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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last Minute Halloween Class Activity

I normally play games with my students on Halloween, but I have been super busy and it takes a lot of time to prepare for the games that I normally play.  So, I just quickly prepared this composition actvity for my students to do on Halloween.  This assignment will help me target students who are not understanding the components of notated music.  In order to complete this, students must understand clef, key signatures, time signatures, rhythms and they must know their notes.  While students are working on this assignment, I will be helping them one-on-one with notes, position, rhythm or whatever the student currently needs to work on.

This is for all you other procrastinaters out there:  :)

For a more advanced group - revised page 1:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Student Learning Objective for Orchestra Class -Rhythm

My district is one that is implementing Student Learning Objectives...which are basically large-scale goals for each student in class based on their ability levels.  Teachers have to set target scores/learning outcomes for lower level learners to higher level learners.  That means there has to be some sort of pre-assessment in order to determine the level of the students.  I really have struggled in attempting to create pre-assessments for orchestra.  It has been hard to wrap my head around giving a test to see what I know students don't know yet...since I haven't taught the skill, yet.

Anyway, I am focusing my learning objective on rhythm.  I want to be sure my students are fluent note-readers and rhythm readers.  For my pre-test, I will use the 'I Got Rhythm' form that I created.  This can be used many different ways and can be a useful tool in a variety of rhythm exercises.  For my pre-assessment, I will perform the rhythm from one box on each line...and I will have students circle the rhythm that they think I played.  This will help me see if students are already recognizing these rhythms.  The rhythms get progressively more difficult as you move down the page, so I will be able to set some learning targets for individual students.  Eventually of course, students will demonstrate the ability to perform these rhythms on their own - by the end of year 1.

I can also use this form as a rhythm exercise...students can perform the rhythms across and down each line.  They can cut them up to make flashcards. You can use the different rhythms for warm-ups and scales.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tunes by Finger Number

I was looking through my files online and found these little tunes I put together by finger number.  I created this for a quick activity at the beginning of class.  I wanted to make sure students were able to read not only note names, but also finger numbers.  I needed to know that when I told students to play a 3rd finger...they would know what I was talking about.

The first tune on the paper is Go Tell Aunt Rhody, the second is Pirates of the Carribbean, and the last one is Bile Them Cabbage.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Do your students know how to follow a conductor?

I have a concert coming up next week, and I have been thinking about my role as a conductor.  Do the students even know what I'm doing up there on my podium?   During class, I am much more of a teacher than a conductor and I don't think I have taught the students to watch and follow my conducting.  Before school today, I was thinking about how I could teach my class to understand the role of a conductor and how to follow a conductor.

I got the idea to play a game called family feud.  This idea came to me pretty last minute, so I didn't have much time to prepare, but I quickly downloaded the family feud powerpoint game template from this site:

Next, I edited one of the slides to say what I consider to be the top jobs of a conductor - (for my little beginning orchestras - I'm sure this list could have been more complex, but remember, this was for beginners.)

The students LOVED playing this game!  I split the class into 2 team and designated a spokesperson for each team.  I spoke to the class about my job as a teacher and also my role as a conductor.  I told them that I listed 5 of my jobs as a conductor on the game board - in order of importance.  The spokesperson conferred with their teams to decide on an answer to guess.  I gave each team one guess to see if they could guess any items from my list and they got 100 points every time they got a right anwer.  (I didn't worry about the whole 'Survey Says' bit.)  The winning team got a few M&M's.  In the real game of family feud, teams get to guess until they get 3 strikes, but we just alternated turns.

This was a great way for me to find out what students know about conducting and it helped them understand that I'm not just flapping my arms around!  After playing this game, students were really trying to watch and follow my conducting and I had them practice watching me and following me with scales....then on our concert pieces.

INTRODUCING...My latest original piece written for beginning string orchestra - CASTLE RISING

Beginners love to play in minor keys, so I wrote this piece in the very playable key of e minor.  This is a piece students will love to practice and every instrument has a fun part.  You can purcase the download of this music for your class - 18 pages total and it includes an 8 page score, and parts for 1 Violin, II Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass.  Right now, I am offering this sheet music download for only $8.00 at my STORE (for a limited time)!  This is a very economical way to get some music for your orchestra...and you can just print parts - you never have to worry about losing originals.

Check it out!  And I would love to hear feedback.  If you would like to hear a recording, please email me at:  I will send you free midi file so you can hear what this piece sounds like. (I can't figure out how to attach the recording to a blog post.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Motivating Students: Video of the week plans for 10/20/2014

I heard a story about Itzhak Perlman recently and I told my class the story last week.  (Hopefully, it is true!) This is what I heard:  Besides being a virtuoso violinist, Itzhak Perlman is also a great cook and he was once on a television program as a guest on a cooking show.  The host asked Mr. Perlman if there was one thing he could change about his life, what would it be?  You would think he would have said something about the illness of polio that he suffered with in his childhood.  Nope!  He said that he wished his first teacher would have taught him to keep his left thumb low and a bit under the neck because it was too hard for him to break that habit when he got older.  Wow!  A good solid position is so essential when teaching beginners!  I told my students this story because I also teach them to keep the left thumb low and slightly under the neck and my students really tried to keep their position perfect after hearing this story.

As a follow up, I am going to show some videos of Itzhak Perlman for my video of the week. As I mentioned in previous posts, I always show my students a short video on Mondays to help motivate and inpsire them to work hard and practice throughout the week.

First I will show them this video about practicing SLOWLY.

Next I will show them a few minutes of Itzhak Perlman playing some of the Tchaikovsky concerto (I told my students how I used to listen to it when I was learning violin in 7th grade).

We will then discuss how they felt about the performance.  Did Mr. Perlman make it look easy?  Did they notice his left thumb?  Did they notice how close he keeps his fingers to the fingerboard.  Did the piece sound like it was hard to play?  Did his bow hold look relaxed or tense? etc...

Finally, I will show my students a few mintues of the same concerto...this time performed by someone their own age who lives in a town only 20 minutes from us.  I want them to see that young students can accomplish great things through hard work and careful practice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Getting students QUIET during rehearsal

Classroom management is pretty important in an orchestra class.  We arm students with noisy instruments with so many tempting sound effects...then we must ask that they only play them when we say.  It takes quite a bit of self-control.

From the very first week of school, I implement a few procedures so that my students will immediately be quiet when I need their attention.  When I stand just to the left of my podium/stand, students are to go to rest position.  When I step in front of my stand, they go to 'ready' position (violin and viola students put instruments upright on knees).  When my violin or arms go up, they go to play position and set their bow on the string without making a sound until I start.  We practice that procedure so that students always know what to do based on where I am standing.  This procedure works great for rehearsals when I am mostly in front of the class.

There are plenty of times where I am walking through the class as I teach in order to help and correct individual students.  If the class has become too loud, it would not be as effective for me to have to walk all the way to the front just to stand by my podium to make the class get quiet.  There are also times when I am trying to keep a quick pace to my lesson and I don't want to take the time to go to rest position.  In these cases, I simply show the class my bow hold (sometimes I am holding a bow, a pencil, or nothing...I just model a bow hold and stick my hand in the air).  Students are trained to immediately be quiet and show me their bow holds.  It is a way I can quickly get their attention and re-direct their focus when the class is too loud.

I like to have fun with my classes, so I let them get noisy at times.  But, we also work hard and my students know when it is time to be quiet and get to work.  These 2 procedures are working well for me.  The thing I like best about these procedures is that I don't have to say anything -  it is all non-verbal and very easy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Keeping orchestra fun - ideas and thoughts

 I show my classes a 'video of the week' every Monday with some sort of message that I want students to internalize during the week.  Sometimes my videos involve musical performance and sometimes they are fun and crazy....but they all apply to my class.  Students really look forward to these short little video clips and it helps keep my class fun and interesting.

This week, I showed this crazy little video:

I tied this into my class by speaking to them about how they can learn ANYTHING if they practice.  Students immediately got the message and they enjoyed watching this video.  I have been thinking about the similarities between practicing sports and practicing instruments.   I talked to my class about practicing free throws for basketball.  A player does not throw the ball until they finally get one basket, and then be done practicing and expect to be ready for a big game.  A basketball player must practice getting the ball into the basket consistently every time.  We then discussed practicing accurately and how they must practice difficult sections many times correctly to really benefit their playing.

Many kids like to practice for sports...because it's fun!  There are plently of students who struggle with the desire to practice their instruments and I feel it is because they do not find it FUN.  That means, that the time spent in orchestra class must be fun and engaging.  Students practice when it is fun to practice.  Also, music selection is crucial.  Students will practice if they love the music.

A few weeks ago for my video of the week, I showed this video because we were learning basic counting and rhythms:

I mentioned to the class that it would be fun to get those whistle/air blowers and blow in them during the rests while counting.  I found some blowers at and bought some for my class.  The other day, we used them while we were counting rhythms projected in front of the class using the Rhythm Cat app.  These little blowers kept it fun...and all students were working hard to make sure they were counting correctly so that they could blow in them during the rests.  Here are a few pictures of the class doing this activity:

How do you keep your class fun?  Feel free to leave comments!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Beginning Orchestra Self-Assessment using I Can Statements

This week, I created this document and had students self-assess their abilities.  These are the things I want my students to master right away.  I found it very interesting to see how students filled in these papers.  They answered very honestly and I became aware of students who need my help.  I am now directing my teaching based on student needs.  It also helped students know my expectations and it shows students the things they need to be focusing on during practice.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A student with struggles

I am really trying to target my lower-level learners in my classes to hopefully help them catch up and experience success in orchestra.  I have been working with one cello student who just can't seem to understand how to get his left hand to work properly.  He will not bend his fingers or keep his thumb on the neck of the cello.  So far, I have not been able to find a solution that has 'cured' his issues, though I do work with him every day and I am constantly trying new things to help him progress.  After I fixed his hand for the 5th time in a row in class today, I could tell that he was getting very frustrated and emotional.  Time to think of a brilliant idea to help him feel better....

We string teachers are like doctors, sometimes.  We diagnose performance issues and we try everything to cure our students ailments.  Today I think I may have missed the mark, though.  I was so concerned about my student's hand position, I didn't consider his feelings about playing or about my class.  It is my job to find something to help this student experience success.  In my study of the Suzuki method, I learned that Dr. Suzuki always thought of something nice to say about each student's performance....even if all he could say was, "You played!"  Students need to experience some degree of success in order to develop the motivation to keep working and keep trying.

I just stumbled upon this little fortune:

 I would love to have some fortune cookies stuffed with this fortune to pass out to students who are having an especially bad day.  I think I will buy some fortune cookies from the grocery store, take out the fortunes with tweezers, and replace them with this little note.  (Yes, I'm serious.)  Don't we all sometimes just need a little encouragement?  :)

Going digital - the benefits of teaching with digital content

I would bet that many of you, (like me), have files and binders full of worksheets, assignments, teaching aids, staff paper.....etc. taking up valuable classroom space.  The longer I teach, the less I find myself using my paper filled files.  It is so much more convenient to have all of my curriculum on my computer organized into very specific folders.  I can find anything I need so quickly and easily...and I never lose an original.  Plus, I can always make as many copies as I need each year.

As an orchestra teacher, sometimes I am mailed complimentary copies of string method books, theory books, or rhythm books to see if I want to purchase sets for my classes.  I am now to the point where I only want material that is digital.  If only my entire music library was digital...that would save so much time and expense when individual parts go missing!

I believe that digital curriculum needs to be the future of our classrooms.  Students benefit greatly when they have access to worksheets and teaching aids on the computer so they can print any missing work they need or practice remedial skills.  I upload all of my worksheets and assignments to google docs so that students can access them at home. 

When you have digital files, you can embed them into iPad ExplainEverything.  I use ExplainEverything to demonstrate to my class how to complete various assignments, how to read music notation, how to read and understand key signatures...the possibilities are endless.  I do this by saving my .pdf as an image file (right from adobe acrobat - "save as" feature).  Next, I save the images into a folder in DropBox.  When I make a new ExplainEverything presentation, I access dropbox and choose the image I would like to embed in the presentation.  

Check out some of my digital content (downloads) at my  STORE.  There are even some free items to download there...check it out!  You will love adding to your digital curriculum.