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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Beginning Orchestra Rhythm Final

It's that time of year to finish up my Rhythm SLO and give my students their final summative assessment.  Here's a peek:

Saturday, March 25, 2017

GradeCam blog post

This week I was able to write an article for the GradeCam blog to show how I use that program in my orchestra classes.  I'm lucky to have students willing to be my TA's (teacher assistants) and it's very convenient to have them grade papers by just scanning them into GradeCam.  This articles shows how I use rubric based assignments in my class:

These assignments are helping me finish up my SLO the year and GradeCam helps collect the data to show my results:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Strategies for teaching steady beat

I've been thinking a lot about how to teach steady beat/pulse.   Have you seen the videos on YouTube that show Japanese precision walking?  It's amazing how these kids have such perfect timing:

My orchestras are somewhat large so I have to teach multiple sections of the same level.  I currently have 3 beginning orchestra classes, 2 intermediate classes and 1 advanced class (which should be 2 classes).  Each group learns the same music and combines into one large group when we perform (Approx. 105 in Beginning and 80 in Intermediate).  It is not possible for us to practice together at the school because we don't fit in a classroom.  This makes concert days interesting since we only have a few minutes on stage to practice with the large group.  My students have done a great job with this, but we sometimes start to rush and it's hard to get a large group to keep a tempo when they don't have adequate rehearsal time to get used to playing together.  In most cases students don't realize they are rushing and are not aware enough to look up at the conductor to fix it.  We don't always encounter the same rushing tendencies in class because students are not nervous in a rehearsal.  When we perform students get that natural dose of adrenaline and our pieces sometimes speed up.  I joked with my class that I would give them all a dose of Benadryl to counteract the adrenaline, but I believe we can fix the problem with these teaching strategies:

1.  Move.

Students need to internalize the beat to learn to keep a steady tempo.   There are many ways to have students move to a beat to help them develop an internal rhythm.

Younger students enjoy playing 'leader' and directing the group in various movements to the beat.  Start a fun piece of music and have one student stand in front and move to the beat by clapping, tapping their legs, snapping, stomping, etc.  All other students follow what the leader does and the entire class is feeling the beat.

You might have students walk around the room during a warm up.  It's fun for them to get out of their seats and play!  Have them march as they play a D scale with various rhythms.  When I taught Suzuki lessons, we would have young students do a Tukka Tukka Stop Stop March around the room and kids loved to get moving.  This doesn't work as well for cello and bass students, of course.  Perhaps they can participate by tapping a beat on their instruments, or trying to march in place as they sit and play.

Sometimes when practicing slurs I have students rock back and forth with their bow changes.  It's amazing how they are able to stay together and switch bowing exactly at the right time.

One fun activity might be to have students sit or stand in a circle all facing the same direction.  Have one student tap the shoulder of the student in front of him/her at a chosen speed.  The latter student mimics the speed and taps the shoulder of the student in front of him/her...and this keeps going until all students in the circle are tapping and simultaneously feeling the same tempo.  Choose students to change the tempo...speed up or slow down the tapping and have change of speed spread around the circle.

2.  Conduct.

Teach students how to conduct!  Give them each a glow stick and turn off the lights.  Turn on some music and have them mimic your movements through simple beat patterns.  It helps to also have them count along out loud as they conduct to the beat.

Let students try to conduct the class when rehearsing simple activities like scales.  Let them feel what it is like to get a group of players to speed up or slow down.  They soon realize that students need to be attentive in order to stay together.

3.  Technology. 

There are many great metronome apps you can use to help students hear the beat.  Lately I've been using Tunable for my tuning procedure and my metronome.  But since the tone of metronomes can get a little annoying I more frequently use the smart drums in GarageBand as a steady beat.  Students enjoy playing their tunes with a drum beat.

