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Friday, September 7, 2018

Note reading struggles

It's that time of year to teach note-reading.  I always begin by teaching students where the open strings are on the staff.  We practice memorizing them using dry-erase packets and students are able to learn them very quickly.  Some students struggle with the transition from seeing large notes on a large staff to smaller notes.  They have to learn to carefully distinguish the difference between the notes.  To help students transition to a regular sized staff I created  this worksheet...enjoy!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Utilizing Technology - Playing Tests for the 21st Century

I'm a believer in playing tests.  I don't do practice cards, so playing tests are used to motivate students to work and practice.  Normally on playing test days (every 2 weeks) I listen to 40-50 students in 45 minutes or less.  As I listen I frantically jot down comments on my rubric and students are given an opportunity to reflect, improve, and re-take any playing test for a better score.  I have noticed that some students don't read my comments and don't make needed changes to improve their playing.  I would like students to take on more responsibility for their learning and growth.  This year I will be implement a new kind of playing test which will help students take ownership for their playing.

Here's how it's going to work:

I will be using google classroom with each of my classes this year.  Students will need a google classroom account AND a account.   SeeSaw is great because it can be accessed on any device.  There is a SeeSaw app for smart phones...but if students don't have a phone they can use computers with webcams or chomebooks.

I will assign playing tests on google classroom with specific directions.  Students receive a link to a google form which contains instructions for the test as well as a rubric where students will grade THEMSELVES.  Students will be instructed to grade themselves carefully.  They must PROVE and justify their grade by performing their playing test in SeeSaw.  I can then review any video and see if I agree with the rubric students submit.   The great thing about SeeSaw is that it creates a portfolio so students can go back and review any playing test.  They can see their progress throughout the year.

Here is a link to a sample playing test so you can see how it works:


Here are some screen shots:

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

FUN IDEA for your Beginning String Orchestra! Teach proper position.

Wanna be a cool orchestra teacher?  Try this idea with your beginners!

I've been listening to the song 'Keep Your Head Up' and I love it!  Perfect for bow exercises...but it got me thinking...  If I could change the words a little - especially in the chorus - it would be perfect to use to teach proper instrument position.  So I changed the words to the song:

I plan on having my orchestra learn the words (at least to the chorus) and sing them while we are setting our left hand positions.  I purchased the karaoke version of the song on iTunes and students can sing along.

But here's another awesome thing you can do...

Buy the Karaoke version and the regular version of "Keep Your Head Up" by Andy Grammer, then get the free app: ANYTUNE.  Select the music in the app and transpose the music UP 2 half steps by clicking on the sharp sign (lower right side) 2 times.

Now you can use this tune for students to practice the D string notes!  I created this sheet music for students to play along with the transposed version of the song.  Playing along with this familiar song will help students tune their notes and stay together as a group.  Plus it's super fun!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Lesson Plan Template for Orchestra

I really try to be organized and have looked for the perfect teacher planner to help me keep track of everything.  I've never been able to find anything that works perfectly for a middle school orchestra teacher, so I created some printable templates to make my own teacher planner binder.  This is way less expensive than buying a pre-made planner full of un-needed or non-applicable pages.  Check it out and for a limited time you may download for free HERE!

8 pages total - includes a lesson plan template for orchestra rehearsals, year at a glance, weekly overview, concert piece lists, instruments needing repair, communication log, music wish list, and participation point tracker. Easy to use - just print as many pages as you need and compile them in a binder with tabs for each section by class. Simple and easy with no fluff.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Traffic Sign Orchestra Classroom Decor

If you are looking to add some posters to your orchestra classroom, here are some traffic signs specially designed with orchestra in mind!  There are 10 signs total.  You may purchase them at by TPT site.  Each sign may be printed in color - size 8.5 x 11.   Enjoy!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Orchestra Seating Chart - redesigned

I've been using the same seating chart for awhile and I was ready for a change.  My old chart used squares to show where the seats go in my classroom.  I re-designed my chart and used circles so students can more easily see the semi-circle layout of the chairs.  The circles are grouped in 2's to show stand partners.  Once I have my final numbers I will color code the circles by section and try to streamline seating chart changes with some pre-determined variations.  This chart is based on the size of my room....I can't fit any more chairs than this.  If this chart would help you feel free to use it!  You can download it for free on my Teachers Pay Teachers site.  :)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Finger Pattern Warm Ups for String Orchestra

When passing out a new piece of music I have often wished for a better way to drill finger-patterns to help students remember fingerings on each string for the key signatures.  So often students ask ..."Is it a high 2 or low 2 on the A string? "  I am hoping the drills and exercises in this resource will help students internalize how the key signatures change the finger patterns on each string.

