Theme and Variation Made Easy

So for as long as I can remember, I have been teaching a unit on theme and variation with my 4th graders which culminated in a project where they have to create a variation on Hot Cross Buns. I have to say that every year, my kids had struggled so much with the concept and I just did not understand why. Each year, I tried to break it down into more and more manageable steps, but still made little headway. But this year I finally had a break through! The kids were effortlessly creating variations (hallelujah!). So I thought I would share my breakthrough with you guys, in case you might want to use a project in your class as well.

The Introduction

I start by doing a quick introduction into what a theme and variations are. I show them and example of theme and variation in art (Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup pictures), and math (translating a shape on a grid) and finally music. I show them how we can change the form, the pitch order or the rhythm of Hot Cross Buns, but keep other elements the same and create a variation.

Real Example

Next we listened to Variations on a Shaker Melody (from Copland’s Appalachian Springs) and do a little worksheet about what we hear in each variation.

Form Variation with Partners

This part was the game changers for me. In past years, I did some examples at the board for the class and then had them work by themselves. I’m telling you, any time you can have kids work in groups instead of lecturing from the board, they are going to learn so much more. (Sometimes I really must sound like that teacher in Charlie Brown – wah wah wah). Here’s what I had the students do:


  1. Each group got an envelope with form cards and note pattern cards.
  2. Student had to choose a form that was different from the theme (Hot Cross Buns – AABA). We reviewed how musical forms always start with A.
  3. Student got to pick which note pattern would be part A and which would be part B.
  4. Students played their song and then made decisions about editing it until they had created a version that they liked.
  5. Students shared their variation for the class by playing it on the recorder.
  6. Bonus question: I made the students choose a form different from AABA. However, there is one way to keep the form AABA and still be a variation. What is it? ANSWER: Make the “one a penny, two a penny” part A and the “hot cross buns” part B.

Rhythm Variation with a Partner

I pass out laminated staffs and dry erase markers. Students then have to decide on what rhythm they will have on beat one (B), beat two (A) and beats three and four (G). This one was still a little hit and miss with this group, so I would probably schedule a review of writing BAG on the staff and practice writing different rhythms on B, then A then G first before proceeding next year. But if you are a rockstar and have your kids writing on the staff all the time, you will probably not have this issue. For mine, I was surprised because they can read BAG, but writing it was a struggle (not for most of them but maybe 25%). But I do have a lot of new students in fourth grade this year so that may be part of it too.

Time to Fly Solo

Now that the students have had the chance to work in the safety of a partner group on creating a variation using form or rhythm, I give them a worksheet and they create a variation all by themselves.  This picture shows an old version of the worksheet I use, but you get the idea.

photo 3

I think that having some activities where the students work with a partner to create a form allows them to experiment without the feeling of pressure for a grade and with the support of a buddy or two. This can build their confidence going into the individual assignment, which is certainly what I saw in my classroom after doing these activities. Maybe I’ll even make some cool kits this summer to pop up on TeachersPayTeachers if you are looking to not have to do the ground work for the groups. Keep and eye out!

Kindergarten Improv

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 10.13.51 AM.png

This winter, I started to introduce the idea of improvising to my kindergarteners. We had done some readiness activities earlier in the year, like being able to tell when two patterns are the same or different, and even giving students the chance to explore that idea and sing or say a pattern that was different than mine, but this was the first time I had formally worked on all students improvising a 4 beat rhythmic response for me.

Step 1: The Song

The song you pick doesn’t really matter. I used the song “I Got a Letter This Morning.” You can use whatever song you wish, however, please make sure that if you want you’re students to improvise in duple meter, the song should also be in duple meter. Move around and get a good feel of the song. Maybe the first time you introduce the song, take ideas of ways to move to the beat. That way, students will be feeling the song in their body and brain, which will help a lot when it comes time to improvise.

Step 2: Provide a Vocabulary

So next, I would have students echo rhythm patterns led by me. This way, they are being reminded of all the different options they have when they are given the chance to improvise.

Step 3: Time to Improvise

At the end of the song, I added this little musical question. Students were able to volunteer to clap a rhythm during the 4 beats of rest.

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 10.01.06 AM

I would make sure to point out really good examples and talk about how it filled in the space and not just clapping as fast as they could.

Once we had the chance for a couple leaders to volunteer, the next week, I would have every try clapping a rhythm.

Step 4: Add Instruments

For the last week, I added tubano drums and students got to have turns playing their improvised solo. However, I will warn you that you should remind them about how to play musically – filling in the space, not just playing as fast as possible – because for some reason when you pop a drum in front of the kids they just want to wail on it as fast as they can and then we lose all the musicality we’ve been working on. Maybe even have a student give a clapping example and then you show how to transfer that to the tubano. Then you will have a lot more success with getting some good improvisation out of them,

Final Thoughts

I really loved this activity and plan to do it again in the future because it so seamlessly guided my students to successful improvisation. The kids had fun and loved the song and created some great improvisations by the end.

