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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Orchestra SURVIVOR - Outwit, Outlast, Outplay

I just finished with recruiting season.  It feels good to have all of that done!   Now I feel like there is extra time in rehearsals to revisit and reinforce some essential skills.  Today we started reviewing rhythm using my RHYTHM BELLWORK pages and students are doing so well.  Something I learned today ....have students clap and count rhythms and move clasps hands upward while holding out longer notes.  That is how I have them write the counting, and it is a great visual and kinesthetic way to 'feel' the length of longer notes.

We also reinforces position and bow hold today by playing SURVIVOR.  I showed students part of this Survivor challenge: 

We talked about how good position must stay...not too high, not too low...and it takes constant concentration to make sure everything stays in the proper place.  Then we played our own version of a survivor challenge:

Violin/Viola Challenges:

1.  Pass out large marshmallows to every student.  Have them balance the marshmallow between the left thumb and base of index finger.  Students hold their arms out in front of them, keeping wrists straight and arms in playing position.  That freeze in that position.

2.  Demonstration proper left hand technique on instrument while tapping fingers on tapes.  Good position only or the 'water' drops and a student is 'out.'

3.  Hold instrument on shoulder with only your head - no hands.  Balance for a few minutes.  

4.  Balance the marshmallow in their instruments - no hands.

5.  Pass off perfect bow hold with bow placed on the D string.

6.  Pull a perfectly straight bow - staying in the correct lane between the bridge and fingerboard.

7.  Watch and make sure all bow hair flat in contact with the string

8.  Play what I call 'F# and F natural turns' with perfect bowing, intonation, finger placement.

Cello/Bass Challenges:

1.  Students practice setting left on on cello without lifting the shoulder - keeping left hand in C shape.

2.  Students practice knocking up and down the fingerboard while keeping left elbow in the right place.

3.  Tap fingers on tapes while keeping small marshmallow behind left thumb - trying not to squish the marshmallow.

4.  Balance marshmallow on left elbow while maintaining perfect posture/position.

5.  Pass off perfect bow hold with bow placed on the D string.

6.  Pull a perfectly straight bow - staying in the correct lane between the bridge and fingerboard.

7.  Watch and make sure all bow hair flat in contact with the string

8.  Play what I call 'F# and F natural turns' with perfect bowing, intonation, finger placement.

My student teacher marked students who were 'out' on my seating chart and I gave the top 10 students chocolate coins who didn't get out.  The entire class focused so well and really worked to improve and maintain great position.  The best part is THEIR PLAYING WAS TRANSFORMED!!!!  We played a couple of our concert pieces and the students could all tell how much better we sounded after focusing on position.  It was amazing.  :)

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Intonation Meme exercises

On Friday students were showing me a bunch of little meme videos from YouTube.  It made me feel old.  There's a meme from 'super sax guy' that repeats a a few notes over and over....there's a 10 hour video of this on YouTube.  Ugh.  Then they showed me the one with the apple pineapple pen.  Students think it's hilarious.

I started to think we needed our own orchestra memes.  I set out to create little short intonation drills that I will call 'memes.'  Each has words and I'm planning on having students memorize these quick little exercises.  That way in rehearsal, if I need to fix C# for example, I can tell them to play the C# meme and they should know what it sounds like and play it perfectly in tune while saying the words.  My beginners have been working on intonation with low 2's and high 2's and I think this will help a lot. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

This little piggy helps rehearsals stay on target

I went to the UMEA conference last weekend and went to a session about teaching students how to tune their instruments by Michael Hopkins.  My favorite quote from his sessions was, "If they tune like pigs, they sound like pigs."  So true!  I'm trying to be more consistent with my expectations during tuning time to make sure all students follow directions to stay quiet and tune carefully.

The beauty of that quote is that is works for ALL aspects of playing and rehearsing.  I noticed that some of my classes were getting a little lax in their rehearsal behaviors.  Students were not all stopping together and it drives me crazy to waste class time waiting for students to stop and listen.  I reviewed my expectations with them...we practiced the expectations...and it was getting better, but not perfect.

In the middle of rehearsal the other day, that quote popped in my head and I told students about it.  I told them how it applies to our rehearsals - if we rehearse like pigs, we sound like pigs.  Then I drew a PIG-O-METER on the board and gave them points on the 'clean' side if they started and stopped together, and a point on the 'slop' side if they were not together.  This little game IMMEDIATELY transformed my classes!  I did this with 7th, 8th and 9th grade - and am tracking their scores on the board each day so every class can see how other classes are doing.  We've gotten so much done in the last few days. 