This resource is 29 pages total.  It contains 7 pages of exercises for violin, viola, cello and bass.  Each page is a different key signature - from 3 sharps all the way to 3 flats.  Students can see the fingerpatterns on each string on the diagram at the top of the page.  Teachers may have students fill in the note names in the circles.  The notes at the top of the page show half steps to help students with intervals and tuning. 

You may purchase this resource on my ORCHESTRA CLASSROOM website or Teachers Pay Teachers Site.  Only $15 and you may copy as many as you need for your students.

 (Please no sharing files and it is not ok to publish my files on public web pages.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Pencil Problem

Like most teachers, I require students to come to my classroom prepared with their instrument, music, and a pencil.  Students are penalized points when they are unprepared for class, but I admit that I need to be more consistent with keeping track of point penalties.  It's hard for my right-brained self to track such things...especially when I don't want to stop the flow of my class and waste time.  Students who don't have pencil are in crisis mode...and they do one of the following:

  • Sit silently and do not attempt to complete the task at hand...hoping I won't notice.
  • Some raise their hands and announce to the entire class that they don't have a pencil and ask if anyone has one they can borrow.
  • Other students get out of their seats and start searching the classroom for a stray pencil.
  • Students come and ask me if they can go to their lockers to get a pencil.

All of these responses drive me CRAZY!  I just want them to be prepared and be ready to immediately do what I ask them to do.  I surely don't want my valuable class time to turn into a pencil scavenger hunt.  To combat the issue I give each student a pencil and a folder at the beginning of the year.  Students are instructed to bring the folder and pencil to class every day.  It just doesn't always happen.

At the end of the school year, my PLC group discussed the pencil problem at our collaboration meeting.  The art teacher at my school got really excited because he said he has solved this problem.  He told us that his students always have a pencil because he keeps pencils in the classroom for students to use.  He buys hundreds of pencils provides them for students.  I was thinking...well I do that, too...I have a giant cup full of pencils and students are allowed to borrow them.  This doesn't quite solve my problem because I don't want kids out of their seats to fetch a pencil...that all takes time.  Sometimes I bring pencils around the room to students that don't have one...yet again, it takes time.

 I've been thinking a lot about this pencil problem.  How can I provide pencils that are conveniently accessible?  I looked for options online.  Music stores sell spring-like contraptions that attach to music stands, but they are a bit expensive.  I need something cost effective, efficient, removable, durable, and something that would allow the music stands to be stacked without having to move it.

Here's what I came up with....DOLLAR STORE HAIR BANDS!  They come in packs of 8 - so 8 bands for $1.00.  I can wrap one of these babies around each of my 48 music stands and it will only cost me $6!  They easily hold 2 pencils and it is very simple to take pencils out of the band and put them back in.  Pencils can stay in place, even when stacking stands on racks at the end of each day.  If I don't want pencils on the stands during a concert, the bands can quickly be removed.

Some classroom management strategies will need to be in place for this work.  Students will be expected and required to store pencils appropriately after each rehearsal.  They will not be allowed to remove the band (or mess with it in any way).  Students must be taught a procedure for sharpening pencils when needed. 

Having pencils readily available for students to use will save a lot of time in rehearsal.  No more searching for pencils.  No more excuses.  Pencil problem....solved.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Orchestra Rehearsal Re-Focused

Coming back to school after spring never know exactly how that first rehearsal will go.  I always hope my students have practiced a little bit during their one week of freedom, but I understand that some families have busy vacations and practicing doesn't usually happen.  Over the break I began thinking of policies and expectations that I should review with my classes.  I created this orchestra survey for students to determine their own level of work ethic.  It went amazingly well.  I didn't have to harp on them for not doing this or that....they filled out their own survey and we talked about 'what if.'  What if every student in class stopped right when I stopped...what if every student prepared difficult passages at home...etc.  It really got them thinking and it helped remind them of my expectations.  The rehearsal went great and students were sensing their's amazing how much more work can be done when students are truly attentive and focusing.

Download this for FREE at the TPT site: Orchestra Classroom

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Recruiting Round-up

Every year I add new ideas to my regular recruiting routine (search for my other posts about recruiting for other great ideas) and consistently have enjoyed an increase in students.  It is important to stay on top of current trends and use those things in your recruiting program.  I keep thinking I've reached my max number of students, but my numbers keep going up!  Last year I had to cut 30 students out of my beginning strings class because I didn't have enough room in my schedule to teach them all.  This year over 160 signed up for beginning strings (making my total student load 330!) and I'm not planning on cutting any because the school will hire a second orchestra teacher help teach some of the classes.

 I'm ecstatic that over 27% of our student population is in orchestra.  It feels like orchestra is taking over the school!  That is what inspired me to create new recruiting materials featuring a zombie orchestra theme:



I also had these postcards printed at  You can buy the image at my TpT store.

