Transition and Distraction

It’s that time of year.  It’s the next to last week of school and everyone is distracted.  Not just the kids, but the teachers too.  In  between classes I’m online, planning my summer travel.  I’m in a slow panic about being ready to teach my summer university courses.  My classroom needs to be organized before I leave for the summer, and with all the piles of random stuff here and there, it looks like a whirlwind hit.  As I look out at my young students, I feel like I’m trying to keep a pot from boiling.

An activity I call “Weird Percussion” comes to the rescue.  I drag out a large box that contains instruments that I’ve collected over the years.  Shekeres are there, along with plastic tubes, tiny tambourines, clusters of kola nut shells, guiros, cabasas, and oddly shaped sound-makers that my sisters brought me back from their vacations. These are instruments that the students haven’t seen before.  Each student takes one and explores them, looking for interesting sounds.  This is not a day to be concerned about playing the instruments correctly.  We are simply looking for a variety of sounds.  The students are encouraged to play them inside out and upside down, with a stick and without, tapping them on their legs and on the floor.

Each child shares three sounds, one at a time around the circle.  Then we create question and answer phrases, using the instrument as our voice.  Even my 2nd graders can grasp the idea of “speaking” through the instrument, and they play expressively.  We add a game of secretly deciding how two partners will play – happy, sad or angry.  The two students play their conversation, and the rest of us guess which emotion they were expressing.

On another day, these same instruments can be used for categorizing and conducting – an activity I first learned from the Orff maestro Susan Kennedy.  Three hula hoops are placed in the middle of the circle and we sort the instruments into those played by hitting, scraping, or shaking.   Each type is placed into one hula hoop.  Some of the instruments could be in two categories and interesting discussions arise as students defend their choice.  Then students reclaim their instrument and gather on the section of the circle that is closest to “their” hula hoop.  Then the conducting begins.  A student steps in and out of a hula hoop to start and stop the sound of that section of instruments.  The students soon discover that they can “play” one, two or three sections at a time, and can create nuances of slow and fast, long and short, sound and silence.

This is a lesson that had a cluster of boys say on the way out, “That was really fun!”  Yeah, it was!

I’m curious to know what other ideas teachers pull out to bring order to the last few weeks.  Please share some ideas if you like.  Happy summer vacation!




Sing for the JOY of it

What is it about singing that lifts our spirits and changes our mood?  A year-long course in Berkeley CA entitled “Awakening Joy” recommends three things to bring joy into your life:  meditation, movement of some kind (walking, dancing, etc.) and singing.  In each monthly session of the course the participants hear lectures, experience guided meditations, listen to live music, and perhaps most importantly, they sing together.  The point is not to create accomplished singers of course, but simply to connect the community in song.

Rick Hanson (neuropsychologist, author of Buddha’s Brain) was a recent guest speaker at the “Awakening Joy” course.  He talked about how our brains are wired for negativity: once burned, twice shy.  Human beings, at least those who survived to share their genes, found that it was better to be anxious about a non-existent tiger in the bushes, than to be care-free and devoured!  Brains developed to be on the alert for danger.  The continuous buzz of anxiety was a survival necessity earlier in our human history, but these days can cause needless stress and suffering.

According to Hanson, it is easy for our brains to record the hard stuff – the insults, or the disappointments.  It is harder for our brains to process and retain the good stuff – one’s own accomplishments, or the generosity of friends.  As he puts it, for the brain it’s “Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good.”  Hanson recommends pushing back against this biology, and paying attention to the good when it naturally appears.  He suggests giving ourselves 10, 20 or even 30 seconds to fully experience a good moment.  This seems like a ridiculously short time, but it’s harder than you think.  Taking time to really feel the event in the body gives the brain time to absorb and learn.  And as Hanson often says, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Because the brain is “plastic,” it can create new neural pathways and learn new ways of dealing with the world.

Sing for the JOY of it!

When we sing, we are creating not just seconds of good feeling, but full minutes!  When we fully give ourselves over to singing, we can experience a realm of connection, non-judgment and beauty.  For many people this is easiest to accomplish in a group.  Our own small voice is blended with the others around us, and there are other voices who are adding harmonies.  We can enjoy the support of the guitar or piano, and we can rest for a moment in the group feeling of contentment and flow.  As the song progresses to the second and third verses, our brains are given the needed time to absorb and integrate the positive feelings.  One can only imagine the wonderful things that this is doing for our brains!

~ Liz

For more about Rick Hanson, click HERE for his website.

Click HERE to see a Hanson video: “Take in the Good.”


