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Saturday, December 17, 2016

6 things parents can do to help students succeed in music.

I want my students to be successful and am always working and thinking of ways to help students progress and stay motivated.  There are a few things parents can do to help their children thrive in a string orchestra experience.

1.  Buy or rent a quality instrument.  

It's very hard to help students progress if their instruments literally will not stay in tune.  Parents should avoid purchasing instruments online.  Anything under $250 is not going to work (ever).  That is because a string instrument has many moving parts and pieces that need to be fitted exactly for the instrument to work properly.  When a student plays on an instrument that can not be tuned they become frustrated with their sound.  They recognize that they don't sound the same as everyone else and they feel like a failure, even if technique is correct.  Parents should communicate with the teacher for recommendations on where to find a quality instrument.

2. Support practicing and correct playing by providing appropriate gear.  

Violin and viola students need a shoulder rest.  I provide a free sponge to students who can not buy a shoulder rest, but all students must have one.  Brands I like are:  Kun, Everest, Bon Musica, and Comford Shoulder Cradle.  These are fine to purchase online.  Consider purchasing a music stand to help your student practice with correct position.  Slouching over propped up music is not beneficial and promotes poor position.  Students will need rosin on their bows to make a good sound.  I have tried many different kinds and they all work, but I recommend Pirastro Olive.

3.  Show interest.  

I don't recommend nagging your child to practice since that often causes contention, but you can provide a lot of motivation just by being interested in what your child is playing.  When your child is practicing, listen now and then without correcting and offer sincere and generous praise.  Let your child show you what they are learning and share in the excitement.

4.  Listen to string music.  

It doesn't always have to be classical music.  Find an artist on YouTube that features violin, viola, cello or bass.  Students are motivated by watching amazing performances.  Discover the Piano Guys, 2 Cellos, Lindsey Stirling, Time for Three, Simply Three, Apocolyptica, and Mark Wood...along with classical greats like Yo-yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Maxim Vengerov, Itzak Perlman, and Edgar Meyer.

5.  Stay through the whole concert.  

I know that parents and families are busy, but your child doesn't have that many concerts in a year.  Dedicate your time to stay through the entire concert.  I require my students to stay through my concerts (and some still sneak out. Sad.) because that is how they become motivated to continue and stay in orchestra.  The beginners get to hear the more advanced kids and they get excited at the prospect of learning more fun music in a year or two.  The Advanced students hear the beginners and reminisce about being a beginner and they realize how far they have come in a short amount of time.  They realize their abilities are noticeable improving.  It's worth it.  Don't leave early.

6.  Say thank you!  

I don't think teachers choose to become teachers for the money.  We are there because we are passionate about music and we love to teach.  Teaching is rewarding, but also draining.  Sometimes we have bad days and frustrating days.  When I get a nice note or email from a parent my teacher batteries are re-charged.  I am able to continue on and do my best to help and inspire my students.  Teachers want to make a difference and knowing that it's worth the effort will keep us going.  'Thank-you's' are teacher fuel.  (And diet coke helps, too.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Pick up the PACE! 8 Strategies for effective rehearsal pacing:

We live in an age of speed.  High speed internet, faster speed limits, and shorter attention spans.  Orchestra teachers need variety and quick paced lessons to help students stay interested, involved and focused on progressing.    Every minute is important to me in my classes and I don’t like to waste a moment.  By establishing effectives routines class time is used effectively and time flies.  I love it when students are amazed when the class is over and when they wish they didn’t have to leave.   Here  are 8 ways you can maximize rehearsal time in your orchestra classroom:

1.  Learn to tune quickly.  

In my beginning classes with 30-45 students per class I tune every student one by one.  Students hurry and line up next to me for tuning and then frequently have a bell-work assignment to occupy their attention while I tune other students.  I make sure this takes 5 minutes or less and very little class time is used since I start tuning as soon as students enter the classroom before the bell rings.

I use a couple different tuning procedures for my Intermediate and Advanced classes.  Often we use the tuning sequence from this website:   I like this routine, but usually only let each pitch play for about 40 seconds instead of a minute.  Other days we tune to my violin.  I play 4 open A’s while students listen and they echo back with 4 A’s and tune/adjust as needed.  We repeat this procedure several times for each string and it goes very fast.

2.  Put music in order.  

This simple procedure helps create smooth transitions in the rehearsal.  I write an agenda on the board listing the things we are working on that day.  Students are required to open their method books to the appropriate page and have their music in order.  I don’t like to wait for students to open books, find pages, etc.

3.  Talk less.  

I remember my orchestra teacher in 7th grade used to talk a lot.  I wanted to be playing and would become frustrated when rehearsals came to a halt because of unnecessary chatter.  Sometimes students need a story or an analogy to help them play the music better, but they also need practice and they need to work hard in class to get better.   When drilling passages, keep a quick pace and talk very little.  My favorite words to start the class are ‘ready, play.’  They can get the tempo and start from just those 2 words.  When I want to repeat a section, I can quickly say, “Measure 35!  Ready, play!”   I like students to keep their instruments up so we can get a lot of playing done in a short amount of time.

4.  Know the music. 

It’s very helpful to have music memorized so that you don’t have to be staring at a score.  If you know the music well, you are free to walk around the room and help students throughout the rehearsal.  You can be more attentive to the needs of your students.  I often walk through the room during a rehearsal and if I need to check a part or play along on my violin I just look at their music.  When you know the music you can always be thinking ahead of what to work on next.  Right now I can tell you all of the measure numbers that need work in our concert music.  It’s all memorized in my head because those places need drilling every day and we do it a lot. Tricky passages need to be reviewed and carefully practiced every day.   Always have a specific objective for each rehearsal to be sure students are constantly progressing.

5.  Follow a rehearsal schedule.  

Set an appropriate amount of time for each part of your rehearsal.  If I was a student, I would get very frustrated if 20 minutes of class was spent on scales and only 10 minutes on concert music.  Use time to your advantage and cover all the material with careful planning.  In general, I spend 2-4 minutes on a warm-up.  We do scales, but also cover new technique.  For example, last week I taught my beginners about 4th finger (4th position for cello and 3rd position for bass).  We did left hand pizzicato and finger taps to strength that finger, then played D, E, F#, G, A A A--.  Students worked to match intonation (A on the D string to open A).  It didn’t take very long and next week students will be reading 4th fingers in their method books.  With pre-exposure  in the warm-up students are set up for success.

Here's a video of a warm-up I did with my beginning students.  They had been playing about 2 months and my objective for the warm-up was to help them be comfortable with string crossings, match pitch and correct intonation on D scale note, and play the D scale.

We spend 5-8 minutes in our method book to reinforce note-reading and technique.    Sometimes I use GarageBand to play a drum beat during method book work.  This helps things move along and we don’t waste time.  The last 25 minutes are spent on concert music. 

This is a sample from my beginning class.  This was the first time looking at that line in our method books and the video shows how we rehearsed it that day.

6.   Don’t offer free time.  

The weather is changing and those cheap violins just won’t stay in tune.  Instead of halting an entire rehearsal to re-tune that eBay special, give students a specific assignment.  You can have them play a certain measure 10 times, or play a line of music for their stand partner while the stand partner checks for proper position or perfect finger placement.   They can hunt for ½ steps or mark dynamics.  They don’t need free time – put them to work!

7.  Use a looper. 

I enjoy using SmartMusic as a rehearsal tool.  It has that great looping feature that plays specific measures over and over again.  This is a great tool to help drill tricky passages while keeping you free to walk around the room to help students.  Just set the measures and let it play.   You don’t have to talk…you don’t have to start and stop the group.  This helps get a lot done is a short time.

8.  Read facial cues.  

Always be aware of the attitude and feeling in your classroom.  Are students working, are they frustrated, are they bored?  Adjust pacing based on what the students need.  If you spend 5 minutes on one measure students might begin to ‘check-out.’  Switch things up and let students try something else.  Allow them to feel success in every rehearsal.  It’s okay to leave a piece of music and come back to it another day.  Baby steps.  J