While elementary school kids were out of the classroom watching my recruiting assembly performed by my group of 100+ beginners, I had a group of my older students place one of these postcards on every student's desk.  Many of the postcards had a personal note on the back from a student in my program saying how much they love orchestra.  (My 8th graders enjoyed that assignment.)  I only wish I would have seen their reactions to see their room had been taken over by zombie orchestra signs.  :)

The Greatest Showman is a very popular movie in my area, so I had a high school student come with us and she played an AMAZING variation of 'Rewrite the Stars' on an electric violin with a back-up track.  Kids were mesmerized and many sang along.  I had introduced my student as they next famous YouTube Lindsey Stirling and Rob Landes (who had just performed at one of my concerts).  Many elementary students got her autograph afterwards.

We left these posters at each school...and the image is available at my TpT site:

In years past I purchased fortune cookies and painstakingly removed every fortune and replaced them with my own pro-orchestra fortunes.  This year I simplified by purchasing these fortune cookie erasers at  Fortune Cookie Erasers

Student helpers easily replaced all the fortunes with things like, 'You belong in orchestra'   'Life is better in orchestra'  'Orchestra is for you!'   At the end of our recruiting concert, we invite students to come try our instruments for a couple of minutes and afterwards they get the eraser.  I heard one kid say, "That was fun!  I'm totally going to join orchestra.  Plus my fortune cookie told me to."  It was hilarious.

Another fun addition this year was a bubble machine! We always play 'Appalachian Hymn' by Soon Hee Newbold as students enter the assembly.  This year be had a pro bubble machine pumping out bubbles galore as students took their seats.  It was fun and added an exciting unexpected twist.

Advice for New Teachers!

Recruiting is finished and numbers for next year have come in.  Looks like my program is still growing...over 330 students signed up for orchestra next year at my school.  That's over 25% of our student population enrolled in my program.  It feels pretty good to spread the gift of music to so many students.  How did I get so lucky to be able to do this?   I'm at a point where I need help with managing my large program, so another teacher will be hired to teach a few orchestra classes.  This is my advice for that teacher, as well as any new teacher out there...

Program Philosophy

What are your beliefs and desires for your program?  Here are my thoughts: 

The plight of many people in the world is complacency and mediocrity.  I believe in inspiring students to rise above the tendency to do only minimum effort.  All students have greatness in them and all can achieve success.  It’s only a matter of learning how to work for it and push to overcome obstacles.  We learn about our true potential as we turn challenges into strengths through diligent work and effort.  I want students to discover they are amazing and can truly accomplish anything.  Greatness is in reach and we reach for it daily.  When students think they can’t…I show them they can.  They will rise to the challenge.  I will never give up on a student.

Book Recommendation:  Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Birth to Age 0, by Shinichi Suzuki


Students don’t know how to practice.  They don’t realize that they must practice small sections correctly over and over.  When in class, I do my best to model how to properly practice and teach students how to practice at home.  Of course I would like students to practice.  I remind them, encourage them, and even sometimes incentivize them.  We have playing tests and practice assignments.  Even so, I NEVER assume students are going to get the work done at home.  Sometimes there are struggles at home we can’t even comprehend.  I never blame students for poor playing and berate them for not practicing enough.  In my program, practicing is simply an expectation tracked through weekly assignments.  Even if I required practice cards or had more frequent tests, I don’t believe students would practice more.  I make sure our rehearsals are effective.  That is our practice session.  I insist students master music in class.  It is my job to help them learn and achieve success while they are with me. 

Book Recommendation:  The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle


We work hard and the pacing is quick.  I try to involve all students all the time.  There is a need to hear individual sections at times, but with some quick thinking, all students can be always working and practicing – even if it’s just fingering notes, air-bowing rhythms, or writing counting.  During rehearsal, I am demanding and authoritative without demeaning students. They must feel it is ok to make a mistake  - everyone will make mistakes every day and our room is a safe place for mistakes.  But in our quest to overcome mediocrity, we work to fix all errors and reach the highest possible level of performance.  If it’s not right, we do it again.  Students can master anything with proper teaching and patience.   Make every minute of rehearsal valuable.

Tips for effective rehearsals:

·       Introduce new skills AWAY from the music.  Warm-up time is perfect to try new rhythms and master new note patterns and fingerings.

·         Drill very small sections.  Let all students learn the hard parts from different sections by writing notes on board or by making practice parts.  If students can’t seem to master something, keep breaking it down into smaller and smaller skills until it is manageable.  If students aren’t getting it within a couple minutes, switch to different approach.

·         Reinforce difficult passages daily.  It can take weeks of consistent practice before a measure stays correct all the time.  Keep reviewing until students can play correctly on their FIRST try….and even then keep reviewing.  Do everything you did at the last rehearsal while gradually adding new skills and content.

