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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Transitioning to 'ADVANCED' playing

I've been teaching beginning strings for a long time and I feel very comfortable there.  Last year I added the high school orchestra program to my teaching day.  I knew it would be a bit different from teaching beginners at the junior high.  I prepared myself by carefully choosing music that was challenging, yet attainable.  It was a fun adventure, but I found myself not completely prepared for the challenges of high school.  It's a lot to prep for 3 different levels of junior high school, then 2 levels of high school.  I was stretched thin and did not feel ready for each rehearsal. 

We had a good year.  Both my high school groups made it to State and received Superior ratings.  We went on tour and had a great time...and won the 'Best Overall Orchestra' at a Music in the Parks event.  It felt like a success...but as I watch my students perform, I know something is lacking.  Most of my students do not take private lessons.  While there are definitely strong players and good leaders in the group I see many players who need help.  I notice stiff bow arms, lack of vibrato, timid tone.  I am their teacher.  I have to fix it.

Last year I used a popular method with my high school group and it worked ok.  I never felt as if there was a curriculum I was following...just little warm-ups...thrown together so we could get to our concert pieces.  I wanted to teach them, but didn't feel like I'd found the right materials to help me give them what they needed.  Now that summer is here I've decided to create a warm-up curriculum for my high school students.  Here is what I would like to them to master during high school:

1.  Bow control - using all parts of the bow, bow distribution
2.  Bow strokes - Detache, Martele, Spiccato, Staccato - better mastery
3.  Tone quality - achieving solid ringing tone in 1st-4th position
4.  Intonation (we never stop working on this one)
5.  Rhythm Mastery
6.  Vibrato
7.  Expression/emotion in playing

My problem with a curriculum is that music must BUILD.  I can't teach bow control and then just be done with it. We have to use every skill...and add it to the next skill...and add those to the next...  At first I was thinking of teaching one skill per month.  This just won't work if I am going to develop better musicians.  They need all of it..all the time.  The school year is too busy to create something comprehensive on the spot with exactly what they need.  I have to do it now.

So, the grand experiment has begun.  I started researching and writing and developing my materials.  It all begins with advanced bow exercises... here's a sample:

Hopefully this summer will be long enough to hash things out and create something that will help my students develop into stronger musicians with mastery of their bows and instruments.

Friday, May 31, 2019

5 Maintenance Tips I wish I would have known earlier

After a year full of rehearsal and practice some of my school instruments look a little thrashed.  Most of my school cellos are shared by 3 students - so they get a lot of use in a day.  (Someday I hope to have enough cellos for all my students, but right now I’m about 40 short.) After our final concert I do an instrument cleaning day and get everything looking shiny.

It’s good for general maintenance to have all students clean their instruments at least once per year.  We use spray bottles filled with distilled water and 1-2 tablespoons of white vinegar.  I tell students to never spray ‘cleaner’ on directly on their instruments.  We use a collection of bandannas I found in my classroom and students spray a little vinegar water on a bandanna to wipe down their instruments.  They use a dry bandanna for buffing.

Recently I was able to tour the repair shop of a local music store, Summerhays Music in Orem, UT.  I learned some maintenance tips I wish I would have known when I started teaching!   These tips would have saved my program budget a lot of money.  Summer is a great time to check instruments and do these simple steps to make sure instruments stay in good condition.


Do you have any of those fine tuners that are super hard to turn?  In my classroom I have a few cellos from the dark ages with tuners so stiff it hurts my fingers to try to use them.  When instruments are cleaned you should unscrew the fine tuner and put a drop of mineral oil in the hole where the screw goes.  This will ensure the fine tuner keeps working properly.  I will be having students do this on our instrument cleaning day from now on.  You can also use mineral oil to lubricate bass pegs/mechanism.


