Teaching Music When You Have No Instruments: What You Can Use In Your Classroom
Updated: Mar 11
It might seem like a gargantuan task: teach elementary music with few to no instruments or classroom resources…
Whether you’re starting a new program, switching jobs, or managing illness restrictions, teaching music without traditional resources like Orff instruments, percussion, a projector, or even a classroom is a strange and potentially disheartening way to begin the year.
I’m not going to lie- it’s tough. But as someone in that position when I began teaching, and then again during COVID, I want to share with you some of the things I did that gave kids memorable and meaningful musical experiences. On a budget and with limited resources and technology!
In this post, we’ll talk about inexpensive classroom resources and safe activities that will help you make joyful and meaningful music with elementary students. (And we’ll talk a bit more about money/budget after this list!)
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!
Stuff for your room
I've been teaching a while. When I think about what gets the most mileage with elementary students, it's...
Lots of seemingly mundane items helped a LOT with these skills, and I'd recommend starting here if you are building a classroom from the ground up, or if you are coming into an environment limited due to COVID restrictions.
Here's the list:
Rhythm sticks (dowels work well, too)
Good for keeping a beat, for echoing rhythms, and for reading practice. YouTube playalongs are also really fun! Try this one when your kids can read quarter and eighth notes and quarter rests. They can be ordered from a music company, or you can get them at Home Depot, who should cut them for you too.
Mini and regular sized plastic cups
Also good for beat keeping and rhythm activities, as well as creating routines to match the form of songs. Target, Walmart, and dollar stores will have these.
Since I subscribe to Spotify, I use my speaker almost more frequently than YouTube for listening. No cords to deal with, and more flexibility with where the sound comes from. I use this one from Amazon (no affiliate link) and connect my iPhone.
Create a bucket band (try this playalong!), use them as hand drums, or use them in movement routines. I get mine from Home Depot or Lowe’s. In the past, my schools have paid for them. But you can also send them a letter asking if they will donate them. Use the official school letterhead and ask your principal to sign it with you.
Wonderful for free or guided movement activities. You can use scarves with music of any tempo, and they can be used even when students are standing or sedentary. Music companies and online retailers will have these.
Good for play-alongs, center activities, teaching basic music theory in the upper grades, science connections, and performing simple songs. These are available from music companies and some online retailers.
Nervous about these instruments? Watch my video on getting started with them!
Good for taking and passing circle activities- add another bean bag when students can pass one successfully around the circle. Small groups can do the same thing on a smaller scale, and you can even use bean bags like you would the plastic cups- to write routines that match form. (I’d have students wash their hands after doing activities like this.) Music companies or childhood education companies will have these, but you may be able to borrow from your PE teacher- ask ahead of time!
One of my FAVORITE things is popsicle sticks! We use them in first and second grade to build ta and ti-ti rhythms.
I have these special class decoding activities I call Secret Rhythms where students need to decode graphics into quarter and eighth note patterns.
This is, for example, is Secret Camping Rhythms.
But I have a HUGE bundle of all different themed Secret Rhythms that I use throughout the year. If your kids love a challenge and are very hands-on, this bundle would be a great addition to your classroom. Secret Rhythms are always a hit with first grade, particularly when they're learning quarter and eighth notes for the first time.
I also use these in centers where students decode in small groups (see my blog post about centers here or the video below!).
Popsicle sticks are also great for games like Kaboom or making solfege texting sticks like these).
Crayons or markers
Kids can use them to draw responses to music, create bulletin board displays, or do other artistic activities like listening logs or these rhythm worksheets of mine, pictured below. Your school should be able to give you crayons, as they are typically a standard part of school orders. But let's face it- we've all bought our own crayons (or paper or craft supplies), right?
Just good to have in the room if your plans fall through. Scrap paper from classrooms works fine as well, since the back is often blank. And, hey, if you are permitted to sing, blank paper is great for kids to brainstorm their own song lyrics. I plan to get started with songwriting with students this year. I've got a short, captioned video on how I plan to make that happen.
Listening log copies
Use them as part of your plan, or have copies in case something else you planned doesn’t work out. I have 3 versions of free listening logs here for grades K-5.
I use these to teach quarter notes and eighth notes (big ones/small ones, or singles and doubles), as well as form (different colors are different parts) and composition. Michaels and Amazon have huge bags to choose from.
Once your students are solid with basic rhythms, this printable cookie-themed center is a fun way to practice them!
I am so excited to use stuffed animals for the first time this year! We’ll be using them in story telling, responding to music, and as beat buddies. Thrift stores and online marketplaces are good places to find them in larger quantities.
How do I get these things??
If you are just starting teaching, or are moving to a new school like I am, you may not have a big budget or a budget at all. If music doesn’t not specifically have money at the time, ask if there is a general student activities fund. Be ready to explain the value of these items and that your students deserve manipulates and tools in music just like in any other class. Your PTO may have funds to help you, and sometimes towns have local grants or even arts-specific grants you can apply for. Administration can help you there, as can your arts colleagues.
No money? Scrounge the school. I know this is something that music teachers shouldn’t have to do. But unless you are willing to spend your own money (again, something you should not have to do), reusing and repurposing items already in the building is a good option that also helps reduce waste. Kitchens can have empty buckets, your PE and Art colleagues may be able to lend you some items, and the tech department can likely loan you a speaker or at least a CD player.
Classroom teachers may also be an ally here. Students may have their own pencil or crayon boxes they can bring to class. If you think your students may have some items from home they could bring, send a letter with the classroom teacher asking them to bring the items on a certain date. In this case, it might be good to have backups in case the students forget (like if you ask them to bring in stuffed animals, or towels to sit on outside, etc).
Another bold option is to invite administration into your room. Seeing you in action might help drive home the point that manipulative and tools are vital in music class. Emphasizing student opportunity and the desire for you to grow personally as an educator isn’t over the top- it’s exactly right, and it’s how other educators justify their own classroom needs.
What if you have money and want to do one big splurge?
Sometimes there’s extra money that needs to be used within a time limit. Use it!
Some things you might want to look into:
Orff instruments and mallets
Beginning a music room library
Quaver (for students to use with computers)
Auxiliary percussion instruments
A projector or smart board for the music room
Things that can be used by every student, or many students, simultaneously are going to be good for your room.
You can do this!
You can be successful with a minimal, low-budget inventory. It's your energy and excitement that the kids will latch onto! If you are excited to teach them a cup routine (I use this one every year for The Nutcracker March), they will be too! Mundane items transform in you room, and you can create really memorable and meaningful experiences for your students with them.
I'm not denying the stress of having limited resources. I've been there, and it is very difficult. I hope this is a starting point for you. Minimal investment for maximum return, so to speak. Best wishes for a memorable and meaningful school year!
If the idea of specific music teacher toolbox strategies and resources is something that excites you, you’d get a lot out of joining the ADM community. In my email newsletters, I help educators like you teach meaningfully and joyfully- but beyond the music- in your classrooms.
I’m all about meaningful and joyful elementary music education! Connect with me below: