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Friday, December 29, 2017

My Story - how to promote your string orchestra program

I began teaching at my current position in 2012.  My interview had gone very well and I was 99% sure I would be offered the position.  I remember the principal asking me if I could grow the orchestra program and I answered confidently in the affirmative.  I never thought to ask how many students were in the program and didn't find out until I was setting up my classroom right before school started.  There were 3 orchestra classes - beginning with 37 students, intermediate with 15 students, and advanced with 11 students.  Numbers were small - I had the smallest orchestra program in my district, but I decided to make my class the best it could ever be.  I wanted to offer my students the greatest possible orchestra experience.

2017 Beginning Orchestra at our Halloween Concert

My program began to grow every year.  I remember a chat I had with my principal.  I was asking him about how many orchestra classes I would be able to have in the future.  He told me that it would be impossible to be full time.  There was not another orchestra teacher in our district with enough students to be full time at one school.  He backed up his claim with statistics that said no more than 25% of the student population enrolls in a music class - and those numbers had to be split between the other music programs.  I didn't believe my program had achieved max student enrollment and continued to create a quality program and recruit more students. The next year I was full time with 250 students.  This year I had 315 students enrolled and had to cut 30 students because my classroom space can not accommodate more than 55 students in a class.  My program is now one of the largest in the state.

How did all of this happen?!  I believe a music program must be carefully marketed and promoted - just like a business.  There must be a quality product and we must create the demand.

Here are 10 key strategies that helped me grow my program.  Keep reading for a description of each strategy!

1.  Create a class motto.  

One thing I want for my students is to learn that anything is possible..that they can accomplish anything with dedication and effort.  The one phrase I want my students to remember after being in my program is to 'Be Amazing!'  Reaching ones full potential is a is a determination to achieve and work for greatness even when it's hard.  I want students to live with no regret - to choose to be amazing at anything they set out to accomplish.  This motto is hanging in my classroom, it is found on every orchestra shirt, and I remind them of this motto as we rehearse in class.

2.  Create a logo and use it on all shirts, programs, and other promotional items.

I love graphic design, but I'm not an artist.  Luckily I worked in a computer lab when I was a university student and was able to pick up the basics of a few design programs including Photoshop.  Every summer I scour and purchase images to use for my orchestra shirts.  I choose to design my own shirts every year and feature a specific theme for the year.  Here are a few shirts I've used over the years...

3.  Create quality promotional items.

I use logos and themes on shirts as well as bumper stickers and fridge magnets (perfect for students to use to decorate lockers).  One year I bought rubber wrist bracelets and I don't recommend one wears them.  Students enjoy magnets and bumper stickers.  I design mine at '' and ''  It is very satisfying to be driving on the freeway and see a car with one of my bumper stickers.  Stickers are also great for decorating instrument cases.  I purchase images from and design these items myself.  I promote program by visiting elementary string programs and handing out these items.  We also pass out stickers during recruiting assemblies.

Magnet samples:

4.  Use social media to promote your program.

Students and parents love to follow happenings on facebook, instagram, and twitter.  Keep your program in the spotlight by sharing pictures from every concert and anything else interesting.  Brag away on all social media!

5.  Make your concerts AMAZING.

I have a confession.  As an audience member I sometimes get bored at concerts.  With 5 children of my own, I've been to countless concerts and recitals.  I want to be entertained - and I don't think I'm alone in this wish.  Blame it on the short attention spans of today, but whatever the reason...audiences need to be entertained.  I want parents to enjoy my concerts and want to be there.  For the best possible audience reactions to your concerts, follow these tips:

  • Play a recognizable piece now and then.  Audiences love to hear music they recognize.
  • Keep concerts under one hour.  You don't want the audience to feel trapped.
  • Make sure your groups sound surprisingly great.  My favorite concert story is when I heard from a grandma who brought ear plugs in her purse to my first concert of the year.  She was astounded to find she did not need them at my concert and kept them in her purse.  :)
  • Involve the audience.  There are certain pieces that are great for incorporating audience participation.  Guest Soloist from Richard Meyer, The Adventures of Stringman by Richard Meyer, A Boomwhacker Christmas by Richard Meyer.  One year when the Christmas concert happened to be on my birthday, my advanced orchestra played 'A Minor Case of Birthday Blues' by Lauren Bernofsky.  Audience members with December birthdays were invited to the front to wear party hats and celebrate.
  • Just Simon Cowell used to say on American Idol  - song selection is everything.  Pick the right pieces for your group!  Make sure pieces are the right level so students can master the demands of the music.  
  • If you have to transition between different performing groups, make the switch as quickly and efficiently as possible.  You don't want to have too much audience down-time.  You could have small ensembles perform in front of the stage while switching ensembles on stage.  At some of my concerts, I have a game or other fun activity happening in the audience while students re-set the stage.

6.  Encourage students and parents to post about your concerts on social media.  

I created a hashtag for my group and print social media info on my programs where I encourage people to post on social media.  At my last concert I thanked the community and parents for all of their support.  A few days later a received a letter in the mail from our Congressman with a check for my orchestra program.  You never know what will happen when you promote your program!

7.  Seek out and go after contests, grants, or other special opportunities.

I have been very blessed to offer a number of special opportunities for my orchestra program.  A couple of years ago my group won the Give A Note/Radio Disney Music In Our Schools tour.  We won an Ardy, had a special concert from boy band 'Forever in your Mind,' and was able to have a Disney commercial filmed in my classroom.  In a week my Advanced orchestra will be performing with American Idol finalist JAX among other artists with professional lighting and audio.  This opportunity came from a local business who wanted to support my program.
There are marvelous opportunities out them out and try!

8.  Recognize your group on your school's announcements, webpage, and newsletters.

It seems like one more thing to do...but make sure students and parents are able to read and hear about all the happenings in your program.  It can be helpful to submit stories about your program to post on our school's website around recruiting time.

9.  Volunteer to perform in the community.

Recently the wrestling coach at my school asked to have some of my students perform the National Anthem at their wrestling match.  It's a great way to get your students visible and promote your program.  One year I had a call from a local grocery store who was looking for a group to perform Christmas music for a special event in their store.  They couldn't find a high school group who would be willing to come, so they reached out to my junior high orchestra.  We went and had a great time.  Even my beginners played a few pieces and were well received.  The store was so grateful they donated money to my program and each student went home with a free 2 liter soda.

10.  Give them something to talk about - make your class amazing.

Parents often tell me at parent teacher conferences that they have heard so much about me and my class.  Students love to tell their parents about our fun rehearsals, entertaining experiences, and occasional shenanigans.  When students are having fun they love to share the excitement with friends and family.  It's a good sign when people are hearing great things about you and your program.

I am passionate about making orchestra a BIG DEAL!  Music education is the best - let's promote this wonderful experience, create bulging programs, and inspire more students.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Percussion ensemble in orchestra - teaching subdivision

A couple months ago I was at a community event where various groups performed.  A local orchestra performed some fun movie music.  Since the stage was outside they were mic'd.  As they began to play a small crowd gathering to watch on some seats set up in front of the stage.  Right after the orchestra performed, a drum group from a local university performed and WOW - the crowd went wild!  The chairs in front of the stage filled up and people were moving and getting into the music.  The drum group involved little children and let them have a part in one of their pieces.  The difference in reaction between the two groups was huge...and as an orchestra lover, I was left with the desire to make orchestra more exciting!  What can I do to draw people in?  2 things come to mind- add a drum beat and involve the audience.  This post will focus on...Adding a DRUM BEAT!  Time to think outside the box and draw in our audience with an energetic, infectious performance.

One reason why people love the drum line is because percussion seems cool.  People like a beat - and a good solid beat makes people energized.  I teach string orchestra.  We don't have the benefit of a percussion section.  I learned about a Cajon box drum a few years ago and purchased one for my classroom.  My little drum gets used quite a bit!  Students love to try to create cool drum beats and I have allowed students to add cool beats to some of our concert music.  For example, my Advanced orchestra played 'Perpetuoso' by Brian Holmes...a really fun piece.  It doesn't have a part for percussion, but really lended itself to an added beat with the cajon.  Plus it helped our ensemble with rhythmic accuracy.

My cajon comes with me on every recruiting trip.  We use it to add drum parts to our recruiting music and it the audience love it.  It helps our easy versions of 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' 'Viva la Vida,' and even 'Dragonhunter' come alive.

