How to give students choice in music lab - without spending hours on prep!

We know that when students are given choice in what they learn, they are more likely to take ownership of their learning. And, wouldn’t it be great to have students that are excited to be in your studio because they LOVE lessons?  So, how do we give students choice in music lab … without planning for hours?

Knowing When to Group

Back in the day, I taught Grades 7 through 9 at a private special needs school.  

Imagine teaching three grades of math simultaneously.  To students that could barely add 5 + 4 = 9.  All the way to students that could answer the equation (5/1) + (x * 2) = 9 with ease.

I knew that I needed to customize my teaching without adding to my already 60+ hour workweek.  This led me to looking at other teachers at the school that were relaxed & easily taught their diverse classes.  (Or at least that’s what it looked like from the outside looking in.)

Thankfully, these expert teacher were willing to help me out.  And they all said the same thing …

Teach the basics of one concept to the entire class.

Then, break into groups for practice at each students’ level.

While I tried my best to apply this lesson to math class, the subject really wasn’t my forte.  Especially as I had my husband teaching me some of the advanced concepts only a week or so before my students learnt them.

But, the advice has stayed in my mind ever since.

When it really comes down to it, regardless of their level of playing, there are certain listening skills or techniques our students need to know. 

It’s all a matter of degrees of complexity.

And When to Give Students Choice

After giving my students choice in their repertoire, I realized just how powerful choice can be as a motivator.  It also allowed me to ensure every student still learnt the concepts needed at their level.

How on earth was I going to transfer students choice to music lab?

I had already experimented with choosing a big concept (like ear training or rhythm) & grouping my students so I made labs based on levels.  Honestly, it worked great.

But, I had a dream of a yearlong theme to my studio.

For those of you who are travel teachers, you know what I’m talking about.  Many ready-made studio themes look great.  Except for the fact that they are geared towards students coming to the teacher.  Not the other way around.  Short of bringing another teaching bag (no, thank you), I was rather stumped.

Then it was time for the annual get together with other expert teachers in my city.  These ladies came through for me in a BIG way.

The downside of grouping students

It was one thing to choose ONE concept & make sets of labs for each group each month.  Especially since picking apps was pretty easy when divided by:

  • Early education/primer
  • Early elementary
  • Late elementary
  • Early Intermediate

For prep, I had students alternate assignments with apps so they had time to master them.  All I had to do was make roughly 4 assignments per month … or, 40 assignments per year.

40 assignments x 4 groups = 160 assignments per year.

Very doable.

Grouping students … with choices

Remember those fabulous ladies that came through for me?  Their advice led to “Music Around the World” … a series of digital lab assignments.  But, it’s more than just another set of lab assignments. 

I cracked the code on how to give students choice in lab … without giving myself a hours of extra work!

Imagine students visiting 91 possible countries over the course of the year.

They learn about:

  • Composers
  • Instruments
  • Styles of music & their characteristics
  • Active listening
  • Critiquing music

And so much more.

Now, let’s do a little math.  Assuming I kept planning with groups …

91 countries x 4 groups = 364 assignments per year.


There’s giving students choice & then there’s burning out by the end of the year. 

We should be able to give students choice in music lab

without burning out by the end of the year.

The BEST way to give students choice in lab

Imagine students visiting those same 91 countries.  But instead of having new assignment sheets for each group, the expectation for their answers changed instead.

Rather than giving a new assignment, the student provides more detail based on what they have already learnt in lessons.

Let’s visit Canada!

Pretend your student chooses to visit Canada.  The assignment is to complete a listening page.

After reading a little about this interesting composer & listening to the piece, your student critiques & breaks down the song’s elements.

How expectations change:

You could provide a different listening page to each student. Or, you could let students know their answers should use the terms & ideas they have already learnt.

This second option helps students see the connection between what they are doing at the piano & lab. But, it also helps them make larger connections between different songs & styles.

For dynamics, each group of students would be expected to add different details.

  • Early education/primer:
    • May use words like “quiet” or “loud”
    • Switches to “piano” or “forte” as they learn these terms throughout the year.
  • Early elementary:
    • Uses “mezzo piano”, “mezzo forte”, “crescendo”, & “diminuendo”
  • Late elementary:
    • May be expected to describe the dynamic map of the piece
  • Early Intermediate:
    • May be expected to describe the dynamic map AND the dynamics of the main instruments

The same expectations can be placed on answers about:

  • Tempo: slow or fast vs. adagio or allegro
  • Articulation: bouncy or smooth vs. staccato or legato 
  • Instruments: string instruments vs. the individual instruments heard
  • Style: general ideas vs. describing rhythmic or accompaniment patterns

Make assignments work for you

It is possible to give students choice in music lab … without spending crazy hours making everything individualized.

You can give students choice when

you know exactly what you want to accomplish … over the entire year.

Get assignments working for you … rather than the other way around!

An expert teacher approach

What makes “Music Around the World” unique is that regardless of which countries students chose to visit, they come back to important musical terms & ideas over & over. 

Each unit scaffolds or builds on what students did before. 

And, that’s what great teaching does.

Students can listen to a wide variety of music, both modern & classical.  And, my students learnt quickly that “You don’t have to like every piece of music to find value in it or learn something.”

Think of it as teaching a concept to the whole class (studio) & breaking into groups afterwards. Just like those expert teachers I worked with, students learn terms through lessons & apply them at THEIR level.

With a little difference

There is one difference with this approach from the expert teachers.

Unlike math, we can use the same listening piece for every student.  In fact, younger students develop a much better ear when they listen to a wide variety of good quality music.

And, did you know this approach also works really well for multi-level group lessons?  Yes!  It’s the approach I’ve used for years with great success!

Give students choice in lab … without burning out

While you could make lab assignments for each student, why do that to yourself?

As someone who has worked hard to create a unique experience for each of my students, I get it.  We want to add that personal touch to each lesson & assignment.

But, we just can’t do that to ourselves.  We can be that amazing teacher for our students, just not at the expense of our health & well being.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to do this!” 

I’ve got you covered.

“Music Around the World” lab assignments:

  • Have all your planning time taken care of
  • Include all answer keys (so you aren’t spending time finding them)
  • Will have your students smiling & eager to learn something new in lab!

If that sounds like exactly what you need for your creative studio … & let’s face it, your ability to have a life outside of your studio, click below!

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