·         Be creative and think outside the box.  Don’t use an excuse like “I’m not a creative person.”    Try new ideas and always be learning.  I love to keep students guessing what will happen next in my classroom. 

Book Recommendation:  Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess

Classroom Management

Many new teachers worry about classroom management.  Before my first teaching job, I remember having dreams about attempting to teach a class and the students wouldn’t listen and things were in complete chaos.  What a nightmare!  Don’t fear.  In a properly run classroom, there will rarely be a discipline problem in class.  Busy students don’t have time to act out.  A teacher must be authoritative.  Don’t be afraid to tell students what to do.  Learn to speak loudly.  You can have fun and should feel free to be yourself, but there must be a way to quickly bring students back to focus.
Students must know your expectations through well established routines and procedures.  These routines must be practiced every day.  Once a teacher becomes lax, students will in turn become lax about following procedures.  It’s perfectly fine to remind students about procedures every day. 

Important procedures:  How to enter the classroom, what to do when they enter, how to get out supplies, where to put their things, how to handle instruments, putting music in order on stands, completing bellwork, how to hand in assignments, how to get tuned, how to act during rehearsals, what to do when not playing, what to do if they can’t find their music, what to do when they don’t have an instrument, what to do if they have a problem with their instrument during class, how/when to put instruments away, what to do before the bell rings, how to leave the classroom.

One thing that helps with classroom management is to keep pacing quick and efficient.  Slow pacing creates classroom management problems and class morale will suffer.  Be aware of how long it takes to tune…how long takes to do transitions…how long to explain concepts.  It’s important to keep instructions quick and efficient. 

Students will stay on task better when you walk the room.  Learn to teach while moving about the room.  Switch student seats frequently (every 2 weeks).  Be aware of student body language throughout your lessons.  If students are getting tired or frustrated it is time to switch to a new idea or a different part of the music.   Sometimes, students need an analogy or a story to inspire them to keep working.  Sometimes they need a story just for a 1 min. break to help them refocus.

Remember, EVERYTHING is fixable and changeable.  If you don't like how your class is going, change it.  Make it how you want it. 

Book recommendation:  Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids by Chris Biffle

What do students really want? 

Several weeks ago I interviewed some students from another program.  They spoke of frustration with their music class because of the trouble kids who would not take the class seriously.  They wanted their group to be the best.  They wanted the teacher to take control and insist on greatness.  Students want order.  They want ‘trouble’ students to be dealt with so that rehearsals can be effective.  They want to work hard and sound great.  All students want to succeed – that is why they are with you.  They want to be their best and will follow you as you show them how. 

How to get students to work hard.

I believe students want to work hard, but it is much easier to get students to work if you have fun!  Many times hard work can be disguised into a game.  Much of our rehearsal time involves repetitions – repeating short musical ideas over and over correctly.  Try to create fun ways to add variety to the repetitions.  Use props to add interest and create memorable ideas to help students retain skills.  Fun and light-heartedness is good and sometimes needed to help them re-focus and overcome frustrations. 

How to inspire students.

Music is inspiring.  Overcoming challenges to achieve greatness is inspiring.  Help students recognize their greatness by pointing out how they improve throughout a day, a week, or a month.  For example, remind them how hard it was for them when first holding a bow the right way – and let them realize how easy it has become with consistent effort.  Students gain self-confidence as they recognize their progress.  They must be aware of progress to have any motivation to continue.  If a student does not feel like he/she is improving, they will quickly become frustrated and quit.  I like to use a weekly ‘Video of the Week’ to inspire students to work and love music.

Book Recommendation: Helping Students Motivate Themselves by Larry Ferlazzo. (I use the first couple of lessons at the start of the school year before we start working with instruments.

Selecting music

Be very careful when choosing music.  It needs to be challenging, but attainable.  There should be some pieces that students can learn quickly, and some that might take more time.  I try really hard to never cut a piece of music after passing it out to students.  It is demoralizing to take music away from a student – it makes them feel like they have failed.  Whatever you choose, make sure it sounds great.  Do all in your power to help students learn the music well and feel successful. 

How to connect with students.

Students need to get to know you.  It is important that you are genuine and real.  It’s ok to make mistakes and acknowledge your mistakes.  It’s ok to show your sense of humor and laugh with your students.  If you are authentic and show an interest in your students, they will develop a connection with you as a teacher.  Don’t try to teach like someone else.  Be true to you and find your style.  Students love stories – learn how to tell stories with powerful delivery.  Use stories in your classroom every day.

Book Recommendation:  The Naked Presenter by Garr Reynolds. This book is about doing presentations, but it has so many gems for teachers.  After all…we are presenters.