Search This Blog

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Finally - A Meaningful Assignment students can complete when you need an ORCHESTRA SUB

I felt a little sick this week.  But, it's a ton of work to plan for a sub I went to school and taught my classes.  I'm sure you've all done the same can be really hard to find meaningful assignments students can do with a non-music teacher sub.  I've searched the internet for simple orchestra sub plans, but never found anything I really wanted to use.  I don't want to give my students busy-work.  My goal is to make the day productive, even if I can't be there.

Today I decided to brainstorm sub plan ideas and created this assignment:

In college, I remember learning how to study and mark up scores.  Then I realized that students can do the same thing with their music!  I want students to study every detail of their concert music.  This assignment takes students through their music-study step by step.  Students search for and mark various aspects of the music using colored pencils.  I plan on purchasing a classroom set of colored pencils to have on hand just for this assignment.  You can have students mark their current music, or you can keep some music copied/filed to have on hand for those days you need an instant sub plan assignment.  Download this assignment for FREE at my TPT site.  And take that day off!

Friday, October 20, 2017

NEW! Introducing - Orchestra Classroom tips on VIDEO!

I have had quite a few requests to offer videos of teaching tips and strategies.  I finally created my first couple of videos and they are available now at my TPT store:

The First Day of School lesson plan (for beginning orchestra):

 I believe the first day of school should be fun and exciting!  This video demonstrates my lesson plan for the first day and shows how I inspire students and make them LOVE my class.  My students don't get to play their instruments on the first day, but we still have a great time and they can't wait to come back.

How To Teach VIBRATO in a string orchestra classroom:

It can be difficult to teach vibrato in a large class setting.  Many teacher refer to private teacher to teach vibrato, but most of my students do not have private lessons.  This is how I get my 2nd year orchestra students to get the correct vibrato motion in just one lesson.

Since these videos are totally new, I am offering a 20% discount this weekend only!  (10/20/17-10/22/17)

I hope you will find these videos helpful.  If there is a particular skill or technique you would like to see on video, please comment below and let me know!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Building Note-reading speed and fluency

At the start of the school year, my focus for beginners is to develop excellent, comfortable bow holds and perfect position.  We played by rote for a couple of weeks and have since been learning rhythm and note names.  I don't like to drag note-reading out for too long.  All they have to do is learn 8 notes and they can play so many tunes! 

Students are usually excited to begin understanding music and reading notes.  I teach the open strings first.  I introduce the staff by comparing it to a highway with lanes and lines to show that notes are drawn (they travel) from left to right across the staff.  I then teach students that notes are 'parked' on the staff.  Some notes park in a space, and other notes park right on a line.  I tell a story about a person driving an expensive BMW who didn't want to get their car scratched, so they parked right on a line.  I have found that some students new to note-reading need the explanation that notes can be drawn ON a line.  This goes against all kindergarten/grade school coloring rules when they're told over and over to stay in the lines! 

Student learn open string notes so quickly - it only takes minutes.  I use my dry erase packets equipped with a staff and a dry erase marker.  I show each section of the orchestra where their open string D is 'parked' on the staff and tell them to memorize that spot. I tell a story about I time I went to the zoo and couldn't remember where I parked and was wandering the parking lot for 30 minutes before I found my car!  I explain that open D will ALWAYS be parked in that spot.  We also learn where open A is parked.  Next I call out various patterns of D and A and students draw them on the staff.  (D, A, D, D), (D, A, A, D), etc.  Students race to be the first one to draw the notes and hold up their packets.  After a few minutes of this, students are allowed to create their own arrangement of D's and A's on the staff and perform them pizzicato with their stand partners. 

My favorite method to get students to memorize notes is to use the foldable flashcards from
I copy a set for each student, but only pass out one string at a time.  Students spend 10 minutes in class memorizing the D string notes and passing them off with their stand partners.  For flashcard pass-offs, students must say the note name on the flashcard and pluck the correct note on their instruments.  I require students do this in 10 seconds or less.  After a week or so, we add the A string notes and students must pass off all 8 flashcards in 20 seconds or less.  I try to pair up students with piano/note-reading experience with those who are new to note-reading.

