a class that when they line up, I'm looking for three students who walk calmly and quietly to their spot in line. Those three will get to play a short melody for their peers.

If you are as crazy as I am, you can get one on Amazon. There's several different sizes and colors available. This is the one I use:

Yarn Composition/Improvisation

A few weeks ago, my local Kodály chapter, MUSIK, hosted a free workshop at Loyola University. One of the presenters was the incomparable Amy Weishaar who shared a breadth of information on creating multisensory lessons for students with learning disabilities. One of the greatest takeaways for me was a demonstration that she led using yarn to compose and improvise. Every student gets a length of yarn to show their melody and she also suggests giving each child a felt square for a backing so it has something to cling to. 

After children have created their melody, they can sing it or play it on an instrument, exploring the high and low sounds they can produce. She suggested using the black keys of a piano keyboard so that it will be a pentatonic melody. You could also do this the opposite way and sing/play a melody, then ask the students to manipulate the yarn to show what they heard.

I hope this collection of ideas sparks something new for you. It's always great to find new ways to teach a basic concept like melodic direction. Do you have another kinesthetic, aural, or visual way to teach melodic direction? Please share in the comments!