I just created some sheet music to turn my orchestra into a giant percussion ensemble. Many string groups tap on their instruments to create a drum beat (Simply Three, Piano Guys, Time for Three, Rob Landes).   Here's an example from Simply Three:

This little exercise I wrote called 'Wipe-out' can be performed with stomps and claps away from instruments...but I think it would be more impressive if the percussion sounds were made on the instruments - as long as students are trained to be gentle and not hit instruments too hard.  Click here for an audio file to hear what the piece sounds like:  WIPE-OUT AUDIO

When I was creating a percussion exercise for my students, I realized that many of my students would have a hard time reading the eighth rests and finding the off-beats.  To make my piece accessible for many levels, I created parts that show the subdivisions in each measure.  Students are to perform ONLY the notes which are black and must be silent on the gray notes.  It teaches students how to sub-divide.  It takes tremendous focus and concentration for students to only make sound on the black notes.  Students quickly learn to follow the notes very carefully and a higher level of determination begins to encompass the entire class as they work to make the piece sound awesome.  The piece is called 'Wipe-out' because it takes tremendous effort to only perform the black notes and not accidentally fall into the trap of playing a grey note.

'Wipe-out' can be used as a teaching tool to teach eighth rests.  Have students re-write parts with eighth rests in place of the grey notes and see if they can still count it correctly.  Teach them places where they can combine two eighth rests to create one quarter rest.

I will be using this piece with my beginners and we will perform it when we go recruiting.  I want to electrify my audience of potential students and show them that orchestra can rock, too!

Download Wipe-Out for FREE at my TPT store HERE.

NEW...Follow me on Instagram!   - find me as

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Teach students HOW to practice

My beginning orchestra has been working on a piece called 'A Spark of Courage' by Doug Spata.  It's a bit of a stretch for them, but they love the music so much they are really working hard and it has helped students solidify fingerpatterns and notereading.  Today I wanted to work carefully with each individual section.  In order to do this, I created an assignment for students to complete while waiting for their turn to work with me.  It worked out really well and students picked up some really helpful tips for practicing.  This is a great assignment for any level.

1.  Read the article "8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently." 

2.  Complete the worksheet:

This was great for the day before Thanksgiving break - it left students motivated to keep working and practicing over the holiday.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Post-Conference Reflection

Last week I presented at the NAfME National Conference in Grapevine, TX.  I love presenting and had a great experience...this is the 4th presentation I've prepared for the national conference and I've found that presenting in another one of my passions.

Attending this conference was very rejuvenating for me.  Teaching 275 students every day is a lot of work and can be exhausting.  After attending sessions at the conference, I felt my energy return and I was excited to get back to my classroom and try out some new ideas.

My favorite session was by Christopher Selby - author of 'Habits of a Successful String Musician.'  I enjoyed his insights about how to get your performing group to the next level.  I am confident in my ability to teach proper notes, intonation and rhythm, but something seemed to be missing in my groups.  Dr. Selby's session helped me realize what I was missing.   Since my orchestra groups are very large (70-100 in each group) I have struggled with helping students learn to perform as a team.  They all play pretty accurately, but we sometimes have trouble with rushing and balance since students are not listening to each other.   Upon returning to my students I immediately set out to train my students to listen to each other and make beautiful music together.

Here are some of my notes from Dr. Selby's session to help students listen to each other, work as a team, and achieve the next level of performance:

  • Agree on what part of the bow should be used.  Decide on style and phrasing...make sure each student matches each other by asking questions.  For example:  "What part of the bow is your stand partner using?"  "Can you make your tone disappear inside your partner's tone?"  "How much bow is your section leader using?"
  • Have students practice with their eyes on each other.  Get out of the music.
  • When fixing intonation, have players tune to each other.  Must match the person sitting next to you.  Tune unison as well as intervals.  Fix blend - don't allow one to be louder than the rest.  Each player should be able to hear themselves as well as people around them....and other sections.
  • Teach students to breathe together and move together.
  • For a responsive group, change conducting...different tempos and dynamics.  Train students to follow you by making it necessary that they pay attention.

I noticed a difference in my students as soon as I began implementing these ideas.  I'm so happy I attended the conference - totally worth the new insights!

I also appreciated Dr. Selby's thoughts on teaching high school and upper level orchestra students.  He spoke about the need to teach technique in high school.  Since there is usually no method book used at the high school level, many teachers work to perform music but never drill or reinforce technique.  I totally agree...students need constant reinforcement of skills learned during their early years.  One cannot assume that a student who performs one piece in the key of A Major (even if it is flawless) would never need to drill extensions and G#'s again.  Every skill requires consistent attention and practice.  That means a high school teacher may need to re-teach and review many skills students previously learned.  I believe Dr. Selby's book is excellent for the high school level to drill technique.

