children clapping

Body Percussion – Lesson Plan

Students learn about body percussion, play quarter notes and eighth notes, and experience early African-American folk and cultural music.

  • Length: 2 or 3 20- to 30-minute sessions
  • Grades: 1-4


  • Students will learn about body percussion.
  • Students will practice playing quarter notes and eighth notes separately, then quarter and eighth notes at the same time by different groups.
  • Students will practice this exercise at different tempos.
  • Students will experience folk and cultural music of early African-American origin.

Resource Used:
“Hambone,” performed by John McCutcheon
From: Old Music for New Ears Program 15

Vocabulary, Materials, and Handouts

hambone, percussion family, rhythmic durations, slap, tempo

TV/VCR or DVD player

Optional: rhythm sticks (to help students keep a heavy beat)


  • Multiple-Choice Questions
  • Answer Key

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Instructional Strategies and Activities

Introduce the Topic
Tell students that there are many different instruments they can play and that some instruments are always with them. Play the excerpt “Hambone” from Old Music for New Ears.

After viewing the video, ask these questions:

  • On what kind of instrument did the man perform?
  • What are some other ways to play body percussion?

Discuss how different parts of the body—head, arms, hands, legs, feet, hips, etc.—can be used to create body percussion. Make a list or chart. Talk about reasons why people might use their bodies to create music and provide students with some of the history of the hambone.

When slave owners wouldn’t allow African slaves to use their drums, out of fear the drums might encourage rebellious behavior, slaves found ways to make rhythms with tambourines, bones, and their body parts, such as clapping their hands or slapping their chest or thigh. They called this music "hambone," which refers to the bone of ham used to add flavor to a big pot of soup made with lots of water and what little vegetable and meat scraps slaves could find. Often the same hambone would be shared among families and used to flavor many pots of soup, showing the resourcefulness of slave families who needed to stretch the little food they were given in order to survive. This same resourcefulness is reflected in the improvised rhythmic body music called hambone. Today hambone recalls the history and culture of African Americans. The performer, John McCutcheon, says he learned the hambone he demonstrates from an African-American carnival performer when he was a child. It uses the whole body as a "drum set"—feet, hands, arms, face, and legs—to produce different sounds and combine these sounds for both accompaniment and solo work.

Slap + Hambone = Slap Hambone!
Demonstrate tapping your feet in a steady beat while saying “slap” to each beat and have the students join in. When they have achieved a steady beat, they will actually be tapping quarter notes with their feet. After students are successful in tapping quarter notes, have them pat their legs, alternating hands, while saying the word “hambone.” The two syllables together should take as much time as the one syllable “slap.” Tell students that they are tapping twice as fast: They are tapping eighth notes with their hands.

After students gain expertise in tapping both “slaps” and “hambones” separately, divide the class into two groups. Have one group, the Slaps, begin tapping quarter notes. After this group is tapping with confidence and precision, have the second group, the Hambones, begin tapping eighth notes. One group is now tapping a steady beat of quarter notes while the second group is tapping eighth notes.

Ask students: What made this activity more difficult than everyone tapping the same beat? After a brief discussion, switch the groups to give each student an opportunity to experience tapping both rhythm patterns. When starting out the Slap group, give different tempos so they can practice slow and faster tempos. Warning: Faster tempos may gradually lead students to an out-of-control tempo. Be sure to emphasize a steady beat that does not get faster.

Look, Ma, I’m a Drum!
Invite volunteers, two at a time, to demonstrate “slap hambone” for the rest of the class, using a different body percussion than previously used. The class can imitate the leaders. You can do this exercise until all of the students have had a chance to lead the class. Use the chart or list you made earlier as a body percussion “menu” (e.g., patting the head, tapping the feet, slapping the leg, etc.) to prompt students’ thinking and minimize performance/thinking anxiety and loss of instructional time. Invite students to use the menu or create their own ideas. You may want to have students perform their slaps or hambones in a particular order, such as clap hands flat, clap hands cupped, tap toe, stomp whole foot, slap chest, slap leg, etc.

At the end of the session, discuss reasons people might use body percussion (such as lack of instruments).

Extension for older students: Relate the hambone slaps to whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes you draw on the whiteboard or overhead. Create a rhythmic phrase made up of a combination of these notes and have students tap them out, demonstrating their understanding of the number of beats each note gets.

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Extensions for Diverse Learners

  • Have students create their own words that represent quarter-note and eighth-note rhythms.
  • Musically talented students can add words for sixteenth- and/or dotted eighth-note rhythms.
  • Musically talented students can direct a group ensemble of body percussion.

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Applications Across the Curriculum

Language Arts

  • Explore how written language has rhythm.


  • Explore how sounds are made, how we hear sound, and why sounds are different from one another.


  • Relate to fractions: whole, half, quarter, eighth, etc.

Social Studies

  • Explore early American musical styles. What cultures contributed to the music of early America? Explore and compare Native American music and instruments, African-American music and instruments, and other folk instruments of early America.

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Performance Assessment

Performance Event:
You are going to perform using body percussion.

Perform different “slaps” and “hambones” using as many different methods of body percussion as you can think of. Optional group event: Create a brief musical performance, with each student performing his or her own part of a body percussion ensemble.

Performance Scoring Guide

4 3 2 1 0
Student’s performance demonstrates excellent understanding of quarter and eighth note rhythms. Student is able to produce many different sounds using body percussion. Student’s performance demonstrates good understanding of quarter and eighth note rhythms. Student is able to produce some different sounds using body percussion. Student’s performance demonstrates basic understanding of quarter note and eighth note rhythms. Student is able to produce a few different sounds using body percussion. Student’s performance demonstrates minimal understanding of quarter note and eighth note rhythms. Student cannot produce more than one sound using body percussion. No performance, or irrelevant to subject matter.

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