I recently started wearing an Apple Watch and I enjoy an app called 'Tacet.'  It's a simple app that allows me to set any tempo and will then pulse that speed on my wrist.  No annoying clicks...I just feel the tempo.  It helps me when conducting to not start rushing.  If only all my students could feel the same pulse. :)  

4.  Listen.

Most of the time students have no idea when they are rushing.  Record students often and let them listen to themselves.  They are more able to fix issues on their own when they are made aware of what needs to be done.  Phones and iPads work great for quick recordings.  Videos take up lots of space, so I like to use the voice memo recorder on those devices.

5.  Play. 

One great thing about Suzuki students is they listen to the music they are learning.  When my son when in lessons he was required to listen to his pieces all night.  That music was on everywhere we went because it was always playing in the car, too.  When students listen to their music they can pick up on bowings, rhythms, intonation, tone...and also steady beat.  I encourage students to listen to our pieces on  We also play along with the recordings during rehearsals using JWPepper or SmartMusic.

6.  Count.

When trying to count out exactly 60 seconds without a clock we learn to say words between the numbers to keep the speed steady.  For example, many people count by saying "1 1,000, 2, 1,000, 3, 1,000."  Some say, "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, etc."  Teach students that just counting 1, 2, 3, 4 is not as accurate as filling in the space between numbers.  Teach counting with subdivision (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 etc.)

One way to teach this is to demonstrate a beat/speed by saying "1, 2, 3, 4."  Students are to then think that speed and count one measure in their heads, then clap on beat 1 (they count in their head for one empty measure then clap on beat 1 of the next measure).  It's usually not super accurate until you teach them to count using subdivisions.  You can also have them try to do it with their eyes closed.  There are many variations on this activity that can get students thinking, counting, and staying together.  Have them count for 2 empty measures before clapping, or change the beat their are to clap on.

I hope you find these strategies helpful in your performing groups.  Let's put an end to run-away tempos! (or tempi if you prefer)   :)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Favorite Pieces for String Orchestra

I have a weakness for buying new music.  I normally try not to do the same pieces every year, but I have a few favorites that appear in my concerts more often.  Here's a list of string orchestra pieces I particularly like because they are fun to teach and fun to play:

Pepperoni Pizza Rock by Brian Balmages
Fiddles on Fire by Mark Williams
Dragon Hunter by Richard Meyer
Appalachian Hymn by Soon Hee Newbold
Afterburn by Brian Balmages
Bushwhacker Stomp by Keith Sharp
Electric Sinfonia by Lauren Bernofsky

American Princess by Bob Phillips
Impact by Bob Phillips
The Code by Alan Silva
Agincourt by Doug Spata
Mantras by Richard Meyer
Spartacus by Brian Balmages
For the Star of County Down by Deborah Baker Monday

Carpe Diem! by Richard Meyer
To Tame the Raging Rapids by Brian Balmages
Fantasia on an Original Theme by Joseph Phillips
Fire Dance by Soon Hee Newbold
Flight by Susan Day
American Reel by Kurt Mosier
Snake River Stomp by Steve Laven

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Worksheets for orchestra

Every time I give a playing test in class I try to create a worksheet for students to work on while they are waiting their turn play.   It's been helpful to give assignments that reinforce theory, note-reading, and rhythms we are learning in class.   For tomorrow I will be giving my beginners this note naming/fingering chart labeling worksheet.  Students have to draw the notes on the staves in the fingering chart.  The chart has a little staff on every note they have learned so far.  It's a great way for me to make sure students know where all of the notes are on their instruments.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

5 Orchestra Teacher Secrets to help build your strings program.

It's the time of year to officially be thinking about recruiting.  Really, recruiting is a year long process...especially if you want to build your program.  I started teaching at my current position 5 years ago with 63 total orchestra students.  It has been rewarding to watch my program grow to over 250 students this year.  Here are my secret strategies that helped grow my program and I hope you will find these tips useful in your own programs.

1.  Before your program will grow you have to make your program great!  Even though my classes were very small at first I wanted to make sure students were successful.  I wanted to make sure my class was fun and inspiring.  Your current students are your best recruiting tool.  If they fall in love with your class they will tell others and your program will grow.  Make every day your best day.  Appreciate the students in your class and make sure have a great experience.

