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10 Orchestra Conducting Lesson Plan Tips to Easily Teach Elementary Students

An orchestra conducting lesson is an excellent addition to your elementary music plans. Music teachers can use conducting to:

  • introduce OR review musical concepts, especially beat & time signature, dynamics, and other “expressive controls”
  • make connections to dance curriculum and how gestures reflect specific elements in the music
  • address relevant music curriculum without the need for instruments, singing, or close contact

Orchestra Conducting Lesson Plan Tips

1. Hook your students with a fun example of conducting.

Of course, watching examples of legit conductors is an important aspect of a conducting unit, but watching a non-conductor’s attempts also emphasizes what a conductor’s job is in an engaging (and often hilarious) way and can prompt some enlightening class discussion. Mr. Bean conducting the Salvation Army Band and Improve Everywhere’s “Conduct Us” experiment are just two awesome examples.

2. Start orchestra conducting lessons by teaching the downbeat.

Many teachers jump into teaching conducting patterns right away. The problem is if students don’t understand the meaning behind the movements, then they’re just memorizing a way to wave their arm around and won’t know how to “root” themselves in the music. Start by learning about beat and downbeat and how to listen for it, then teach students to conduct only the downbeat (dropping hand on the one) and simply counting the other beats out loud. When students are comfortable doing this, then you can add in the rest of the patterns.

3. Play games that encourage “following the leader”.

For very young students, circle games such as “find the leader” are an excellent way of reinforcing the idea of watching & following each other to keep the group in unison. This prepares your students for the concept of conducting.

4. Use the concept of a baton effectively.

Many students have a vague idea of what conducting is from watching various media, and that usually means they feel they “need” to use a baton. But giving all your students sticks to wildly wave around (especially at the beginning) is not safe or effective. Instead, consider starting with conducting by hand only (commonly used for choral conducting) and then graduate to using dry spaghetti. Dry spaghetti encourages students to be careful with their movements, is safer to use, is disposable, and very inexpensive.

5. Consider diversity in your examples of conductors.

When looking at examples of conducting, it is really easy to end up showing only the stereotypical “old white man” conductor. Make sure to include videos and photos of a variety of genders and ethnicities. Music leadership is for everyone! (Kalena Bovell & Mirga Grazinyte Tyla are just two examples of conductors who are breaking old stereotypes)

6. Include conducting gestures in your everyday teaching.

Once your classes know what a cut-off looks like, you can use that cut-off gesture anytime you would like quiet. You can use the “up” gesture anytime you would like them to stand. It’s music-themed sign language!

7. Show videos of kids conducting in your lessons.

There’s nothing more inspiring to kids than seeing kids (not just adults) who can do amazing things. Jonathan Okseniuk and Edward Yudenich are just two amazing kid conductors to watch.

8. Play “Three or Four?”

This listening game reinforces students ability to discern between time signatures in examples that they hear. While the original version has students playing examples for each other, you could just as easily play recorded examples. Train students to listen for the downbeat (beat 1) and then count how many beats until the next downbeat to identify the time signature. Once students are able to discern between the time signatures, then they can start learning the conducting patterns to go with them.

9. Don’t forget to ask the professionals.

Try these online lessons from SFSKids. The San Francisco Symphony has so many great online resources for teaching music! This series of lessons teaches the basics of conducting and then guides students to conduct a range of popular pieces of music. Because they are self-guided, they are great for use on the Smartboard (especially to leave for a supply teacher), to assign individually as a computer-based music center, or to assign individually for remote learning.

10. Curious George Beats The Band Unit

orchestra conducting lesson plan

This jam-packed conducting-themed mini-unit covers many curriculum expectations with a high-interest theme, making it a perfect sub-tub stuffer or low-prep last-minute plan. Based on the Curious George episode “Curious George Beats The Band” (which can be found freely online), it introduces 4 popular classical pieces of music as well as basic elements of the orchestra and conducting. The content is a great fit for end-of-year review in grades 1-2, or a beginning-of-the-year refresher for grades 3-4.

*Bonus Tip* Want to visualize the conducting patterns? Try conducting with glow sticks.