Not too fast, not too slow. Be the Goldilocks of your classroom with "just right" pacing

pedagogy corner Aug 17, 2021

Bored students? Frustrated students? Rhythm and pacing in our classes can help keep players engaged and learning.

With a bit of planning and observation, we can create music classes that keep everyone on track. Let’s take a look at some things to keep in mind as you prepare and lead your classes.

Advance Planning

While there are things you can do in the session itself, a lot can be done in advance to set yourself—and your students—up for success. There is a Finnish expression “Hyvin suunniteltu on puoliksi tehty” that means “well planned is half the job done.” Don’t we know it! And lesson planning is where it’s at. Here are six things you can do in advance of your classes to help set the stage:

1. Build in contingencies

If the group happens to move easily through what you’ve got planned, be sure to have something in your back pocket to offer up. Alternately, know that you might not get through everything in the lesson and may need to slow things down in class. Be ready for either scenario and don’t feel you need to push through the material if your students are struggling with it. 

2. Smaller bites, consistent rewards

Give the illusion of moving quickly. This might mean breaking things down into smaller bite-sized pieces that you can work through at a good pace to help students feel accomplished. This is also just a great way to scaffold as you work through skill-building or repertoire.

Give the illusion of moving quickly.

3. Routine

Creating familiarity in how you lay out the class structure and format, allowing students to get to know what is next helps build comfort and confidence while allowing you to move efficiently through your lessons.

4. Ages and stages

Attention spans can certainly vary at different ages. How long can an eight-year-old concentrate versus a high schooler? Or an adult? There’s a lot of advice around on gauging this, for example, using ages to link with minutes: a nine-year-old can focus for roughly nine minutes. This can be a place to start but in reality, it will vary depending on the class itself and you'll get to know your own students.

5. Differentiation

In your activities, have options ready for different ability levels. Let's say most students in the class are still getting comfortable with the C scale but there are a few who have it mastered. Give those more advanced students additional challenge by perhaps asking them to play a third or a fifth above each note. This allows you to keep the pace the same for those who need it, while not letting boredom creep in for your students who need something more.  

6. Get in the flow

Don’t jump around too much or students will get lost or confused and the lesson overall will seem scattered. As you develop your lesson plan, watch for flow. This again helps build comfort and helps students stay focused.

In-class Techniques

Now that you've got things planned out, here are six things to do in-class to help keep things moving along:

1. Watch out!

Watch for cues as you lead. Are they looking around? Chatting or noodling? Or are they looking confused and frustrated? Remember to keep an eye on your students throughout so you can adjust your approach as needed.

2. Fast but slow

Stay on something for too long and you’ll lose them. But how can you move through something fast enough to keep them engaged while slow enough that they are properly learning the skills? Slowing down the learning may mean taking the pace itself slower, or it might mean giving them more variation. This allows you to spend more time on a skill or passage, building dexterity and understanding without losing their attention. 

“A change is as good as a rest”

A great example from the Ukulele in the Classroom series is when teaching a scale and repeating it multiple times, you can integrate different rhythmic patterns—which also adds another learning element—or employ tempo, volume or articulation changes with each run-through. Students will enjoy the variety and before they know it, they’ve run the scale six or eight times in a row.  

3. Change it up

“A change is as good as a rest.” Feel like you’re losing them? Switch up the activity. Give them a chance to noodle for 30 seconds, get them to stand up and play, or switch the activity to working in groups or with their neighbour. All are things you can have in your back pocket to use any time. 

4. What’s that signal?

Signals, either visual cues or short phrases, can help keep the pace moving in class. Much like routine, when students get to know what something means or what comes next, you don’t have to do so much explaining. For example, “rest position!”

5. Set them up for success

When a student gets a personal “win” in an activity, no matter how small, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and primes them for the next step or challenge. Be sure the activities you choose can allow this sense of "I did it" within a reasonable amount of time. 

6. Make music!

Above all, keep them playing. We can’t say this enough. Music classes are for music making and the more there is active playing taking place, the more engaged and focused your students will be. Watching your students in action helps you gauge your pacing and decide whether more time needs to be spent on something or whether they’re ready to move on.  

Not too fast, not too slow, but just right!

Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator from Guelph, Ontario and is part of Team Uketropolis. www.cynthiakmusic.com 

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