Is there something that's bothering you about your rehearsals?  It's fixable.  Anything you want to change can change for the better.  Teach on, my friends.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Just practice!

We're halfway through the school year!  Now is the time students seem to get a little tired of practicing.  Time for a little motivation!  Students really don't respond to nagging and lectures, so I try to keep things positive and fun.

I recently surprised students with this 'citation' on their cases.  I put one on every instrument that was left in my room after school.  The next day students received their little reminder..and I gave extra credit for any students who wanted to actually pay up with practicing.

It's fun to show fun videos to gently remind students to's a few of my favorites:

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Need a presenter for your orchestra sessions?

I love presenting!  It is so fun to meet other teachers and share ideas.  Over the last few years I have presented 4 sessions at the NAfME National Convention and traveled to several other states to present at MEA conventions or other string teacher in-service meetings.

One recent attendee wrote:  "I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a workshop that I enjoyed more than yours!!  I have brought back many of your fun ideas and used them this week."   Another spoke to me about always feeling depressed after attending conferences, but my sessions left her feeling empowered and inspired.  

Feel free to contact me if you are looking for sessions which explore new ideas that engage and inspire teachers and students.


No More Beginners Blues:  Tips for making your orchestra class irresistibly fun while still focusing on good pedagogy.

Talent Doesn't Grow on Trees, It Grows in Orchestra:  How to inspire students to practice without using practice cards.

Orchestra Gives you Wings - How to empower students to learn more quickly and effectively.

Top 10 Tips for Beginners:  10 things that will help get your beginners off to a great start.

Rehearsal Strategies for Middle School Orchestra - Tips for lesson planning, procedures, and engaging rehearsals

Winning at Recruiting - how to create a BULGING program.

The Business of a Successful program:  Advertising, Advocacy, Promotion, Retention, and more.

All-Encompassing Concerts:  How to create a concert experience never to be forgotten by involving the audience in music making.

Contact me for availability:

Teaching Key Signatures

My beginners have been just learning about key signatures and how to tell when to play F sharps or F naturals or C sharps and C naturals.  This is a concept that is so important for beginners to understand.  I know it will save me tons of time if my beginners can learn to read key signatures now. 

Before this point we had been practicing 'high 2' and 'low 2' finger-patterns, but had not connected the finger-patterns to key signatures.  I use this very basic diagram to practice a 'D' scale:  Play D scale with 'happy happy' (F#, C#), 'sad sad' (F and C naturals), or 'happy sad' (F sharp, C natural).  This helps students establish the basic finger-patterns on those strings. 

The next step is to make sure students understand when to play the different finger-patterns.  For some reason students sometimes struggle making the connection between key signatures and finger-patterns changes.  After teaching what a key signature means, I change my diagram to help students understand:

Once students understand how to interpret a key signature, we talk about the other strings.  (Why violins have always been playing low 2 on the E string, etc.)

Next it is important to check for understanding to make sure all students can accurately read and interpret a key signature.  I just created these worksheets to use this year...

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Power of Music

December is a busy, busy time!  My concert for all of my classes are next week.  I have to do 3 separate concerts in one night because there are not enough seats in the high school auditorium to accommodate all of my students and families.  This year my Beginners will have their own concert and will not be combining with any other grades.  That means they will have to fill the entire concert.  We have 4 pieces learned:  A Christmas March - Meyer, A Chanukah Festival - O'Reilly, Sleigh Ride in the Park - Thomas, and What Child is This - Monday.  That should take about 10 minutes....which is not enough time!  I need to stretch out this concert to at least 25

I've been teaching my beginners about the power of music by sharing stories with them about the positive effect music has on people's lives.  There are a number of great YouTube clips with touching stories:

Students have really responded well to these videos.  I want to instill in my students that music is powerful.  That music can change their lives for the better.  That they can serve others with their musical gifts.  To help students reflect on what orchestra is doing for them personally, they completed this quick survey:

 It was so interesting to read their responses.  I compiled many of their responses into a video which I will show at their concert.  I hope it will leave the message that music is important in the lives of our children.  A little music advocacy at the concert seems like it will benefit everyone.  :)    (In my original video I have pictures of my students rehearsing and I include full student names.. I edited out pictures and last names for student privacy.) 

