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Mission Possible! Voyage 2: Speech in the Elementary Music Classroom

Are y’all ready for stop number 2 on our Mission Possible? …or are you so over the cheesy title?? #sorrynotsorry

The good news for you is that out of the four different types of music teaching media we’re exploring this month, speech is definitely among the most accessible. I’m willing to bet that you already use poems and children’s literature in your classroom already, but perhaps these four applications for speech in the classroom will either help you think differently about how to use speech, or inspire you to expand upon how language is already used in your classroom.

Buckle up, it’s time for take off! (sorry, I just couldn’t help it…)

Learning a Song

There are many ways to teach a song (check out this blog post here), but one of my most favorite is to ask students for their own text suggestions when appropriate. This way you can provide lots of repetition by singing the song, but also promote student choice and engagement by adding in their words.

Two of my favorite folk songs for this is “Down Came a Lady” and “Great Big House in New Orleans.” For the first, the lyrics describe dresses of different colors, which is easily changed to a new color or pattern as students see fit. For the latter, whenever I teach it I ask students to tell me their favorite kind of pie. Usually every single hand is raised in the class! Sometimes I use some pictures to have students decide randomly what kind of pie they get to eat today. They loooove this game!

As another example, the Orff & Keetman Volumes are specifically designed to be “jumping off points” for teachers to adapt as they see fit in the music classroom. These elemental pieces are great for adding text, and text setting is often a focus in Orff-Schulwerk levels courses.

Rhythmic Learning

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the rhythm is the way the words go.” …I sort of feel like I could just drop the mic right there. But seriously, that’s the essence of using rhythmic speech as a basis for rhythmic learning.

Particularly in lower elementary grades, I use rhymes and counting games all. the. time. The rhyme I use to present quarter note and paired eighth notes is “Bee Bee Bumble Bee.” Even if you are singing rather than speaking text, deriving rhythmic patterns always comes down to how many syllables on how many beats.

If you want to check out more about how I use speech to derive rhythmic concepts, check out my complete set for Bee Bee Bumble Bee here.

Improvisation and Composition

Just like speech can be the vehicle for presenting rhythmic concepts, it can also be the media by which you prepare, explore, practice, and extend concepts as well. I particularly like to prepare rhythmic concepts with speech improvisation and composition (which totally exists on a continuum, check out this post here), then transfer those speech patterns to formal notation after the new rhythm has been derived.

Speech can be used as the vehicle for all phases of rhythmic learning, not just the preparation phase. Better yet, it can serve as a jumping off point for transferring to body percussion and/or instruments. Using language as a scaffold with these activities is invaluable.

Free Improvisation

I love to use a poem or a story as an outline for free improvisation with my students, whether with movement or using instruments. In this type of activity, either myself or only one student might be reciting the poem, but the language serves as an inspiration point for adding unpitched percussion or movement in small groups.

If using unpitched percussion, perhaps choose a poem and underline certain words. As a class, decide on what soundscape would help paint an aural picture of whatever the describing word might be. Then, as the poem is recited, have students assigned to each of those soundscapes.

Similarly for movement, have students form small groups and be responsible for one line of a poem. If your kiddos have had lots of movement experiences and have vocabulary in their toolbox, they might be ready to just jump in with very few parameters. Sometimes it can be useful to put on some music without text for an activity like this, such as a circlesong.

Using free improvisation inspired by speech, regardless of the media, can be a really cool experience for both you and your children. It would also be a really neat way to incorporate language arts and make cross-curricular connections.

Here’s what’s coming up next! This series is all about giving you not only motivation, but tools and concrete steps to begin slowly releasing control and giving your students more agency in the elementary music classroom. Here’s a peek at what’s coming:

Get ready to activate your music classroom and stop simply covering concepts. We’re about to level up, friends!


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