How to program preschool music lessons

A simple way to program preschool music for 10 weeks

So maybe you’ve got a new job teaching preschoolers music and you’ve got to submit something in writing to the powers that be.  Writing a program of music lessons for a term or a year can be a pretty soul-less task. You might have write it even before you meet the children you will be educating!  Maybe having to program preschool music is something you’re dreading, especially if you have little or no experience in preschool music teaching.

A simple way – just two little words

Before you plan anything, repeat after me, “free play is essential” so make sure you implement opportunities for musical free play to happen frequently, even if you’re not there when it’s going on.  Now we’ve got that clear, let me suggest a simple way to start thinking about programming music lessons for young children.   Spend your efforts on these two words, content and activities.

Content has soul and substance and can be many things: a song- The Farmer in the Dell, or a chant – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, or a piece of music – Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk or a story book – I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

Great content usually has a title, is inherently musical and captures their interest straight away.

Activities can be a many but here are a few that are tried and true: body percussion – clap your hands, pat your knees, hand jive, or a dance – moving different body parts in Dr. Knickerbocker, or playing rhythm instruments in an animal sound game – I Had a Rooster, or a finger play – hiding and revealing separate fingers in Where is Thumbkin? or acting out characters in a drama game –  Monkeys on the Bed.

Great activities keep them listening to the music long enough for them to learn what the music has to teach them.

Let’s trust for a moment that choosing excellent content and activities will take care of the musical concepts and skills.  Why? Because other experienced music educators will be your guide when you choose great content and activities and you are going to trust them for a while until you gain enough experience to know what “works” with your particular children.

So, now you can plot, say 10 weeks of content and activities on a simple matrix.  This is one of ours from Sing and Play 3 Singing Just for Fun.  We group our “great content” around five different themes.

You can try it as it is, or change the content by finding other songs or pieces of music. Keep the activities the same, that way you’ll cover all the concepts and skills mentioned earlier.

A not so simple way – especially for music teachers

When I teach this topic to adults in music education courses and training sessions, I rely on a metaphor of a double-layer cake where we sandwich together two ways of organising ideas – the first around a set of musical concepts, the second around a set of musical skills.

Those of you who are musicians will take to this approach easily.  I’ll give a brief run-down.

When talking about the concepts or elements of  music, a standard list might include: rhythm; pitch; melody; harmony; timbre; texture; expression – made up of tempo, dynamics, articulation, interpretation; form; and possibly style although that can be considered to be an aggregate of everything else.

All of these concepts form part of the early childhood music curriculum.  This may sound contentious, but from my reading and  observations, young children show subtle discretion in their listening.  They just can’t perform skilfully because their bodies (including voices) and emotional controls are not ready.

The musical skills are generally listed as listening, moving, singing, playing, improvising (sometimes expressed as creating) and the literacy skills of reading, notating and composing (sometimes expressed as writing music).

The first five of these skills are crucial in a complete early childhood music curriculum.  Reading, notating and composing can be included (be careful not to force literacy).  These are not the things you need to concentrate on “teaching” although they can easily be part of free musical play.

Once we sort out concepts and skills, we have to add the time dimension.  Given, say 10 weeks in a term, 40 weeks in a school year or 51 weeks in a day-care setting, how do we plot those concepts and skills over time?

When should the children sing?  We might need to ask ourselves should we expect them to sing perfectly in tune and get the pitch and  melody right?   Do we program singing for every day or once a week?

How often should the children play instruments? Do we expect them to be able to play rhythms in perfect time?

What about timbre, how do we program for our children to develop a deeper understand of tone colour?  There are, literally, hundreds of questions that lie behind a neat little A4 piece of paper that sets out a block of “lessons”.  We could spend ages philosophising about music education but if you need to get started quickly, you can either write your own program or go with ours over at Musical Child, Early Learning through Music.


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4 thoughts on “How to program preschool music lessons

  1. Great read! My brother, a friend, and I (all highschool) are planning to do a program at our local library to introduce music to preschool age kids. We all play instruments (piano, violin, and cello) and are working with the library director (also a musician) to make a rough lesson plan. Its only half an hour once or twice a month (around 6-10 sessions), but we are finding it harder than we thought. Personally, I have more experience working with older kids on more concrete subjects, like say math or science. I am having trouble planning to explain music in ways that would fit a preschoolers mental capacity. I was thinking of dividing the whole program into 3-4 session groups, focusing on some of the things you mentioned above, like pitch and volume, rhythm, and (maybe) timbre. Even perhaps different genres. Do you have any other suggestions outside what you wrote? Is half an hour too long for preschoolers, or would you recommend targeting slightly older kids (kindergarten-1st or 2nd)?

    • Wow! What a fantastic project. Live music is the very best for children and no don’t change it to older kids, stay with preschool – you will have a ball. Half an hour is not too musch as long as there are different activities to engage them. I’d suggest 6 X 5minute activities. some of them full standing-up movement. Can you beg borrow or steal some hand-held percussion, you could get them to play along with you for say, 2 pieces to get them feeling different tempi and rhythms. You don’t need to explain anything, just give brief descriptions of what you are doing, “we’re going to play a song/piece of music on two (or three) different instruments.” When you finish, get them to close their eyes and guess which instrument plays a short extract. You can easily do that for each of the players. That is your timbre activity, no explanations necessary, let the music do the talking. Different genres are best illustrated through different ways of moving. “How does this music make you want to move?” Pitch is one they can easily respond to with hand and arm movements. Let me know if you want further ideas, through the blog or an email. I’d love to help.

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