I recently received the following email from a reader and I thought it would be helpful to answer the question on my blog to help other teachers who may be feeling the same way:
Thank you for your great blog!! I am the orchestra director for two middle schools in New Mexico. I am grateful for your ideas.
So, I have some questions for you! Every year, I get frustrated and bored teaching my beginners. I do not know how to make it fun to learn to pluck D and A. This year, I switched to String Basic and I still feel frustrated. i always remind the students that it will get fun, "once you learn the notes", but what a lame excuse! Can I not make it fun in the meantime? Please help.
Middle School Orchestra Teacher
When I start a group of beginners, I always feel a sense of urgency to quickly teach the basics so we can really play, but talent needs time and careful attention to develop properly. Students are anxious to play real tunes and it can be difficult to keep the beginning stage interesting. Even though students are only plucking open strings, there are so many fun things you can do with the students to develop skills. Students really don't have the endurance to hold their instruments up and pluck for very long, so it helps to break up the activities. I LOVE the first few days because students are so eager and excited to learn.
Here is what my first few days look like in my class, and I hope it will help you see how students work on a variety of skills and how they can be excited to learn, even while just plucking their open strings. I keep student interest (and myself entertained) by: playing a game of some kind every day, teach something new every day, build on previously learned skills, varying the activites, keeping a quick pace in the classroom (time flys), and using open strings in a variety of ways (pizzicato, pizz/slap, open strings with bow, open strings with rhythm reading, open strings as a back-up to fun melody, open strings as first note-reading experience).
By day 5, my students have started using the left hand, and we progress and learn at least one small new skill each day. We just finished our 3rd week of playing, and my students are playing Twinkles (melody and harmony parts), D scale, Sourwood mountain harmony (D string notes), Sourwood Mountain open strings back-up, Bonny James open strings - half notes, Hot Cross Buns, and Mary Had a Little Lamb. We also just started 'Largo' which is in Strings Extraordinaire. Beginners have learned to count quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes so they can read the music on the 'B/harmony' lines of Largo which is all open strings. 'Largo' is their first experience reading music and it is very non-intimidating with simple rhythms and only open strings.
BEGINNING DAY 1:
1. Bow holds with straw only. Learn bow exercises using the straw bow hold. Balance a penny on top of the bow and play 'minute to win it' to see if students can keep the penny while moving the straw various ways while keeping correct bow hold. Try balancing ping pong balls on tops of the straws.
2. Learn the Staff - notes lecture - cars/motorcycles on lines
3. Notes anatomy - practice drawing note heads on staff
4. Learn instrument parts using 'Instrument parts song.'
BEGINNING DAY 2:
Video of week: Junk food at gym - good position is essential
Bellwork: The rule for drawing stems on notes -up or down
Review bow hold - teach yet again: Hang on monkey bars
Bow games with music
Cello/Bass Pow-Wow - how to handle instruments
Rest position - Play position
Plucking songs (Ants and The Plucking Song) - learn open strings
Instrument parts Kahoot
BEGINNING DAY 3:
Video of the day: Nolan Cheddar Cheese commercial: Rat caught in trap - you can do it!
Review bow hold: Fingers in drawer
Bellwork: Bow hold checklist - students mark their own progress.
I CAN statements -first week- self check
Instrument parts worksheet practice
Bow games to DISCO music
Plucking songs - Play Simon Says as a way to test student attention/focus and to see if they have memorized the names of the strings. Gain fluency with plucking correct strings.
Tukka Tukka on shoulder/lap. Think of other words for the rhythm: Pepperoni pizza..etc
Tukka on open strings - bowing on string for the first time. Teach how to keep bow straight. Have students pair up and be the 'spotter' to keep bows on the highway between fingerboard and bridge.
BEGINNING: Day 4
BELLWORK: LABEL OPEN STRINGS on a worksheet/fingerboard
*Required practice assignment
1. Bow holds - AGAIN - dots - WATCH VIDEO about bow holds
2. Penny game and spider race - balance penny on bent thumbs for bow games.
3. Rest - Play position
4. Plucking songs
5. Bow/Scrub the string - bow on shoulder
*RE-ROSIN - teach about rosin
6. FIRST MUSIC: Sourwood - pizz/slap
BEGINNING: Day 5
Bellwork: Ledger lines - practice drawing notes above and below the staff
During tuning, mark dots on each violin/viola students thumb side corners. (This is where the fingers will touch the tapes on the fingerboard.) Draw smiley face on left thumbs. Students must hide the smiley face on the thumb when placing thumb on the neck - no hitch-hiker thumbs!)
Bow games with m&ms - balance M&M's on thumb)
Suckers - balance on instruments - ruff ruff game
Cans of pop for cellos to 'freeze' left hand shape
Strengthen left hand - use stress balls and do finger strenghening exercises and finger pops.
Teach left hand position for violin/viola. Set hand on instruments for the first time.
Use left hand fingers for the first time - finger taps on fingerboard
Sourwood - with iREAL app on iPad - super fun back-up to the open strings.
As you can see from my basic plans, students are plucking open strings every day, but we are working on a wide range of activites so students are never bored. I did not even crack open our method book until last week (3rd week of playing) We play a game of some kind every day. Students LOVE to play open string back-up part to my Sourwood Mountain because I teach them how to pluck, then slap the strings so that it creates a percussion type sound. When we add a back-up track via the iReal pro app, they really sound like they are making real music and it makes the open strings pizz. more exciting.
Sourwood Mountain can be found in a book called "Basic Fiddlers Philharmonic." For my class, I use my own simplified arrangement and we learn 3 different parts: open string back up, harmony, then melody. I made a chord progression for my arrangement in iReal Pro, and set the back-up to be country/bluegrass style. I have a number of arrangements I have written that have open string parts which a more advanced melody. Students learn the open strings first, while I play the melody along with any advanced students who may be in my beginning class. This keeps the beginners very motivated because they want to learn the melody and many work extra hard to learn notes so they can play melody.
I hope this helps! I realize my lesson plans are not super detailed, but I did explore many of the details in the book I wrote called "The True Beginning: Before the Method Book.". Feel free to comment with questions. :)