I have a little epidemic going on in my orchestra.  Students are constantly losing those little endpin bolts and we’ve had a few endpins go inside the cellos.  I can’t stand it when that happens because it’s so frustrating to get those endpins back out!  I once tried to get an endpin back in place with a back-scratcher…..doesn’t work.  Inevitably I have to send those cellos to the repair shop to have them retrieve the endpin.  At school I’ve just been wrapping masking tape around the end of cello endpins to keep them from going inside the cello.  It doesn’t look great...but that was my quick fix.

At Summerhays I learned you can just go to a hardware store and buy bolts (size M8 1.25) that will screw right back on the endpins.  They’re super cheap..and you can SUPER GLUE them in place so they never fall off.  This is going to save my program some money for sure.


A have quite a few cellos with warped bridges.  I thought it was happening because the wood was bad, but I learned that the warping happens when the bridge is crooked.   I have never consistently checked the bridges on all my instruments to make sure they are straight.  This will now be part of my routine.  The Summerhays repair shop taught me how to properly adjust the bridge.  They said you do NOT loosen the strings to adjust the bridge (unless it needs major adjusting/placement).  You brace your hands on the bridge and move/adjust from the top.  You don’t try to move the feet...just the top of the bridge until it is 90 degrees.


I actually discovered these pegs a few years ago.  I was wasting too much time trying to tune old cellos with ill-equipped pegs.  When these Wittner pegs came out I loved them so much...I slowly started using my school budget to have these pegs put in all my school cellos.  It is worth every penny!  Saves a ton of time with tuning.  When I start a class of 50+ beginners I have to be able to tune them all in 3-5 minutes.  These pegs make it a breeze.  It also helps students tune their own instruments with ease.  I teach beginners how to tune about mid-way through the school year.  I now rarely have a student who breaks a string.


I’m guilty.  There are cellos and basses at my school equipped with some ancient strings.  At school I usually only replace strings when they break.  I’ve never made room in my budget to replace old strings.  I know some of my instruments would sound way better if I would just put on new strings.

Part of my summer maintenance will be to finally start replacing strings and keeping track of when new strings are put on.  My inventory is currently organized in a google spreadsheet.  I can type notes directly on my inventory regarding when strings have been replaced, what repairs have been done, etc.  That way I can create a rotation to begin replacing strings without having to do all 50+ instruments at once.

At Summerhays I learned that it is best to purchase strings that are straight (not wound in a packet).  This ensures the winding on the string lasts longer.  The core and the winding of the string can deteriorate when the winding is bent and compromised.  Buying local is ideal because you can buy strings that are straight.  Summerhays has awesome low prices (even lower than online retailers) and stores all their strings straight.

I hope you find these tips useful as you spend time with your inventory at the end of the school year/beginning of the new school year.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reader Question: Classroom Management and Orchestra Handbook

School just ended for me and it feels nice to have a little extra time to rest, rejuvenate, and reflect on the year.  I tend to make lots of changes in my teaching every year as I work to find the best possible strategies for teaching my students.

A few weeks ago a received an email from Kathryn Larsen.  She requested I write a post about classroom management and wanted me to share my orchestra handbook.  So, here it goes...

I remember interviewing for my current job.  The principal asked me how I felt about classroom management and I told him I had no concerns and that I was very confident with classroom management.  I feel a well-run classroom will have few classroom management problems and busy students don't have time to act up.  I told the principal about my belief in setting procedures to help a classroom run well.  This is true...but I know you're thinking...but there's one kid who just_________________  you fill in the blank.  Let's talk about that in a minute.

First, classroom procedures are the secret to classroom management.  I start to teach these to students immediately.  Their first lesson is how to get completely quiet, and focus their eyes on me.  (I don't just want them quiet...I want them focused).  We do an activity on the first day of school where I teach them my signals and procedures for getting their attention...then we practice.  There are many ideas for implementing quiet procedures, but here is what works for me:

1.  When I stomp on my podium (and it's loud) everyone is quiet.  When I stand on my podium ever...even quietly, everyone is quiet.  They need to respond to both.  If the class is noisy I will stomp loudly on my podium to make it obvious I'm there.  Otherwise just stepping on my podium is a signal for silence.