2.  Make your concerts fun!  People talk.  When you can entertain and 'wow' people at your concerts they will tell others about your program.  I keep my concerts relatively short - 30 minutes is always my goal.  Choose a few tunes that the audience will recognize.  It is essential that your students sound amazing!  Work to get students to the highest possible level of performance.  After my first concert this year one of my students told me that his grandma came to the concert equipped with ear plugs!  After we started playing (in tune I might add) she realized she didn't need the ear plugs and she thought the concert was amazing.  Students feel good when they sound good and people like to come to concerts that sound good.   It is possible for beginners to play in tune with great tone.  Make it happen!

3.  Visit feeder programs often.  There is a morning strings program that feeds my program.  I go recruit for that program and I visit the classes now and then.  I even had them perform with my students at one of my concerts so they could see how fun my concerts are.  I bring them fun stuff to advertise for my program - like music folders designed with my theme for the year, locker magnets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.  I want students in my feeder program to feel special so they will want to continue.  This year I passed out these gold wristbands.  They will be wearing these when I bring my orchestra to the elementary school.  I can then recognize those students who have had experience in elementary orchestra and reward them with prizes during my recruiting tour.

4.  Prep students properly.  Ask students and parents to help you recruit.  I tell them all are needed to help keep the orchestra program strong.  I ask parents and students to promote my class by talking to others about orchestra and post on social media.  If they love your class and your concerts they are happy to tell others all about it.

5.  Make sure your recruiting program is fun with no down time.  Keep the pace up so the audience stays interested and excited.  Tell students to look happy while they play and demonstrate instruments.  Here are a few things I'm doing this year to keep it fun (there are more ideas in a previous post):

  • Use costumes.  The inflatable T-Rex costume is hilarious.  We're playing Jurassic park while a couple students in T-Rex costumes come out and 'fight.'   


  • While we play 'Pirates of the Caribbean' we are staging a little sword fight with our bows.

  • We are playing pieces students will recognize and adding a drum to keep a cool beat.

  • Throw candy/stickers/prizes.  We do a game where students play a super short excerpt from a popular song or movie and the audience has to guess the song.  They are then rewarded with prizes.  This year I have bumper stickers and candy.  To make it interesting I designed a golden ticket as a way for kids to win an orchestra T-shirt.

  • Let the audience try the instruments.  I bring a lot of kids recruiting because I have over 100 kids in my beginning classes.  After our 25 minute program the audience is allowed to come try any instrument and they get to talk with students in my program who will tell them they should join orchestra.  After they try an instrument, they get a fortune cookie.  I bought 400 fortune cookies online and took the fortunes out using paper clips.  Then I placed new fortunes inside that say stuff like, 'You belong in orchestra,' 'Join orchestra, you will,' 'Orchestra will make your life amazing,' 'You will dream about orchestra tonight.'  Etc.  This may seem extreme...but it's fun and it really doesn't take that long - especially if you have help.

Have fun!  Students can tell when you enjoy what you are doing.  May you all have many orchestra students next year.  :)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rhythm for beginners

Last week I wanted to check to make sure my beginners were internalizing note values and rhythm.  There seem to be always a few that struggle to write in the counting on worksheets and I wanted to create something to make it easier to understand.  I am so happy with the results.  My classes completed this worksheet last week by writing in the counting and they got it!  All students were able to succeed and my slower learners were able to understand.  After using this exercise as a worksheet I projected the image to the front and we practicing counting/plucking/air-bowing each line as part of our warm up for a couple of days.  I feel it really helped solidify counting/rhythm skills.  Especially that pesky dotted quarter to eighth note rhythm.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Piece Previews - help your orchestra learn faster and sound amazing

In my Suzuki training I learned how to introduce new pieces.  Suzuki teachers pick out sections of the music called 'previews' which contain the difficult passages, tricky bowings, special fingerings, etc.  I like to introduce new pieces to my orchestra in the same way and I feel it helps the orchestra master technique and be more ready to tackle the music.  There are a few different ways to implement the idea of 'previews' in a string orchestra setting:

1.  Rhythm training using measures from the music

Recently my Advanced orchestra was learning a piece in 2/4 time with some tricky counting.  I made these slides in PowerPoint and we drilled the rhythms as part of our warm-up for a couple weeks.  Students quickly mastered the rhythms and it was much easier for them to learn the new music.

2.  Let the entire class learn the same difficult section.  

If there is one section that has a hard passage, we learn it together as an orchestra.  In December students learned 'Appalachian Snowfall' arranged by Bob Phillips.  There was a tricky passage in the violin part that needed lots of practice, so we learned it as an orchestra and all students had to pass it off in a playing test.  The cello/bass parts in that piece are a little boring, so they welcomed the chance to learn a more difficult part.

Bushwhacker Stomp by Keith Sharp is a piece I often teach my beginners at the end of the year.  All students learn the melody to help the violin section with intonation on the high E string notes:

3.  Create a practice assignment that drills technique and tricky measures.  

When selecting music for my orchestras to play I try to pick pieces that will help students develop techniques we are learning in class.  I usually select different music every year, but there is one piece that I do every year in my 2nd year intermediate class.  It's called 'The Code' by Alan Silva.  Students love learning to play 'The Code' because it sounds cool.  It has been worth it to have students learn this piece because they get really good at extensions and high 3's in the key of A major.   As students came back to school after the new year, they had a practice assignment to drill techniques and tricky measures from our music.  After just one week of rehearsing these 'previews' and having students practice them at home, our piece is sounding so much better!

All of these previews were created with Finale, but before I had that program I used PrintMusic and it worked great.  I import the music into Microsoft Publisher to add the text.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

6 things parents can do to help students succeed in music.

I want my students to be successful and am always working and thinking of ways to help students progress and stay motivated.  There are a few things parents can do to help their children thrive in a string orchestra experience.

1.  Buy or rent a quality instrument.  

It's very hard to help students progress if their instruments literally will not stay in tune.  Parents should avoid purchasing instruments online.  Anything under $250 is not going to work (ever).  That is because a string instrument has many moving parts and pieces that need to be fitted exactly for the instrument to work properly.  When a student plays on an instrument that can not be tuned they become frustrated with their sound.  They recognize that they don't sound the same as everyone else and they feel like a failure, even if technique is correct.  Parents should communicate with the teacher for recommendations on where to find a quality instrument.

2. Support practicing and correct playing by providing appropriate gear.  

Violin and viola students need a shoulder rest.  I provide a free sponge to students who can not buy a shoulder rest, but all students must have one.  Brands I like are:  Kun, Everest, Bon Musica, and Comford Shoulder Cradle.  These are fine to purchase online.  Consider purchasing a music stand to help your student practice with correct position.  Slouching over propped up music is not beneficial and promotes poor position.  Students will need rosin on their bows to make a good sound.  I have tried many different kinds and they all work, but I recommend Pirastro Olive.

3.  Show interest.  

I don't recommend nagging your child to practice since that often causes contention, but you can provide a lot of motivation just by being interested in what your child is playing.  When your child is practicing, listen now and then without correcting and offer sincere and generous praise.  Let your child show you what they are learning and share in the excitement.

4.  Listen to string music.  

It doesn't always have to be classical music.  Find an artist on YouTube that features violin, viola, cello or bass.  Students are motivated by watching amazing performances.  Discover the Piano Guys, 2 Cellos, Lindsey Stirling, Time for Three, Simply Three, Apocolyptica, and Mark Wood...along with classical greats like Yo-yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Maxim Vengerov, Itzak Perlman, and Edgar Meyer.

5.  Stay through the whole concert.  

I know that parents and families are busy, but your child doesn't have that many concerts in a year.  Dedicate your time to stay through the entire concert.  I require my students to stay through my concerts (and some still sneak out. Sad.) because that is how they become motivated to continue and stay in orchestra.  The beginners get to hear the more advanced kids and they get excited at the prospect of learning more fun music in a year or two.  The Advanced students hear the beginners and reminisce about being a beginner and they realize how far they have come in a short amount of time.  They realize their abilities are noticeable improving.  It's worth it.  Don't leave early.

