Search This Blog

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