In the session, there was also a discussion about music selection.  Many teachers select music that is too hard and the performance ends up being less than successful.  I agree and believe music selection in crucial. However, I do sometimes give difficult music to my students.  Every year we perform a just a few grade 2's with my first year players, 3's with my 2nd year players, and 4's with my 3rd year players.  It stretches my students and they rise to the challenge.  Still, each piece must be carefully selected and I have to be confident that I can teach my students to achieve the demanding technical skills in the music.   I've found a great deal of success balancing our concert load with a carefully selected mix of music levels.

Have you attended a conference, lately?  I highly recommend it!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Finally - A Meaningful Assignment students can complete when you need an ORCHESTRA SUB

I felt a little sick this week.  But, it's a ton of work to plan for a sub I went to school and taught my classes.  I'm sure you've all done the same can be really hard to find meaningful assignments students can do with a non-music teacher sub.  I've searched the internet for simple orchestra sub plans, but never found anything I really wanted to use.  I don't want to give my students busy-work.  My goal is to make the day productive, even if I can't be there.

Today I decided to brainstorm sub plan ideas and created this assignment:

In college, I remember learning how to study and mark up scores.  Then I realized that students can do the same thing with their music!  I want students to study every detail of their concert music.  This assignment takes students through their music-study step by step.  Students search for and mark various aspects of the music using colored pencils.  I plan on purchasing a classroom set of colored pencils to have on hand just for this assignment.  You can have students mark their current music, or you can keep some music copied/filed to have on hand for those days you need an instant sub plan assignment.  Download this assignment for FREE at my TPT site.  And take that day off!

Friday, October 20, 2017

NEW! Introducing - Orchestra Classroom tips on VIDEO!

I have had quite a few requests to offer videos of teaching tips and strategies.  I finally created my first couple of videos and they are available now at my TPT store:

The First Day of School lesson plan (for beginning orchestra):

 I believe the first day of school should be fun and exciting!  This video demonstrates my lesson plan for the first day and shows how I inspire students and make them LOVE my class.  My students don't get to play their instruments on the first day, but we still have a great time and they can't wait to come back.

How To Teach VIBRATO in a string orchestra classroom:

It can be difficult to teach vibrato in a large class setting.  Many teacher refer to private teacher to teach vibrato, but most of my students do not have private lessons.  This is how I get my 2nd year orchestra students to get the correct vibrato motion in just one lesson.

Since these videos are totally new, I am offering a 20% discount this weekend only!  (10/20/17-10/22/17)

I hope you will find these videos helpful.  If there is a particular skill or technique you would like to see on video, please comment below and let me know!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Building Note-reading speed and fluency

At the start of the school year, my focus for beginners is to develop excellent, comfortable bow holds and perfect position.  We played by rote for a couple of weeks and have since been learning rhythm and note names.  I don't like to drag note-reading out for too long.  All they have to do is learn 8 notes and they can play so many tunes! 

Students are usually excited to begin understanding music and reading notes.  I teach the open strings first.  I introduce the staff by comparing it to a highway with lanes and lines to show that notes are drawn (they travel) from left to right across the staff.  I then teach students that notes are 'parked' on the staff.  Some notes park in a space, and other notes park right on a line.  I tell a story about a person driving an expensive BMW who didn't want to get their car scratched, so they parked right on a line.  I have found that some students new to note-reading need the explanation that notes can be drawn ON a line.  This goes against all kindergarten/grade school coloring rules when they're told over and over to stay in the lines! 

Student learn open string notes so quickly - it only takes minutes.  I use my dry erase packets equipped with a staff and a dry erase marker.  I show each section of the orchestra where their open string D is 'parked' on the staff and tell them to memorize that spot. I tell a story about I time I went to the zoo and couldn't remember where I parked and was wandering the parking lot for 30 minutes before I found my car!  I explain that open D will ALWAYS be parked in that spot.  We also learn where open A is parked.  Next I call out various patterns of D and A and students draw them on the staff.  (D, A, D, D), (D, A, A, D), etc.  Students race to be the first one to draw the notes and hold up their packets.  After a few minutes of this, students are allowed to create their own arrangement of D's and A's on the staff and perform them pizzicato with their stand partners. 

