How To Teach and Practice Steady Beat in Elementary Music Through Daily Routines
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
Knowing how to keep a beat is a fundamental skill on the path to musical proficiency, and a way to get good at it is to- wait for it- to practice! No matter elementary students’ ages, steady beat keeping is an important skill you can and should be practicing daily.
That doesn’t mean you have to be boring or do things by rote. In this post, we’ll talk about fun and effective ways to practice steady beat in elementary school, and ways to keep things exciting but under control.
When I first started teaching, I knew that kids moving and practicing beat was important. What I didn’t really know was how to set them up to be able to do that effectively and in a manageable way.
So I just kind of said, “Let’s move to the music/beat!” Sure, kids dancing around and laughing is fun, but it didn’t provide really meaningful information for me or give them meaningful opportunities to practice a skill. I've since learned how to make it more purposeful (without losing the fun).
Why teach and practice steady beat?
a. It’s a fundamental musical skill that sets kids up for success as they take on performance opportunities later
b. It’s something that will serve you well as an adult- singing in the church choir, playing with your own children, enjoying a concert.
c. It helps with critical listening and self-control
d. As kids learn about macro- and micro beat, internal sense of beat is necessary for application of those mathematical skills
Let’s go through introducing and practicing steady beat in the elementary school grades, K-5!
P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I do music teacher toolbox chats about topics like this? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe to learn more meaningful elementary music strategies!
Setting them up
Talk about what beat is. I usually say that beat is a steady pulse, like your own heart beat. It can get faster or slower, but it’s always steady. Relate a fast beat to running and slow beat to walking, then refer to those activities as you practice.
Model! Starting with simple patting, pick a moderate tempo piece (The Entertainer, a Sousa march, and The Syncopated Clock are all great) and ask students to match you. Choose instrumental pieces that aren’t too dramatic- meaning, if you want students to focus just on the beat, avoid pieces with other particular qualities (like Sabre Dance or March of the Toreadors) when you first start. Save those for later, or when learning about dynamics or changing tempo.
When students can match you, change up the motion from patting to things like shoulder tapping, tapping the floor, soft clapping (two fingers on your palm), head patting, or elbow tapping. You could announce what you’re about to do, or keep it a surprise to they need to keep watching you. Use excerpts rather than whole songs to get more variety (for example, the beginning of March of the Toreadors is great, then you can stop before the stately section).
Add motions that get them moving around the room. Walking or marching in a circle, walking in and out in a circle, jumping, or skipping if it’s safe- these are all great ways to show beat. Remember to model first! Show them what they should be showing you. Another way to show beat is with instruments like rhythm sticks or shakers, and also with objects like scarves or stuffies as dance partners.
When they’re proficient
You can start doing simple beat routines- performing different motions for different parts of the song. Don’t be afraid of repetition! Whether you see students weekly or daily, doing the same routine three, four, even five times is good for them. It’s practice and it’s something for them to look forward to.
Things to watch for in beginners
It’s easy for them to copy without listening. And that’s okay… but not forever, of course. When students are in the routine of beat keeping practice, you can ask for leaders to show the beat with a certain motion. That way you can observe.
Setting them up
Review what a beat is. As this point in their music education, you have even taught them the different between beat and rhythm. (This is a great video for reinforcing beat being steady.) A quick warm-up might be you playing examples on a drum and students determining if they’re beats or rhythms.
Begin with simple beat keeping, like patting or tapping to music. Instrumental is always good, but pick songs they know too. And these age kids can handle beat patterns like pat-pat-tap-tap, or pat-tap-tap, depending on the meter. You’ll probably be getting into beat groups, so this is a great way to prepare them.
Ask kids to compose their own 3- or 4-beat patterns to teach the class. Take these patterns and group them into larger sets to compose dances or movement routines. Or, make up your own routine (I frequently do this, as a former tap dancer) and teach it to them. I made up a really fun routine to Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart and I use it with grades 2-4 at the start of each year. Most kids love it, and if they don’t, I ask them embrace the dorkiness and just go with it. Elton John, The Supremes, and Louis Prima are great artists to use.
It’s time to start counting! Ask students to steadily count out loud in sets of 2, 3, or 4 as a class. When they’re good at this, ask them to only say beat one aloud, and 2, 3, and 4 in their heads. Or click their sticks on beat 1, or jump on beat one. There are so many variations here, and you can get a lot of mileage out of the simple idea of counting to 4. Using their fingers and graduating to purely internal counting is a good goal here.
Things to watch for
Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is copying their peer or really listening. Be observant and let the students show you their skills. Perform for them not with them- it’s hard, I know! But students learn a lot this way, and even if they get off beat, it’s possible they will self-correct, which can’t happen when you are being their crutch.
Setting them up
Ask them to find the beat of a piece of music. Vary the tempos class to class, and remind them to listen first, then respond.
Begin moving away from strict beat keeping and have them perform rhythmic patterns to the music. You can project these, or use big rhythm cards. Performing ta ta ti-ti ta on loop to music requires the higher level skill of keeping an internal beat. If this is troublesome, have them echo you the first several times. Then split the class in half and have one side be the call while the other echoes.
Instruments! Rhythm sticks, hand drums, djembes, Orff instruments, even plastic cups they can tap. Introduce these carefully, as the noise can get out of control and this is an age where kids will push your boundaries with silly behavior, if they haven’t already. Composing patterns and routines can definitely continue at this upper elementary level.
Rhythm and beat can turn into units in upper elementary. Bucket drumming, drum circles, and dance are ways to keep solidifying those internal beat skills, plus they bring an ensemble-feel to your class that can help kids prepare for band/chorus.
Things to watch for
Like I mentioned, silly behavior and boundary-pushing can happen more often than in earlier years. Set clear expectations, and follow through with quick consequences if behavior becomes problematic.
So... let's review!
Beat practice can be a 5 minute warm-up, a 15 minute session, or a few classes as you progress through a unit. Consistency is key, not just for skill-building but for helping kids adjust to your classroom and understand your expectations.
And make a promise to yourself to incorporate beat practice every day, even on a small scale. Make a goal for 5 minutes a day. If kids want to go longer, go for it! Flexibility can lead to great ideas in music class.
What are some of your favorite songs to use in your class when you teach and practice beat? Drop them in the comments, or message me on Instagram!
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