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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lessons From Hillary Hahn: How to practice and the 100 days of practice goal

Do you follow Hillary Hahn on Instagram?  You should.  Her user name is 'violincase.'  I'm just a lowly orchestra teacher, but I have been so inspired with Hillary's recent instagram posts about practicing.  She made a goal to participate in the '100 Days of Practicing' project and posts a video every day that gives us a glimpse of what her practice routines are like.  These short little snippets are full of educational value and I plan on using them to inspire my students to practice and teach them HOW to practice.

Hillary Hahn is a world class, famous, professional touring violinist.  Sometimes we mistakenly assume that there will come a time when we will 'arrive' at a certain level of performance and playing or performing will all of a sudden come naturally.  Hillary shows us the true amount of work and dedication needed to reach our potential.  There is no arrival - we're never is necessary to continually progress.  A good performance is the result of hours and hours on consistent, careful, reflective, goal-driven and focused practice - even for a professional.

Hillary shows that she still practices skills that might be deemed 'basic.'  She does bow exercises, practicing slow long bows on open strings, works on vibrato, practices left hand finger taps.  I do many of these things with my beginners...and we eventually reach a point where we think we don't need finger taps any more....we become 'advanced.'  I love how Hillary's videos show us that the basic skills should still be practiced.  All those things come together to create dexterity, ease of motion, and perfection.

I think students need to see a professional in action.  I plan on using one or two videos per week to show my students.  We will focus on these techniques as a class and refine our practice capabilities.  I will encourage students to practice effectively at home.  Maybe we'll even do the '100 days of practice' challenge ourselves.

Here are link to my favorite videos and the lesson/skill in the video.  These are all the things I want my students to learn:

Finger taps – strengthening left hand/fingers:

Quote from Hillary: 
"End of the day. Working on a perennially finger-tangling passage in #Prokofiev 1. 6 months till the concert, so why not see where it's at? Practice at tempo can be a good way to locate problem spots and try performance-speed solutions. #the100dayproject#100daysofpractice"

Trill routine – slow then speeding up:

First day on Dvorak – repititions/concentration, tone, focus:

Spinning hoops – arm/hand exercises:

Fingerpatterns – range of motions for fingers:

Quote from Hillary: "LH pizzicato exercise for callus-building and hand-strengthening. "

Practicing in the dark:

Making pizzicato musical:

Silent practice – studying the music/score
Working on bow tilt – slow

Practicing vibrato:

Slow bows on 2 strings:

Practicing pizzicato in order to watch left hand transitions/finger placement:

Repetition – practice before concert:

Bow exercises – tiny down, travel to tip, tiny up


Practicing with mute: Quote from Hillary: "Jetlag practice with the practice mute. The mute isn't a good thing to use regularly when working on music you'll play unmuted, but sometimes it's helpful if you don't want to make too much noise but still feel it would be good to play something - maybe technical drills, or a passage you didn't feel you got the hang of earlier in the day, or just checking in with a couple of phrases out of curiosity. -HH "

Centering intonation – warm up – during double stops:

Intonation – tuning A minor

Checking arm/body positon: Quote from Hillary: "Working on fluidity in the upper half of the bow without pivoting from my shoulders to reach the tip. -HH" 

Super slow long bows – wow:

Marking the music:

Overcoming bad days: 
Quote from Hillary: "It's a weird adrenal-crash sort of day, when it feels like my cells aren't coordinating with each other. Here, I'm working on figuring out what's up with my left hand; it didn't feel smooth. Of course most of practicing is about the music, but some of it is also about understanding the body as it relates to the instrument. Everyone has these seemingly random, "what happened???!" days. The question then becomes whether or not you can make them work for you. -HH "

Practicing without vibrato:

Recording your practice – watching and fixing: "It's just one of those days. Trying to do my best but my mind is super sluggish. A good day to video a session and then watch it back, to see how the music is coming across. Then try again with changes and watch again. Ditto, ditto. -HH "

Learning new bowing – new stuff takes reps and time…careful focus and thought:

Moving/walking while practicing:

Not feeling like practicing, but doing it anyway:
"Tired today and my body is feeling stiff. Really didn't feel like practicing, but there's a concert to warm up and get in the mindset for. This is what happens mid tour! Very normal. Working on some small details quietly to encourage the revving up process. The gaps between attempts are when I'm resetting my thoughts to try again. -HH "

Checking posture with mirror:

What goes on in the mind during practice?  Think of the audience!  
"I spent the afternoon in meetings and wanted to clear my head before the next part of my day. One of those meetings had led me to consider whether or not I create moments of beauty for myself when I'm alone in a room, practicing or otherwise. I realized that when I practice, I almost always think of other people: the audience. Which I should do! This practice session, to shake things up, I took a few moments to play only the notes I was instinctively compelled to play, when I wanted to play them, however they would emerge. It's improvisation, but not to convey anything at all. At a certain point (where this video starts), a euphoric feeling of calm kicked in, and my mind felt refreshed. –HH"

Connecting vibrato between notes:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Do you wish your beginners would play better in tune?

It can be done!

During the summer I always have more time to practice my instrument.  I enjoy continuing to work on my playing and becoming more proficient on secondary instruments (I was trained on violin and viola so I am less strong on cello and bass).  As a kid I used to hate the Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, Mazas type etudes and technique books.  Back then I just wanted to practice solos.  I'm sure most students feel the same way.  Now that I'm older I have begun to really enjoy playing etudes from all of my old books.  I practice to build and strengthen technique and etudes do the job very well.  Since starting to review all my old etudes, I have noticed a big difference in my playing.  My intonation, tone, bowing...everything was noticeably improving!

Inspired by the etudes of my childhood, I decided to write a book of simple exercises for beginning orchestra.  These exercises are much shorter and painless. :)  Over my last few years of teaching I noticed I would use the D scale for warm-ups almost every day.  I wanted to vary my warm-up routine, but didn't have time to search out appropriate exercises.  This book is great because it becomes your warm-up routine for the school year.  It provides some great variety so you don't have to just do the D scale.

Available for purchase at or TPT.

These simple exercises are written for beginning orchestra classes to be used as warm-ups to improve intonation in your ensemble. Each exercise drills a specific note pattern or fingering to help students achieve more precise intonation. The rhythm in each exercise is always simple in order to help students focus all attention on tone and intonation. 

This book is set up so that all exercises for each part are grouped together. (Violin exercise 1, viola exercise 1, cello exercise 1, etc.) It’s not set up to be a separate book for each instrument. After printing, you could collate the parts to create separate books. I choose to keep exercises together because I hand out one page per week to my students and this grouping makes it easier for me to find and copy the separate parts. I used to copy entire books, but found students would sometimes leave them in lockers, forget them at home or lose them. It’s easier for me to give them a replacement page rather than a replacement book.

There are no fingering markings. It is up to the teacher to determine when you want vioin/viola students to use open strings versus 4th finger. It depends on what you are wanting students to work on. I wanted the exercises to be adaptable and versatile. 

There are many ways to use these exercises in your beginning strings group. Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on one exercise per week to be used as a warm-up. Encourage students to memorize each exercise by the end of the week so they may watch fingering and listen intently. Insist in perfect intonation.

  • Most exercises are in D or G major—the keys used in most beginning level music. You can re-use these exercises and increase the challenge by changing the key signature on each exercise. Teach students how key signatures change finger patterns by playing the same exercise in a few different keys. For example—after teaching low 2’s, you may have students play the first exercise with low 2’s (C major). The simple exercise will help students drill the new finger placement.

  • There is an optional harmony part for each exercise. Sometimes the harmony is just a drone note to help with tuning the exercise. Encourage students to learn the harmony. You may perform each exercise in a variety of ways (Violins on melody with all others on harmony, boys on melody with girls on harmony, outside player melody with inside on harmony, etc.). Encourage careful listening as your group harmonizes to for quality intonation. Be sure they understand that it only sounds good when the notes are in tune and expect all students to reach that standard.

I believe beginning strings groups can play in tune with careful practice. Believe in your students and let them amaze you. 
There are 98 pages total with parts for violin, viola, cello and bass.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

New Resource: Starting By Rote

My newest downloadable/printable resource is now available for purchase at my STORE ( and TPT site.  I have mentioned before that I have spent a great deal of time studying many different method books to assess their effectiveness.  In my opinion, method books do not have adequate rote sections, so I wrote one myself.  :)  In my experience, students who start by rote are better able to achieve quality intonation, tone and position.

This resource is to be used to supplement your current method book. It contains 36 exercises to help students gain confidence and develop important skills before diving into the method book. This book provides a strong foundation in basic rhythm - which will help students learn faster once they begin learning notes.

Students who spend time playing by rote and carefully learning technique will learn faster once they begin note-reading in the method book.  I believe students need time to internalize and practice technique before officially reading notes.  Playing by rote for several weeks will help students focus on maintaining proper playing position and solid intonation. A rote approach helps students develop confidence and good playing habits.  

This 14 page rote unit (62 pages total) includes parts for violin, viola, cello and bass.  It will help students establish a solid foundation in:

* Basic rhythm/couning* Notes on the D string and A string (G string for basses)* Careful intonation* Tunnel fingers* Finger hops* Bow direction* Bow lifts* Tone* Shifting (for string bass)

This resource does not include a teacher manual. For detailed lesson plans to help build proper position, check out my resource called 'The True Beginning: Before the Method Book."

Printable resources are great because you can copy as many as you need for your class...way cheaper than purchasing standard books.  Plus - it's not a big deal if a student loses a page - you can just print another one!

Check out these sample pages:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

5 Ways to Use Post-It Tabs to help violin and viola students

Post-It Tabs are a great little gem to have in your studio or classroom.  The tabs are thick and sturdy with enough adhesive to stay in place and are easy to remove without damaging the instrument.  These are different from the Post-It flags which look similar but are much more flimsy.  Here are 5 ways you can use these tabs to help students with bowing, left hand position, and shifting:

1.  Stick the tabs directly on the bow as a guide to show students what part of the bow to use when playing an exercise.  The colored tabs create a great visual to help students pay attention to their bow speed and bow placement.  If you allow the tab to hang below the stick it will make a noise if the student accidentally crosses one of the tabs.  This will alert the student to re-focus and correct bowing to stay within the allotted boundary.

2.  Use the tabs as a guide to help students keep their bow straight and keep the bow placed between the bridge and the fingerboard.  Cut one tab into thirds (for a tiny violin you would have to cut one tab into fourths).  Fold the bottom of the tab to create a small flap.  Stick the thin tabs in between the strings to create a 'wall' where the bow should not cross when bowing on the strings.  I like to tell students that the tabs are like the flags in downhill skiing.  The bow must stay in the boundaries.  When bowing, students watch to make sure the bow never touches the tabs.  In my experience, the tabs have always stayed in place, as long as you wipe off any rosin dust on the instrument before sticking them on. 

3.  Do you ever have students who keep the left thumb too high over the fingerboard?  These tabs create a great visual to help students break this bad habit.  Stick a tab on the side of the neck.  The student must keep their thumb on the clear part of the tab - they are not to allow the thumb to touch the colored part of the tab.  If the thumb comes up too high, the tab will be pushed toward the string and students can easily see the issue and correct the problem.

4.  Pancake wrist is a common problem among beginning violin and viola students.  Stick a tab on the underside of the violin/viola on the top of the saddle.  Students are to be careful to not allow their wrist to touch the tab.  If a student collapses their wrist, they will feel the tab and remember to correct their position.

5.  Tabs can be useful when teaching shifting.  Cut a strip from a tab and use it as a tape to mark 3rd position.  The flap should hang over the left side of the fingerboard.  When practicing shifting, students can use the tap as a guide, but also use the tab to help guide the thumb.  Some students forget to move the thumb when shifting.  The tab helps students remember to move the thumb with the hand during a shift.


Pick up some Post-It tabs next time you're at the store and try these ideas!  I hope this tips will help you and your students.  Happy teaching!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

After the Final Concert - what to do that last few days of rehearsal

My final concert was last night.  Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what to do those last few days of rehearsal.  Today I passed out music for NEXT school year.  It helped students get really excited for next year because now they love the music that I selected and they are excited for what is to come.  This could also be a great way to retain students - keep them looking forward to fun opportunities.  We listened to each piece and sightread through everything.  I told students to listen to recordings and practice the music over the summer.  Students who do this will be used in a leadership role next year.  I have many students who want to step up and be leaders - and they were happy to receive this assignment.

Tomorrow we are going to have BLAST FROM THE PAST day where we will play few pieces from earlier in the year and from previous years.  Students are super excited to play through some of their old favorites and it will be interesting to see if they remember everything.  I think this is a great use of the last few days of school.  :)  It keeps students working and I feel that a regular rehearsal routine keeps everybody in line.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A stroke of inspiration - helping students play on the tips of their fingers

Today during our warm-ups I was checking left hand position and reminding students about playing on the tips of their fingers to achieve better intonation.  One of my students raised her hand and told me that she cut her finger and had a band-aid wrapped around the top of her finger so she was forced stay on her fingertips.  Genius!  I got some scotch tape and I let students try it - we wrapped a few fingertips with tape and they played while focusing on excellent left hand position.  You should have seen the awesome position I was seeing!  Many students said the tape helped them focus on their fingertips and play more precisely in tune.

In the past when teaching about playing on the tips of the fingers I would draw a little dot on the thumb side corner of each finger (for violin/viola) and students would try to make that dot touch the tapes.

Some teachers draw 'claws' on the fingernail to help students aim the nail/tip of the finger straight down to the tapes.  These things help, but I think the tape works even better.  Students with smaller fingers may need the tape trimmed to make sure they can bend the 1st knuckle.  Flat fingers cause so many position problems and they kill a student's ability to play in tune.  This tape method helps get kids to the fingertips and it fixes a lot of the collapsed wrist problems.  (It's hard to stay on the tops of the fingers with a collapsed wrist!)  I'm so glad to have another way to teach proper left hand position!  Plus tape is cheap and easy to find at any school.  :)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tuner Station - make tuning easier in your string orchestra classroom!

I made this tuner station for my classroom using a double sided easel/blackboard from Wal-Mart.  Ten tuners are clipped to each side.  To keep track of them and make sure they last a long time, cello and bass students were assigned a specific tuner.  (I numbered each tuner with a silver Sharpie).  I requested that my violin/viola students buy their own tuner to keep in their cases.  After tuning, students clip the tuner onto the underside of the rim on their music stands. At the end of class, all tuners must be returned to the 'tuning station'.  If there is a tuner missing, no one gets to leave until it is found.  Students have been really responsible and I feel like we are all tuning more carefully.  Plus, it shaves a few minutes off our tuning routine.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to teach your beginners to tune: Lesson 2

This is a follow up to LESSON 1.

1.  Have students pick up the worksheet, "How to NOT break a string" on the way in the classroom.  I allowed students to study their notes from the day before for a couple of minutes.  Then we had our quiz where students wrote the 5 rules on their worksheets.

2.  Review ear training games.  Spend a few minutes playing the games on iPads or on the computer.  This can be done as a class or in small groups.

3.  Teach about pegs and fine tuners.

  • TRADITIONAL PEGS.  It is important for students to understand that traditional pegs are fitted to the instrument and they come out.  They naturally will slip out a little bit so when tuning you have to push the peg inward while turning the peg. You can't turn the peg, then push in and expect it to stay.  Only use very small turns.  A small movement will create a big change in pitch.  If the string is only marginally out of tune, it would be better to use a fine tuner if available.  Stress the need for SMALL movements.  

  • PRECISION/PERFECTION/WHITTNER PEGS.  Many of my school cellos now have precision pegs, which are totally amazing.  They work just like fine tuners and make tuning very easy.  These pegs are great because there is no need to push them in while turning.  They turn easily and always stay in place.  You can make small adjustments with these pegs, so there is no need to ever use the fine tuners.

  • FINE TUNERS.  These are for small adjustments.  It is important to watch the mechanism of the tuner below the tail piece. If the tuner is turned all the way to the right the metal mechanism may start to dig into the wood of the instrument and create a buzzing sound.  If the fine tuners get too low, you have to loosen them and re-tune using the pegs.  How do you know which way to turn a fine tuner?  If you want the pitch to go higher, turn the fine tuner towards your higher string.  If you want the pitch to go lower, turn your fine tuner towards your lower strings.
4.  Allow students time to study their instruments and find which string goes to which peg and fine tuner.  Have them teach their stand partners about pegs and show each other which string goes to which tuner.  I teach students to hold their instruments so they are facing the instrument.  Turning the peg away from them will cause the pitch to go higher.  Turning the peg towards them will lower the pitch.  We practice this in the air and students teach each other this concept.

5.  TUNERS.  In order to tune we have to begin with a reference pitch.  I get out a few different types of tuners and demonstrate how they are used.
  • Tuning Fork.  When I was a student, this is what I used to tune my instrument.  Students enjoy seeing how it works - and how you can make the 'A' audible by placing the end on the instrument.

  • Pitch Pipe:  I found this old chromatic pitch pipe in my desk and I thought it must be an antique but them I saw them at an online store.  I show students how you can play a pitch on the pipe and compare it to the open strings to tune.  During this demonstration I project my TE Tuner app on my screen and we learn the pitch pipes are not very accurate.  The 'A' on the pipe proves to be very flat.

  • Cell phone apps:  There are many great tuning apps.  I use TE Tuner and Tunable the most.  I show students how to read these apps and I tune my instrument with their help as they read the signals from that app that is projected on my screen.  I recommend students use their phones for tuning at home, but it is not as useful to use a phone in class.  It has to be very quiet for a phone app to be useful - otherwise the mic on the phone could be picking up people around you.

  • Clip-on Tuners:  These are what I recommend for cello/bass students to use in class.  Clip-on tuners like Snark or D'Addario pick up the vibration of the instrument so they are ideal for noisy classrooms since they will pick up only one instrument.  I just purchased a set of these tuners for my cello/bass students to use in class.  They tend to get lost if you're not careful.  I plan to make a docking station to help me keep track of my new little toys.