My favorite method to get students to memorize notes is to use the foldable flashcards from
I copy a set for each student, but only pass out one string at a time.  Students spend 10 minutes in class memorizing the D string notes and passing them off with their stand partners.  For flashcard pass-offs, students must say the note name on the flashcard and pluck the correct note on their instruments.  I require students do this in 10 seconds or less.  After a week or so, we add the A string notes and students must pass off all 8 flashcards in 20 seconds or less.  I try to pair up students with piano/note-reading experience with those who are new to note-reading.

Sometimes we may underestimate how much a student can learn at one time.  When I was seven, I begged Santa Claus to bring me a recorder for Christmas.  I didn't know how to read music and had never tried an instrument before, but Santa delivered me a quality recorder and a book.  It was easy to look at the diagrams and understand the notes and fingerings.  I immediately wrote in all the note names for the first few pages and was able to play several songs.  After that, I got sick of having to look up note names for each note, so I decided to memorize them.  It didn't take 10-15 minutes I had memorized the notes and no longer had to write them all in.  Allowing students to write note-names in their music hinders and slows their progress.  Unless a student has special needs, expect students to memorize the notes! 


Sometimes it can appear students do not know the notes when they struggle to play through a simple exercise.  One day after some painful minutes working in our method book I became worried that my students were not fast enough at note-reading.  After having them say note names I realized this was not the case.  Students were slow at reading the notes because they were looking at their fingers instead of the notes on the page and they were getting lost.  I joked that they need to 'use the force' to find notes and stop looking at their fingers!  The next day, I did a lesson to help students learn how to find notes on their instruments using their sense of touch and hearing.  They can't always use sight to find the note - it's a lot better if they listen and train fingers to land in the right place.  To help students learn the skill, we watched a short clip from YouTube:  ( showing Jimmy Fallon and Taylor Swift attempt to draw each other without looking at the page.  After the clip, student used blank paper and tried to draw their stand partners without looking at the page.  They LOVED this activity and the pictures were hilarious.  We began reading a few exercises in the method book and it was totally different from the day before.  Students were more focused.  They were following the notes on the page and not looking back and forth between their fingers and the page.  They sounded so much better!

Every week I have been given my students note-reading assessments to make sure they are on target with note-reading skills.  Students must know that you are serious about them learning the notes!  I have students play the exercises are far as possible with NO hints written in the music.  After that, I allow them to label notes and fingerings to reinforce speed and memorization.  Students also complete bellwork exercises each day during tuning to reinforce note-reading.  I use my book, 'Be An Amazing Note-Reader,' 'Rhythm Packet,' and 'Rhythm Bellwork.'  Here are a few assessments I have used in the last couple week. 

Happy note-reading!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Updated Starting By Rote


I have been using my book "Starting By Rote" for my Beginning Orchestra and found a serious error on page 13.  We can't have a wrong note on Twinkles!  I fixed the error and have submitted a new page 13 available for free download HERE.  Those who purchased the book through TPT may upload a new version of the entire book from that site...the book has been updated.  Those who purchased from may download the free replacement pages from TPT or email me at and I will send a replacement download of the book.  Sorry for the error!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Invisible Instruments

Before students open up cases and get out instruments for the first time we have a 20-30 minute lesson with our 'imaginary' instruments.  When demonstrating how to handle and hold a violin, viola, cello or bass, I want students to give me their full attention.   Excited students with shiny new instruments in hand can get very distracted.  Students can easy forget to listen to the teacher while admiring their brand new instruments and some students will miss instruction and become lost.

On 'imaginary instrument' day each section of the orchestra has a short article to read and a worksheet to complete.  An 'Instrument Parts' worksheet is a useful worksheet to use for this day.  I work with one section at time while the rest of the class completes the worksheet.  

For violin and viola players, we learn how to open cases, how to put on a shoulder rest, hold the instrument and place it in rest position, and how to make sure the instrument covers the shoulder in play position.  Students mimic my motions and practice these skills along with me, but only with imaginary instruments.   I have students feel their shoulders and place their 'imaginary' instruments there.  

For cello player and bass players, I demonstrate how to get their instruments from the racks, how to carry the instrument, adjust the endpin, how to hold the instrument with the knees, where the instrument sits on the body.  We go through everything before they have the actual instrument and students know exactly what to expect and how to handle their instruments.  Students listen carefully because they are so excited to get their actual instruments.

