8 Fun Ways to use Paint Chips with Beginning Music Students

I was inspired by TeachPianoToday’s blog post about their paint chip improv idea, in which names of paint colors were used to create black note improv rhythm duets with the teacher. I had intended to do this project with my students, but I ended up creating several easier variations for use both in my studio and with my college class for developmentally disabled students. To do these games, the students don’t have to know anything about notation, rhythm names (i.e., quarter note), or the piano keyboard. And the supplies are completely free.

Here’s what you need to play the game:

I went to my nearest Home Depot to pick up some paint swatches, but instead of choosing the kind of swatches that have 4 paint colors on them, I found a Behr paint section that had large cards with just one color on each card. I stood there for about 45 minutes, and I sang through every single card on the rack. I ended up choosing about 20 cards. (I promise to paint my next room using Behr paint, after “borrowing” so many of their paint chips for non-painting purposes.)

My requirements for choosing the paint swatches I settled on were these:

  • The names of each paint color had to have rhythms that naturally flowed into a 4/4 pattern. For example, “chocolate swirl,” a favorite of my students, is universally pronounced as two quick notes and one long note.

  • The names had to have words that were easily recognizable by the young and/or developmentally disabled students that I teach. “Coliseum cream” or “Haitian flower” swatches wouldn’t work because I would need take time out of the lesson or class to explain what “coliseum” and “Haitian” meant. “Watermelon punch” and “Amazon jungle” are winners.

  • I steered clear of names that used “pick-up” rhythms before beat one, such as “beloved pink” or “vanilla frost.” It’s much easier for the students to start each card solidly on beat one.

  • I found colors that were vibrant and appealing. There are 100 different variations of white/cream, but one or two of those will do, even if they have charming names.

Below are the eight the ways I’ve used the paint chips in my lessons and classes. Note I don’t mark the name of the color or the rhythm notation on the card itself. The color name is typed in teeny-tiny silver letters on the bottom of the card, but it’s practically illegible. The students just memorize the names as they play the game.

  1. Have the student(s) choose 1, 2, or more cards at a time and line up the cards on the piano or on the board. Rearrange the cards or add more cards for a more challenging layer to the game. Students can…

  2. chant the names in rhythm

  3. clap the rhythms

  4. clap and chant the names at the same time

  5. sing the rhythms on one note

  6. sing the rhythms with their own melody

  7. sing the rhythms according to your specific instructions, i.e.,

  8. going up

  9. going down

  10. using the scale degrees 1, 3, and 5

  11. going up a major scale

  12. play the rhythms on a set of piano keys (i.e., 3 black keys, C position, etc.)

  13. copy other students’ sung melodies

  14. beat the rhythms on drums, rhythms sticks, or other percussion instruments that use hitting to make a sound (shakers don’t work very well for this exercise)

  15. play the rhythms with Boomwhackers

  16. march or make up other actions to the rhythms

  17. In a class setting, each student holds a card with the paint color facing out so others can see. (We sit in a circle in my class.) Then as the game progresses, we continue to add more students holding up cards, one at a time, making a long string of rhythms. Note I don’t mark the name of the color or the rhythm on the card itself. The color name is typed in teeny-tiny letters on the bottom of the card, but it’s practically illegible. The students just memorize the names as they play.

  18. Play a metronome, a drumbeat (find them easily on YouTube by searing “background drumbeat”), or an instrumental song with a strong 4/4 beat. Then chant the paint chip rhythms, staying with the beat. Steer away from vocal music to avoid interference with other text. For piano students, one idea is to chant along with the recording of one of the songs they’re practicing.

  19. Chant two or more rhythms simultaneously, either by teacher and student, or by two or more sections of the class. This is very challenging. For the best success, choose one card for each of the two parts, and repeat it over and over. Then switch parts.

  20. Have the students do rhythmic dictation. Review the rhythm of one paint chip at a time, and have the student(s) write(s) the rhythm on plain paper, as a static note on a staff, or on the board.

  21. Display a handful of cards. A student or teacher claps or taps the rhythm of one of the cards they select. Another person guesses which card they clapped or tapped.

  22. Chant or tap one or more cards, but occasionally change either the tempo, dynamics, or articulation. A student “conductor” or teacher can determine the timing of the changes.

  23. Ask the student(s) how many notes (claps/taps) are in each rhythm. (i.e., cracked pepper has 3 notes). This exercise helps them differentiate between number of notes versus number of beats

We’ve even performed the paint chip games at our end-of-semester concerts, with parents choosing the cards from our deck of paint chips. This way we proved that the students were getting a fresh set of rhythms and hadn’t just memorized the order of a set of cards.

These games teach the following skills in a fun and engaging way. My students beg to get out the paint chips! Here are the techniques and skills students will learn with these games:

  • Memorizing words (all)

  • Chanting/singing/clapping/drumming rhythmically (all)

  • Staying steady with other people performing the same activity (#1, 2, 3, 5, 7)

  • Echoing rhythms accurately (#1)

  • Staying steady with an external beat (#3)

  • Improvising melodies to a set rhythm (#1)

  • Identifying specific rhythms aurally (#8)

  • Following a conductor for changes in tempo, dynamics, or articulation (#7)

  • Chanting one rhythm while another student(s) chants another rhythm (for more advanced students) (#4)

  • Rhythmic dictation (for more advanced students) (#5)

  • Understanding the difference between beats and notes (#8)

  • Identification of rhythms by ear (#6)

  • Counting number of notes (#8)

If you try out any of these paint chip games, leave a Comment below and let us know how it turned out. I’m sure you’ll come up with even more variations with your students! Thanks Behr Paint, and thanksTeachPianoToday for the original idea!

p.s. One of my college class students likes this game so much that he brought this HUGE stack of paint chips to class. (He works at Home Depot, BTW.) I thought it was a good testament to these games’ worth to the students!

My student brought this giant stack of paint chips to class one day.

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