The first thing you have to think about as why you are including the activities that you are including. Remember when you choose to include something you’re choosing to exclude, not just one other, something, but probably a whole lot of somethings that are great choices, but they aren’t all great choices for you and your students.

Anne Mileski

Today on the podcast, I’m sharing my experience with wanting to do all the things in my music classroom, falling flat on y face when I tried to do it all without a process, and how I finally made the magic happen. (Spoiler alert: it’s all about being purposeful, sequential, and joyful… shocker, I know!)

Here’s what you can listen for in this week’s episode

Things you should think about as you’re choosing activities for your lessons.

How you can actually find freedom and flexibility within an overall structure for your lesson planning.

Why it’s so important to remember yourself as not just a teacher, but a teacher-musician.

This year has been one of those that I think everyone is just ready to put to bed. It’s honestly like my toddler, who quite literally kept getting out of bed last night and running in circles until she finally fell on her bedroom floor and called for me to put her back in bed. No matter how many times I thought to myself, this is it, she’s finally going back to sleep, Nope. It didn’t happen. Two seconds later she was up again. Circles, falls, calls out. Until finally she didn’t have any more to give and she just passed out.

With everything that’s happened with distance learning and schools closings and all the recommendations about what re-opening schools will look like and how that will impact our profession, you might feel like you finally figured it all out (whatever it is), got hype and energized and then boom, everything changes. It’s like you’re going in circles and crashing, just like Little Miss. Except, let’s be real, she was living her best life, and you probably wouldn’t say that these last three months are the same for your music teacher life.

But here’s the good news… all of this time to think, and experiment, and now to refocus what our teaching should look like for the future, no matter how we’re being asked to teach is really a blessing in disguise. We can use all of this as a catalyst for change, or just to focus on purpose, and get really clear on how we structure our days, weeks, and years for music making.

Because after all, you know what they say about failing to plan…

In my first couple years of teaching, I was gong to do it all. I had the great fortune to start my years teaching elementary music with a level of Orff and Kodály under my belt, like with that fresh leather smell still in tact because I took both levels in the same summer and then started my first K-5 job less than a month later.

And you know how it goes when you do some awesome life changing professional development and you literally want to do ALL THE THINGS. Even if you haven’t had time to process, or really think through how to apply all those things. And so I did whatever I could to make sure I was checking off all the boxes. This folk song with this concept and this sight-singing exercise. This movement activity and that instrument arrangement and then you get to improvise, you get to improvise, everybody gets to improvise.

Did I mention that these kids were all (1) brand new to me that year, and (2) had a very different type of music experience before I got to that campus? We’re talking a lot of Disney sing-a-long videos and some other activities that were about learning about music instead of learning to make music. And, as y’all know if you’ve been around for a while, I’m all about the latter not the former, even in that first year.

But let’s be real, I was not successfully teaching my students how to make music. I was overwhelming them with all of this stuff that they had never seen, heard, or experienced before. Not only did I ask them to engage with all of these different forms of active music making, but I was asking them to just pick up and use rhythm syllables and solfege syllables and all kinds of other stuff that is literally a foreign language to them.

And oh man, I would go into that classroom ready to take on the day. With so much energy and excitement. And circle, circle, crash. (I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree…)

So I’d fall into a pattern. A couple of weeks of putting my heart and soul into finding the most engaging activities I could to make these fantastically literate musicians who could be expressive and again, all the things. Then during my classes, kids would look at me like I had three heads, try their best (or just ignore me because they thought I was crazy and holy moly was classroom management a hot mess express) and then get frustrated and would never end music class on a happy note (pun intended).

I had a purpose for my lessons, 100%, but they crashed because nothing was properly sequenced. Everything was all willy nilly, from my lesson structure (or lack of) and my complete disregard for concept sequencing… and it surely wasn’t joyful for me or my students.

So what did I do? We’d have a couple of weeks where I’d pour my heart and soul into lesson planning. I’d pump up the jams, get myself hype, and crash and burn whenever I tried to teach. And then I had a week where we did folk dancing. All day, everyday. Because I needed it, and the kids needed it, and I just needed a break.

As time went on I found myself doing more of that because… well “the kids needed it.” But what I was finding, when I poured my heart and should and spent hours planning, it literally didn’t do anything. So I wanted to feel successful and have my kids love music instead of dread whatever torture I was about to put them through.

Now let me just say, there is 100% a place for folk dancing. That is an integral part of my music classroom on a regular basis. And there are still weeks in my life where guess what, we all do need to have that break where we are just joyfully creating music, and there’s been testing or field trips or pictures or let’s just be really real, just a WEEK.

But it’s not every week. It’s not every lesson. And it doesn’t have to be. Because you can find a way to give kids that musical brain break, that way to engage joyfully with music on a regular basis. There’s room in your overall plan to do all of those really fun things, not just one off with a lesson or a week that you’ve just hit the wall, but all the time, EVERY lesson so that everything feels fresh and exciting and joyful with every lesson, every concept you teach and every activity you choose to include.

I knew what order to put concepts in K-5. I had the macro sequence down, thank you Kodály training. And I also had a good idea of how to sequence a concept from beginning to end, incorporating improvisation, thank you Orff training. And after time, I finally figured out how to create my own sequence that would allow me to have intention and allow for all of the cool modes of active music making that got me really excited to teach, and light me and my kids up as student and teacher musicians.

Spoiler alert: it all comes down to purposeful, sequential, and joyful.

I know I know, you can roll your eyes at me if you want. I encourage it, because this comes back again and again for a reason. It’s literally embedded in everything that I do, and the way that I approach all of my teaching. So let’s get into it. How do you come up with these lessons that are engaging and also intentional, and filled with really fun activities but not just for the sake of being really fun activities? Well, let’s get into it.

Purposeful – Choosing Activities

The first thing is you have to think about is why are you the activities that you are choosing. Remember, when you choose to include something you’re choosing to exclude not just “one” other something, but probably a whole lot of somethings that are great choices. But they aren’t all great choices for you and your students.

A great song and game for your lessons is a dime a dozen, so that can’t be the only measuring stick you use for what you choose to include. You also have to think about things like:

What concept will it be used for, and will it be in exploration, discovery or extension? What modes of active music making (meaning how are you going to be exploring the musical language with this song? Movement? Instruments? Speech improvisation?),
What is this particular piece of music’s historical context (why was this song written? What is the heritage or background of this song? Is it appropriate for your school population? Is it appropriate in thinking about the cultural or historical implications when it was written?).
These are just some of the things that you should always think through and be proactive in having solutions and conversations about when planning for your lessons.

But you also need to be thinking about how you’ll break an activity up into its most digestible chunks for students, how it’s going to live and breath and circle from one lesson to the next and building up to whatever your ultimate goal or learning outcome is for your students. Which points directly to having a big picture framework, a roadmap, for what you’re going to teach and when.

Sequential – Flexibility within the Structure

Steven Covey said “begin with the end in mind.” And while his writings and books are all about productivity and having a successful day, I really think about how these six words have greater implications for our lives. Like I’ve heard Robin Arzon say when she’s motivating me through a crazy hard workout on the Peloton app, “zoom out.” What does this moment in time look like over the course of everything else—and it’s just a blip.

And I’m not going to go down a spiritual journey with you today, that’s not the point (although I do think both of those thoughts are important ones to consider, so you can hit me up on instagram if you want to talk more about them), but both of those quotes have a lot to do with our lives as music teachers and sequencing curriculum.

Our macro sequence, our big roadmap of everything we teach and when from the moment kids walk into your room in kindergarten until they leave in fifth or sixth grade or whenever, is the guiding force for everything we do in our music classrooms. And if that feels rigid to you, I want to encourage you to reframe that thinking.

It is within the structure that we find the flexibility. It’s within the framework that we find the opportunity for independent musicianship. And it’s within the end in mind that we can create the roadmap for where we want to go.

Knowing where you want to go with your students and the type of music making you want to accomplish is going to allow you to break down those pieces of activities into digestible chunks. Knowing what types of learning outcomes, and dare I say assessments or criteria for understanding that you want to see your students experiencing and owning is going to help you figure out what steps you have to take to get there.