Privacy and Comfort

I recently have experienced some dramatic personal events.  I lost two family members in close succession, eight days apart.  Because of these family sorrows I traveled back to my home state of Utah three times over a six week period.  I tried to keep my missed teaching days down to a minimum, but my students have seen substitute teachers a number of times in the last month and a half.

Teaching became a place of refuge for me during this difficult time. It felt great to dive into the needs and stories of my students, and to focus on preparing for upcoming programs.  During the school day I felt competent and in control.  My life had a normal flow.

However, in the middle of one class several weeks ago, a Kindergarten girl raised her hand.  “I’m so sorry about your sister,” she said.  I was taken aback.  My sense of safety was challenged, and I felt uncomfortable at best, violated at worst.  I was surprised that this Kindergarten teacher chose to give details of my situation to her class.  At my school the students are all young, Kindergarten to 2nd grade.  It felt misguided to talk about my family, both because of my sense of privacy, and because of the age of the children.

More recently, when I returned to school after the third trip to Utah, I found a tall pile of letters and hand drawn pictures.  The substitute teacher had apparently asked the students in each class, eight classes of about 22 students each, to write me condolence letters.  Ouch!  I know that she meant well, but the thought of my students discussing my personal grief was the opposite of comforting.  I would have been so much happier if the teachers and substitutes, when asked why Ms. Keefe was absent, had said simply, “She’s visiting her family.”

So the question that has surfaced for me is: what are the boundaries of personal and private at a school?  What are the actions that give comfort and what are those that violate privacy?  It’s good to feel the support of colleagues, but which personal issues of a teacher are legitimate areas of conversation with students?  The death of a family member of course is not the only problematic situation.  Perhaps a teacher is seriously ill, or is going through a divorce.  What should students be told?  What are the boundaries?

~ Liz



The Discomfort of Creativity

I’ve been trying out some new projects with my students.  At a recent workshop I learned some great movement activities, and I’m adapting them to the needs of my classes.  The past few lessons have been a time of slight confusion as some ideas are tried and discarded, and other ideas stick. I have a clear idea of where I’m going, but I still need to work out the in-between steps to create a satisfying experience.

There is a distinct feeling of discomfort during this time because I am venturing into unknown territory and have moments of truly not knowing where I am going. No children are harmed while this is going on, surely, but I often feel awkward, and the lesson might seem disjointed or incomplete.

John Cleese (yes, the Monty Python guy) gave a succinct talk a few years back on the subject of creativity.  To my delight, he actually celebrates this messiness and discomfort as an essential part of the creative process.  He even states that the most creative people are those who can tolerate this confused state the longest.  He suggests that the person who simply grabs at the first solution to a problem, even though it ends the discomfort, will not be the most creative.

During this awkward in-between time, he urges an attitude of light-hearted play, and of non-judgment.  He advises patience.  If you stay open, he says, the answers you need will eventually come.

~ Liz

Click HERE to see the whole speech by John Cleese (about 30 minutes).



“That music reminded me of when my grandmother died last summer,” a second grade girl confided in me.

Today was the day for a listening and drawing experience with Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  My young students enjoy listening when there is an implied story line in the music, and this music is full of drama.  I briefly introduced Stravinsky to my 2nd graders, telling them a few facts about his life that would pique their interest.  He came from a musical family with a father who sang opera and a mother who played piano.  He was born in Russia and grew up with Russian fairy tales and folk tales.

The six short sections of The Firebird Suite (1919 version) make it a perfect listening piece because each section has a distinct and contrasting character.  For example, the first section is moody and ominous, and sets the scene for an adventure.  The second is dramatically different, with frenetic energy.  As the children listen to each section they are instructed to notice the images in their minds.  On a paper divided into six boxes they draw those images, and create their own story for the music.  The result is like an over-sized comic strip, but without any words.

The Firebird of course was a well-loved Russian folk tale before it was a ballet accompanied by Stravinsky’s music.  (The ballet actually is a composite of several stories.) A prince catches an intriguing, flame-colored bird.  The bird begs for his freedom and promises a gift.  A bright feather is left as he flies away.  This feather is later used when all hope is lost in a battle with demons.

Stravinsky composed the music to illustrate the folk tale and the action of the ballet.  The classroom listening exercise invites the children to do the reverse.  They use the music to inspire the creation of a new story.  Later on they will hear the actual Firebird tale, but I am most interested in first forging a personal connection to the music.  Unfortunately there isn’t time or patience to have each child tell the details of their story to the whole class, but 2 by 2 they can share their stories with each other.  The stories have caves, monsters and volcanoes.  There are princesses and weddings.  There are battles, weapons and coffins.

