The first time you hand out instruments to a room full of eight year olds is a scary moment.
The noise levels start to rise. One child is putting every ounce of strength and concentration into banging that cymbal as loud as possible. Another puts their triangle down to covers their ears. You are in the middle of it all handing out shakers and trying to keep control.
This was my first experience anyway.
I had studied music education for secondary school and then a Masters in music technology, so it had been a while since I'd been in a classroom and I had never attempted to give a full class instruments!
My Masters thesis was about new types of music notation for education and use in the classroom so I knew I had a solution that would structure the classroom performance, keep the children engaged and allow room for learning (more of that later).
First, I needed to figure out the best instruments for the job and how to avoid the noise factor. Here are my top tips for using school instruments as part of the Irish music curriculum.
Don't Use Loud Instruments
There is a simple test to figure out what instruments to bring into the classroom.
Play the instrument as loud as you can. If it sounds good, bring it into the classroom. It it sounds bad or too loud, don't!
One loud instrument can ruin your music lesson. Some shakers or suspended cymbal in the wrong hands can be extremely loud and will dominate your classroom ensemble. The noise will go up and up as everyone tries to match the level of the loudest instrument and things get out of control.
Divide The Class into Smaller Groups
Think of the class like an orchestra.
With such a large group is makes sense to divide into smaller sections, each section playing similar instruments.
We recommend dividing the class into four groups and give each group a different type of instrument. This will instantly make the ensemble sound more musical and will make it easier to create a structured performance.
It doesn't matter what the instruments are, as long as each group has a different sound. You can use whatever instruments you have including using vocal sounds and body percussion.
Here are the instruments that we use at workshops and are perfect for schools too.
Both have a great range of instruments, competitive prices and offer free delivery for bulk purchases.
Shakers are easy to use and hard wearing. They also sounds great in a large group.
It's easy to make shakers too. We make all of our own shakers (and many other simple percussion instruments) using materials from ReCreate in Dublin.
Triangles must be suspended in one hand and played with the other. Not as simple as shakers to master.
If you keep loosing the string that suspends the triangle, replace it with a strip of electrical tape. It won't slip off and it can be replaced quickly if it does come off.
More expensive than the other instruments but very useful and they sound great. These instruments are ideal for introducing pitched percussion for exploring melody and harmony. Chime bars are beautiful when played in a large group and well worth investing in.
TOP TIP:If you want to buy chime bars for the whole school, we recommend buying two or three smaller octave sets (eight chime bars each - just the white notes on a piano) as opposed to the full chromatic set (white and black notes).
Unless you are planning some very fancy performances, the smaller sets will generally create a more harmonious sound.
These are cheap and fun instruments that are virtually indestructible. They are also pitched to help explore harmony and melody further.
Always ask the class to hit the boomwhackers off their hands and not the desk. The sound is much better, especially in a large group.
You can also play by hitting your hand off the top opening, making a pleasant popping sound.
Use The Clock Resource For Your First Performance
As I mentioned earlier, my special area of research was new music notation to help performance and composition in the classroom.
I originally designed 'The Clock' resource to help me run music workshops in primary schools. It was an instant hit with the children and an amazing teaching tool for me. It's a great way to teach the class their first important lessons in group performance:
- We don't play at the same time, all the time
- It's just as important to listen to the others as it is to play yourself
'The Clock' is great for group performance and composition. There are endless possibilities once you let the children lead the creative side!
Watch the short intro video here:
Go to the Clock Resource: