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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!

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.  I used my previous rhythm tests for students to practice and it really helped me see what to re-teach.  Student were able to fix their mistakes and understand better.  I think students will do very well on this new rhythm final.  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.)