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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Karate Strings Pass Off Sheet and Curriculum Guide

Part of my job is to mentor the instructors that teach beginning strings in the elementary schools in our district.  Our elementary orchestra classes meet before school only 2-3 times per week.  We have been doing a karate strings program and the students really enjoy earning the belts.  This year, we will be using a different  method book and I am totally re-structuring the curriculum.  I just finished making a new karate strings pass-off sheet and curriculum guide. Students will staple the karate paper in the front of their method books and pass off the belts throughout the school year.   The curriculum guide is for teachers so that we stay on track for our final concert when we combine all students together (over 300!) for a giant Monster Concert.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

New Trinkets for Teaching Beginning Strings

I'm always on the lookout for trinkets to use in my classes to help students learn position and to keep the class fun.  I had a colleague once tell me that he would never use trinkets in his class, and that's fine.  Every teacher needs to stay true to his/her own personality.  Yet, we do teach children, and children like little toys.  Object lessons and mini-challenges help students remember our objectives and they help students focus on accomplishing specific goals in their practice.  I recently found a site called and I bought a few items to use in my class.  Things from this site were very inexpensive and I am impressed with the quality of the items.  Here are some pictures of the items I will be trying out in my class.

My favorite item that I found is this balancing eagle.  It will work great for teaching students to keep violins/violas level on the shoulder.  Students can practice balancing the eagle on their instruments.  The eagle toy is pretty awesome and I bought enough of these for students to earn throughout the year by meeting certain practice goals.  It's amazing what students will do for a little 30 cent toy. :)

The balancing eagle can also be balanced on the fingers.  This works well for showing violin and viola students to keep fingers round and tall.

I thought these eyeball rings might be useful for placing on the bow as a bow distribution lesson.  After trying this out, I noticed that these rings will only work for full size bows.  The circle part will be too wide for smaller bows and these probably would not work on the fingers of young students.  I teach 7th grade beginners, so these rings will fit my students.

These rings could also be balanced in the scroll as the student plays.  It is impossible to keep the eyeballs in the scroll with poor position.  This draws students focus to proper playing position as they practice their music.

I love these little emoji stress balls.  I will be using these for finger strengthening exercises and some team rhythm games.  (I should write a post someday about the fun rhythm games we play using balls)

I purchased a bunch of these 2 minute timers to use in class and for students to earn as a practice incentive.  I don't want students to watch the clock as they practice, but I do want them to realize how much they can accomplish in only 2 minutes when they really focus.  We can use this to time students as they perform repetitions on a small excerpt of music and see who can get the highest number of perfect reps.  When students practice, we don't want them to just play through a piece once.  We want them to work...and I will be teaching them how to really practice using these timers.  I have used this timer with my son in his piano practice, and it really helps keep him motivated and focused.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Technology Awesomeness - AirPlay!

I use my laptop, iPad, and projector almost every day in my classes.  I haven't needed a gym membership because I get plenty of exercise running to push 'play' or 'stop' on my iPad as needed.  Though I probably needed the exercise, why didn't anyone ever tell me about!  AirServer is going to change the way I teach.  It is super duper awesome.  I just installed it today and can't wait to use it in the classroom.  It's inexpensive, it's easy, and it works great!  What does it do, you ask?

The AirServer program runs on your computer and allows other devices to connect through the same WiFi so that your computer can mirror the screen of your portable device.  Now I won't be tied down by wires when working with my phone or iPad in class!  I can keep my device with me as I walk around the room, mirror my device's screen to my computer that is connected to the projector, and wowie wow - so much easier!  Plus, you can have multiple screens mirrored to the computer at one time.  That is so awesome! This will be very handy when we are playing classroom games using the iPads.  The teams can pass the iPads around and the whole class will stay engaged because they will all be able to see what is happening on the screens.  Also, my iPhone would not connect to my projector before, but with AirServer, I can connect my phone via my computer with no problems.

Maybe everyone else already knows about this, but I just thought I'd tell you anyway because I'm pretty excited. :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The True Beginning: Before the Method Book reviews

I have a slight addiction to getting packages in the mail so yesterday was a happy day because I  received my spiral bound copy of "The True Beginning: Before the Method Book"!  It's nice to have the digital files for curriculum because its easier to keep track of everything and you never have to worry about losing an original.  Even so, I love having a printed and bound copy of this book!  It's easier to read and with a printed copy, I can write in the margins and add more ideas.

My other products in my store have all been digital file downloads, but I decided to give teachers the option of purchasing this book as a hard copy.  You can either purchase the digital file and hard copy together as a set for $40 at my store:, or if you only want the printed book, you may purchase it for $25 at

I have received feedback from some teachers who have already purchased this book.  Here are the comments I have received so far:

Dear Angie:

Have read a great deal of your book already.  It is right on.

Good luck with your book.  Every beginning student, and their parents,
need to read it and do the work pages.

Thanks for sending it to me.  I know that you put a tremendous amount of
time and work into this project.

Thanks again,

Got it.  Thank you so much!!  I can't imagine how much work this was for you.  This fall will be my 12th year of teaching, but only my 2nd teaching beginning/middle school orchestra....this is going to be such a valuable resource!!  Thanks again, and keep up your amazing work!

Thank you! These are so great.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Practice with PURPOSE

I've been thinking a lot about practicing since I am presenting a session about motivating students to practice at the 2015 NAfME National Convention in Nashville.  My oldest son started taking Suzuki violin lessons when he was 4 years old.  I practiced with him every day and we made some good progress, as long as we practiced exactly the way the teacher told us to practice.  But, there were plenty of times when I could hardly get my 4-year-old to get out his violin...let alone get him to hold his instrument the right way.  After a year or so, my little beginner violinist was in a rut.  We weren't making any progress, even though we were practicing.  He was getting frustrated, and so was I...because I knew it was my fault.  It was such a struggle just to get him to practice, I was allowing him to quickly play through all of the songs and exercises, without really working to make sure he played accurately.  We were practicing every single day, but we were practicing just to check it off the to-do list... not to improve skills.  This slowed his progress tremendously and it wasn't as fun.  It was like we were stuck at a red light that was never turning green.  We just couldn't progress. Thankfully, we had a wise and experienced teacher who waited for us to get it right before we moved on in the repertoire.  If she had let us move ahead before mastering necessary skills, my son probably would have become more frustrated and quit lessons.

I didn't want to be working on Twinkle Twinkle forever.  I knew we had to transform our practicing and raise our standards.  To help my son stay motivated, I installed a toy basketball net on the door to our living room and I let him try to make a basket every time he completed a task on our practice agenda.  We worked extra hard during practice, paying attention to every bow stroke, every note, and every sound that came out of the violin.  We focused on one technique at a time during each repitition that he played:  Intonation, Tone, Bowing, Rhythm.  Instead of just playing through our exercises, we listened, analyzed, and corrected.  We made sure each repitition was perfect.  After one week of our new practice standards our teacher was amazed at our sudden improvement.  After hearing my son at his next lesson, she exclaimed, "What's the secret!?  What did you do!?"

The secret about practicing is that time doesn't matter.  The secret is about paying attention, focusing and correcting everything you do.  It's about practicing with a PURPOSE!  This takes a great deal of maturity, so a parent must help a  young child when they practice.  As a public school orchestra teacher, I need my students to learn how to practice effectively on their own.  I guarantee that most students think practicing is playing through a song once or twice - that's how I used to practice as a kid and I wish I would have known better.  Specific practice assignments which describe exactly how and what to practice will help students learn how to progress.  Since beginners don't know how to break up a piece into smaller sections, tell them the measures you would like them to work on and demonstrate how practice bowing, intonation, etc.

Here is a poster I just made to help students remember how to practice.  This will help students remember that practicing takes thought, focus, and purpose!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"These are BEGINNERS???"

"These are BEGINNERS???"  I hear that phrase quite often when parents, teachers, administration, or music store reps come to visit my classroom. It makes me smile and I always tell my class about these compliments.  I'm not saying that there are never times when we sound like a horror movie soundtrack, because sometimes we do....sometimes.  People tend to assume that a beginning music class should sound bad, but that is a myth!  Students really can learn to sound good from the beginning.

I am always amused when I open beginner method books.  Each method book contains that first page with a picture or two, showing students how they should hold their instruments and bows.  Then, the music begins and students must focus all attention on the page to play with the class.  As soon as students are looking at a page of music, they are not looking at their position or bow hold.  I set out to elaborate the process of teaching bow hold and instrument position and I'm still amazed that it took 97 pages to teach what the method books teach in one page. (see

Every year that I teach, I spend more and more time allowing my beginners to become comfortable with the basics of playing, before cracking open the method book.  Last school year, I didn't even have students bring their books until we had been playing in class for a little over 2 weeks.  When we finally did start using the method, it was easy for the students.  They had the basics down, and the method book became a tool for reinforcement.  Students were able to progress very quickly through the first part of the book and they sounded good - right from the start!  The method book is not the lesson plan.  I use it for reinforcing.  Students learn skills first, THEN we open the book and they see what the skills look like on paper.

I like using method books and I always will use one in my class, but I do believe that beginners need more than just a method book.  I had a student transfer to my class from another town.  His mother called me to ask me about my class and about my practice requirements.  She told me that her son was not enjoying orchestra because the teacher was requiring the students to practice out of the method book for 30 minutes per day.  I told her that I do not grade on practicing, so her son decided to continue in orchestra and take my class.  This student now frequently tells me that orchestra is his favorie class.  I wonder if we sometimes squelch student's passion for music by forcing method book music all the time.  There are some fun tunes in method books, but the music is mostly exercises designed to develop specific techniques and skills.  Students will stay better motivated if they LOVE the music.  Since most of my students want to burn their method books at the end of the year, I don't get the impression that they love method book music as much as the other music we do in class.

My beginner classes tend to learn fast and I love our first concert in October, because parents are amazed that the students are beginners.  It's so fun to 'wow' an audience, and we do it every year. I believe we can do this because the method book has become our tool for reinforcing instead of becoming THE curriculum.  Students stay motivated by learning other supplemental pieces which have multi-level parts so that all students can progress and improve on their level.  The students who learn faster than others can be challenged by learning the more difficult melodies, and their talents take flight.  Once the rest of the class hears students playing a difficult melody, they want to learn it too and they practice.  This is why I don't have a practice requirement.  I do my best to motivate them, and they choose to practice.

For the supplemental music, I use mostly fiddle tunes that I have arranged with more than one part.  Students love music that has more than one part because it sounds more like 'real' music.  I included 3 of these pieces in my book;  "The True Beginning:  Before the Method Book."  I also use the "Basic Fiddlers Philharmonic" book by Andrew Dabzynski and "Strings Extraordinaire" by McAllister/Monday.