Florida History Song: I Wanna Go Back To Georgia

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 9.49.14 AM.png

As someone who did no grow up in Florida, I have always struggled with finding songs for Florida history, because I started out knowing very little about Florida’s history. However, over the years I’ve started to gather a couple that I like, and I wanted to share one with you today. This song is called I Want To Go Back To Georgia, and speaks to the life of early pioneers in Florida.

The Song

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 9.27.49 AM


The higher you climb the cherry tree, the riper is the berry.

The more you court that pretty little girl, the sooner she will marry.


I won’t have you to save my life, although you are my cousin.

But I can get a-plenty more, for 18 cents a dozen.

The Lesson

Students learn to sing the chorus. Then we learn chord roots to the chorus and add boomwhackers to that part of the song.

Students learn to sing the first verse. Add a cross-over bordun pattern (practice as body percussion first – pat R lap, pat L lap, cross R hand over body to tap L shoulder, pat L lap). Note: on the ending there is a chord change so we add an extra body percussion there: snap snap, pat. Transfer cross-over bordun to xylophone. If students are really successful and ready for a challenge, you can add in the notes for the chord change/cadence at the end (E – C – F). Otherwise, I just have my students click their sticks on the snaps and then play both Fs on the last note.

The History

We take a moment to discuss the Florida pioneers and how pioneer life was hard and full of dangers. Pioneers had to be very self-reliant for every thing from food to medicine to safety, since the nearest town could be hours away.


Word rhythms: take some Florida critters: Snake, possum, alligator, for example, and turn them into quarter, eighth and sixteenth rhythms. Have kids make up an 8 or 16 beat word rhythm. Add percussion instruments and play the rhythm on the instruments. As this as an interlude or intro to the song.

Improv: Use the same word rhythm idea, but have students improvise on the xylophones using the word rhythms as their base.

Folk dance: Add a folk dance. Use simple moves that you students know to create a dance that matches the phrases of the song.

Black History Month: Won’t You Sit Down

This week, I want to share with you a new song that I am doing with my fourth graders this year. I love it because you can just focus on call and response, or you can learn the response on recorders, which just uses BAG. Or you can learn the call as well on recorder, which uses low D and E. You can do the same thing with the verses too. If you really want to go to town, you could even improv during the verse (must be the …)


Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 5.27.03 PM

Black History Month: Martin Luther King


screen shot 2019-01-09 at 4.05.20 pm

So I did have another recorder song planned for this week’s post, but then I realized that I’ve been a little recorder heavy this month. Last week was a song for BAG on recorder and next week is another recorder song. So I decided to switch gears and tell you about a song I do with my primary kids (first and second grade) to help teach MI, RE, DO patterns.

However if you are aching for more recorder songs, you can check out this post about learning high C and D to the ever popular I Got You/I Feel Good by James Brown.

So the specific song that I use is from the Gameplan series. I believe it is from Level 2. And as such, I cannot share with you the specific lyrics/notes of the song. But I can tell you what drew me to this song (or if you have Gameplan Level 2 – you can look up the song Martin Luther King). It contains a repeating, simple MI, RE, DO patterns that my students can easily recognize and learn and eventually play on instruments (and read in notation). So while I know it’s nice to have the actual song to put into practice, even if you don’t own Gameplan Level 2, you can still find a song that has this simple component (a repeating MRD pattern) and achieve the same goals.

Audiating MRD

We start by learning the MRD pattern and finding it in the song. I sing the song without words and they close their eyes and raise their hand when they hear MRD. I found that it really helps to sing it without words first, otherwise they really seem to latch on to the lyrics and not be able to find the pattern. Then I sing it with words and they do the same exercise, raising their hand if they can still find the pattern that matches MRD.

*side note: audiating is more than just silently thinking a series of notes (although it often gets used in this context – even by me. In it’s truest form, audiating is hearing and UNDERSTANDING music internally. So this little exercise I just described in the above paragraph is great for stretching their audiation muscles a little further, as they are understanding it and putting it in content of a song. And as Artie Almeida says … “You can’t be great if you don’t audiate!”*

Adding Notation and Instruments


Next, once we know the MRD pattern of the song, I show it to them in notation. Then we go to the instruments. I tell them where DO is located, and they have to figure out which bars would be RE and MI. This allows them to learn about the relationship between solfege and notes on instruments, instead of me just feeding them notes. Next, we sing the song and play the MRD pattern when it happens. It’s a great time to review good mallet technique as well.


  1. Moveable DO – once you’ve played the song in the original key, consider moving it to a new key (F, G and C are great keys usually to switch around on Orff instruments). See if they can still determine where RE and MI are if DO is in a new spot. Talk about how this makes the whole song higher or lower. And show how that pattern would look in notation.
  2. Identify and play other MRD patterns – Isolate the section with the MRD pattern. Play a NEW pattern using MRD and see if students can determine what you played. You can notate it for them for see if they can determine how that would be notated. And then you can try out playing new MRD patterns along with the song.

