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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Orchestra Gives You Wings

I designed this bumper sticker/instrument case sticker to go with my theme for the year.  I use these bumper stickers for student rewards and for recruiting.  Students love earning little rewards for practicing and bumper stickers are pretty inexpensive.  I had mine printed at

This graphic is available for purchase HERE.

Teaching Tuning

I teach 3 levels of orchestra for 3 different grades and I tune my beginning classes by myself every day.  It doesn't take me very long, but I can't say I am always 100% accurate because I have so many to tune in a very short amount of time.  I try to get all 40 or so beginners tuned by 2 min. after the bell rings.  As soon as students get to 2nd year orchestra, I teach them how to tune themselves.  I do this right on the first day that we play.

I really don't like broken strings.  It takes class time to fix strings and they are expensive.  So, I give a lecture about tuning and post some rules about tuning to help students remember what to do in order to NOT break a string.

This poster is available as a download HERE:

First, I show students a rubber band (ideally I would pass out a rubber band to each student) and I stretch the rubber band super tight.  Students can experiment with the rubber bands to discover that the tighter they stretch the bands, the higher the pitch will go.

We then look at our instruments so students can discover which way they must turn pegs or fine tuners to make the string tighter or more loose.

I then begin an ear training exercise.  I should really do this every day for the entire first week, but sometimes I forget.  I tune my violin to a tuner that plays each pitch.  I ask students to compare my violin string with the tuner note and they show me a thumbs up if my string is too high and a thumbs down if my string is too low.  It was very interesting for me to see that many students have difficultly hearing the very small differences in pitch.  There is a game at that helps students practice hearing tiny adjustments in tuning and  intonation.  I have had students play this in the computer lab with headphones:

The last step is to have student try it!  The only way they will learn is to have the experience tuning themselves.  I play 4 open A's and students then echo back on their A strings.  I ask them to determine if they are too high or too low.  Then they must make the adjustment while plucking or playing.  This took a long time on the first day, but now we get it done in just a few minutes and we have had no broken strings.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tip for teaching how to hold a bow

Last week was my first week of school and it feels great to be back in the classroom.  My beginners brought their instruments for the very first time on Friday, and I taught them how to hold their bows and instruments.  There are quite a few common mistakes students make when first learning to hold their bows.  The big one is students who keep their thumbs straight instead of bent.  In order to  help students learn to keep their thumbs bent right from the start, I used stickers....and students were all able to understand and hold their bows correctly.

On the first day of school, I taught students to hold their pencils like a bow...and I start that by having them bend their thumbs and bring the pencil to the top of their bent thumbs.  So, students did have that experience before they had real bows in their hands.

(Sorry about the fuzzy cell phone wasn't taking great pictures.)

First, you can stick a smiley face sticker or animal sticker on students' thumbs.  This will bring their attention to their thumbs so they can check to make sure they stay bent.  I have students make the 'fox' shape with their hands...making sure the sticker on their thumbs are upright.

Next, I have students hide their stickers with the middle 2 fingers.  They should be able to peek-a-boo by showing their neighbor the sticker, then covering it by bending their middle fingers over the sticker.  I like this step because one problem some students have is not bending their fingers enough over the stick on the bow.

Before students try to hold their bows, I draw the shape of the frog on the white board and explain exactly where they are going to be placing their bent thumbs...half on the frog bump, half on the stick.  I then instruct students to hold the bow in front of them with their LEFT hand holding up the stick.  Students then place their thumb first.  They check to see if the sticker is upright and they should be able to see the sticker through the a window.

Students then hang the middle two fingers over the sticker, somewhat hiding the sticker.  (They can play peek-a-boo again with their stand partners)  I tell students to pretend they have one invisible finger between the index finger and middle finger and they must save that finger a place to 'sit.'  This helps students create that little bit of space between the index and middle fingers.  Violin and viola students then put their pinkies on top....close to the other fingers.  (If they try to place their pinkies far away from the other fingers, the pinky will not stay bent.)  Cello and bass students let their pinky fingers come down on the stick.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My first day of school - lesson plan/agenda

Today was my first day of school and it was so awesome and fun!  I really love teaching and I am happy to be back to school.

I thought I would share my lesson plan/agenda for my first day.  I decided to do way less class business and have a little more fun.  Students are learning rule after rule in other classes, so I decided to focus on one main procedure that I feel is vitally important in my class - being immediatly quiet when I am in front of the room and giving me full attention.  We worked on just that one rule and procedure in each of my classes - then we did the fun stuff.

I did use my first day activity that I made on  Here is the link:

There were not many students who had phones to use for the Kahoot, and I let students take turns on my own phone.  The rest of the students answered the questions by moving to a corner of the room that was labeled according to the choices for the Kahoot questions.  I made these little signs for each corner:

I really liked to have the students move around the created lots of energy and excitement for my class and many students told me that my class was the only one that did anything fun.

To get the beginning students even more excited, I taught them how to hold the bow using pencils... and they enjoyed that.  I told them that their homework was to make 10 perfect pencil bow holds in their next class.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How I Am Using "Be An Amazing Note-Reader" in my orchestra class

School is just about to start for me and I have been busy getting my classroom ready and making copies of things I will need for the first few weeks of school.  I like to use my workbook, "Be An Amazing Note-Reader" right when school starts.  The worksheets begin at a basic level and students can immediately begin working on learning their notes.

Last year, I made a copy of the workbook for each student.  It became a bit frustrating when students would lose their books, so this year I am making separate copies of the worksheets and to make grading faster and easier, I am printing a GradeCam score sheet on the back of each worksheet.

I will have students quickly correct their own work and fill in the GradeCam score sheet.  Then I just have to hold up each worksheet to my camera on my ipad or computer and GradeCam will input all of the scores for me instantly.

These worksheets provide students with something beneficial to do while I am busy assigning instruments, lockers, etc.

Available for download at

Friday, August 15, 2014

Using Kahoot for the first day of school

I am just toying with the idea of using a Kahoot on the first day of school.  This is a quiz that is projected on the screen in front of the class and students use their smart phones to answer the questions.  I whipped up a little sample, just in case I decide to try it with my students next week.  It's a bit silly, but I want students to relax and have fun.

Kahoots are very simple to create and the accounts are free if you want to make your own.

You can try it here by clicking the PREVIEW button...

Here is another one based more on a survey style...I like this one better:

One problem that happen with this type of technology is that there are always going to be students in the classroom without a phone and they would not be able to participate.  One way to get around this would be to label each corner of your classroom with the colored shapes used in the Kahoot for the different choices.  Then you can have students physically move to the corner of the room based on the answer they choose.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Orchestra Sign - CAUTION

I saw a sign similar to this on pinterest and changed it a little bit so that it would apply to orchestra.  I love it!  Now available to purchase as a printable HERE.

Another Bow Game/Exercise Idea - using canning rings or glow stick bracelets

There is another bow game that is fun for students to try.  All you need are some canning rings.  Students move the bow up and down through the ring, trying not to touch the edges.  It takes a great deal of control and concentration in order to not let the bow touch the ring.  I don't have very many canning rings, so I like to do this game with glow stick bracelets.  Our local grocery store carries 50 count packages of glow stick bracelets for only $4.00 and it is fun for students to try this game with the lights dimmed.  This is a good bow game to do when your students start getting tired of all the regular bow exercises that you do every day and the glow sticks liven things up a bit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bow Distribution

I must be on a bowing kick lately because I keep posting about bowing...but here is another little trick I use when teaching bow distribution.

There are times that students need to use less bow, or conserve the amount of bow they are using.  Some beginners perform with a very crooked bow because their arm is not yet trained to open at the appropriate angle for a straight bow.  When I am teaching fast 16th note passages, students who use too much bow tend to sound very sloppy and I encourage them to use less bow.  In each of these cases, you can use this little tip.  Clothes pins are very in-expensive and can be clipped right to the stick.  Enough of the clip hangs down to prevent students from passing the point on the bow where the clip has been placed.   If I want students to say in the middle of the bow, I place the clip toward the upper middle and students are then forced to bow in the right place.

It doesn't take long for students to understand bow distribution and be more aware of the amount of bow needed for various passages.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Group Bow Game - Passing the cups

Here is another bow game idea that works great for a class or group.  Ideally, arrange the seats so that the students are sitting in a circle.  (You could always just have them stand while doing this game.)  Turn on some music and have students pass the cup around the circle using the tips of their bows.  The rules are that the person with the cup only passes it when the next person is demonstrating a perfect bow hold.  For large groups, I use lots of cups at once so that there won't be a long wait between turns.  Students like doing this  - especially when there are lots of cups they are trying to pass around.  You can turn it into a race by dividing the class into 2 groups.  Sometimes, I add a little prize and mark a few of the cups with a little dot on the inside.  When I turn off the music, the students who have the marked cups get to pick a little treat.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

10x Perfect Practice Cards

In a previous post, I mentioned that I do not like to require practice cards for my orchestra classes because I want students to choose to practice on their own.  Also, I feel practice cards are much more effective when they are used less frequently.  There are times when I do need students to practice our concert music very carefully in order to be ready for our concerts  Every now and then, I give students the 10x Perfect Practice assignment.  I assign specific measures (very small chunks) from our concert music and students are required to play those measures perfectly 10 times every day.  Sometimes, I have sectionals and allow students to accomplish some of this during class time.  This works great for getting students to work on a specific small section of music and getting quick results from their practicing.   Students learn that it's not hard or time-intensive to practice a few measures 10 times and it is motivating when they sense their own progress.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Using marshmallows to ease tension in the left hand

Marshmallows come in super handy in orchestra class...who knew?  You can use them for the Marshmallow Game!  One problem many students have with their left hand is tension and squeezing.  To bring this to the attention of the students, give each student a marshmallow.  Make sure you tell them that they can't eat it!  During warm-ups, have students place the marshmallow directly under their left thumb.  Their job is to now make it through the warm-ups without squishing the marshmallow against the fingerboard.  The student with the most plump looking marshmallow after playing warm-ups is the winner.  It takes a great deal of concentration for some students to not squeeze with their thumb and the marshmallow helps students to remember to focus on the thumb through the entire exercise.  You should give it a try - students like this!  Plus, they get to eat a marshmallow when they are all done.

Cheap Fingerboard Tapes

I know there are some teachers who feel strongly that students should not have tapes on their instruments, but I like to use tapes so that students can visually see the relationship between fingers and tapes provide a great starting point when teaching position.  For example, I always set up my violin and viola players to keep their thumb on or a little behind the 1st tape.  Cello and bass players can use the tapes as a reference when placing their thumb on the neck between the 1st and 2nd tapes.

I've tried few different things as tapes over the years.  I used to always buy plain white name-tag sticker labels and I would cut them into strips to use as tapes.  This works pretty well, but the adhesive is so sticky that the tapes are hard to remove and these tapes can slide around a bit.

My son's Suzuki violin teacher taught me about car pin-striping tape.  These come in a few different colors and they work perfectly as fingerboard tapes.  They are just the right thickness at 1/8" and are easily found at any auto supply store for around $2.99 a package or on

My beginning orchestra classes are quite huge so it can take some time to get tapes on all the instruments.  To help the process go faster, I have beginners leave their instruments on one side of the room during the first week of school and I have students from my advanced classes place the tapes approximately where they should be without completely sticking the tapes all the way down and around the fingerboard.  Then, I am able to quickly check and move tapes to the right spot and stick them down.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Teaching students to diagnose playing problems

Students need to be taught how to fix issues with their playing right from the beginning.  One way I do this is to pass out these pretend doctor's diagostic forms.  I then play a short music example for my students while purposely doing something wrong.  Students then write down on the form the things I do wrong and what I need to do to fix my playing.

For example - playing too close to the bridge, playing with a crooked bow with bad tone, holding the bow incorrectly, playing with a collapsed wrist and bad intonation...

It is very telling to see what the students write on their papers.  I can instantly see if they understand the concepts I am teaching in class about technique.

Visit my store and I will email you this diagnostic worksheet free with any purchase!

My favorite and most fun bow game/exercise - Pennies!

Bow games are a big part of my daily routine in beginning orchestra and I have students do bow games every day for many months.  That means that I need to keep bow games interesting so that students don't get bored with doing them.

At the start of the year, students are in a new school as 7th graders and they tend to be extra quiet and a little reserved.  I want them to bond in my class and start making friends in orchestra as soon as possible.  This is one bow game that really helps students have fun together and start opening up.  It may be a little roudy for some teachers out there, but I absolutely love it and my students beg to play it over and over.  It's great for making your orchestra class FUN!

First, I give every student a penny and I have them balance it on their bent thumb.  The whole point of this exercise is for students to focus on their thumb as they hold the bow and help them remember that the thumb must stay bent.  I have students do all of the regular bow exercises with the penny on their thumb...stir the mush, circle face, arm wave (you can read about all of those on my previous post about bow games).  Students try to do all of the exercises without dropping the penny and they start getting just a tad competitive to see who can keep the penny on their thumb the longest.

When we get to the elevator bow exercise (holding the bow horizonally and moving it up and down), students put the penny on top of their hand.  This is so important for the students to know...that they must keep fingers bent while hold the bow so that the hand is flat!

Now to my favorite part.  We play a game called Sabotage.  When the weather is good, we go outside and spread out.  Each student balances the penny and they all run about with their bow and penny and try to knock the penny off of other people's thumbs.  The rules are that students may not use their left hand and they must maintain a proper bow hold the entire time.  When the penny falls off, they are out and must stand on the side to watch.  We play until there is one person left and then the students all beg to do it again.  If it's too crazy, you could make another running.  Students really bond during this game and it gets the class lively and fun.  So far, I have never had a bow break or anything.

I have also used Sabotage as a small classroom game.  It works in Minute to Win It as 4 to 6 students compete against each other for one minute.