  • My Favorite tuner for violin/viola students - D'Addario NS Micro Violin Tuner.  These are my favorite because they can be attached to the instrument and they just stay attached.  No need to take them off and on.  This is great because they never get lost!  I have had so many students bring Snark tuners to school and lose them.  The battery life is great and they are so easy to use.  I highly recommend all my violin/viola students purchase one of these to make tuning faster and easier.  

We do need to hear small variations in pitch while tuning, but tuners help us with speed and precision.  When a tuner is used properly there will never be an accidental broken string!   


Next we finally get to tune and I teach my tuning procedure.  Students sit with their instruments facing them.  I play an 'A' from my tuning app.  We quickly have a discussion about different octaves....cello A sounds like a 'Daddy' A and Bass A's sound like 'Grandpa' A's.  I had a student break a cello string once because he was trying to tune it to a 'Mommy' A.  Once students are aware of this they seem to have no trouble.  After listening to the reference pitch, they are allowed to pluck their A's to determine if it needs adjustment.  Students then make small adjustments if needed as I walk around the room.  I remind them to pluck as they make adjustments and stop when they match the reference pitch.  We do this for every string.  Sometimes I sound our tuning pitch in a lower octave.  I feel students do better when I play the pitches in the cello range.  This takes approx. 5-10 minutes.  Students find it's nothing to be afraid of and are relieved to finally to be able to tune.  We review this tuning procedure every day and students are aware that our goal is to take only 3 minutes for tuning.  Many have begun purchasing tuners and that will help tuning happen even faster.

Now go ahead and do a happy dance.  It is truly a joyous day when students can tune themselves.  :)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to teach students to tune in beginning orchestra: Lesson 1

Oh happy day!  This week I taught my beginners how to tune and I wish I would have done it months ago.  They were excited to learn how to tune.  Students want to be able to tune their instruments because it's not fun practicing when your instrument is way out of tune.  Sometimes we assume that students can not tune their instruments and we don't want to risk it because strings are expensive.  I usually don't have my students tune themselves until their 2nd year, but I teach how to tune at the end of the 1st year.  After my experience teaching tuning this week, I have decided to teach tuning much earlier - probably in January.  Teaching tuning was a breeze and thanks to technology it is easier than ever for students to tune with confidence.  Let's all be brave and start teaching tuning earlier!  Think of the time it will save in your rehearsals!

LESSON PLAN for Day 1:  How to NOT break a string

This lesson plan introduces ear training and fine listening skills needed in order to tune an instrument.  We learn and memorize 5 rules of tuning so that we don't break any strings.

Pass out the worksheet:  How to not break a string.  Students can write down games and apps for ear training on the back.

1.  Begin the lesson with a demonstration.  Play your A, and turn the fine tuner just a tiny bit.  See if the students can hear a difference.  When we tune, we have to discern very small changes in pitch in order to tune accurately.  There are games to help us improve our hearing and sense of pitch.

2.  Show the 'Intonation Game' from  Students should write down the web address on their paper so they can try playing the game at home.  Play the game with the class. I start with the Advanced level and I tell students that is the level they need to to use to train for tuning.

3.  Project the app InTune from your iPhone or iPad.  Play the game with the class.  They can use hand signals (thumbs up and or thumbs down) to indicate where the pitch it too high or too low.

4.  Project the app Blob Chorus from your iPad.  Play the game with the class.  Students love to see the blobs explode when they guess incorrectly.  After playing these games in class students often choose to purchase the apps and play and home.

5.  I next address the biggest fear of students and teachers alike....breaking a string.  Explain to the class that strings are expensive.  Tell them the difference between quality strings and cheaper strings.  You might want to share personal stories about strings you have broken.

6.  Show slide presentation (You may make your own presentation or purchase mine HERE):  How to NOT break a string.  Explain and demonstrate each rule using your instrument.  Students can practice turning/tuning with you with their imaginary instruments.  Let them mimic your movements in the air.  Students are required to write down the 5 rules on their paper.  Their assignment is to memorize those 5 rules by the next day.  They take their notes home to study.  For bell-work the next day, students have to write those 5 rules from memory.  They are not allowed to try tuning if they don't have those rules memorized.  After the presentation, have students 'teach' the 5 rules to their stand partners using imaginary instruments.  This will help them remember.  Students should not try to tune their actual instruments, yet.  Let them internalize and visualize the process of tuning before they experiment.

Watch for 'How to teach students to tune' lesson 2 coming up later this week!