Sometimes we may underestimate how much a student can learn at one time.  When I was seven, I begged Santa Claus to bring me a recorder for Christmas.  I didn't know how to read music and had never tried an instrument before, but Santa delivered me a quality recorder and a book.  It was easy to look at the diagrams and understand the notes and fingerings.  I immediately wrote in all the note names for the first few pages and was able to play several songs.  After that, I got sick of having to look up note names for each note, so I decided to memorize them.  It didn't take 10-15 minutes I had memorized the notes and no longer had to write them all in.  Allowing students to write note-names in their music hinders and slows their progress.  Unless a student has special needs, expect students to memorize the notes! 


Sometimes it can appear students do not know the notes when they struggle to play through a simple exercise.  One day after some painful minutes working in our method book I became worried that my students were not fast enough at note-reading.  After having them say note names I realized this was not the case.  Students were slow at reading the notes because they were looking at their fingers instead of the notes on the page and they were getting lost.  I joked that they need to 'use the force' to find notes and stop looking at their fingers!  The next day, I did a lesson to help students learn how to find notes on their instruments using their sense of touch and hearing.  They can't always use sight to find the note - it's a lot better if they listen and train fingers to land in the right place.  To help students learn the skill, we watched a short clip from YouTube:  ( showing Jimmy Fallon and Taylor Swift attempt to draw each other without looking at the page.  After the clip, student used blank paper and tried to draw their stand partners without looking at the page.  They LOVED this activity and the pictures were hilarious.  We began reading a few exercises in the method book and it was totally different from the day before.  Students were more focused.  They were following the notes on the page and not looking back and forth between their fingers and the page.  They sounded so much better!

Every week I have been given my students note-reading assessments to make sure they are on target with note-reading skills.  Students must know that you are serious about them learning the notes!  I have students play the exercises are far as possible with NO hints written in the music.  After that, I allow them to label notes and fingerings to reinforce speed and memorization.  Students also complete bellwork exercises each day during tuning to reinforce note-reading.  I use my book, 'Be An Amazing Note-Reader,' 'Rhythm Packet,' and 'Rhythm Bellwork.'  Here are a few assessments I have used in the last couple week. 

Happy note-reading!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Updated Starting By Rote


I have been using my book "Starting By Rote" for my Beginning Orchestra and found a serious error on page 13.  We can't have a wrong note on Twinkles!  I fixed the error and have submitted a new page 13 available for free download HERE.  Those who purchased the book through TPT may upload a new version of the entire book from that site...the book has been updated.  Those who purchased from may download the free replacement pages from TPT or email me at and I will send a replacement download of the book.  Sorry for the error!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Invisible Instruments

Before students open up cases and get out instruments for the first time we have a 20-30 minute lesson with our 'imaginary' instruments.  When demonstrating how to handle and hold a violin, viola, cello or bass, I want students to give me their full attention.   Excited students with shiny new instruments in hand can get very distracted.  Students can easy forget to listen to the teacher while admiring their brand new instruments and some students will miss instruction and become lost.

On 'imaginary instrument' day each section of the orchestra has a short article to read and a worksheet to complete.  An 'Instrument Parts' worksheet is a useful worksheet to use for this day.  I work with one section at time while the rest of the class completes the worksheet.  

For violin and viola players, we learn how to open cases, how to put on a shoulder rest, hold the instrument and place it in rest position, and how to make sure the instrument covers the shoulder in play position.  Students mimic my motions and practice these skills along with me, but only with imaginary instruments.   I have students feel their shoulders and place their 'imaginary' instruments there.  

For cello player and bass players, I demonstrate how to get their instruments from the racks, how to carry the instrument, adjust the endpin, how to hold the instrument with the knees, where the instrument sits on the body.  We go through everything before they have the actual instrument and students know exactly what to expect and how to handle their instruments.  Students listen carefully because they are so excited to get their actual instruments.

Next is my favorite part.  I put on "Also sprach Zarathustra" (start the video at :20 seconds) and tell students to get out their real instruments.  It's so exciting to see all of the instruments come out and students already holding them correctly, ready to learn.  It turns the first day of playing into an unveiling of fun amazing instruments.

Monday, September 4, 2017

First couple of weeks - new discoveries

This is my 12th year teaching orchestra, and I'm still learning and discovering more efficient ways to teach students and take care of daily teaching duties.  Here are a few of my discoveries from the first couple weeks of school...wish I would have known this stuff earlier!

1.  Putting tapes on instruments.  

I've posted before about the kind of tapes I pinstripe tape:

It takes a lot of time to put tapes on instruments.  Some years I have let my more advanced students put tapes on the beginner instruments, but it's just better if I do it myself.  Students are frustrated if their tapes don't sound right and I want them to play in tune.  I finally got my groove and can just whip out the tapes on instruments.  It takes me about one minute per instrument to get the tapes on.  I've learned to leave the tapes attached to the roll (Don't rip off 4 pieces, then put them on).  Slide them up to about the right spot on the fingerboard, then rip them.  After getting the 3-4 tapes on the fingerboard, you can quickly adjust them to just the right place and have the student stick them down around the neck.  Here's a video to show what this looks like:

2.  Use a pencil to fix pancake wrists.

For violin/viola students with super stubborn flat wrists...tape a pencil to the back of the instrument.  I tease my students and tell them I'll make the sharp part point outward, but I make the eraser side point out.  Use painters tape to make sure the adhesive won't damage the varnish.  Just mentioning that I MIGHT tape on a pencil motivated students to fix their wrists.  I only actually do it if absolutely necessary.

3.  Look through the stick when teaching loosing/tightening.

It seems that there are always a few beginners who over-tighten their bows.  This year while explaining how to tighten/loosen, I had students hold the bow up to their eyes and look through the middle.  They could see that the hair slightly touches the stick when loose, and there is just a small slit to look through when it is tightened.  I haven't had kids over-tighten this year...and they are doing really well remember to loosen their bows after they play.

4.  Teach RHYTHM before note-reading!  

I usually dive right into note-reading, but this year I decided to try teaching rhythm first.  Wow - it's changed my life!  Students are quickly reading rhythms and playing together on all of our exercises.  Having a solid foundation in rhythm will help the ensemble all year and they already are reading so well.  They don't have to worry about reading notes yet, since we are using my rote book, "Starting by Rote" (available at or TPT).

I am also reinforcing rhythm skills with these short bell-work exercises in my new book, "Rhythm Work" (available at TPT).   24 pages of 1/2 page printable worksheets and 2 full page rhythm final tests.

 I feel like this focus on rhythm has helped students learn exercises more quickly because they understand when to change notes!  I will now be teaching rhythm before note-reading every year.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Progression of a bow hold - the first 10 days of orchestra

I just survived the first 9 days of school.'s been busy!  After a long summer break, it's always a shock to my system to start getting up early and working again.

I love the first few weeks of school.  Students are motivated and excited and I love seeing them delight in learning and developing their talents.  It is so important to give students a great start.  I am passionate about setting up beginners with the best possible position.  When students develop poor position it can be very frustrating to break bad habits.

One the 2nd day of school I showed this video to my students.  I wanted them to understand that holding a bow and holding their instrument might not feel natural at first...and that is normal!  It is normal to feel a little awkward when first learning a new skill.  This helps students not become frustrated as I insist on proper position.  It helps cello students who don't like the feel of the cello sitting on their chests.  Students are willing to work on their bow holds and keep thumbs bent...even though they want to keep the thumb straight.

The first days of school can be overwhelming since there is so much material to cover and so much to do to get students ready to play.  My first priority is to teach bow hold and help all students master bow holds.  I have a rule:  No student may touch the horse hair to the string until they pass of their bow hold and it must be perfect.  That means no playing with bows on the strings for almost 2 weeks.  It takes that long for students to develop a natural, relaxed bow hold.  The first impulse is to keep fingers straight and rigid.  We work through many exercises to help students stay flexible.

Here is an overview of my lesson plans for the first 10 days of school.  We work on bow hold first thing, then move on to master other important skills.  I just finished day 9 with my own class and they're doing great!  I haven't always taken this long to develop bow hold, but with my large classes this has helped all students progress together.  This chart doesn't really show my teaching strategies..I have so many ideas for teaching play position, left hand position, rhythm and would just take forever to type it all out.  I'd really like to do a presentation at a conference to demonstrate the first 10 days.   If you have questions about a specific topic feel free to comment and I'll answer.  :)  Much of these skills are described in my book 'The True Beginning: Before the Method Book" available at

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!