Section 5 of The Firebird, “Berceuse,” is the slow lament that especially touched my second grade student mentioned above.  She brought her paper up to me at the end of class, and I noticed that section 6 was empty.  She apparently had been caught up in the emotion of the 5th section and had stopped drawing.  “Berceuse” had carried her away to a place of loss and grief.

What is it about that section of music that calls up such memories?  I have found that many students draw pictures of dead warriors or coffins for that section.  What is it in the shape of Stravinsky’s melody or his choice of instruments that stirred my student’s heart and communicated the profound grief of death?  For that matter, what is it in section 4 that brings images of battle to my students over and over?  Musical notes written on the page almost 100 years ago are brought to life by French horns and oboes and strings.  Rhythmic patterns and melodic lines bypass words and story line, and communicate directly with the heart.

~ Liz




The xylophones have been moved back to the music room.  The boxes of scarves, drums and puili sticks are shoved off to the side and will be put away soon.  The songs and poems from the big performance are tucked neatly away in a folder marked, Winter Performance 2012.  We did it!  And it’s time to move on.

In the days after a big school performance the whole energy in the music room shifts.  We are all exhausted, children and teacher alike, from working on the same materials for many weeks.  After the concert that intense energy evaporates.  This is a transition time, and the children need time to reflect, to have some choices, and to try something new.

The very first time I see the students after a performance I ask them two questions.  First of all, I invite them to reflect on their experience.  I ask them to think back to how they felt as they stood up to walk onto the performing space.  They offer a range of emotions: they felt nervous, scared, proud, awesome, embarrassed, happy.  I can see their faces relax as they see their classmates name emotions that they shared.  The word “stagefright” is discouraged.  It is such a loaded, negative word.  I prefer to have them talk in a more personal way about how their belly was fluttering, or if they were feeling shy.  I then assure the class that it’s okay to feel all of these things, and that anyone who performs experiences those same things, all mixed up together.  As we talk through the experience most of them realize that these uncomfortable feelings lasted only until the song or the dance actually started.  There is something about actually doing the materials of the performance that focuses the mind and leaves anxiety behind.  The reward is feeling the warm energy of the audience, and feeling proud at the end.

The second reflection activity is for the students to remember one song or dance that they enjoyed watching.  An answer of, “I enjoyed everything” is not accepted.  They are encouraged to recall details, perhaps some of the lyrics of a song, or a few words of a poem.  Maybe there was an instrument or prop that caught their attention.

The next part of the transition is for the students to have some choices.  Music class turns into a Request Day.  They can ask for a song or a game that we haven’t done in a while.  It is fascinating to see what they remember and want to do again.  In my classes this week, they asked for materials from earlier in the year, but to my surprise, they also requested games and songs from much further back.  Several first grades wanted to play Little Bird, a game they learned in Kindergarten.  A second grader wanted to sing a song from last May, an original end-of-the-year song that they sang as a thank you to their teachers.  They remembered every word.

Then it’s time for something completely new, and there is nothing better at this point than a new singing game or play party.  Some of my favorites are Down in the Valley, Punchinella, Little Johnny Brown, I Let Her Go-Go, Bow Belinda, and Chickens on the Fencepost.

Fellow music teachers – how do you handle the transition from the big concert back to regular music class?  I’d love to hear your ideas.  You can use the comments below to share.  (If no comments are visible, then click on the word: Comments, below the title of this post.)


It’s a Gift

It’s a week and a half before the big Winter Performance, and I’m spending extra hours at school each afternoon, I’m squeezing in extra classes during my breaks, and I’m waking up three times during the night.  Every music teacher faces this moment, whether it’s a simple classroom sharing or a more formal performance in the multi-purpose room.  In my case, it’s two programs of poetry, songs and dances that will involve about 350 first and second graders.

There is an art to putting on a performance, and although it gets easier with experience, it is never stress-free.  I’ve learned over the years to start early enough to give the students time to play around with some ideas in a relaxed way.  I’ve learned how to adjust and adapt materials to match the skills of the students in front of me.  I’ve learned how to make the assigning of special jobs feel fair to the whole group.  But with young children, it seems that half the job of a music teacher is to motivate and inspire them to want to be part of the group experience.

Performing may be a completely new experience for some of the students.  There may be some children who would love to crawl under the covers rather then stand in front of several hundred eager parents.  (And who can blame them?)  There are some children who are not comfortable holding hands with others, and there are those who simply don’t want to submit to the energy of the group.

One helpful idea to gather the group energy is to talk about the performance as a gift for the students’ families.  For example:

We are preparing our poems and songs and dances as a gift to give to our  mothers and fathers.  It is something we can do to make them happy.  If we all are singing and moving together, then our gift will look amazing, and our families will smile in delight. 