Still, I might need to do another activity to take a little more I'm developing a little mini-game to play called, "Are You Smarter Than An Orchestra Beginner?"  I'm thinking it would be fun to have an audience member come and try some of our beginner skills.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Checking for understanding: The Possibilities of SeeSaw

Right before school started I posted about my plans to use SeeSaw in my classroom for playing tests.  So far I think it has been beneficial for students to do playing tests using this technology.  I've learned a few things about implementing SeeSaw for playing tests:

1.  Younger students struggle more with getting online to complete assignments at home.  Most rely on parent phones or computer to do the assignments.  Because of this, it is essential to involve the parents when teaching students how to sign-up for SeeSaw.

2.  Plan on spending one entire class period to help students create their accounts.  I tried to send emails home to have students sign on, but most didn't do it.  It worked best to have them all sign up at school with my help.  Once students have their accounts, they can complete a quick assignment in SeeSaw to help them learn to navigate the program.  It is very user friendly and students haven't had trouble.

3.  Review the class settings.  The default setting is for students to see each other's work.  I opted to change my settings to make each student portfolio private....but I can see benefits from keeping it all open as well.

Now that I've gotten better acquainted with SeeSaw, I've gotten so many more ideas for ways to implement student activities and check for understanding.  There are MANY uses for SeeSaw in an orchestra classroom...playing tests are just the beginning!  I love that SeeSaw helps get students thinking and working OUTSIDE of class.  This technology helps me reach students on a whole new level.

Here are 14 possibilities for utilizing SeeSaw in a string orchestra class:

1.  Have students record themselves clapping a rhythm.
2.  Have students record themselves saying note-names to a passage of music.
3.  Peer review - allow students to comment on classmates videos.
4.  Playing tests - self evaluated or teacher evaluated
5.  Before/after practice assignment
6.  Label parts of the instrument
7.  Definitions/musical terms - vocab
8.  Critique - watch a video (performance) and answer questions
9.  Take of picture of your bow hold
10.  Tutorials - students teach how to ___________.
11.  Draw/label bowings to a passage
12.  Draw notes on the staff
13.  Getting to know you - post your favorite thing
14.  Draw how the music makes you feel.


Do you wish you could see all of this and experiment with how it would work for your students?  Well you can!  I made a SAMPLE ORCHESTRA class on SeeSaw and you can sign in as a student to my sample class and try out these activities.  Just go to   and click on are instructions - just type in the code and you're in!

Feel free to play with the assignments and you can even submit sample work....just be aware that other 'teacher-students' who sign in will be able to see your posts.

*NOTE - the code expires after 7 days.  If you are reading this post after Dec. 7, 2018 you can email me for a new code:

By the way, I don't work for SeeSaw....I'm just posting these ideas just for the benefit of my readers.  I think it's a great resource to implement technology and check for understanding as you teach important techniques and concepts.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

High School grading for Orchestra - practice record


I'm teaching high school this year.  My junior high program is huge with over 300 students...but many were dropping in between junior high and high school.  I decided to have another teacher take on part of my junior high program to free me up to teach at the high school to help strengthen the program and retain students.  So far it's been really fun and I enjoy the change.  I worried about having to switch between 2 schools, but it's been totally fine. 

The majority of my students grades at the high school level are based on playing tests which they send me through SeeSaw (  Last term I had a couple students who did not send me ANY playing tests until the day before the concert...and that drove me a little crazy because it defeats the whole purpose of the test!  Students need to master the measures I assign at the time I assign them - because their playing affects the entire group - the rehearsals and the performance.  It doesn't feel good to be dragging students along.  This term I decided to make new policy and stop accepting late playing tests.  The problem is I know some students will still miss one could potentially fail my class.  I decided there has to be some sort of a make up assignment.

Here's how I've structured it.  Playing tests are turned in on time.  Any playing test can be re-submitted for a higher score - as long as it was initially turned in on time.  A make up assignment can be completed if a playing test was missed, although it can only make up a fraction of the points that could have been earned by doing the playing test. 

This is my make-up assignment - a 5 page practice journal.   I'm hoping students realize that the playing test is easier...but I guess if they want to fill all this out and practice every day for fewer points...that works for me, too.  Enjoy.  :)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Teaching is more than teaching

I am an introvert.  When I was a student I rarely said anything in my classes.  I was so quiet that some of my peers informed me that I would never be able to teach because I was too quiet.  Introverts are often misunderstood.  The funny thing is when I tell my students that I am quiet introvert they don't believe me!  In my role as a teacher I am outgoing and friendly and full of energy.

I've been thinking a lot about effective teaching and what makes certain teachers get hard work, respect, and loyalty from their students.  I feel it all comes down to one key element.  Master teachers build relationships with their students.  The best teachers do more than just teach...they inspire.  This can only be done when students are able to connect with their teachers.

When students feel a teacher cares about them, they will listen better, work harder, and behave better.  Students need to bond with their teachers....and I strongly believe teachers need to bond with their students.  We never know what students are going through - and just a few kind words....a little attention....a thoughtful question...just might positively transform that student's entire day.   Life is hard sometimes.  Last year I was going through some intense trials and it was hard for me to go to work and keep a smile on my face.  My students helped pull me through those hard times.  They never knew what I was going through....I never said anything about my personal struggles...but just the interaction with my students was enough to cheer me up and keep me going.

As mentioned, I am an introvert.  It's strange that I feel so comfortable speaking with my students...yet I'm totally opposite in 'real life.'   If I can build relationships with students...anyone can do it!  Here's how:

1.  Be less busy.  Make yourself available. Get to school early and be completely ready at least 15 minutes before the bell rings.  I like to have some fun, energetic music playing as students enter so they come in with a smile on their faces.  This gives you 15 minutes to interact with students as they enter your classroom.  Greet students as they come in.  Notice things about them and talk to them.  Students notice if you look and seem stressed and they will avoid you.  Be present and make the time to interact.

2.  Encourage sharing.  I often share an analogy or story to help capture the style of a piece of music.  Allow to students to share their own stories.  Find common ground.

3.  Play.  Everyone likes to have fun.  Sometimes we play games in my classes.  Instead of just being a with them!  They need to see you have fun.  It will help them relate to you.

I believe that building a positive working relationship with students is essential. It solves so many classroom issues.  Behavior issues begin to disappear.  Students become motivated and desire success.  The climate of the classroom becomes happy.  And best of all, the teacher will LOVE teaching even more and students will love the class even more.  Students often choose an elective class because of how the teacher makes them feel.  Large successful programs are built on positive teacher/student relationships - which creates the right climate for all of the hard work necessary for great performance.

Stepping off soapbox...happy teaching, everyone!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Note reading struggles

It's that time of year to teach note-reading.  I always begin by teaching students where the open strings are on the staff.  We practice memorizing them using dry-erase packets and students are able to learn them very quickly.  Some students struggle with the transition from seeing large notes on a large staff to smaller notes.  They have to learn to carefully distinguish the difference between the notes.  To help students transition to a regular sized staff I created  this worksheet...enjoy!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Utilizing Technology - Playing Tests for the 21st Century

I'm a believer in playing tests.  I don't do practice cards, so playing tests are used to motivate students to work and practice.  Normally on playing test days (every 2 weeks) I listen to 40-50 students in 45 minutes or less.  As I listen I frantically jot down comments on my rubric and students are given an opportunity to reflect, improve, and re-take any playing test for a better score.  I have noticed that some students don't read my comments and don't make needed changes to improve their playing.  I would like students to take on more responsibility for their learning and growth.  This year I will be implement a new kind of playing test which will help students take ownership for their playing.

Here's how it's going to work:

I will be using google classroom with each of my classes this year.  Students will need a google classroom account AND a account.   SeeSaw is great because it can be accessed on any device.  There is a SeeSaw app for smart phones...but if students don't have a phone they can use computers with webcams or chomebooks.

I will assign playing tests on google classroom with specific directions.  Students receive a link to a google form which contains instructions for the test as well as a rubric where students will grade THEMSELVES.  Students will be instructed to grade themselves carefully.  They must PROVE and justify their grade by performing their playing test in SeeSaw.  I can then review any video and see if I agree with the rubric students submit.   The great thing about SeeSaw is that it creates a portfolio so students can go back and review any playing test.  They can see their progress throughout the year.

Here is a link to a sample playing test so you can see how it works:


Here are some screen shots: