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Bag O' Tricks Vol. 2

This is the Second installment of the Bag O’ Tricks series which includes helpful tricks and tips to make your elementary music classroom run more smoothly.

Non-Verbal Attention Signals

Vocal health is a big concern for elementary music teachers because we rely on our voices as one of the primary means to educate and model for our students. There are many types of non-verbal ways to get your students attention including:

  • Clapping Rhythms

  • Using a bell

  • Using a non-verbal hand signal

  • Playing a chord on a piano or guitar to signal students

There have even been times when I have taught parts of my class non-verbally and signaled directions to students to save my voice on particularly straining weeks. Find a non-verbal signal that works well for you and then teach it to your students so they know to respond to it.

Seating Charts

Seating charts are one of the most effective ways to moderate student behavior and get things started quickly and efficiently in your classroom. There have been times where I have and have not used seating charts and the difference is stark. Yes, they are time consuming, but having a seating chart for each class can help you to automate things like attendance, and student partners and groups.

Student Cleanup Systems

Student cleanup systems are a method of preparing time consuming classroom tasks to be done by students in a repeatable way, correctly. These may include:

  • Chair straighteners: I put tape down so my students know exactly how to reset the chairs and rubber colored dots in my classroom to where they are supposed to be.

  • Recorder washers: I select two students to fill the classroom sink, use two squirts of dish soap, wash the mouthpiece and body, and rinse the bubbles from the inside and outside of the recorder.

  • Instrument setup/teardown: Setting up of instruments can be taught to students to make playing instruments in a smaller music classroom much easier. Try using symbols on instruments and number to show what order each instrument goes in.

Setting up student cleanup systems may be time consuming at first, but it will save tons of time in the long run. Some tips are to make your systems able to be completed by two students, and then swap out one student each time you see the class so the experienced student can train the new helper on what to do.


Vocal health is one of the most important concerns for an elementary music teacher. One thing that has absolutely made teaching singing and delivering instruction much more effective for me is using a microphone.

Using a microphone allows teachers to:

  • Avoid straining their voices

  • Use a more natural vocal tone because they don’t have to push for volume

  • Speak with a soft tone and have it be heard

  • Vastly increase vocal endurance

  • Ensure that all students in the classroom can hear them well

If you aren’t using a microphone consider doing a little research to find one that works for you. A good place to start would be going online to if you are in the US. That is where I got my classroom microphone. There are likely many other good places, but Sweetwater is what worked for me and they were very helpful when I called. Overall a using a microphone is an incredible help when it comes to saving your voice.

Audio Journal

The audio journal was an experiment that I tried a couple of years ago to see if I could streamline my students response system and avoid handing out and collecting a lot of paper. I used my classroom microphone and recording software (A small handheld audio recorder or even your computer microphone will substitute) and had students give oral responses to questions. Afterwards I would put the responses into a folder for documentation for my teacher evaluations. The audio journal was effective because:

  • It reduced the amount of paperwork in my classroom

  • It allowed students to give their responses verbally, eliminating the writing barrier

  • It included tone and inflection that detailed a students confidence in their answers

  • It worked well as a quick student exit ticket that checked for understanding

I would use the audio journal in exit ticket fashion as the students are lining up. The students would have a question or prompt to speak about briefly and then they would go to line up. The responses can be captured in free audio software like audacity, or Garageband or with a small handheld recorder. Be sure to get your administrations permission before trying this one, and inform your students that they will be recorded. This also works great with playing and singing tests.

Concert Reflections

Concert Reflections help my students to understand how preparation effects performance and how to evaluate their own performances. I would have students do concert reflections by recording the concert with either audio or video and having them watch it and answer the following questions:

  • What went well?

  • What needs improvement?

  • What ideas do I have for future concerts?

These simple prompts help students to critically evaluate their own performance in both positive and “negative” terms and also gives them an opportunity to share ideas they have for future performances. I also prompt the students with questions like, “‘are the students singing in their head voice,’ ‘are the movements they are doing together,’ and are they ‘blending and balancing their sound?’”

Class Rewards

I have heard different schools of though on class rewards. Some think that students should be self-motivated and that making music itself is it’s own reward while others think that class reward systems are an effective means of encouraging positive behavior. My experience with class rewards is that they can effectively create a culture of community in aiming toward a shared goal, the reward. I personally use whole class rewards as opposed to individual rewards because the nature of the music classroom is that of whole group performance. For instance when a class sings a song, if even one person is singing incorrectly, it affects the entire group sound.

Although there are many class reward systems, what I do is:

  • Allow the class to choose their own low or no cost in class reward that can be done at school by giving suggestions and then voting

  • Work with the class to find the criteria for receiving the reward (e.g. ten exceptional days in music class of completing the entire lesson successfully with no major behavioral disruptions) etc.

  • Post the class teachers name with an indicator of how many days/points/etc. they have toward the goal.

  • Remind the class of the goal each day they come to music class

  • Deliver the goal when the class achieves it

The most interesting class reward I had students think of was a piñata party! Although class rewards may not be everyone’s cup of tea so to speak, They can be effective when dealing with major behavior issues.

These are just a few more of my strategies in my Bag O’ Tricks. Leave a comment below and let me know what things you do in your classroom that help you!

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