This thought can give the children an experience of focusing outward on the group gift they are creating, rather than focusing inward, and becoming anxious about their individual performance.

It’s also useful to talk about working hard and trying their best, rather than being perfect. When the families applaud at the end, the children can take pride in the fact that they have spent time creating something interesting and lovely, and that they gave the performance their very best effort.  If each child has that experience, then for me, the performance was a success.

~ Liz



A recent New York Times article discussed the newest trend in advertising to children.  The writer, Pico Iyer, attended a speech entitled “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow,” and was surprised to learn that the main concern of the advertising executive was stillness.


Yes, it’s come to this.  In this time of information overload, advertisers are actually looking for ways to sell children gadgets that shield them from their world.

As music teachers, we probably are not one of the average Americans who spends eight and a half hours in front of a screen, but perhaps some of us have teenagers who send or receive an average of 75 text messages a day. Many of us follow the 24-hour news cycle, and regularly text and update our Facebook pages.  We all have seen school parents who are texting during volunteer time or school performances.  As Pico Iyer puts it so clearly, “the distinctions that used to guide and steady us — between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there — are gone.”

The article quotes Nicholas Carr, from his book The Shallows, about the effects on the brain of slowing down. After people have spent time in quiet rural settings, they  “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” And even more interesting, according to neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, empathy depends on neural processes that are “inherently slow.”

Empathy cannot be developed unless we slow down.

So here’s an idea:  more music in schools.  More time singing together, and listening carefully to see if the group is singing in tune.  More instrument conversations between two children, where they must pay close attention to what the other instrument says before they answer.  More time playing the steady beat, and listening to see if the group can sound like one instrument.

Stillness, slowing down, empathy.  The answer to an overwhelming world is not an iPad for every child so they can play video games to learn math facts.  The answer is not more entertainment or more distraction.  The answer is to make the music class a place to slow down, to become aware of the breath and the body, to listen for quiet sounds, to join in with voices and rhythms so that the lines between self and other blur, and for a moment, there is a place of connection and rest.

~ Liz

Click HERE for a link to the New York Times article, “The Joy of Quiet” by Pico Iyer.


Jump Jim Joe

“I’m gonna jump, jump, jump Jim Joe.”

Tap your toe!

A child stands in front of a classmate and holds out his hands.  The other child takes the offered hands, and the song begins.  So many levels of activity going on here, but the most poignant is the social connection.  These games evoke some of the most basic experiences of being human: What does it feel like to be included?  What does it feel like to be rejected?

The song can be taught.  The dance can be taught.  But the puzzle remains of how to choose a partner, and that also needs to be taught.  First of all, every person in the class needs to be included, so the children are instructed to choose a new partner each time the game begins again.  Also, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, so the children are taught that if someone holds out their hands, you accept.  For the quiet child, the challenge is to reach out to others, or at least to be available for others to invite them.  We demonstrate how you can raise your hand high if you find yourself without a partner, so that someone can find you.  Often the other single person is behind you, and out of sight. And there is always the option of  “Emergency 3′s” where you can join a group of two if time is short, and no other singles are close by.

An Emergency 3.

Why go to all this trouble to teach the step-by-step social skills of this simple play party game?  Ah… the social skills make ALL the difference in the experience of the game.  If everyone feels valued and if each person knows that they will be treated fairly, then something magic begins to happen.  The energy flows and bubbles over.  There is an almost ecstatic feeling when everyone in the room is feeling the kindness of others, and they are singing and dancing together.  This moment is worth every minute of teaching time spent on the minutiae of social connection.

“Now you find another partner, and you jump Jim Joe.”

~ Liz

Click HERE to download a pdf of Jump Jim Joe.


Calming the Wild Beast

The children come in the door of the music room. One child is angry at a classmate for cutting in line. Another was hurt at P.E. and has a scraped knee and a leaky bag of ice. Two girls can’t sit next to each other without constantly talking. Three children are simply exhausted from the rigors of the day, or perhaps not enough sleep the night before. It’s a normal day in the music room.

How about this… try this simple focusing message and see if all those discordant energies can be brought into alignment.

“When we’re outside, our bodies are large and moving and full of energy. Let’s bring our bodies into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our voices outside are loud and yelling, let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and quiet. Our minds outside are as big as the playground. They’ve been thinking about friends and lunch and homework. Let’s bring them into this room, and make them smaller and focused.”

These simple words might possibly transform a class of wriggly, disconnected children into a quiet and calm group of children who are all sitting on the floor, looking at you. Class can now begin.  ~ Liz