Next is my favorite part.  I put on "Also sprach Zarathustra" (start the video at :20 seconds) and tell students to get out their real instruments.  It's so exciting to see all of the instruments come out and students already holding them correctly, ready to learn.  It turns the first day of playing into an unveiling of fun amazing instruments.

Monday, September 4, 2017

First couple of weeks - new discoveries

This is my 12th year teaching orchestra, and I'm still learning and discovering more efficient ways to teach students and take care of daily teaching duties.  Here are a few of my discoveries from the first couple weeks of school...wish I would have known this stuff earlier!

1.  Putting tapes on instruments.  

I've posted before about the kind of tapes I pinstripe tape:

It takes a lot of time to put tapes on instruments.  Some years I have let my more advanced students put tapes on the beginner instruments, but it's just better if I do it myself.  Students are frustrated if their tapes don't sound right and I want them to play in tune.  I finally got my groove and can just whip out the tapes on instruments.  It takes me about one minute per instrument to get the tapes on.  I've learned to leave the tapes attached to the roll (Don't rip off 4 pieces, then put them on).  Slide them up to about the right spot on the fingerboard, then rip them.  After getting the 3-4 tapes on the fingerboard, you can quickly adjust them to just the right place and have the student stick them down around the neck.  Here's a video to show what this looks like:

2.  Use a pencil to fix pancake wrists.

For violin/viola students with super stubborn flat wrists...tape a pencil to the back of the instrument.  I tease my students and tell them I'll make the sharp part point outward, but I make the eraser side point out.  Use painters tape to make sure the adhesive won't damage the varnish.  Just mentioning that I MIGHT tape on a pencil motivated students to fix their wrists.  I only actually do it if absolutely necessary.

3.  Look through the stick when teaching loosing/tightening.

It seems that there are always a few beginners who over-tighten their bows.  This year while explaining how to tighten/loosen, I had students hold the bow up to their eyes and look through the middle.  They could see that the hair slightly touches the stick when loose, and there is just a small slit to look through when it is tightened.  I haven't had kids over-tighten this year...and they are doing really well remember to loosen their bows after they play.

4.  Teach RHYTHM before note-reading!  

I usually dive right into note-reading, but this year I decided to try teaching rhythm first.  Wow - it's changed my life!  Students are quickly reading rhythms and playing together on all of our exercises.  Having a solid foundation in rhythm will help the ensemble all year and they already are reading so well.  They don't have to worry about reading notes yet, since we are using my rote book, "Starting by Rote" (available at or TPT).

I am also reinforcing rhythm skills with these short bell-work exercises in my new book, "Rhythm Work" (available at TPT).   24 pages of 1/2 page printable worksheets and 2 full page rhythm final tests.

 I feel like this focus on rhythm has helped students learn exercises more quickly because they understand when to change notes!  I will now be teaching rhythm before note-reading every year.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Progression of a bow hold - the first 10 days of orchestra

I just survived the first 9 days of school.'s been busy!  After a long summer break, it's always a shock to my system to start getting up early and working again.

I love the first few weeks of school.  Students are motivated and excited and I love seeing them delight in learning and developing their talents.  It is so important to give students a great start.  I am passionate about setting up beginners with the best possible position.  When students develop poor position it can be very frustrating to break bad habits.

One the 2nd day of school I showed this video to my students.  I wanted them to understand that holding a bow and holding their instrument might not feel natural at first...and that is normal!  It is normal to feel a little awkward when first learning a new skill.  This helps students not become frustrated as I insist on proper position.  It helps cello students who don't like the feel of the cello sitting on their chests.  Students are willing to work on their bow holds and keep thumbs bent...even though they want to keep the thumb straight.

The first days of school can be overwhelming since there is so much material to cover and so much to do to get students ready to play.  My first priority is to teach bow hold and help all students master bow holds.  I have a rule:  No student may touch the horse hair to the string until they pass of their bow hold and it must be perfect.  That means no playing with bows on the strings for almost 2 weeks.  It takes that long for students to develop a natural, relaxed bow hold.  The first impulse is to keep fingers straight and rigid.  We work through many exercises to help students stay flexible.