6.  Say thank you!  

I don't think teachers choose to become teachers for the money.  We are there because we are passionate about music and we love to teach.  Teaching is rewarding, but also draining.  Sometimes we have bad days and frustrating days.  When I get a nice note or email from a parent my teacher batteries are re-charged.  I am able to continue on and do my best to help and inspire my students.  Teachers want to make a difference and knowing that it's worth the effort will keep us going.  'Thank-you's' are teacher fuel.  (And diet coke helps, too.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Pick up the PACE! 8 Strategies for effective rehearsal pacing:

We live in an age of speed.  High speed internet, faster speed limits, and shorter attention spans.  Orchestra teachers need variety and quick paced lessons to help students stay interested, involved and focused on progressing.    Every minute is important to me in my classes and I don’t like to waste a moment.  By establishing effectives routines class time is used effectively and time flies.  I love it when students are amazed when the class is over and when they wish they didn’t have to leave.   Here  are 8 ways you can maximize rehearsal time in your orchestra classroom:

1.  Learn to tune quickly.  

In my beginning classes with 30-45 students per class I tune every student one by one.  Students hurry and line up next to me for tuning and then frequently have a bell-work assignment to occupy their attention while I tune other students.  I make sure this takes 5 minutes or less and very little class time is used since I start tuning as soon as students enter the classroom before the bell rings.

I use a couple different tuning procedures for my Intermediate and Advanced classes.  Often we use the tuning sequence from this website:   I like this routine, but usually only let each pitch play for about 40 seconds instead of a minute.  Other days we tune to my violin.  I play 4 open A’s while students listen and they echo back with 4 A’s and tune/adjust as needed.  We repeat this procedure several times for each string and it goes very fast.

2.  Put music in order.  

This simple procedure helps create smooth transitions in the rehearsal.  I write an agenda on the board listing the things we are working on that day.  Students are required to open their method books to the appropriate page and have their music in order.  I don’t like to wait for students to open books, find pages, etc.

3.  Talk less.  

I remember my orchestra teacher in 7th grade used to talk a lot.  I wanted to be playing and would become frustrated when rehearsals came to a halt because of unnecessary chatter.  Sometimes students need a story or an analogy to help them play the music better, but they also need practice and they need to work hard in class to get better.   When drilling passages, keep a quick pace and talk very little.  My favorite words to start the class are ‘ready, play.’  They can get the tempo and start from just those 2 words.  When I want to repeat a section, I can quickly say, “Measure 35!  Ready, play!”   I like students to keep their instruments up so we can get a lot of playing done in a short amount of time.

4.  Know the music. 

It’s very helpful to have music memorized so that you don’t have to be staring at a score.  If you know the music well, you are free to walk around the room and help students throughout the rehearsal.  You can be more attentive to the needs of your students.  I often walk through the room during a rehearsal and if I need to check a part or play along on my violin I just look at their music.  When you know the music you can always be thinking ahead of what to work on next.  Right now I can tell you all of the measure numbers that need work in our concert music.  It’s all memorized in my head because those places need drilling every day and we do it a lot. Tricky passages need to be reviewed and carefully practiced every day.   Always have a specific objective for each rehearsal to be sure students are constantly progressing.

5.  Follow a rehearsal schedule.  

Set an appropriate amount of time for each part of your rehearsal.  If I was a student, I would get very frustrated if 20 minutes of class was spent on scales and only 10 minutes on concert music.  Use time to your advantage and cover all the material with careful planning.  In general, I spend 2-4 minutes on a warm-up.  We do scales, but also cover new technique.  For example, last week I taught my beginners about 4th finger (4th position for cello and 3rd position for bass).  We did left hand pizzicato and finger taps to strength that finger, then played D, E, F#, G, A A A--.  Students worked to match intonation (A on the D string to open A).  It didn’t take very long and next week students will be reading 4th fingers in their method books.  With pre-exposure  in the warm-up students are set up for success.

Here's a video of a warm-up I did with my beginning students.  They had been playing about 2 months and my objective for the warm-up was to help them be comfortable with string crossings, match pitch and correct intonation on D scale note, and play the D scale.

We spend 5-8 minutes in our method book to reinforce note-reading and technique.    Sometimes I use GarageBand to play a drum beat during method book work.  This helps things move along and we don’t waste time.  The last 25 minutes are spent on concert music. 

This is a sample from my beginning class.  This was the first time looking at that line in our method books and the video shows how we rehearsed it that day.

6.   Don’t offer free time.  

The weather is changing and those cheap violins just won’t stay in tune.  Instead of halting an entire rehearsal to re-tune that eBay special, give students a specific assignment.  You can have them play a certain measure 10 times, or play a line of music for their stand partner while the stand partner checks for proper position or perfect finger placement.   They can hunt for ½ steps or mark dynamics.  They don’t need free time – put them to work!

7.  Use a looper. 

I enjoy using SmartMusic as a rehearsal tool.  It has that great looping feature that plays specific measures over and over again.  This is a great tool to help drill tricky passages while keeping you free to walk around the room to help students.  Just set the measures and let it play.   You don’t have to talk…you don’t have to start and stop the group.  This helps get a lot done is a short time.

8.  Read facial cues.  

Always be aware of the attitude and feeling in your classroom.  Are students working, are they frustrated, are they bored?  Adjust pacing based on what the students need.  If you spend 5 minutes on one measure students might begin to ‘check-out.’  Switch things up and let students try something else.  Allow them to feel success in every rehearsal.  It’s okay to leave a piece of music and come back to it another day.  Baby steps.  J

Sunday, November 6, 2016

SUB PLANS for Orchestra

It's not easy preparing for a sub in orchestra.  I have tried many different activities for students to do when I am gone and some work better than others.  I always wish students could just work in small sectionals and practice but they just don't use their time wisely and some students don't cooperate when there is no teacher present.  Here are some ideas for sub plans in orchestra:

1.  Plan a composition activity.  Let students create a short piece of music.  You can create a worksheet and keep it on hand for those days when you will be gone.  A fun variation might be to show a short clip from a silent movie - there are lots of options on YouTube - and let students work in small groups to create music for the movie.  Here are a few worksheets I have used over the years:

2.  Create a listening assignment.  Have students listen to music and draw pictures of what the music make them think or feel.  You could have them listen to their concert music and mark the sheet music with things they need to work on.  This is a listening assignment I created using The Planets:

3.  Play a game.  Recently I used this ORCHESTRA OLYMPICS (click the link for access to the presentation) game for my beginners.  The sub showed the presentation from google drive and students completed each activity and filled out the worksheet with their scores.

Next week I am heading to  Dallas to present at the NAfME National Conference.  On one of the days I will be gone students will play this card game I just made - Music Matching Spoons (This is a free download at TPT - just click the link!).  The rules are the same as regular 'Spoons.'  I bought a couple packages of plastic spoons from the Dollar Store and I think students will have fun.  Students need to pay attention and have good reflexes when playing an instrument and this game is all about developing those skills.  This did require a lot of prep work because I printed 4 sets of the game and had to cut out all of the cards.  

4.  Make a video.  I don't usually do this, but since I will be missing 3 days next week I wanted to make sure my students are practicing and rehearsing in class.  I recorded 9 videos using my iPad and uploaded them to YouTube so my sub can project the videos in front of the class as they follow along with my teaching.  Learning music takes a lot of repetition so my sub will use the same videos for 2 days in a row as students follow along.  I recorded videos for our warm-up, method book, and concert pieces.  It didn't take me very long and I have 45 minutes total...which is the length of my classes.  My beginners will use the videos through most of the class period.  I didn't record as much for my intermediate and advanced groups because it is easier to rehearse those groups.  This was really easy to do....Here's a sample:

5.  Practice Assignment.  This works well for smaller classes.  If the class to very large it would be too noisy for quality practice unless students can spread out into practice rooms.  Assign specific sections of music for students to play perfectly 10 times.  I like to use this repetition tracker: