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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Video Games and Practicing

Just about all kids love video games and now that many students are getting smartphones, they have access to video games all the time.  Students bring their phones to school and in between classes, I see them playing different apps and watching each other play the latest 'cool' games.  That is what inspired my lecture about practicing a few weeks ago.

For my Monday Video of the Week, I projected my iPad in front of the class and played the game Flappy Bird while they all watched at how bad I was at the game.  I never could clear more than 5 pipes.  My students enjoyed watching how bad I was at the game and they were excited to tell me all of their high scores...many of which were in the 100's.  They let me know that I would get better and it would be easier if I play the game more.

I told students that when they practice a video game, it is fun because they see progress and they can get farther and farther in the game.  The same is true with practicing an instrument.  The more you practice, the farther you can go!  Video games are not fun when you don't see an improvement....and you have to play it a lot to get really good.

When you practice more, you sound better and playing becomes easier.  As playing is easier and you realize you sound good, you begin to develop a real love for the instrument.  The more you love your instrument, the more you practice.  The more you practice the better you get....and on you can go.

Someone really needs to develop a video game type of practicing app where students play their instruments for the app and are rewarded by earning high scores for correct intonation, rhythm, etc. and are able to clear different levels.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Need your orchestra to practice? Be creative!

I have written quite a few posts about various things I do to motivate students to practice.  During my parent meeting before school starts, I ask parents to support their student by allowing them to practice and by providing their child with quality instruments.  I feel it is really my job to get students to practice...not as much the parent's job.  This is because I have 5 kids of my own and 3 of them are currently taking music lessons.  Much of the time, I basically force my kids to practice.  It can be a struggle on some days and my kids don't necessarily love to play their instruments when I am forcing them to play.  That all changes when my kids are working on a piece of music they particularly love...or if they are working towards a goal...or if I work with them to make practicing fun.  My ultimate goal, of course, is for my students and my own children to be self-motivated.

In order to motivate my classes to practice, I am very careful to select music that I know my students will want to practice.  I often challenge my class to practice certain passages and have contests to see how many times students play a particular passage by having them make a tally sheet...the student who does the most gets a small candy or prize.  I show them a short motivational type video every Monday that I call "Video of the Week."  This week I will be showing a little clip from the movie Despicable Me 2 - where Agnes recites a poem and sounds like a robot.  I will relate this to my class by teaching them about dynamics and to help students understand that playing music with no feeling and no dynamics is like Agnes's poem...not interesting.  We will focus on adding dynamics and passion into our pieces throughout the week.

Throughout the year, I do a few different practicing contests/games.

My next concert for my students is in just a couple of weeks and I need all of them to be practicing so that we will be ready! I just started a little practicing raffle activity in order to motivate my students.  So far, I've been loving it!

I bought a roll of raffle tickets from  Then, I made this little practice sheet:

Students earn tickets based on the requirements on the practice sheet.  Students also earn tickets by earning a perfect score of their playing tests, or by demonstrating excellent focus and improvement during class.

At the end of the term, I will be holding a raffle where students can earn some great prizes.  I bought some remote control shark balloons from (those are the grand prizes) and some other cheaper prizes from

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Helping students become aware half steps using JAWS

When people hear that I teach orchestra, I get all kinds of comments about how painful it must be for me to listen to all those out of tune notes from my beginners.  People assume that beginning orchestras will sound a bit shaky, but it doesn't have to be that way!  I try really hard to stress intonation right from the start.  We are not always perfectly in tune, but I never stop fixing intonation during rehearsals.  

One interval that students must focus on getting in tune is half steps.  When F# to G is well in tune, with a high enough F#, it makes all the difference.  The half step interval also helps when students are learning E to F natural.

I teach the half step interval during the first couple weeks of school by having the students play JAWS.  We make it quite dramatic and students must only play when I am moving my bow...that way, we can stay together.  After we get faster and faster, I stop playing and plug my ears and the entire class screams as if we are being attacked by the monster shark, JAWS.

One thing to make this really fun is to buy one of these remote control flying sharks:

For a limited time they are pretty cheap on this website: (I just bought 3 to auction off in my class)

These sharks are hilarious and so much fun.  They are basically a balloon that you fill with helium at then attach a remote control device to make it fly.  I make students earn the appearance of the shark by practicing a certain amount of time or performing well.  We fly this shark down the hallway while playing JAWS in the classroom.  Students love it...and they will remember half steps forever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Influences of my Suzuki Method training in my Orchestra Classroom

One of the best things I have done to improve my teaching was to complete teacher training in the Suzuki method.  I love the Suzuki pedagogy and was able to teach private students for 7 years before returning to teach orchestra in the public schools.  Every time I attend a workshop or conference, I can see many elements of Suzuki method in the presentations that are offered by excellent teachers.  I often think, why wasn't study of the Suzuki method part of my study at college?  I feel it is so helpful when teaching beginners and I wish I would have learned it sooner!

Here are a few elements I have taken from the Suzuki method that work well in a classroom:


When Suzuki students are learning their instruments, they are constantly given small little exercises that help prepare them for what they will soon be learning.  I call these little exercises 'previews.'  Previews could be a new rhythm coming up in a piece, a new finger pattern, a tricky bowing...anything that is new.  Suzuki students practice new concepts like this...away from the music so that they can focus on the skill.  Each skill is broken down step by step so that students learn accurately and effectively.

I do previews all the time in all of my classes and I feel it helps my students progress more rapidly.  After daily bow games, I always do a warm-up and that is where I teach the next skill that students will need.


We are just starting to learn slurs in our method book, but I really began teaching slurs 3 or 4 weeks ago through very simple exercises in my warm-up routine.  Now, the slurs in the book are quickly learned and easily understood.  These are the warm-ups I use for slurs:

a.  Bow Games - have students move the bow Down, Down then Up, Up
b. While playing scales, students use the bowing Down, Down, Up, Up
c.  Students experiement and see how many notes they can fix in one bow direction (we just repeat 2 notes over and over again...D E D E D E etc..)
d.  During warm-up, we slur from D to E while rocking our bodies with the bow direction.  On a down bow, students rock to the right..on an up bow, students rock to the left.  This gets the whole class moving and they easily get the bow direction.
e.  Slur 2 notes at a time on the D scale while rocking with the bow direction

We learned the hooked bowing today (slurs with the dots) and I told students to think of the dots as little stop signs.  They were immediately able to stop their bows for the hooked bowing.

C natural and F natural

Even though we have not learned C naturals in the method book, I have already introduced them in our warm-up.  Students have been doing well with this new note.  Here's how I introduce naturals:

a.  I tell students that something terrible has happened and that I have bad news.  I act very serious and sad and they all get very quiet.  I then tell them that Mary had a little lamb, and she was walking to school with it one day, and they lamb ran into the road and it got run over!  It's so sad. We have to play the song a new way because it's so sad.  We then play Mary Had A Little Lamb on the A string and I teach them how to make the song 'sad' by playing a low 2.

b.  We turn to the front of the method book and make songs sad.  It is very effective to learn low 2's with tunes that the students already know and can already play.  Students get a kick out of the way the naturals make the tunes sound so different.  We rename Ode to Joy to be Ode to Depression and change all the F sharps and C sharps to low 2's.

c.  Introduce key signature and how to recognize when to play F# or F natural, C# or C natural.   I don't get into all the theory quite yet.  I really  simplfy things for my beginners and tell them that the first sharp is for the D string and the sharp means to keep it 'happy' - as in F#.  The second sharp is for the A string and it means to keep the C# happy.  If there is no 2nd sharp in the key signature, they must make the A string 'sad.'  If there are no sharps, the A and D string must be made 'sad.'

d.  Write 3 different key signatures on the board - 2 sharps, 1 sharp, 0 sharps.  Students play the D scale, but change the fingering based on the key signature.  We use only the D scale because they have not learned the notes on the other strings, yet.


I print and use rhythm cards with any rhythms I need my class to master.  We work on new rhythms using rhythms cards before students see the rhythm in printed music.  It is very simple.. I hold up a card with a rhythm and the students clap and say the counting.  When doing this every day, students begin easily recognizing rhythms.


Review is a huge part of the Suzuki method.  Many Suzuki teachers expect students to play everything they know every day.  I am always reviewing in our method book after our warm-ups to reinforce previous notes and skills.

3.  LISTENING - all the time!

Students must listen to the music they are playing!  It helps them learn so must faster.  I use SmartMusic quite frequently during rehearsals as a tool to help students listen as they practice their parts.  It really helps students play better in tune and they pick up on rhythms more quickly.  Modeling and having students echo what you play is also a great tool to help students develop skills for good intonation.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to implement differentiation in orchestra

I think it is impossible to keep an entire orchestra class at the same level.  There are always some students who practice harder and as a result they progress way more quickly than some students who don't practice or who struggle with position or note-reading.  I have been trying to find a way to target strengths and weaknesses of individual students and customize certain learning activities based on their needs.

As mentioned in other posts, I do not require practice cards, but I do hold a playing test every 2 weeks where students play alone for me during class.  In the past,  I have always had each student play the same test, no matter how advanced or how behind they might be.  I have finally found a way to differentiate for my playing tests so that I can have students practice and work on things that are more relevant to their current level of progression.

Today, I announced to all of my classes that they would have a playing test on Friday.   I assigned my advanced players a more difficult solo melody that we will play at our next concert.  I assigned one line from our method book to most of the rest of the class.  Then, for my lower-level learners, I made a specialized assignment and I passed this out to them individually.  My lower level learners will concentrate on instrument position and note-reading so that they can gain the skills they need in order to catch up with the rest of the class.

Here is the assignment I am using for my lower-level learners:

I made flashcards for each student using this template and stapled them to the Alternate Playing Test form:

I am excited to see how this will help my students.  I wish I would have done this sooner!

Saturday, November 8, 2014


I just finished another piece for beginning string orchestra.  Right now, you can download this music FREE since  I'm not famous.  :)   You can find it at my STORE ( or HERE.

I wanted to write a piece that is fun to play and that students would love to practice.  I think this one is pretty catchy and students get a little taste of percussion as they take turns stomping and clapping to create 'drums.'

I would say this is a grade 1 or 1.5.  I did use eighth rests, but students stomp their feet during those rests so I think they would be able to learn that rhythm very quickly.

Here is a link to a sound file:
I could not create that exact effects with my notation software, but it should give you an idea.

 Here are a few sample pages:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Note-reading Performance Assessment for notes of the D Major Scale

I just created this worksheet for my students to do tomorrow.  You can purchase this worksheet HERE.

This is a worksheet designed as a self-assessment for students to determine their current note-reading skills on the notes of the D scale. (D and A string notes.  D and G for basses)  I will be using this like a sight-reading exercise so that students will not be able to play by ear.  Students will quickly be able to determine their strengths and weaknesses in note-reading skills.  Included in the download are parts for violin, viola, and cello/bass.

Here is a sample:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Note Name/Note Reading Review Game

I want to make sure my students are feeling confident with their note-reading, so tomorrow we are going to play this game.  Each student will receive a note name bingo game sheet.  Each student must fill in the bingo sheet by drawing each of the 8 notes of the D major scale - one note per box.  In order to fill all of the boxes, students will use each note 2 times.

Next, I will use my whiteboard spinners that I got from

I will draw this on my whiteboard and place a spinner in the middle:

I will spin the spinner and students will place a marshmallow or other game piece on the note that the spinner points to.  (They may only mark note at a time.)  The first student to get 4 in a row horizontally or vertically may call BINGO and they must play the notes they marked in order to get their prize.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Liven up your orchestra class with Balloon Bow Games!

I always keep a few bags of dollar store balloons in a drawer in my classroom so that we can do these fun bow games.  These are great to keep class interesting when students fall into a rut.  You can use balloons in many ways.  I give each student a balloon and have them blow it up themselves and tie it (I usually have to blow up one or two for students who can't tie balloons on their own.)  I then put on some bow game music and the students try to keep their balloon in the air using a perfect bow hold.  They must hit the balloon with the tips of their bows and they must sit down if their balloon touches the ground.    After this game, I collect all of the balloons and save them for the next day.

On the following day during bow games, I begin throwing out balloons all over the orchestra.  The students stay in their seats and try to keep all of the balloons up in the air - hitting them around to each other.

The final game I play with balloons is Sabotage.  I have 2 students come to the front...each must keep a balloon in the air with their bows, but they are allowed to try to hit the other player's balloon to the ground.  The first one to have their balloon hit the ground has lost.  This game is pretty hilarious to watch...and it makes a great Minute-to-win-it game, as well.