Making It Work: Instrument Storage and Organization
The Active Music and Movement Classroom: So Much Fun “in Store!”
Drue M. Bullington
A glimpse into one teacher’s answer to the challenges of having students manage the use and storage of a variety of instruments in an active elemental music and movement classroom.
One of the best things about being a classroom music teacher has to be all of the great instruments and learning “things” we use in our lessons and are able to share with our students. One of the challenges is managing their use in our classes effectively during instruction and storing them in an organized way when not in use.
After 15 years of trial and error—and I mean a lot of trial and error—I have come up with some approaches to solve a number of problems classroom music teachers face once they acquire instruments and begin to incorporate them into their lesson plans. One thing I learned very early on is that things never work in the real classroom like they do at a workshop when the presenter says, “everyone find an instrument…” The bedlam that ensued after such a suggestion I made in my classroom many years ago is where this journey began.
First let’s consider a few non-negotiable parameters most classroom music teachers are facing. The main consideration is a high number of classes, often of differing grade levels with little or no time in between classes. A second issue is a low, or non-existent amount of planning and preparation time. There is so much to do, and so little time to “get ready” for the doing! These two factors were the reasons my approach to managing the “things” in my classroom came to be almost entirely student-centered. It seemed more beneficial to everyone if I spent my time planning and preparing for instruction in the role of director and the students took on the role of stage managers.
In as many ways, and as early as possible, I strive to give the responsibility of getting out and putting away instruments to my students. This requires that the teacher prepares the learning space in such a way that the instruments can be stored, accessed, and put away easily and consistently. Secondly, it requires that the teacher clearly communicate and reinforce procedures for how students will go about getting out and putting instruments away in a safe and orderly way.
Let’s take look at the physical spaces that have been prepared for instruments to be stored, and the procedures used by students to get them out and put them away.
Soprano and Alto Xylophones and Metallophones
After years of having the instruments “out” on the floor in “ready-to-use” position, I realized that we really needed the space for movement. So, I built two shelves on the long open wall in the back of my classroom. (I am pretty good at wood working having spent a lot of time as a kid with my dad in his wood shop.) I had some really great maintenance guys at my school put them up for me. This provides a space on the floor along the wall for the alto xylophones and metallophones, which are a bit heavier, to sit on the floor, and a space above these for the sopranos, which are lighter, to sit on the first shelf. This reduced the space which these instruments took up in my classroom from about 150 square feet to about 24 square feet!
Each instrument has a little piece of floor tape (The P.E. teacher at my school uses this on her gym floor, and shares with me. It can be removed without any residue remaining.) in the bottom corner or the player side of the instrument. On the tape, a number is written in silver sharpie. On the shelf, or on the floor, the same tape and the same number are written and placed in such a way that they line up with each other- I tell the students that they should line up like a shadow.
The soprano xylophones are numbered 1-7, and the soprano metallophones numbered 8-10; the alto xylophones are 11-17, and the metallophones 18-20. Basses are labeled 21-25.
Individual students or partners can quickly be assigned an instrument number by me and they can go get it from the shelf. I ask them to pick up the mallets, which always lay on top of the instrument, and put them in their crab claw, which is just to hold the mallet by pinching them between the thumb and palm, and carry the instrument out into the space and set it down.
When the students take the bars off, in order to keep the space orderly, I ask them to put the bars they remove on the floor in order from largest to smallest on the left side of the instrument. When doing partner work, this helps students to slide the instrument back and forth in front of them, rather than have the students moving around all of the time.
After we’re done with whatever we’ve been doing, the students put the bars back on the instrument, carry it back to the shelf, line up the numbers on the two pieces of tape and put the mallets back on top of the bars.
With this approach it is possible that students can get 20+ instruments and be playing as a group in less than 3 minutes. They can put them away and be ready for the next activity in even less time.
Bass Xylophones and Metallophones
The bass xylophones and metallophones in my classroom are also numbered and on wheels. I often assign them by numbers as well, although less often than the alto and soprano instruments. The wheeled stands have a number on them, as well as a corresponding number on the floor, so that they can be wheeled away from and returned easily to their place.
One thing I did add to these instruments is a place to store several bars that are not being used. I found that the plastic sleeves that the adjustable wooden statues I got from IKEA are shipped in are the perfect size to hold several of these bars or accidentals.
I model a lot on my “teacher” bass xylophone, and in order to help with transfer, I have written the note name on the ends of the bars so that students can visually see when seated in front of me, what notes are being played and the set ups for various pentatonic, hexatonic, diatonic, etc., scales.
This is the same as above using numbers. These instruments are moved around a lot less given their size. However, when being used in the performance space and then returned, I don’t have to manage or move the instruments around, they just get back to their homes automatically because the students are used to the numbering system.
Each Orff instrument has a custom-made pouch for storing the accidental bars. (These are prototypes as we experiment with how they work in the classroom) They are fitted so they can hang on the wider side of the instrument during transport around the room, to the stage, etc., and are numbered to be stored with the corresponding instruments. The budget money I’ve spent on lost accidental bars is withering to think about. They are like socks! These, along with the glockenspiel accidental bar pouches were hand made by our family friend, Wanda.
The portable accidental pouches will help keep a large instrumentarium orderly during the whirlwind of performance when a lot of shuffling has to happen in a short amount of time.
She also made some fantastic covers, which protect the rosewood bars from light damage over time. One great addition we added in the design of these are the pouches in the cover which will hold up to 4 sets of mallets. We will happily share some information about how to acquire these accessories if you’d like a set of pouches or covers for your classroom. The covers prevent people from tampering with your instruments when they are in public spaces at times like before and after concerts when you can’t really watch them.
Both the pouches and the dust covers are in the design and development stages. We’d love to hear some feedback on what you like, or what you’d wish for in something like this in your classroom.
A trick that Wanda came up with while we were figuring out the pouches and the dust covers was an answer to my problem of bars falling off when kids are carrying the instruments around, or when they are loaded on carts, etc. She suggested (and it is pure genius!) to take some elastic and tie a length of it in a knot, and hook it under the handles of the Orff instrument at both ends. This effectively clamps the bars down to a degree that keeps them from falling off when the instrument tips over, or is tilted.
Of course, you can’t turn them upside down, but it does really help when the instrument is in transport. I’m excited to use this trick in the future. I don’t know about you, but I loathe the sound of xylophone and metallophone bars crashing to the floor!
Contra Bass Bars
I keep my bass bars on the side counter and on a table in the back corner of my classroom.
This is one instrument that requires that I at least help get them out and put them away in most classes. My 5th and 6th graders are pretty good at it so I tend to have a 6th grade helper get these instruments down in the morning, we use them in classes, and sit them to the side until the end of the day and then have a 6th grade helper put them away at the end of the day.
If we are doing some performing where the bass bars need to be mobile, I use the bottom level of an old AV cart with a yoga mat on it, put the bass bars we need on there and then the instruments are ready for their time on and off stage as needed. Kids can handle moving these pretty easily now, and there is no worry on my part about them being dropped or damaged.
Our classroom has 12 glockenspiels- 6 sopranos and 6 altos. Using my woodworking skills, I built a cabinet where each of these instruments slides neatly into a “garage” designed specifically for this purpose. These instruments are numbered as well to help students get the instruments back onto the correct garage when class is over.
The mallets are stored in the garage with the instruments, as well as a little pouch with a corresponding number, which help keep the accidental bars from getting lost. The students put the instruments on top of plastic baskets from the dollar store. They turn them upside down and place the glockenspiel on top to give more height. I found that student posture, playing technique and musicality of the sound is so much better with the instruments up off of the floor.
The teacher gives students a number or they are just supposed to get “a glockenspiel” and mallets. First, they get a basket and place these where they plan to set themselves up for our class activity. Next, they bring their instrument and mallets and place it down on the basket and set up their bars as needed. If they are working in partners, one partner gets the instrument and mallets and the other partner gets the basket. Bars that were removed are still always placed on the floor to the left. This allows the instrument on the basket to slide back and forth easily as we take turns.
Next week we’ll bring you Part 2 of Drue’s instrument storage and organization solutions. For now, please share your favorite storage hacks in the comments. Your idea may be just the thing to help another teacher make it work!