Issue 146: Top Tips for Teaching Samba

The first samba lesson I ever taught, many years ago now, was when the “real” visiting samba teacher rang in sick halfway through the first term. There I was, thirty eager year 5 and 6 children, a load of still fairly unfamiliar kit, and 45 minutes to fill. “I’ll be your TA for the session” said the Head. Now, that might have been the final straw for many a rookie teacher, but I saw it as a bonus, Any apprehensions I might have regarding behaviour management were instantly solved – whatever my weaknesses as a samba teacher might be, no-one would dare take advantage with that particular Head in the room.

Off we went to the hall. I pretty much followed what the “real” teacher did – he is excellent, and I still seize every chance I get to work with him when I am being a Wider Opportunities Music Teacher. Listen and copy, go through all the rhythms, individual section by section, and then layer them up until – Hey Presto – it sounds like a samba (eventually!)

Over the years since my first adventurous plunge, I have developed the following Top Tips for the early stages, to be revisited frequently over the course of the samba programme. Many of them apply to pretty much every music lesson, whatever the topic.


  • Insist on the children NOT PLAYING the instruments unless they are meant to. It is perfectly possible for them to hold the instruments without them making any sound. Half the time they don’t even realise that they are tapping their agogo bell, fidgeting with the ganza, drumming their fingers lightly on the surdo. I appeal to their competitive instinct; “Which is the quietest section?”
  • Go through the rhythms using voice first (but don’t shout!), then clapping, before letting loose on the instruments. It keeps the noise down in the early, chaotic stages of learning new things.
  • Teach the children to play GENTLY. Their first instinct and desire is to whack everything as loudly as they can.
  • Everyone should mime every rhythm pattern as it is being taught. No section should “go off-line” or start chatting when another section is learning their rhythm. That way, when you rotate the players around the instruments, you shouldn’t have to spend ages re-teaching all the rhythms.
  • Layer up the instruments section by section. Usually it is best to start with the surdos (big drums) to set a steady pulse. Sometimes it is better to start with a section that has a strong, confident sound and use that to hold it together. Let the ganzas start sometimes – they don’t make much noise and often feel undervalued because of that!
  • Pick a confident player in a section and get them to be a section leader – but make sure they don’t stand with their back to whoever is giving the signals.
  • Play the instruments using fingers, not beaters, when learning new rhythms, or doing composing or group activities.

This term’s samba challenge is teaching it to year 2; these will be the youngest children I have taught samba so far. Ten lessons, starting next week – watch this space!

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