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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Music Magazine - October 2015, page 22 - Here I am!

During the summer, I was honored to be interviewed for an article in Teaching Music Magazine (published by NAfME) about technology in the orchestra classroom.  Yesterday I received my copy in the mail and I was so excited to see the article in print.  I love using technology in my classroom and I have found many ways in incorporate technology.  The article could only mention a few of the ways I use technology in my classroom, but soon I will write a post with more ideas.

This week to encourage my students to practice, I gave them an assignment involving the use of technology.  Students had to record themselves during part of their practice using a phone, ipad, or other recording device.  Next they answered questions about the things they noticed about their playing.  I have been so impressed with the insightful comments students have been making about their practice sessions.  After watching themselves in the recordings, many students have a renewed desire to work harder and get better.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Each Friday, I have been playing a sort of review game with my beginners as a way for me to keep class fun and to assess student progress.  I thought I would post a couple of the games I have done so far.  These games are super simple and I don't use the entire class period for a game.  Students really look forward to Friday Fun Day and I feel it helps students focus on the skills I am teaching during the week.

A week ago, my game was a simple balloon toss.  As students entered my classroom, they were instructed to pick up a balloon, blow it up, and place it under their chairs.  They were told that their balloon would be taken away if it was being mis-used.  For bow games, every student tried to keep their balloon in the air and they LOVED it.  I should have taken a classroom was full of color and students were engaged and determined to keep their balloons up.  By the way - I didn't let them have their instruments out during this activity.  I recommend that instruments are kept in cases, just to be safe.  Students could only play the game if their bow hold was perfect.  If I caught them with a bad bow hold, they had to sit down while I helped and corrected.

After this activity, I divided the class into 2 halfs (violins against viola/cello/bass).  They had to stay in their seats and try to keep as many of the balloons in the air as possible using their bows with perfect bow holds.  The team who whose balloons all dropped first was the loser.  This happened pretty quickly because students could not get out of their seats to reach balloons.  If I caught a student with a bad bow hold, they had to put their bow down and could not help their team.

This one is kindof hard to explain, but I'll try...
Throughout the week, I had been talking to my students about gaining ninja reflexes with note-reading and finding notes on their instruments quickly with perfect accuracy.  To play the game, I divided the class into 2 teams (violins against viola/cello/bass).  One team received a dry erase packet with a staff (one per student) so they could write note names ninja-fast - you could call this game NINJA NOTES.   I printed cards with note names in various combinations   This week, we were drilling and learning the notes on the D string, so my note combinations were:  D  F#  G   E, or G  E  F#  D, etc.  When I held up the card, students on the team had to draw the notes on the staff in the correct order and show me by holding up their packet.  As soon as EVERY member of the team was holding up their packet with the correct notes, the team had to pluck the notes in tune with best position.  The team had to try to finish drawing and plucking the notes before the other team finished their challenge.

Team 2 had to complete a ninja-reflex challenge as quickly as possible.  The challenges I did for the Ninja-Reflexes were 1. Pass a cup from bow to bow using the tip to each person on the team.  They had to try to get the cup to every member of the team before the other team finished the Ninja Notes.  2.  One member of the team had to throw a ball to every member of their team - back and forth - without dropping it.  (You need good reflexes to pay attention and catch a ball.)  3.  Students had to build a Jenga tower on a music stand.

After we did the 3rd variation, we switched so that the opposite team did the Ninja Notes while the other team did the Ninja Reflexes challenge.  Whichever team finished first on each NINJA NOTE/NINJA REFLEX challenge got a point.

This game really helped me to identify which students are going to need more help with reading notes.  I hope it also helped some students realize that they need to practice reading notes to gain speed.

Reader Question: Games for the Orchestra Classroom - Halloween Game Idea

I received the following email earlier this week and would like to answer this here on my blog:

Hi Angela,

First, thank you for all of your awesome blog posts!  I've used several of them with great success in my classroom.  You mentioned in one of your posts about Halloween compositions that you usually play Halloween themed games with your students that required more complicated setup than you had time for that year.  Would you mind sharing what you do for those games?  I'm searching for ways to make orchestra more fun and incorporate more games into our curriculum.  


A few years ago when my classes were smaller, I spent a lot more time on games that required a lot of preparation.  Now that my classes are so large, I do much more simple games that allow more students to play at the same time.  I believe that games must be selected carefully based on the size and ability of your class.  Games are an amazing learning tool because they are fun and everyone loves to have fun.  This year, I have incorporated 'Friday Fun Day' (see my post about Friday Fun Day)- where I play a game with my beginners every Friday.  The game is always based on the things we were working on during the week.  For the students, it is just a game.  For me, it is all about learning outcomes - I can instantly see which students need extra help and which students need to be challenged.

For the Halloween game I did with my students when my classes were smaller, I printed pumpkin cards at the following website:

Next, I came up with mini-games and labeled the cut-out pumpkin cards with the names of my mini-games.  (I also printed a sheet of cards that said 'treat' and some rhythm examples)

Here what I did for the games:

Spell it out:  Students race (one student per team) to the whiteboard and draw notes on the staff for any words that I say.  (I had a list of words using only letters from the music alphabet.)  Words like Badge, baggage, bead, cafe.

Noteworthy Dash:  Students race to the whiteboard (one student per team) and must be first to draw whatever notes I ask them to draw.  

Treat:  The student who draws this card gets to pick a treat/candy.

Printed Rhythm:  The student who draws this card must clap the rhythm for me with no mistakes.

Picture This:  One person from each team comes up and shows me their best bow hold, instrument position, vibrato technique, shifting technique (this can be adjusted based on the level you teach).  The person with the best position gets the point.  You could also do a pictionary type challenge with this one.  Have students draw something orchestra related on the board and the teams have to guess.

Show me the RHYTHM:  Students race to the board (one student per team) and must write a rhythm that I clap.  The first one with the correct rhythm gets the point.

Sightreading Showdown:  I bring some old method books and select a few lines for sightreading.  When a student draws this card, they get to select any student from any other team to compete against.  Each must sightread the same line.  The student who can play the longest without making a mistake is the winner.

Scale Jail:  The student who draws this card must play any scale I ask them to play.  If they play it right, they get a point.

Daring Duel:  Students duel against a student from their choice from another team.  You could have them play a passage from concert music to see who is best, or you could let them play bow game challenges.  I give them each a balloon and see who can keep it in the air the longest.  Or I let them play 'sabotage' where they can try to knock down the other person's balloon, but must keep their own balloon in the air at the same time.  The first person whose balloon drops loses.

To play the game, I divided the class into 5 or 6 teams of about 5 people each.  We sat on the edges of the room to leave the center clear to play the game.  One student from each team took turns coming up to choose a card.  They had to complete the mini-game on each card and points were given to the winning teams.  The team with the most points at the end of the class period was the winner.  Some of the mini-games are team games - where each team sends a student up to compete and any team can earn the point.  Other games were individual where the person drawing the card had to earn the point themselves  This game worked great when my class sizes were between 20 and 35.  I wouldn't recommend this game in a larger class because the teams would be too large - students would be sitting too long before getting a turn and they become restless.

I hope this post gets your creative juices flowing and that you have fun with your students!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reader Question: My lesson plans for the first 5 days

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.

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.'

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

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
Instrument positions
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.

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

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.  :)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

First day of School - Introduction to bow holds - beginning orchestra

Things have been crazy busy since the school year started a couple weeks ago.  This year, I am teaching 6 classes with a total of 275 students.  It's been really hard to find any spare time!

I had a fabulous first day and it felt so good to be back in the classroom.  I tend to do things differently every year because I like to try new things.  Because students are always bombarded with teacher disclosures and classroom policies, I like to wait until day 2 to start going over business.  Students are excited to learn to play, and I want to keep them excited and give them something to practice from the very first day.  This year, I passed out straws to every student.  We learned how to hold the bow using the straw.  We then played a game where students had to balance a penny on top of their straw.  Students took the straws home and practiced their bow holds and they were determined to be able to keep the pennies on their bows.  When they came to class on day 2, their bow holds were already looking quite good.  To add difficulty, we practiced our straw bow holds and tried to keep ping pong balls on top.  Students LOVED these exercises and teaching bow hold became so much easier and faster this year.  Every day during the first week of school, I taught bow hold in a different way (same bow hold - just showed different steps/imagery).  By the end of the week, all students had it.

Last week, I taught left hand shape, and students were able to learn this very quickly because I let them earn this little balancing eagle.  I demonstrated and taught my exact expectations for left hand form and shape and told students they could only earn an eagle if their hand shape met my expectations.  Students were determined to get it right, and I found that I haven't needed to be constantly be fixing collapsed wrists on my violin/viola players.  Wow - when students are really motivated to get it right - they do it!