For President’s Day

(Originally posted in February, 2007)

While I don’t like the idea of using music primarily to teach “academics,” I do think incorporating non-musical themes and topics in music classes can add interest. Here are a few ideas for Presidents Day which I’ve tweaked or made up, in hopes they’re useful to readers. (Disclaimer: I haven’t put them in practice myself at this point!) Adapt them to the concepts and skills you’re working with already.

Coin-Flip Games
Children take turns flipping a penny or quarter (Lincoln or Washington). Heads/tails determines what they do next, depending on the game you choose or create. For example:

  1. Have a grand staff on the board, with a melody (or random array of pitches) notated. “Heads,” the student labels a note name in the treble; “tails,” the student labels a note in the bass.
  2. As above, but with blank staves. The student must write a note as well as label it.
  3. “Heads,” the student improvises a short rhythmic phrase in 3/4; “tails,” the student improvises a short rhythmic phrase in 4/4 (for example).

Lincoln Says
Play this like “Simon Says” — what “Lincoln says” is repeated, but what “Washington says” is not. (Or, more difficult, what both Lincoln and Washington say are repeated, but what Arnold says is not.) For example:

  1. Making body shapes, lead the class with “Lincoln says do this,” in a regular tempo. If you give a signal with the “wrong” name, students must stay still. (Let the children lead.)
  2. Similar, but perform a short rhythmic phrase after the words “Lincoln says,” whether in various changing ways (clapping, jumping, body percussion, etc.) or simply on a drum. Children either imitate what you did or stay still and silent, as above.
  3. Clap or play a rhythm for “Lincoln says” or “Washington says” instead of saying their names. Anapest (short-short long) works for “Lincoln says,” while a triplet in place of the two short durations can represent “Washington says.” Make a clear pose after playing the rhythm. Students assume the pose, or stay still, depending on which rhythm preceded it.

Collect the Cherries
Have some circles cut from red construction paper to represent cherries. You’ll write on one side of these. (It’s easier to see if you apply white labels and write on those.) Then have labeled “baskets” (envelopes, bags, etc.) which serve to categorize the cherries. For example:

  1. On each cherry you’ve written a rhythmic phrase (vary the meters). The baskets are labeled with meters. Each child takes a cherry in turn, performs its rhythm, and places it in the correct basket.
  2. Similar, but on each cherry is a key signature, a phrase with accidentals, a chord labeled “I” or “V7” etc., and the baskets are labeled with key names (G major, D minor, etc.).
  3. Use the cherries to group the children themselves into “baskets,” according to rhythmic pattern, for example. Then, alternate playing each pattern; when the children hear their group’s pattern, they move accordingly.

Circle of Presidents
Make large ‘coins’ from construction paper or cardboard, pasting or drawing the appropriate presidents on each (Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, Kennedy). You can find some basic line drawings here. Similar to the cherries above, you’ll write something on the opposite side of each.

  1. Write short rhythmic patterns, being sure that you have exact matches in pairs. (Two ‘nickels’ having a dactylic pattern, for example.) These are set into a large circle on the floor. Children step around the circle (march, skip, jog, change directions, etc.) and stop when your music stops; they pick up the coin-card closest to them, and see if anyone else is holding a match (by performing the rhythm, preferably). When they find a partner with the same rhythm, have them set the coins aside and join back in, or, let them sit and play their rhythm on small instruments, along with your music, for the rest of the game until all are seated.
  2. Write numbers from 1 to 8 (or use solfege syllables). Children pick up a coin as above. They place themselves in numeric order in a semi-circle, and sing their number along the scale, ascending and descending. From there, you might turn some coins over to make those pitches into rests; play a series of pitches note by note (start with steps and repeated pitches only), and see if they can hold up their coin and sing their pitch when they hear it; have a leader tap coins in sequence, with each student singing their pitch when their coin is tapped. Be sure to redistribute the coins so children have other pitches.
  3. Draw a body shape on the back of each (stick figures are fine as long as they’re clear); or, write words to describe movements (such as: “three hops,” “fall to the floor,” “brush a bug off of some part of you quickly,” “paint four lines on an invisible wall,” “shake hands,” etc., all different). Then two or more people near each other, or with matching faces on their coins, work together to combine their two shapes or movements. They’ll find movement to links the two shapes, establish transitions and directions of movements, and arrive at specific rhythm and tempo for each, in order for them to perform in unison. (Encourage them to use words or sounds.)

Chopping Down the Cherry Tree
One child stands in the center of a circle, as the cherry tree, eyes closed or blindfolded. Another child is chosen to stand behind the tree and sing a simple refrain (for example, a tune with the words, “I’m choppin’ down the cherry tree; If you wonder who did it, it was me!”) and perhaps follows with an improvised rhythmic phrase using claves or another percussion instrument. The tree then guesses who it was. If correct, the tree may fall down dramatically, and the one who “chopped” becomes the new tree.

Compositions (updated due to expired links)
Of course, it’s always fitting to study “Lincoln Portrait.” One good resource is on NPR. Civil War ballads and spirituals are another idea; check out the Civil War music site at the Library of Congress. If you’re focusing on Washington, check out the Colonial Music Institute, articles about music of Washington’s time from sites like American Revolution and (believe it or not) the Wall Street Journal, or a recording of Music for the First President from Mount Vernon.