A traditionalist approach to education involves drills. In Music Education these are simply a two to five minute whole class activity to practice rhythms, singing, performing, aural or written notation skills. They are almost always teacher-led, although if they are known well enough, a child can lead the drill. Every lesson should have some drills and they should get harder as the children get older. The reason we do drills is because in most schools we only get a 50 minute Music lesson and it is the only time we get to practice the basic skills. If we do not drill what often happens is that children forget the basics. We then get into the situation that because we have taught the material we assume it is learned when it is not. If learning is when children can recall knowledge and skills from long term memory and apply them, we need to do drill.
In my lessons we spend up to twenty minutes doing drills. The kids love them. Here are some examples:
1) Rhythm Drill
I start this in Year 2. We learn the basic rhythms as creepy crawlies. So a semibreve is “snake”, a minim is “worm”, a crotchet is “fly”, quavers are “spider”, semiquavers are “caterpillar”. We also have grasshopper, ladybug and rests. I teach the rhythms with a new minibeast every two weeks. We then perform about twelve different two-bar written rhythms which the children clap back in unison. I do this every lesson for about sixteen weeks. Then we write the rhythms on mini-whiteboards. I say and clap the rhythm and the children “dictate” them by writing them in standard rhythmic notation. They show me their slates and we praise and correct right and wrong answers. We do this for about four weeks and then I will clap the rhythms but not say the minibeast names and they have to write them down by remembering the names from long term memory. It is then good to leave this drill for a while before reintroducing it later on so the children have had time to forget and then relearn. Interleaving practice is very powerful and results in stronger memories of the material when you learn it a second time. The drills need to be revisited so that the content can be engrained in long term memory. This will help our secondary colleagues who can then teach much more complex skills than basic rhythm for Year 7’s. Sadly I have seen Year 9’s doing only simple crotchet and quaver rhythms because they simply do not know their names, durations or notations. As students get older I teach them more complicated rhythms and the proper names for the notes. I even teach the American and the British terms so they know that when a person talks about a quarter note or a crotchet they are referring to the same thing. The rhythm drills take about three minutes to complete, about 100 minutes a school year.
2) Pitch Drill
We use the Kodaly system to start with in Year 1. Unlike many Kodaly experts, I teach the notes in ascending order rather than sticking with “so me la” tunes. I will do singing games using the natural “so me la” intervals but not for drill. I put the notes and their Kodaly hand signs on the board and sing simple melodies using the notes. The children repeat them. This is again teacher directed but after many weeks I have allowed a child who has good pitching to “be the teacher”. The drill remains the same. Like in the rhythm drill I will get the children to write down a series of pitches on white boards using the letters “d r m f s l t d”. In Year 2 we continue Kodaly pitch but then I move on to using numbers 1 to 8 when we use handbells and C to C when we learn glockenspiels and xylophones. I explain that they are the same things, just written in different ways. Again, this drill will be repeated every lesson before stopping for a month or so and then reintroducing the drill. I try not to combine Rhythm and Pitch drills until the children are older.
3) Performance Drill
When we learn any instrument we do performance drills. I will play or sing a series of pitches or a rhythm and the children will repeat them. It is a good warm up and revisits the basics. I have also written performance drills using standard Western notation and graphic notation so the children can read and play simultaneously. I will only make these one or two bars long and repeat them four times. The first time the more aware kids get it right, the second time most the class gets it right, the third time the dreamers get it right and the fourth time even the weakest normally get it right. It is useful to put on a steady beat on a keyboard or use a backing track so you can check the students are playing correctly.
4) Aural Drill
I play five notes on the piano ascending and then change the pitch of one of them the second time. The children have to put up 1-5 fingers to say which one is different. I will play three notes in no particular order for them to discriminate. I sometimes make it longer and play up to ten notes for a challenge. But there will always be aural drills because that is the key to good listening and aural awareness.
5) Instrument Drill
At the end of every lesson I play four sounds and the children have to identify the instrument. If you keep this up every week and only change one or two or put them in different orders, by the end of Year 6 most children should be able to identify about fifty instruments from their sounds. For older year groups I will combine two or even three sounds to discriminate between.
There are many, many other drills. But the important thing is to be consistent and revisit continuously. Any decent musician or sportsman will tell you that practice and discipline are paramount to excellence. That’s why we do drill. It may seem obvious but I would not be writing about this if drill was happening in most primary schools. It isn’t and that’s why we need to unashamedly promote it. This is why I am not happy with the “Music Express” books in most primary schools. There are some great activities but there is no drill. That is why children can get to Year 6 and not know the difference between a violin and a cello, an A or a B or a crotchet and a minim. Some teachers are scared of repeating activities in case the children get bored. If this is what you think I would recommend you watch Children’s TV. It’s all repetition with slight variants. Kids learn through repetition; the key is to just slightly tweak it every lesson so they progress.
Let’s reclaim the word “drill” as a positive, fun and engaging learning experience!