Making It Work: Engaging Young Boys in Music

engaging boys

Engaging Young Boys in the Music Classroom

What captures boys in the classroom? There are many ways to excite and motivate children at the start of a lesson, but if you want to get your boys on your side you must include RHYTHM. The initial greeting or simplest speech piece needs to have clear evidence of the beat. With these activities, a little syncopation goes a long way. Boys want to FEEL the music in a physical way.

engaging boys

Boys like to move. They are going to move anyway, so you may as well make it productive. Boys are often better at large muscle movement rather than small muscle movement. Large muscle movement to maintain engagement can be as simple as standing up and sitting down. Body percussion is key to large muscle movement and this is a fundamental skill in the Orff process. For boys who may be reluctant participants in music making, using your speaking voice musically and performing body percussion alone or with others makes for comfort and confidence in the classroom. Again, rhythm is key and since exact pitch is not needed here, boys who might feel insecure about their singing voices feel safe.

Boys like to hit stuff. That doesn’t mean body percussion or playing instruments should be perpetually loud or overbearing. Learning musicianship through dynamics is one of the easiest and immediately effective paths to artistry. Many boys’ natural inclination is to be loud. From the first days of Kindergarten boys need to understand that loud has its place. All children, and particularly boys, need to learn not to beat up your own body, or a classmate while doing group body percussion. Here the golden rule applies – you don’t want your classmate to whack you in the back so you don’t do it to them.

engaging boys

Gentle and beautiful is OK  – that is – NOT feminine. Artful body percussion fosters focused listening, which transfers to skillful and thoughtful playing of instruments. Yes, there is a time to play hard and loud, so another day learn to build a crescendo. Respect for each other, for the music, taking care of the instruments are natural outgrowths of listening and responding to dynamics. One of my hard and fast classroom rules is, if you can’t feel the pattern and do it on your own body you are not ready to play the instrument yet. Give a little more practice time, include vocalizing the pattern, then transfer to a xylophone or other percussion instrument. Creating anticipation by having the students practice the pattern a little longer often helps the loud student gain self-control and confidence.

engaging boys

Boys like to compete. Adding a simple competition adds a game – like element to the lesson. Used carefully it can foster esprit de corps amongst the students. One suggestion is to time a whole class as they prepare for an activity, such as getting instruments out, entering a room to scatter formation or making a circle. Timing may be used as a benchmark for themselves or in competition with another classes. Give the students an estimation of how many seconds you think it will take to complete the procedure, and ask for two other estimations. Your phone will have a stopwatch function which you can hold up for everyone to see. Note the time on the board and keep a running tab of how many seconds it takes. In this way competition is not individual and they have worked together. Silence is golden and I will disqualify if the class is noisy. You are the referee!

Patrick Ware came to the Greater Cleveland Orff Chapter in the fall of 2015. Patrick explained, codified and reinforced many significant features of reaching students that were very pertinent to boys. Structure – boys live in the moment, they don’t think much about the future, so engage them now. They want to know what’s ahead. Rondo form – in which the A section always comes back – gives them a guaranteed safety springboard to launch into improvisation. Boys like repeats. They like to build on foundations. This gives them the security and familiarity that allows them to take risks. Boys like a framework, rules are important, and a fairness is vital. Rondos give everyone a go.

engaging boys

What about singing? Boys can sing naturally, joyfully, with energy and quality, often not consistently. When students learn your classroom is a safe zone, it’s helps them feel OK if their singing voice isn’t perfect. I compare singing to math or spelling, in which nobody gets their work 100% correct, 100% of the time. With focused listening, lots of opportunities to hear oneself, fun warm up vocalizing, singing games, beloved traditions repeated over years such as patriotic or seasonal songs, boys can and do sing very well. Guided listening, consistent effort and energy turns into accuracy and quality over time.

Some strategies for helping boys find their singing voices are below.

  • Embed a singing response of one or two sounds into a poem or game with speaking voices and boys often don’t even realize they are singing. Then you can call attention to their success in finding and making such a quality singing voice.
  • Start warm ups and simple songs in a lower key and move progressively higher, step by step.
  • Don’t worry or let the boy be concerned if their voice is not “home” today. Sometimes it is hard to get started, especially if its early in the morning, or after a vacation break. If a boy’s singing voice is awkward or missing in the game or activity, it will be there another day. Oh well, no big deal.
  • Encourage boys to make the most of their child quality voice. I tell my older elementary students they have this magnificent chance to sing brilliantly before their boy voice is gone forever as they turn into a man. This is it, make the most of it!
  • Whistle! Taking the words out and focusing on the music provides another beneficial step in the process. Boys can often teach each other to whistle so that can be quite fun and worthwhile in itself.
engaging boys

Teamwork cannot be underestimated when corralling boys. Boys want to belong to a group, and like to do things together. Boys bond through loyalty. As demonstrated by sports and other activities such as scouting, doing an activity together attaches boys to each other. Music making in ensembles across grade levels offers opportunities for significant role modelling and coaching. Traditions may be established with a few pieces kept in the repertoire year after as older outgoing students teach the younger ones coming in. Choirs, drumming groups, guitar ensembles and the like with significant numbers of boys make for a positive and inclusive musical climate at the school.

Creating ensembles takes time and strategy. It is up to the teacher to get to know the students well first. Lay the groundwork by fostering interest in the ensemble in class by choosing music making that builds skills in the future ensemble you would like to conduct. Don’t tell the students your plans yet! Meanwhile figure out yourself the nuts and bolts of when, where, and how in your building. When students have been successful in class and are looking for something more, then it’s time to approach administrators and parents and unveil your scheme.

Music teachers have a unique opportunity to touch the lives of all the students in the schools in which they teach. Boys seek active engagement with others. They want and need to belong to something bigger than themselves, and to be busy with affirming activities. Boys like to compete and collaborate, and appreciate being noticed and encouraged. The music teacher’s understanding and willingness to let boys take their time and find ways for them to be musically successful will make for a happy classroom. Who knows what will spring from such a joyful foundation?


About Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews is the lower school music teacher at University School, an independent boys school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Amanda holds a Bachelor of Music Education from the Conservatorium of Music, New South Wales, Australia, and an MA from Case Western Reserve University. Her ensemble Flying Mallets has performed at national and state conferences and at Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Amanda has also led workshops in Cleveland, in her hometown of Sydney, and at the International Boys School Conference in London, England. She has completed 3 Orff levels and is a longtime member of the Greater Cleveland Chapter AOSA.

8 Comments

Cindy Deliman

Thanks for sharing! Although I know this stuff, I’m still struggling with 2 classes of 4th grade boys. It’s helpful to be reminded and now I can be more mindful in my lesson planning.

Thanks again!!!

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Amanda Lincoln

This is a wonderful article! Bravo! I have worked with Amanda personally and she is absolutely brilliant when it comes to working with younger age boys. She has a gift when it comes to exposing boys to vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

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Lori Baris

What an outstanding article!
I am privileged to work with Amanda at University School and have witnessed her magic firsthand!! Her patience, especially when 3rd graders play their recorders for the first few times, is unparalleled!! And… she is absolutely correct- boys do love to move…and hit things! Good on ya’, mate!!

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David Matthews

What a great article! This is superb advice and methods not just for teachers but for any parents with boys (or girls). I look forward to using these skills with my own boy. Thanks a ton, Amanda

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Joy Matthews

Such a touching and moving article,not only for school use,but for home use as well. How fortunate are the children who come into your care to start their musical lives. Congratulations.

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Joy Matthews

Manda from a young age you always wanted to teach music to children. Remember the large guitar and singing group you had at 18? Your article is thoughtful and inspired and I am so proud of you.

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