I’ll be honest. I don’t always get to these extensions, but as I’m writing this I’m looking at this stuff and thinking “Dang! My kids would know MRD internally and in notation SO GOOD if I did all this stuff.” I’m going to try and make some time for it before we finish the lesson.

And that wraps up this week’s post. Come back next week to see my final post in the Black History Month series – a song for learning the low recorder notes D and E.

Black History Month: Calypso Freedom – A Song About the Freedom Riders for Recorders

This song was a big hit with my fourth graders (they especially liked the part where they get to go “HUH!”). This year I have moved it down to third grade, as it fits more with their benchmarks (songs related to American History), and my fourth graders are diving into a song using D and E (watch for the fourth grade lesson in an upcoming blog post). The song is called Calypso Freedom and tells the story of the Freedom Riders, a group of civil right activists who rode integrated busses into the Deep South. For some useful background info, you can refer to these websites:

PBS – American Experience


Warning: Delicate Subject Matter

Okay, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Some of the things that happened during the Freedom Riders’ bus rides were graphically violent. For example, some people were beaten by mobs when they disembarked from the bus. In the most extreme example, one bus was even actually set on fire, with the riders barely escaping with their lives. I choose to mostly leave out these specific gory details. We acknowledge that the trip was dangerous and maybe even that there was violence. I make sure to have time planned into the lesson to have a discussion about the event and peoples reactions to it. We talk about the bravery it took to stand up for what is right and how violence is NEVER an okay way to solve our problems.

Learning the Song

First, we learn the song as a class. I have it written here in the key we will play later, on the recorder. I do not teach it students to sing it in this key, as it goes very high. I would say I probably bring it down to the key of D or E? First, I teach them the refrain:

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 3.07.38 PM

Then, I sing a verse for them. I explain that the verse is set up in call and response. The response is a part they already know (from the refrain). It goes “Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.” I sing the call and the students sing the response. Everyone sings the refrain.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 3.19.25 PM

Here is the form and verses of the song:


Well I took a trip on a Greyhound bus. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)

Got to fight segregation now this we must. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)



Well I took a trip down to Alabama way. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)

We met lots of violence on Mother’s Day. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)



Well on to Mississippi with speed we go. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)

Blue-shirted policemen meet us at the door. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)



You can hinder me there. You can hinder me there. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)

But I get right down on my knees in prayer. (Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.)


Adding Recorders

So, even within the key of G, this song would be a challenge to play all the way through. However, the response part that comes back again and again in the verses and in the refrain is a simple BAG pattern. It is great practice for kids that have been playing B, A and G for a while, but maybe need to work on fluency and being able to move smoothly and quickly from one note to the next. Since there is so much repetition in the song, they get ample opportunities to practice that skill. I tell them to make each response a little better than the last. I sing or play the other parts of the song on my recorder.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 3.07.38 PMScreen Shot 2017-12-31 at 3.19.25 PM

Extension – Soloists

Once we are starting to get the hang of it, I allow soloists during each of the verses. They get to play the response part by themselves. Then every plays during the refrain.

Overall Thoughts

Musically, I think this song is great because it uses BAG in a way that doesn’t feel baby-is to my Third and Fourth Graders. Historically, I think this song is an important one for addressing the fact that the struggle for Civil Rights was hard and unfair and required bravery from men and women of all races and religions. One of the important things that I think the Freedom Riders illustrates is that there were white men and women (and people of other skin colors) that banded together with black men and women, all standing together in solidarity for what was right.

Black History Month: Martin’s Big Words


So I don’t use a TON of books in my classroom, but one that I love to use January and February is Martin’s Big Words. It is a great children’s book about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has won multiple awards including the Caldecott Medal and the Loretta Scott King Award for Illustrations. And rightfully so. I think it does a very tasteful job at dealing with some pretty heavy material.

The Song:

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 5.51.37 PM.png

I do not know where exactly this song comes from, but it is a great simple call and response song that works great for kindergarten. First I teach the students the song (they are in charge of the response and I sing the call). I use two puppets to help illustrate the two parts.

Then there are a variety of things I have done with the song over the years. One year, we tapped along to the beat and used it to talk about big and little beat, and about loud and quiet. Another year, I passed around 4 puppets (one for each response part within the song) and gave students the chance to sing solos. I’m sure you could easy add a xylophone part with the song as well.

The Book:

Then we add the book. We start by singing the song. Then I read 2 pages, then another student comes up and spins the spinner and we sing the song again. And repeat, until the book is done. I think this book is great at discussing some pretty heavy topics in a way that is accessible to younger students. But, I do edit it down a bit. One page discusses how some people were killed while fighting for their rights. And that Dr. King and his brothers houses were bombed. So at times I paraphrase. But I DO read the ending, where it discusses how Dr. King was shot and killed.

I think it is critical to have a small discussion after reading something like that, so we have students share what they learned about Dr. King and any other thoughts they might have. Inevitably, the first thing brought up is that he DIED. But we talk about how that didn’t stop the movement from going on to be a success, and how even though he is gone, we can still learn important lessons from him.