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Saturday, August 27, 2016

First week strategies that work!

I just made it through my first week back to school and it was great.  There were a few problems with my technology, but thankfully that was worked out pretty quickly.

On the first day of school I introduce my theme for the year.  This year my theme is STRIKE YOUR POTENTIAL.  Our shirts, magnets, stickers, and stuff have lightening on them and we have a brand new lightning plasma ball in our classroom...which draws a lot of students into my room.  In class, we had a discussion about talent.  One does not become talented because of one event.  No lightning bolt comes from the sky to determine who is talented and who is not.  The power is within each student to be successful.  The lightening and drive inside of each of us is what determines how much each can accomplish.

To help introduce my theme, I showed my 'video of the week', which was a compilation of a few different clips.  The whole point was to inspire students to put forth their best effort and act like an 'orchestra student'...which means they are the most considerate, hardest working, most respectful, most responsible..etc.  When they act like an orchestra student we can accomplish amazing things.

There are so many things we have to take care of during the first few days of school.  Instrument rentals, lockers assignments, and seating charts.  All of that takes a full day, but I want to keep students inspired.  While I take care of necessary business, students read short articles about brain development, goal setting and how to achieve goals.  They work with other students to discuss the material and it helps them get to know each other a little bit.   I use material from a book called 'Helping Students Motivate Themselves." by Larry Ferlazzo.  Here's a link to the book on Amazon.  I also use excerpts from the book 'Nurtured By Love' by Shinichi Suzuki.  Students work to set goals for the term and goals for the year.

We start learning basics about playing from day 2.  Here's a quick overview of skills you can teach using no instruments:

3 things you can do with students during the first week that help them master playing position and bowing without using instruments:

1.  Strengthen Fingers.  We start strengthening fingers from day 2...before students bring instruments.  This is super fun and really helps with dexterity.  I have a set of foam Emoji balls that fit perfectly in the hand.  While I blast the music 'Burn Baby Burn,' we do finger workouts using the balls.  Students follow my lead as we squeeze the ball between the thumb and index finger, thumb and middle finger...etc.   We alternate between hands to give all fingers a good work-out.  We toss it between hands to develop coordination, we squish the face with both hands.  There are tons of possibilities..students just follow me and I pretend to be a personal trainer.

2.  Teach students how to hold the bow using thick straws or pencils.  This is super easy and quick:  Students keep right right hand relaxed and floppy.  We pretend water is dripping off all of the fingers. Place a straw in the middle of the fingers, add the bent thumb behind the middle finger, curl the index finger around like a snake, and put pinky on top for violin/viola.  We then do bow games to fun music and students are give an assignment to create at least 10 perfect bow holds per day.

3.  Visualization of playing position.  I am amazed at how much the following strategy helps students achieve perfect position right from the start.  I teach students how to hold their instruments BEFORE bringing instruments to school. This really helps all students focus and not become distracted.  For the violin/violas we practice sitting on the edge of our seats with feet firmly planted on the floor.  I have them feel their left shoulder with their right hand and explained how the instrument would sit on that shoulder.  We practice turning our heads (as if placing the head on the chin rest) while keeping our heads straight and tall.

For cellos, we practice sitting on the edge of the seat with the feet planted.  We feel our knees and I explain where the instrument will sit and be held with their knees.  I have students place their right hands on their chests as if saying the Pledge of Alliance.  They learn that the cello will rest on their chest and they will need to stay strong like superman and not collapse when holding the cello.  They reach up behind their left ear to feel where the cello pegs would be.  Students learn how to adjust the end-pin and how to determine if it needs to be higher or lower.

These strategies really help my students gain confidence and learn more quickly when they bring instruments to class.  It is so much easier to teach proper play position when they have already visualized how it should be done.  Yesterday was our first day playing and I couldn't help but smile as I gazed on the sea of brand new violin/viola players with perfect position.  My cello players looked comfortable and confident.  We began plucking open strings and so far, so good.  :)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

How to do Playing Tests

If you've read a lot of my blogs or seen my articles in the NAfME blog, you know that I do not believe in using practice cards.  One thing I do instead is bi-weekly playing tests.  My students know that I will listen to them play individually every other Friday.

On the Monday before playing test day, the measures are announced so students can begin practicing and preparing.  Every day class, we spend a little time drilling those measures and providing practice tips to help students overcome any tricky parts.  On Friday, students are given a worksheet to do while they wait their turn for the playing test.  The worksheet involves theory items we have been working on in class...rhythm, note-reading, term, etc.  I make my own worksheets much of the time, but I also use the String Explorer worksheets from the teacher pack.

As I listen to individual students play, I am very careful to keep the atmosphere of the class friendly and non-threatening.  Students get nervous and it takes a great deal of bravery to play alone.  I believe it is good for students to face the challenge of performing alone. It strengthens their performance ability and they gain confidence for our concerts.  For my playing tests, students stay in their seats when it is their turn to play...I don't have them stand up or come to the front.  That would just add more stress.

Using a playing test rubric, I quickly grade each my 45 minute class period, I can listen to about 45 students, but I have to be quick!  In my beginning classes, playing tests are only about 8 measures long.  In Intermediate and Advanced classes, playing tests are longer.  I write comments on the rubric to help students improve.  If students receive 50/56 points or lower, they must re-take the playing test.  Any student may re-take the playing test as many times as they like, but not on the same day because I want them be practicing and preparing before each attempt.

There is a great video on YouTube about how in music class, an A is not enough.  For a superior performance, we need tremendous accuracy.  He explains it so well...check it out:

That is why I want students to keep re-taking playing tests to get perfect scores.  I want them to master the music and reach their potential.  It is possible!  This year, to encourage students to aim for perfect playing tests, I have little incentives.  Each year, I design my own orchestra folders that go with a yearly theme, and this is on the inside pocket of the folders:

For the term 2 'name on a classroom brick' award, I bought chalkboard tape and chalk markers and will place a piece of tape on various bricks in my classroom (my walls are all brick) with their name brightly decorated.  I will forever keep their name on a brick if they get that award.  It doesn't cost much, but students really want to be remembered so that is a huge incentive.

To help encourage students on continually improve and progress, I am starting a new thing...I put this survey/goal sheet on the back of every playing test form.  After I listen to each playing test, I give the student their scores on my playing test rubric form.  I don't want them to just glance at it and throw it away....I want them to reflect.  Students will be required to turn this in after their playing test. 

This system has been working well for me over the years.  There are many ways to do playing tests.  Sometimes I have my students send me recording or I let them take the test using SmartMusic.  Technology is great!  Even so, it is helpful to listen to each student live in person.  It helps me gauge my teaching and gives me direction to meet students' needs.  There have been times when I thought all students had mastered dotted quarter notes for example...then heard a playing test and realized only 1/2 were proficient and the rest were 'followers.'  I was then able to re-teach and help all students acquire the necessary skills to further their abilities.  

Friday, August 12, 2016

Disney filmed this in my classroom!

My students and I are so grateful to the GiveANote foundation and Radio Disney for the many opportunities presented to us after winning the Music In Our Schools contest.  It almost feels like a dream.  The day the production team came to film the commercial, I was so excited I didn't sleep more than a couple hours the night before.  They have helped inspire my students to continue pursuing their dreams and fulfilling their potential in music.  Music education is so satisfying...I'm just grateful to be a part of it.  :)

Here a link to the commercial that is currently airing on the Disney channel until 9/1.  Hope you like it:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Method Book Madness

I haven't written as many blog posts this summer because of other major projects I've been working on.  It has been fun collaborating with 'NinGenius' app creator, Curtis Winters, to develop a revolutionary new method book for beginning strings.  It's the method book of my DREAMS!

We're still creating, testing, and improving our ideas, but I'm super excited about what we have accomplished so far.  I don't know of a method book that prepares students for note-reading and shows how to successfully play each exercise like our book.  

We have created multi-levels parts for each piece to help reach all student's needs.  The multi-level parts motivate students to push themselves to learn the advanced parts which helps them learn faster and stay interested.  The harmonies in each piece help students learn to listen, adjust intonation, and count carefully in order to make the ensemble work.  Before each piece in the method, there is a preparatory page with exercises that explain exactly how students must practice to successfully master the material.  This helps teach students how to practice effectively.   

Here is a sample so you get an idea...I hope you like it!  

Presenting at the NAfME National Conference!

I am presenting this year the the NAfME conference in November.  It was a wonderful experience attending and presenting at the national conference last year and I can't wait to do it again!  Here is my article published in the NAfME's Music In A Minuet blog.  (  This gives an overview of my topic and it's something I'm really passionate about.   I hope to see some of my readers in Dallas!

Orchestra Gives You Wings

How To Propel Student Learning For A Flying Start.

By NAfME member Angela Harman

My family has a pet bird.  He’s a parakeet that lives in a quaint little cage with a mirror and a swing. The bird lost interest in the mirror and swing long ago and seems to have only one ambition…to escape! For hours each day, the bird bites the door of the cage and attempts to lift the lever to open the door. He is tireless in his escape attempts. Perhaps that is because he once tasted freedom. As I passed by the cage one day, I noticed the door was open and the bird was gone. It wasn’t hard to find him though because he could barely fly. The cage that traps my bird did not allow him to develop his wings. When I got close, he stretched his wings and took flight, but did not have the strength or control to travel far and was easily placed back into captivity.

When I was a student in orchestra class, there were times when I felt like I was trapped in a cage. I was ready and willing to work hard. I was hungry to learn and wanted music that would stretch me and make me better. I felt like I was being held back so that others in the class could catch up. It was a frustrating feeling to have my wings ‘clipped’ in this way. This experience has helped me as I reflect on my own teaching. Am I allowing my students to spread their wings? Are my students fulfilling their potential and given the freedom to move ahead as quickly as they are able?  What about students who ‘fly slower’ than the rest?
Teaching can be like a balancing act. If I choose material that is too easy, the class becomes bored, but if I select material that is too hard the students become frustrated. It can be overwhelming to attempt to teach the many different ability levels in one classroom and meet all of their needs. As I attempt to allow students to learn at their own pace and give them freedom to constantly grow, they have truly taken flight in their progress.  Every year, I find that my classes learn faster and become better. Here are 3 strategies to propel students forward to accomplish all they are capable of doing:

  1. Embrace Differences in the Flock
In order to help all students succeed, embrace their differences in ability by ensuring all levels can learn together.  Sometimes one size doesn’t fit all in an orchestra class, but differentiation can be simply implemented to create an atmosphere where students motivate each other to progress. On the first day of class, give students a survey based on previous musical experience to determine which students will likely learn quickly and become ‘advanced’ beginners. Using information from the survey, create a seating chart which pairs ‘advanced’ beginners with students who have had little or no experience with music. When teaching the basics, allow a lot of interaction between stand partners. Let them work together to check and fix bow hold, position, intonation, and notes.   Students learn leadership through teaching their peers and take responsibility for learning correctly. 

Another differentiation strategy is to use music that includes varied skill levels.  At the beginning of the school year, all of the music I use with my class has multi-level parts to include all abilities.  Some students may be working on open strings while others are given the freedom to learn a more difficult melody. Students who play the more simple parts hear their peers playing the melodies and soon decide they will learn it too. They are continually motivated to keep learning and working to play the more difficult part. As students progressively learn the harder parts the entire orchestra becomes stronger.

  1. Leave the cage open: Raise Expectations
If you want students to learn better and faster, raise your expectations. Instead of trapping them in a cage with a pre-determined idea of what they can and can’t do, let them test their limits. I will never forget a performance I once heard of Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper performed by an 8 year old cellist.  I was mesmerized as I watched her fingers fly up and down the fingerboard with precision and finesse. That performance is what helped me expand my view of what is possible for young musicians. They can do more than we think!  Sometimes, there is a tendency to make students wait to learn a particular piece, but such limits can inhibit their natural motivation to progress. 

Music selection is crucial.  Find music that is challenging, yet attainable after a reasonable amount of work. Next, you must ‘sell’ the music to the student. Sometimes I play a recording for students to encourage them to love the music and want to learn it. Just letting students know that a particular piece will make them better players will inspire them to master it. Allow students to help make a final decision on the music to give them a sense of freedom and ownership. When students have a desire to learn the music, they will work harder than you previously thought possible. They embrace the challenge and gain a heightened sense of achievement. The music that takes the most effort is the one that becomes the favorite. 
  1. Ignite a passion for flying
Though they begin with an immense amount of energy and motivation, students can begin to slow down or stagnate in their progress. In her book The Passion Driven Classroom, Angela Maiers offers an explanation for student slumps. She states, “Students fail because we have not yet found a way to sustain the energy, excitement, and love for learning they came with when they first entered our classrooms.” If excitement and energy levels begin to decline, praise more. Nothing motivates like sincere and hearty approbation. Notice and make specific comments on every step of progress in the right direction. To keep students excited about learning and ignite a passion for playing, do something new or unexpected to get them out of their regular routine. New music, a change in seating, games or the introduction of a new skill will keep students wanting to progress. I have found that students are not afraid of learning hard things. They embrace and welcome new challenges and that is how they progress.

Once you capture and retain student passion, the stage is set for infinite potential.  When students love to learn, they will find energy and purpose in rehearsals and practice routines.  They will be able to overcome obstacles to discover their true capacity.  Recently I was able to witness my students perform an amazing concert that inspired me and the audience.  After hardships, struggles, and a lot of work, students were able to prove themselves.  They were able to reach a new height in their playing.  After learning the hardest music I have ever given a group of 2ndyear players, they magnificently demonstrated what is possible when students work to achieve their fullest potential.  Their performance touched all who were in attendance because it proved that anything is possible.  The words of Thomas Edison which adorn one wall in my classroom proved true: “If we did everything we were capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”
Discover resources, teaching tips, and game ideas on my blog:
Follow me on Twitter: @teachorchestra
Angela Harman will be presenting a session on this topic at the 2016 National In-Service Conference.
About the author:
Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT. Since starting in 2012, she has facilitated a 440% growth in the orchestra program at the school.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Angela oversees the elementary orchestra program for her district where she trains and helps other strings instructors.  She frequently seeks out special performing opportunities for her students and has been privileged to be selected for “The World We All Deserve Through Music” program in 2015.  She was awarded a Music In Our Schools grant and ‘Ardy’ by Radio Disney and the Give A Note foundation in 2016. 
Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of, where she posts ideas and methods that she uses in her classroom. Her recent books, Be an Amazing Note-Reader and The True Beginning: Before the Method Book have sold many copies worldwide through her website.  Her ideas have also been featured in professional development publications.  She just completed a workbook called Exploring Shifting for String Orchestra to help students become more comfortable and confident with shifting skills.  Angela enjoys presenting at conferences and has presented sessions at the National NAfME conference.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in K-12 Instrumental Education from Brigham Young University and completed Suzuki teacher training. Angela enjoys baking, eating sweets, and caring for her husband and five children.

Angela will be presenting on her topic “Orchestra Gives You Wings!  How to propel student learning for a flying start.” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference this November in Grapevine, TX! Register today! 
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Join us for more than 100 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: And follow the hashtag #NAfME2016!