“Sticky” Instrument Challenges

Want beginners to have instant success on instruments? Forget notation and pick up some tape or stickers!

“Sticky” Instrument Challenges are a great way to “gamify” your music program and expose participants to new things without having to learn music theory/notation first. At the start of each day, introduce several Instrument Challenges for participants to choose from (on different instruments). For example, participants have to complete a challenge in order to “unlock” privileges like using the recording studio, or instrument equipment, etc. “Sticky” Instrument Challenges help introduce basic concepts and gives participants success right away in hopes that they “stick” with it.

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How to…

  • Decide how often you’ll introduce the Instrument Challenges challenge. For example,
    • Every day – choose a specific time, etc. 
    • Each week (e.g. every Wednesday – or whatever day you choose) 
  • Decide on the format of the challenge – ie. everyone must complete or make it an optional challenge that helps participants earn extra privileges, etc.  
  • Make it easy for all skill levels to complete the challenges; examples include: 
    • Piano – use “Avery See-Through Removable Color Dots”, Post-it Page Markers (multi-color pack), Multi-colored dry erase markers 
    • Guitar/bass – use masking tape along the top of the neck/fretboard – label the fret number in sequence 
    • Drums – use an easy “play along” track, YouTube clip or take a video of an instructor playing a basic groove.  
  • Create fun challenges that participants must complete before participating in other programs/activities (displayed on a white board). Examples include: 
    • “Chord Buster” – Participants must play through a I-IV-V progression.  
      • Piano – Green dots = C Major chord, Red dots = F Major, Blue dots = G Major
      • Guitar/bass – #1 = Low E string, 8th fret (C); #2 = Low E string, 1st fret (F); #3 = Low E string, 3rd fret (G)
    • “Melody Mystery” – Place a sequence of colored dots or label fretboard that participants must “decode” in order to play a familiar melody.
    • “Octave Obsession” – Place colored dots or label fretboard on various octaves, and discuss the basic concept of what participants are playing.
    • “Scale Trail” – Place colored dots or label fretboard on various scales and discuss key signatures with participants.
    • “Intricate Intervals” – Place colored dots or label fretboard on basic scale intervals for a quick ear training exercise.
    • “Groove Master” – ask participants to recreate a drum groove on a video or recording
    • “Rhythm Xerox” – participants have to repeat a series of rhythms 
  • Optional – Use the same concepts for helping participants on music technology equipment 

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Big Ears

Help participants develop their ear and the critical listening skills that are nearly impossible to notate

Critical listening skills like tone, intonation, and groove are universal and highly sought after by all musicians. These skills are also often overlooked or taken for granted in favor of traditional music education skills like music theory and reading skills. Help your participants become well rounded musicians by developing their ear, overall critical listening skills in their playing or music productions. Below are a few ideas on how to help your participants accurately identify and communicate music elements and use them in their own playing or songwriting.  

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How to… 

Be creative in how you communicate musical skills in instrument workshops, ensembles and/or music productions.  

Some ideas for Big Ears workshops include (but not limited to): 

Music Theory:

  • Find the Note: Play a note on piano and have other instrumentalists match the pitch on their instrument
  • Intervals: Give starting notes and find second note based on reference of sound. Limit options to Major, Minor 3rd, etc.
  • Identify Chords: Determine whether chords in root position are minor or major. Move chords around but don’t invert. Make it easy at first and build from there.
  • Transcribe: Figure out a guitar line/chords by ear.

Music Production/Engineering:

  • Listen as a Producer: Describe instrumentation and explain arrangement. How many hooks? Any interludes? Etc.
  • Mixing: Working through a mix and talking through the different instruments and how we handle certain frequency ranges
  • Physics of Sound: How does sound travel? What are frequencies, how are they measured, and what are the frequency ranges instruments play in?


  • Rhyme Schemes: What type of rhyme schemes is the artist using? Slant rhymes, or perfect rhymes?
  • Lyrical Imagery: Is the artist using metaphor, simile, alliteration? What does it make you feel or visualize? 
  • Performance: What type of emotion is the artist using on the track? How does it support the lyrics? 
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The 10 Minute Bet

Ultimate way to get participants playing any instrument in 10 minutes (or less)

  • Designed to motivate and improve self-confidence when learning a new instrument
  • More of an “orientation” to teach participants the absolute basics to get playing right away
  • Works well with groups and with individuals
  • Works well with the Music & Youth Initiative “Equipment Orientation Worksheets”

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Recording Studio Orientation Process

Demystify complicated studio gear and get participants making beats right away

What better way to teach all the basics of the recording studio than to have participants create a couple projects of their own?!  Engage your new or beginner participants with a real-world project while they learn the expectations for handling studio equipment and basic music production concepts and techniques.

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How to…

  • Participants complete a Recording Studio Orientation to learn:
    • Studio Rules and Expectations (see following “Sample Recording Studio Contract”)
    • How to use and take care of all studio equipment
    • Basics of studio equipment and their functions
    • How to properly turn on and shut down studio equipment
    • How to set up a basic Logic Pro X project (i.e. new tracks, check levels, and record enable)
  • Conduct a simple verbal quiz to make sure participants have learned the names of all studio equipment
  • Have participants produce two basic “demo” Music Production projects using iPad Workstations or computer workstations following this process:
    • GarageBand project at least 32 bars long
    • Distinct “A” and “B” sections
    • Minimum of 5 tracks
    • At least one track performed live by the participant then quantized (others can be Apple loops)

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Command Ship

Participants’ take command of the songwriting process to make their musical ideas a reality

Objective: Songwriting by “committee.” Participants focus on their ideas, instead of studio technology.

  • Engage participants who “want to write a song” but don’t quite know how.
  • Participants take on the role of “commanders” during music production.
  • Participants express their musical ideas with “commands” to direct staff members.
  • Staff members implement the technical requirements to make it happen.

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Ukulele Club

Ukuleles are fun, easy to learn and they don’t hurt your fingers like guitar

Objective: Introduce a popular and easy string instrument

  • Quickly master the basics
  • Introduce skills needed to play the guitar
  • Simple accompanying instrument for songwriters
  • Easy performance opportunities
  • Easy instrument for Junior Staff to teach younger participants

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VIP Band Program

Motivate your Very Important Participants to become Virtuoso Instrument Players!

Avoid the musical progress plateau with your participants by motivating and challenging them with an exclusive VIP Band program opportunity. Each week, Junior band participants (age 13-15) and Senior band participants (age 16-18) participate in exclusive Workshops and programs that help build skills in their chosen instrument. Participants in this program are expected to attend weekly instrument and/or studio Workshops to develop their musical knowledge and music technology expertise. They will work closely with their bandmates to build strong bonds with their peers. VIP Band participants have opportunities to play at  higher stakes performance opportunities in the community, developing a sense of pride in their hard work and dedication. 

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How to… 

Participants in the VIP Band Program are divided into two bands.  Each group is typically limited to no more than 10-12 participants: 

  • Junior Band: ages 13-15
  • Senior Band: ages 16-18 

Each week, VIP Band members commit to: 

  • Participating in their choice of Instrument Workshop/s 
    • Attend a at least one weekly Workshop series such as guitar, bass, drums, piano, vocals, lyric writing, music production or music business
    • Each participant is encouraged to stick to their chosen instrument for the entire semester but can change their instrument choice at the start of a new semester
  • Expanding their Musical Knowledge 
  • Learn and apply the basics of music (like rhythm, harmony, melody and notation basics) on their chosen instrument
  • Project – Compose an original 16-32 bar song by the end of each semester
  • Participating in Music Production projects
    • Such as “Sound-alike” projects, iPad beat making, Recording Studio sessions
    • Project suggestion – Record an original song with distinct “A” and “B” sections by the end of each semester
  • Joining a band
    • Learn rehearsal and performance techniques 
    • Project suggestion – Perform in one Open Mic night by the end of the semester

Tracking VIP participants’ progress: 

  • Create a poster board tracking sheet
  • Participants get a stamp in the category activity they’ve completed each week. Visually displaying progress is motivational to the participants.
  • VIP’s must have 3 stamps at the end of each week, 12 stamps at the end of each month

Sample VIP Band Incentives: 

  • First to know about concert tickets, field trips
  • Prioritized Recording Session time
  • High profile performance opportunities (galas, fundraisers, community events, etc.) 
  • Opportunities for a music video shoot
  • Monthly rewards, raffles, prizes
  • Music books, lyric books, pick necklaces, VIP-only party (ice cream, movie night)
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