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Saturday, November 23, 2019

Focus during rehearsals

Rehearsals are hard work.  At least they should be!  I think students sometimes get too comfortable with the predictable routine of rehearing and may start to become distracted and work less effectively.  In rehearsal we have to repeat and drill music daily to reinforce skills.  It can be difficult to get students to maintain their highest levels of focus and skill building.  Minds are prone to wander. 

I decided to make a self-assessment regarding levels of focus to hang in my classroom.  I explained the levels of focus to my students and they used the posters to evaluate their productivity in class.  Students easily understood that a 'Level 4' focus would be best for individuals and would most benefit the entire class.  All students want to do well...and developing a habit of focused rehearsal skills is an important part of progressing.

Over the last couple weeks I've referred to my posters when I need more focused effort in my rehearsals.  It's helped snap our work back into place.  It's also a great tool to direct individual students to step it up!  Sometimes I just say a student's name and point to a poster and they get the hint.  :)

Download free at my TPT store!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Note Reading Secrets - make note reading stick

I'm passionate about teaching my students to read notes because I want them to love learning an instrument and play in orchestra.  How can it be fun to play an instrument and perform in a group when you're always lost because of note reading struggles? 

I begin by teaching students to read open strings and we memorize those notes first.  I explain to students that they must remember where those notes are 'parked' on the staff. (I tell a story about forgetting where I parked at a parking lot and how I was wandering around forever to find it.).  Students practice drawing open strings on my staff packets - a dry erase packet with a staff and expo marker.  Within minutes, students are able remember those few notes, draw them, and play them.

Next students work on my ROTE to NOTE packet.  This resource is awesome because the 'rote' portion is notated like notes on the staff.  Without even realizing it, students are 'reading' note names on the staff.  This helps them transition to actual note reading.  I've been using this book for the last few years and have it's been my little secret.  Now it's available on my TPT store!

Rote to Note has been great for my students!  On the note reading pages - I make sure students practice each exercise 10 times to GO PRO.  Note reading takes a great deal of repetition and I like how each note reading line has the 'go pro' tracker to help students remember to repeat each line as they practice.

These tips help my students when it's time to read music from a page:

1.  Always keep perfect play position and hover left hand fingers OVER the tapes.

2.  Focus on the notes and don't look back and forth between the notes and your fingers.  Check hand position before you start to make sure everything is lined up, then trust your brain to get the fingers to land in the right place. 

3.  While reading notes, always look ahead to the next note while playing. This helps you read notes faster.

4.  When practicing at home, only move the bow AFTER the left hand is set on the tape.  That little bit of space between the notes helps develop accuracy.

Last week I had students play this game and it help them so much with developing note reading skills!  After completing the activity I asked students to raise their hands if the game helped them get better at note reading and almost the entire class shot up their hands.  It's so easy and simple, but so effective.  HIGHLY recommend this for beginners - and for days when you need a sub plan.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Looking for an AMAZING deal?

Looking for an AMAZING deal on a brand new violin, viola, or cello?

We’ve all been taught to shop around and be smart with our money.  Especially with larger purchases.  It makes sense to look for the best deal.  I do the same thing.  But sometimes, despite my best intentions and thorough research, I’ve ended up with a product that ended up being more junk than deal.  Once I bought my son a couple of huge brick building sets that looked a lot like Legos, but were a different brand.  They were WAY cheaper than Legos and I was feeling pretty proud of myself for saving money.  On Christmas morning we began to build and soon discovered the pieces would not align properly, no matter how hard we tried.  Our structure would not stay together and there was a lot of frustration and tears.  We were following the directions.  We were qualified builders.  But the set did not allow us to get a successful result.  The discount building sets were in the garbage before lunch time.

My children learned a similar lesson from buying toys at a local dollar store.  One of my kids wanted a Barbie and was excited to find something that looked like a Barbie for only a dollar!  Once home it was easy to tell that a dollar doll and a Barbie doll are not really the same at all.  A dollar doll has a huge ugly bald spot on the back of her head and her hair falls out way too easily.  Her arms and legs won’t bend, and worst of all, her head pops right off!  My children finally learned it is better to save a little more money and buy something quality made that will last longer.

I recently saw a post on facebook that broke my heart a little.  A mom had posted a question on facebook about where she could find a cello.  People responded with some worthwhile suggestions and good information.  After all of that, the mom said, “Thanks for your help, but I found one on ebay with everything I need for only $145.   It will save a lot of money!”  This well-intentioned mom doesn’t know that the instrument coming in the mail is about to cause some grief and the student using it will struggle. 

Parents don’t always realize that when looking for instruments, there are drastic differences between the ‘lowest best deal online’ and an actual playable instrument.  They can look so similar. It is very deceiving. 

Why do these inexpensive ebay/amazon/online instruments cause grief?  Let me explain. 

Grief #1

The instrument will look like a string instrument, but the pieces won’t be fitted together correctly.   It’s like buying a puzzle that hasn’t been cut right so the pieces don’t quite fit.  Because of this, the instrument will be almost impossible to tune.   A patient teacher can get it pretty close, but it will never maintain a correct pitch for long.  Strings will constantly be stretching, pegs will constantly be slipping, and the instrument will not sound right.  

Result:  Everything that is played on the instrument (even when it is played correctly) will sound off and out of tune.  The student will think he/she is not as good as the others because the sound from their own instrument doesn’t match the group.  Often the student will begin to doubt their own musical ability and question their choice to learn an instrument.    The student might feel others in the class are more talented, when really the difference was only the quality of the instrument.

Grief #2

The instrument can only deliver a small, thin, sound.
Quality instruments are made from only specific kinds of wood which are carved in certain ways to create the best possible, resonant sound.  Discount instruments are made from inferior materials.  The wood and strings on a discount violin can not produce the same full, ringing sound as quality instruments.

Result:  The student can not hear him/herself while playing in a group.  When a student can’t hear the tone from their own instrument, it is very difficult to make small adjustments necessary to improve and fix intonation.  The student will learn to play out of tune.  The student will then believe he/she has little talent and may become frustrated. 

Grief #3

The instrument comes with many parts that will immediately need to be replaced.
The pegs in a ‘discount’ instrument are not fitted correctly, the bridge has not been shaped correctly (making it harder to play on one string at a time), the strings are too thin (making the sound too soft), and the fine tuners won’t work. 

Result:  To make the instrument playable, it will need new pegs, new bridge, new strings, and new tailpiece.  The discount instrument now requires an additional $200+.  Money that could have been used to purchase a quality instrument.

It’s wise to do research and to find good deals.  When it comes to instruments, please don’t be deceived by what we call VSO’s (violin-shaped-objects).  They look like the real thing, but are actually impostors.  These inferior ‘instruments’ won’t help students progress and learn and they make learning harder.  For a student to succeed, they must be given quality materials.  A quality instrument sets students up for success.  Some parents may be worried about investing money into an instrument when they are unsure if their child will like it or not.  Don't fear.  A child who has an instrument that works correctly and sounds good will LOVE it!  

 Please seek advise from your teacher when looking for an acceptable instrument.  Visit your local music stores and have them tune and play their instruments for you.  A student’s success in music depends on this most important step – finding a quality instrument that fits together properly with working pieces, stays in tune, and offers a full resonant sound.

Monday, September 2, 2019


Over the years I've spent tons of time making seating charts.  I believing in changing seats very frequently and rotating students around the section so no one is ever always in the back.  Every 2 weeks I make brand new charts for each of my classes.  As my program has grown, making new charts is taking more and more time.  I still want to frequently change seating, but I need it to be easier and faster.


I just created a color coded seating chart for each class.  I colored seats in each section a different color, then numbered the seats.

To easily change the seating, I created an Excel spreadsheet with the names of the students in each section.

I then created a formula to randomly assign a number to each student.  =RAND()

I then sort the sheet by columns - and instantly have a randomized seating.  Students just have to look at the chart and sit in the seat that corresponds to their number.

It's super fast and easy to create a new order...just drag the formula column downwards and it will replace all the numbers.  Instead of re-writing seating charts, I can use excel to get a new order instantly.  I project the list on my screen and students quickly find their new seats.  I might just change seating more often!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

New discoveries - How to prep for multiple levels

I survived the first 2 weeks of school and it wasn't easy juggling all the prep work for each class.  My schedule this year is packed full and I feel like I'm constantly running.  After my last class I check my Apple Watch and it always says I have 10,000 steps.  That's a big change after a summer of barely breaking 4,000/day.  It's an adjustment for sure.  :)

I've crammed my classes extra full (50-75 in each) so I can continue to teach at 2 schools - junior high and high school.  That means I have 5 different levels to prepare for each day.  It's hard to find that time to do everything I want to I've found ways to save myself a little time by unifying and aligning my curriculum across all levels.  For example, my beginners have been learning bow holds.  To keep my mind sane, I'm also focusing on bow holds in ALL of my other classes.  I adjust the curriculum for each level, but it saves me time in preparing for my classes because each class has a similar focus/objective.   Teaching my beginners bow holds helped me with ideas and strategies to build better bow hold dexterity with my older students.

Here's an outline of what I did with bow holds at each level:


  • Straw bow holds
  • Basic bow exercises
  • Balancing games - balancing fun little bunnies on our bent thumbs
  • Bow hold pass-offs

When I was fixing bow holds in my beginner class I found many students were squeezing way too much.  To help students form a better bow hold, I had them flop their hands until they were relaxed and then lets their hands and fingers drop.  I added the bow behind their fingers and let the stick lift their fingers up so that the fingers were curved over the top of the stick.  This helped students relax their knuckles and stay flexible.

It was simple to then just place the pinky and thumb.  

Students were way more comfortable after having their bows placed with their hands in such a relaxed position.  This technique helped me teach my intermediate/advanced students how to hang fingers over the stick in such a way to use arm weight to create tone (instead of squeezing).  It was also a great bow hold review for intermediate/advanced students.


  • Learn roles of each finger in bow hold:  hold bow with only middle finger and thumb and play a scale.  Ask class that the role is of thumb and middle finger.  Add 3rd and 4th finger - discuss that is gained when adding those fingers (more control).  Add index finger - discuss the role of the index finger.  I called it the 'power' finger.  We don't press, but it helps deliver arm weight to the bow.
  • Exercises to prevent squeezing - loosening the bow hold.
  • Dropping shoulder - adding arm weight


  • Building bow flexibility - play scales while moving thumb to prevent squeezing.
  • Practice right hand finger flexibility
  • String crossings using fingers
  • Bow changes using fingers
  • 16th note passages with relaxed hand and fingers

I've been using my new book - '18 Etudes for Advanced Orchestra Warm-ups' with my High School orchestras and it has been working perfectly!  So far I love using it.  The first pages contain advanced bow exercises to build dexterity - which works perfectly for my aligned curriculum.  The first etude is all about 16th notes and string crossings - so students have a way to practice maintaining flexible bow holds.  I'm so impressed at how well students are developing that skill - we sound like a more advanced group already!


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Alternate Rhythm Notation Exercise

I recently posted about a worksheet I created using alternate rhythmic notation to help students learn to follow and keep track of beats.

This activity worked so well in my classroom.  I did this with my 2nd year players on their first day of playing and it was a perfect way to help them focus and remember how to subdivide.  We tried to clap 'line A' without a metronome and quickly realized we were rushing like crazy, so I started a metronome and we practiced staying together as a class.  After practicing to maintain a steady beat and follow the code on the worksheet, we took it one step further and assigned each section a different line on the page.  The class had to keep their own part together while hearing other parts going at the same time.  (How many times do students get lost because they're listening to rhythms in other sections?)

After this activity, students sight-read some of their new music.  I couldn't believe how much better they were at sight-reading after practicing rhythm beforehand.  I wanted MORE rhythm code activities!

Here's why I think rhythm code helps students:

  • Rhythm code - or alternative notation - simplifies rhythm and uses few symbols.  Students have less to keep track of at once.
  • Rhythm code helps students maintain a sub-divided beat because each sub-division is visually notated.  This helps students maintain a steady beat.
  • Rhythm code make it easy to track/play 'off-beats.'
  • Rhythm code helps students who are struggling with rhythm
  • Rhythm code helps an ensemble count and stay together.
  • Rhythm code is helps students follow a line of 'code' in preparation for following a line of music (which is a kind of code).  
And just for you (and me) next rhythm code/alternate notation activity...
Download free at my TPT store: ORCHESTRA CLASSROOM!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Another game to spice up your rehearsal

Games are serious.  A seemingly simple game can tell you a lot:  whether or not students are learning, which students need help, which students are leaders, which students need friends.  I saw the 'Random Instrument' game on Jimmy Fallon and thought it would be perfect for a fun orchestra class activity.  This game helps identify specific musical skills in a fun way.

Can students figure out basic instruments?
Can students use their ears to figure out a basic tune?
Do students understand pitch?
Do students understand how to adjust pitch?
Can students recognize in tune/out of tune notes?
Can students hear and recognize simple tunes?

Here's a few clips from Jimmy Fallon's show so you can see how the game works:

The plan for class:  divide the class into teams.  Collect a variety of instruments.  Have teams take turns sending someone up to choose a tune and an instrument.  That person tries to perform the tune while their team guesses.  Teams get points for calling out the collect tune.

Instruments I've collected for the game:
Toy accordian
String Bass

Tunes everyone should know:
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Row Row Row your Boat
Itsy Bitsy Spider
Are you Sleeping
Star Wars
Happy Birthday
Wild - any tune
Yankie Doodle
Head Shoulders

One fun way to do this is to use to create spinners.  I made one wheel for my instruments and one for the tunes.  Students get to 'spin' the wheel to determine their fate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Pre-note-reading activity

I grew up in Michigan where there was a solid elementary music program in place.  I had a great music teacher who taught me how to read notes and basic rhythms.  This helped me a lot when I began studying the violin and it helped me teach myself how to play the piano.  I wish every elementary school was able to help children with develop skills in music fundamentals.  

My beginners come to me with many different backgrounds.  Some have had years of piano training, while others have hardly seen what a quarter note looks like.  Rhythm is something that came so naturally to me...I sometimes forget that some students find it very difficult to measure time.  These pre-rhythm-reading/rhythm code worksheets are great for introducing students to the world of rhythm and counting.  Instead of reading notes, students simply have to notice whether a box is shaded or not.  These basic rhythms can be used in a number of ways in the classroom.  Students can perform these as a group by clapping, plucking open strings, air-bowing, or bowing open strings.  I may even get out some of my unusual percussion instruments for these exercises.  A teacher should use a metronome or drum beat to help students feel a steady pulse as they perform.  The challenge is to make it through a line without messing up with the entire group staying together.  These worksheets may also be used for group or individual practice.  

So many possibilities with these pre-rhythm reading worksheets!  The class could divide into 2 teams and play 'rhythm tennis' to see who could make it through a line without messing up.  If a team performs correctly, the next rhythm is passed to the next team, and so forth (just like tennis).  Students can create their own rhythms at the bottom of the worksheet.  These creations can be used as additional material for 'rhythm tennis.'

After completing the basic rhythm reading and learning the concept of quarter notes, quarter rests, and half notes, students easily begin writing the note values.  

Download them for your beginners HERE!

Monday, August 5, 2019


I officially head back to school next week and I've been working through my summer to-do list.

Copies of books/resources for students: CHECK
Design and order T-shirts, stickers, etc: CHECK
Choose/purchase music: CHECK
Edit disclosures/handbook: Not done
Purchase extra strings/rosin/supplies: Not done
Team Building games: CHECK


I wrote a resource called '5 lessons to motivate and inspire' where I gave some ideas for some fun team-building games.  An orchestra class should definitely be working as team.  I went to a session at the ASTA conference about a program in New York with a teacher who seated students randomly at every concert.  They were never seated by ability.  Students found out their seats just before playing in the concert.  It was so interesting to hear about the results.  The students worked better as a team.  They took on greater personal responsibility to learn their parts and perform well.  Students had ownership of their own playing as well as the group's performance.  There was greater cooperation with students helping each other.  Students bonded with each other and created a true team spirit.

I really want this kind of cooperation and ownership in my classes.  I'd like to experiment with different seating arrangements.  I'll also work on ownership by using the '5 lessons' and seeking to build teamwork skills.  I recently went and bought some supplies for some teamwork activities to use during the first week of school.  Here are a couple more ideas that were not included in the book:

See instructions about how to play:

I went to WalMart and bought a bunch of skinny, inexpensive wooden dowels.  I will have students divide up into teams for 6-8 people and do the helium stick challenge.

Teams have to work together to get their ping pong ball to the other side of the room using the pieces.  I can't afford to purchase that game, so I made my own version using pool noodles and marbles from the dollar store:

Don't Lose Your Cool - Orchestra Edition - FRIDAY FUN DAY

Have you seen this game?  It was on clearance for $5 at Target, so I got one and thought it might be a hilarious game to play in orchestra.  You strap the crazy looking head piece to your head and it calibrates to your heart rate.  Then, people are supposed to do crazy things to make you lose your cool.  The headpiece monitors your levels and an alarm goes off if you don't stay calm. 

I've been experimenting with it at home with my daughter (she plays cello but I wanted her to feel the stress of playing an instrument she doesn't know, so here she is on violin).  This would be a funny way to lighten up the mood on playing test day...see if a student can play for the class without losing their cool.  I think this game is also a good way to help students be brave, focus, and perform in front of others.  If they lose their cool, it's's just a game.  Students could try to play a difficult passage without losing their cool, or play a passage without getting distracted by others.   I think this game would help students practice focusing and staying calm in a classroom full of distractions.  Perfect for a future FRIDAY FUN DAY!  I think I might just go pick up a few more of these....

Monday, July 29, 2019

Incentives...Yes or no?

Do you believe in offering students incentives for learning or mastering tasks?   I know this can be a controversial subject.  There has been research that has shown incentives are not good for long term motivation.  The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. I understand that...but I also understand that learning an instrument is hard work.  As a culture, we ARE motivated by free stuff.  I've stood in an unsightly huge line at Jimmy Johns to get a free sandwich, gone shopping in the middle of the night on Black Friday to get a free gift card, and I thoroughly enjoyed my free meal for 'teacher appreciate day' at Red Robin.

Teaching a slew of beginners is hard work!  I teach huge groups of students how to play their instruments.  With only one of me, and 65+ of them in each class, I can't possibly give each student the one-on-one attention offered by private instruction.  Offering little incentives for students to achieve specific learning targets has helped me reach more students in my classesUsed only occasionally, incentives help my students focus and critic their own playing.  Out of necessity, I need my students to self-evaluate and self-correct.  Students know they are doing the work to improve their playing, and that feels good.  A little extra icing on the cake...a little reward...goes a long way to keep students progressing, especially when certain tasks require very detail-oriented work with a lot of self-correction and adjustments.

Sometimes (only 3-4 times per school year) I offer a reward for students who complete a certain learning challenge or master a specific task.  I've done this for things like:  passing off correct bow hold, maintaining proper left hand position, proper finger placement, completing practice goals, or passing off a specific passage in our music.  My beginners are 7th graders and they aren't too motivated by regular stickers and pencils.  Here are some things I use for incentives:


Students can earn these to stick in their lockers as locker decorations.

Case stickers
Students collect these for their instrument cases or orchestra folders:

Balance Birds
For students who are able to play with proper left hand position - on their finger-tips.

 Vitamin pens
For students who are remembering to take their practicing vitamin and meet practice goals:


 If I can use a prop which captures the attention and imagination of every student and helps them learn a concept more efficiently, I'd say it was worth it.  Here are a few fun finds I'm adding to my closet this year:

Carrot pens with attached bunny:
I plan on using these for teaching bow holds.  We start out with our hand in a bunny shape, and we do bunny bow exercises.  This little pen will help students visualize the correct bow shape.

Sequin Slap Bracelets:
These are to help students remember to keep their wrists out - no hiding their bling with a pancake hand!  Slap those wrists into shape. 

Funny Face Stress Balls
An entertaining way to build finger strength and mix-up finger training drills.

Tiny bunny charms:
Fun for balancing games.  No one wants to let a cute little bunny drop.