And having that big picture framework is going to give you the chance to differentiate the modes of active music making you use in your lessons, and to adapt as you need to to really give kids the musical experiences that you know they need. And to differentiate and innovate as you need to when crazy stuff happens in your day, or at your school, or you know, in the whole world.

That was my problem in the beginning. I knew I wanted to create all of these awesome lessons. But I didn’t know how to have the not-so-big picture for how a thirty minute lesson should go, and although I knew the order of the concepts in my big long macro sequence, I didn’t have any idea how to make it my own, to sequence concepts in a way that allowed for me and my students to not only be successful, but excited.

Joyful – The student-musicians and teacher-musician

And although it’s the last piece of the puzzle, the last of the three not-so-little words, “joyful” is at the heart of it all. We became music teachers not because we love to do grades and teach kids how to hold mallets (I mean maybe you do, and you have a super fun rhyme to make some magic happen in that regard, and if you do hit me up), but we became music teachers because at some point in our lives, or throughout our lives, we realized that music is an integral part of who we are and we have to share it with as many people as possible or we will literally just burst.

The reason Kodály said it matters far more who the music teacher is than the opera house director is because the impact that we have as teachers goes far beyond what we probably even realize. As he said, we’re impacting generations of children to love and appreciate music, but also to be life-long musicians.

And so we must take that work seriously, as good ol Zoltan also said. Our students must have the opportunity to feel like music makers, to have the opportunity to be independent musicians, the chance to make decisions and feel creative and just be kids. There’s ways for us to do that with purposeful, directed, guided play in our classrooms. It’s by having that intention, it’s by having that structure, and it’s by making sure we keep the kids at the center of what we do.

But I’m not going to lie. Yes, we want the kids to be joyful, yes they are why we are here, they are at the center of what we do. But you have to find joy too. You have to be excited, and filled up, and y’all just happy. Because it’s not just about being a teacher. It’s about finding ways to nourish yourself as a musician, as a teacher musician.

Musicians are weird, right? Like really and truly we are. Like most people who never “work” a day in their lives, we love what we do. The practicing is never done. There’s always more music to learn, more skills to master, more chances to create.

Teacher-musicians are an even rarer breed. And I’m gonna bring it back to motherhood like I always do, because that’s just where I am in life, but we’re the nurturers. We’re the ones who are teaching these tiny musicians about their musical world. We teach them how to speak and understand the musical language. We teach them to be literate and fluent and have the musical conversations. And it is a huge responsibility. One that I know we don’t take lightly.

But remember that you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. Remember that you have to feel excited and lit up about the music you’re making. Because you’re the mirror. Whatever you do, whatever you say, and however you feel is reflected back in your kids.

So let’s stop with the circle, circle, crash. And let’s circle, circle, fly.

If you’re ready to make that happen, the time is ripe for the picking y’all. This weekend, if you’re listening to this in real time, is my FREE music teacher workshop “The Ultimate Music Lesson Planning Roadmap.” Everything that I’ve talked about today is inside of this workshop. So if this really resonated with you, and you’re ready for a change, and you’re ready to finally figure this whole thing out I really hope you’ll join me. There’s three different times this weekend that you can hop on. Head to or click the link in the show notes to make it happen.

So just a quick recap before I sign off today. We’ve all been there. Y’all it’s been a crazy year, give yourself some grace. But also give yourself the respect you deserve and take the opportunity now when we’re about to MAJORLY start fresh and maybe level things up a bit. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, even before Covid-19, this can be the time that you flip the script and make your teacher-musician life on your terms.

It all comes down to purposeful, sequential and joyful: having the intention behind everything you do in your classroom so that it’s not just filled with fun but random activities, having that big picture framework so you can zoom out and zoom in to know what to teach when, and having joy at the center of everything that you do in the classroom, for your kids, but also for you. Because you really deserve it.

If you’ve been feeling a little blah like me, I hope that today’s episode has helped to lift your spirits, even just a little bit. There’s no guilt trip here, it’s been an INSANE year, and 2020 has been anything but clear (you’re welcome for that pun). But really and truly, I think if we can flip the script and use this as an opportunity for growth, some really amazing things can happen.

Oh, and as an aside, if you have any tips about how to keep an almost 3 year old in her freaking bed at night, hit me up. See y’all at the workshop.


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