Are you game? How to help your music students learn.

Games are a great way to teach music. Whether you’re in the classroom, the instrumental studio, or teaching online, music games are a wonderful way to help your students learn fundamental skills and knowledge, and to really enjoy music lesson time. So how can we use games to help our music students learn?


Music Games: Abstract to Concrete


Most concepts in music are abstract – What is a beat? What is the note G? What is a scale? However, it is not until children are about 11 years old that they develop abstract logic and reasoning, and that they can apply something learned in one context to another situation. Before this age, children learn best if concepts are attached to a concrete situation. For example, when teaching breath control to beginner flute students, I don’t actually discuss it. Instead, I give them activities such as blowing through straws to move small objects (crushed paper balls, or foam packing peanuts) different distances, to help develop breath control skills when playing their flute.


The social game


Games are social and interactive experiences. In the classroom, I used team-based games, such as a fishing game to introduce the concept of scales. In this game students not only benefit from the social interaction, they also learn to work as a team, and because they want their team to finish first, they are motivated to play.


Many young children find it hard to sit still, so team or individual games which involve movement can help them focus better. A giant floor staff provides many enjoyable note learning activities, from tag team challenges, to twister games and individual races. If you teach in a small studio, you can use tape to create a large staff on a table, piano stool or other flat surface, and students can move toys onto the lines and spaces.


Bags the Beat! Music card game

The proof is in the cards


Educational card games have been shown to lead to improved learning outcomes. The rules for a card game help structure learning and the goal (winning) creates motivation for even the most reluctant learner. I use music card games extensively in studio and class lessons and find that children love them. If I am playing a game with one student in the studio (or online), they are even more keen when our game involves an element of chance, such as picking a card from a pack, as this levels the playing field and they know it’s possible to beat me!


Play it again!


We all know that for a student to really learn a skill or concept thoroughly, we need to repeat the activity/music. Games such as “Pass the Tune” and “Enigma” are a great way to repeat and revise music or a class song without the students getting bored! “Pass the Tune”, where the music is alternated between student and teacher or between two groups of students, can be varied in so many ways that success in learning the music is almost inevitable. If something is fun, we are happy to do it again and again, because the better we get at it, the easier it becomes. Learning to read notes on the staff is another skill requiring plenty of repetition and there is an abundance of excellent games for this purpose.


Games in music lessons

But there isn’t time in the lesson.”


Some instrumental music teachers feel there isn’t time in the lesson for games; they need to fit in technical work, pieces and maybe sight reading and/or aural skills. But what about using games for some of this work, so the game is part of your lesson plan, not an extra for “if we have time”? One of my 7 year old students was beginning the G Major scale this week. Before I even talked about the notes in the scale, I let her play the “Footsteps” game. She had so much fun and by the end of the game, knew the notes in the scale really well, went to her flute and played G Major from memory. We then continued the lesson with learning some pieces in that key, to reinforce the scale notes.


Music games and rewards


Some teachers prefer to use the “carrot and stick” approach, with a game at the end of the lesson as a reward and this can also work very well. I find this particularly helpful with students who need extrinsic motivation, or those whose are not always cooperative. In a half hour instrumental lesson, I would put aside the last 5 minutes of the lesson for a game if the student has worked well. I also use this sometimes for small ensemble rehearsals, where if we can work on the music for 40 minutes with focus and cooperation, then they get 15 minutes of music games. Any student who starts talking during the rehearsal is quickly shushed by those near them as they don’t want to lose their game reward!


Music games and online lessons


Music games really help to keep students focused when you are teaching online. Those of you who have done a lot of online lessons will know that it takes more preparation, and that we need to have lots of different activities, especially for the younger children, to keep them engaged. Our city has been in lockdown for months now, and the kids are doing school online, so by the time they have their flute lesson with me afterschool, they’re all “zoomed” out. I use games throughout their lesson to increase interaction between us, and to keep them focused and enthusiastic. Whilst there are many excellent music game apps, I don’t use these for online lessons, to avoid screen fatigue. I make games kits which the parents can collect from my letter box, or where possible, I email PDFs of games to them.


Music games for optimal learning


Above all, the main reason to use music games in your lessons is because they are fun! Games generate a feeling of relaxation and motivation, enhancing the learning process. As research (Rose and Nicholl) shows, “A brain enjoying itself is functioning more efficiently. When we enjoy learning, we learn better.” If children are having fun, they will be much more engaged, have better learning outcomes and look forward to their music lessons as a positive experience.



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