Here is an overview of my lesson plans for the first 10 days of school.  We work on bow hold first thing, then move on to master other important skills.  I just finished day 9 with my own class and they're doing great!  I haven't always taken this long to develop bow hold, but with my large classes this has helped all students progress together.  This chart doesn't really show my teaching strategies..I have so many ideas for teaching play position, left hand position, rhythm and would just take forever to type it all out.  I'd really like to do a presentation at a conference to demonstrate the first 10 days.   If you have questions about a specific topic feel free to comment and I'll answer.  :)  Much of these skills are described in my book 'The True Beginning: Before the Method Book" available at

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Lessons From Hillary Hahn: How to practice and the 100 days of practice goal

Do you follow Hillary Hahn on Instagram?  You should.  Her user name is 'violincase.'  I'm just a lowly orchestra teacher, but I have been so inspired with Hillary's recent instagram posts about practicing.  She made a goal to participate in the '100 Days of Practicing' project and posts a video every day that gives us a glimpse of what her practice routines are like.  These short little snippets are full of educational value and I plan on using them to inspire my students to practice and teach them HOW to practice.

Hillary Hahn is a world class, famous, professional touring violinist.  Sometimes we mistakenly assume that there will come a time when we will 'arrive' at a certain level of performance and playing or performing will all of a sudden come naturally.  Hillary shows us the true amount of work and dedication needed to reach our potential.  There is no arrival - we're never is necessary to continually progress.  A good performance is the result of hours and hours on consistent, careful, reflective, goal-driven and focused practice - even for a professional.

Hillary shows that she still practices skills that might be deemed 'basic.'  She does bow exercises, practicing slow long bows on open strings, works on vibrato, practices left hand finger taps.  I do many of these things with my beginners...and we eventually reach a point where we think we don't need finger taps any more....we become 'advanced.'  I love how Hillary's videos show us that the basic skills should still be practiced.  All those things come together to create dexterity, ease of motion, and perfection.

I think students need to see a professional in action.  I plan on using one or two videos per week to show my students.  We will focus on these techniques as a class and refine our practice capabilities.  I will encourage students to practice effectively at home.  Maybe we'll even do the '100 days of practice' challenge ourselves.

Here are link to my favorite videos and the lesson/skill in the video.  These are all the things I want my students to learn:

Finger taps – strengthening left hand/fingers:

Quote from Hillary: 
"End of the day. Working on a perennially finger-tangling passage in #Prokofiev 1. 6 months till the concert, so why not see where it's at? Practice at tempo can be a good way to locate problem spots and try performance-speed solutions. #the100dayproject#100daysofpractice"

Trill routine – slow then speeding up:

First day on Dvorak – repititions/concentration, tone, focus:

Spinning hoops – arm/hand exercises:

Fingerpatterns – range of motions for fingers:

Quote from Hillary: "LH pizzicato exercise for callus-building and hand-strengthening. "

Practicing in the dark:

Making pizzicato musical:

Silent practice – studying the music/score
Working on bow tilt – slow

Practicing vibrato:

Slow bows on 2 strings:

Practicing pizzicato in order to watch left hand transitions/finger placement:

Repetition – practice before concert:

Bow exercises – tiny down, travel to tip, tiny up


Practicing with mute: Quote from Hillary: "Jetlag practice with the practice mute. The mute isn't a good thing to use regularly when working on music you'll play unmuted, but sometimes it's helpful if you don't want to make too much noise but still feel it would be good to play something - maybe technical drills, or a passage you didn't feel you got the hang of earlier in the day, or just checking in with a couple of phrases out of curiosity. -HH "

Centering intonation – warm up – during double stops:

Intonation – tuning A minor

Checking arm/body positon: Quote from Hillary: "Working on fluidity in the upper half of the bow without pivoting from my shoulders to reach the tip. -HH" 

Super slow long bows – wow:

Marking the music:

Overcoming bad days: 
Quote from Hillary: "It's a weird adrenal-crash sort of day, when it feels like my cells aren't coordinating with each other. Here, I'm working on figuring out what's up with my left hand; it didn't feel smooth. Of course most of practicing is about the music, but some of it is also about understanding the body as it relates to the instrument. Everyone has these seemingly random, "what happened???!" days. The question then becomes whether or not you can make them work for you. -HH "

Practicing without vibrato:

Recording your practice – watching and fixing: "It's just one of those days. Trying to do my best but my mind is super sluggish. A good day to video a session and then watch it back, to see how the music is coming across. Then try again with changes and watch again. Ditto, ditto. -HH "

Learning new bowing – new stuff takes reps and time…careful focus and thought:

Moving/walking while practicing:

Not feeling like practicing, but doing it anyway:
"Tired today and my body is feeling stiff. Really didn't feel like practicing, but there's a concert to warm up and get in the mindset for. This is what happens mid tour! Very normal. Working on some small details quietly to encourage the revving up process. The gaps between attempts are when I'm resetting my thoughts to try again. -HH "

Checking posture with mirror:

What goes on in the mind during practice?  Think of the audience!  
"I spent the afternoon in meetings and wanted to clear my head before the next part of my day. One of those meetings had led me to consider whether or not I create moments of beauty for myself when I'm alone in a room, practicing or otherwise. I realized that when I practice, I almost always think of other people: the audience. Which I should do! This practice session, to shake things up, I took a few moments to play only the notes I was instinctively compelled to play, when I wanted to play them, however they would emerge. It's improvisation, but not to convey anything at all. At a certain point (where this video starts), a euphoric feeling of calm kicked in, and my mind felt refreshed. –HH"

Connecting vibrato between notes:

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Do you wish your beginners would play better in tune?

It can be done!

During the summer I always have more time to practice my instrument.  I enjoy continuing to work on my playing and becoming more proficient on secondary instruments (I was trained on violin and viola so I am less strong on cello and bass).  As a kid I used to hate the Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, Mazas type etudes and technique books.  Back then I just wanted to practice solos.  I'm sure most students feel the same way.  Now that I'm older I have begun to really enjoy playing etudes from all of my old books.  I practice to build and strengthen technique and etudes do the job very well.  Since starting to review all my old etudes, I have noticed a big difference in my playing.  My intonation, tone, bowing...everything was noticeably improving!

Inspired by the etudes of my childhood, I decided to write a book of simple exercises for beginning orchestra.  These exercises are much shorter and painless. :)  Over my last few years of teaching I noticed I would use the D scale for warm-ups almost every day.  I wanted to vary my warm-up routine, but didn't have time to search out appropriate exercises.  This book is great because it becomes your warm-up routine for the school year.  It provides some great variety so you don't have to just do the D scale.

Available for purchase at or TPT.

These simple exercises are written for beginning orchestra classes to be used as warm-ups to improve intonation in your ensemble. Each exercise drills a specific note pattern or fingering to help students achieve more precise intonation. The rhythm in each exercise is always simple in order to help students focus all attention on tone and intonation. 

This book is set up so that all exercises for each part are grouped together. (Violin exercise 1, viola exercise 1, cello exercise 1, etc.) It’s not set up to be a separate book for each instrument. After printing, you could collate the parts to create separate books. I choose to keep exercises together because I hand out one page per week to my students and this grouping makes it easier for me to find and copy the separate parts. I used to copy entire books, but found students would sometimes leave them in lockers, forget them at home or lose them. It’s easier for me to give them a replacement page rather than a replacement book.

There are no fingering markings. It is up to the teacher to determine when you want vioin/viola students to use open strings versus 4th finger. It depends on what you are wanting students to work on. I wanted the exercises to be adaptable and versatile. 

There are many ways to use these exercises in your beginning strings group. Here are a few ideas:

  • Focus on one exercise per week to be used as a warm-up. Encourage students to memorize each exercise by the end of the week so they may watch fingering and listen intently. Insist in perfect intonation.

  • Most exercises are in D or G major—the keys used in most beginning level music. You can re-use these exercises and increase the challenge by changing the key signature on each exercise. Teach students how key signatures change finger patterns by playing the same exercise in a few different keys. For example—after teaching low 2’s, you may have students play the first exercise with low 2’s (C major). The simple exercise will help students drill the new finger placement.

  • There is an optional harmony part for each exercise. Sometimes the harmony is just a drone note to help with tuning the exercise. Encourage students to learn the harmony. You may perform each exercise in a variety of ways (Violins on melody with all others on harmony, boys on melody with girls on harmony, outside player melody with inside on harmony, etc.). Encourage careful listening as your group harmonizes to for quality intonation. Be sure they understand that it only sounds good when the notes are in tune and expect all students to reach that standard.

I believe beginning strings groups can play in tune with careful practice. Believe in your students and let them amaze you. 
There are 98 pages total with parts for violin, viola, cello and bass.