2.  When I hold a bow - or bow bunny shaped hand - in the air, all copy and do the same...and be quiet.  I've seen some teachers have students place bows/bow hand on top of their heads - that works too.  

3.  When I say 'ARCO!' everyone says 'SOLO' and they all get quiet.  Sometimes it takes a couple 'arco's.'  This is straight from Whole Brain Teaching - and I recommend that book as it has some good ideas for classroom management.  I tell my students that if they don't get quiet they'll have to play a solo for the class...but this is all done in a joking way -not threatening.  I don't feel students respond to a threatening presence.

Now, what about that kid who just won't stop....plucking, talking, poking, annoying others...   Every student is different.  I keep a positive atmosphere in my classroom and don't yell at or belittle students who are acting up.  I firmly tell them to stop what they are doing, and I completely expect that it stops.  If it does not stop, there is immediately a consequence that would make sense...moving their seat if talking, switching their bow to a crappy bow with no hair if they are mistreating their bow (since they will then have to earn the privilege of having nice things), making then sit in 'reverse rest position' if plucking.  I rarely have a problem in class because of quick pacing and positive rapport with my students.  They want to please me and they get a lot of praise when they are doing well.  Expecting compliance, excellence, and having a sense of humor to laugh with the class clown a little...that's all it is.  With that said, if you came to observe my teaching you probably would not find a completely silent classroom.  You would find a focused classroom.

About my orchestra handbook...this is an ever evolving document.  I tend to change it every year and I keep making it shorter and shorter and shorter...because NO ONE READS IT!   One year I put my handbook in a google form...paragraph by paragraph...and had a question that had to be answered after each paragraph to ensure parents and students would get the information.  Even then I had people not reading the handbook.  I have decided to keep making it shorter...and email bits of info to parents/students as needed.  With that said, here's one of the versions of my orchestra handbook for beginning orchestra:

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Orchestra SURVIVOR - Outwit, Outlast, Outplay

I just finished with recruiting season.  It feels good to have all of that done!   Now I feel like there is extra time in rehearsals to revisit and reinforce some essential skills.  Today we started reviewing rhythm using my RHYTHM BELLWORK pages and students are doing so well.  Something I learned today ....have students clap and count rhythms and move clasps hands upward while holding out longer notes.  That is how I have them write the counting, and it is a great visual and kinesthetic way to 'feel' the length of longer notes.

We also reinforces position and bow hold today by playing SURVIVOR.  I showed students part of this Survivor challenge: 

We talked about how good position must stay...not too high, not too low...and it takes constant concentration to make sure everything stays in the proper place.  Then we played our own version of a survivor challenge:

Violin/Viola Challenges:

1.  Pass out large marshmallows to every student.  Have them balance the marshmallow between the left thumb and base of index finger.  Students hold their arms out in front of them, keeping wrists straight and arms in playing position.  That freeze in that position.

2.  Demonstration proper left hand technique on instrument while tapping fingers on tapes.  Good position only or the 'water' drops and a student is 'out.'

3.  Hold instrument on shoulder with only your head - no hands.  Balance for a few minutes.  

4.  Balance the marshmallow in their instruments - no hands.

5.  Pass off perfect bow hold with bow placed on the D string.

6.  Pull a perfectly straight bow - staying in the correct lane between the bridge and fingerboard.

7.  Watch and make sure all bow hair flat in contact with the string

8.  Play what I call 'F# and F natural turns' with perfect bowing, intonation, finger placement.

Cello/Bass Challenges:

1.  Students practice setting left on on cello without lifting the shoulder - keeping left hand in C shape.

2.  Students practice knocking up and down the fingerboard while keeping left elbow in the right place.

3.  Tap fingers on tapes while keeping small marshmallow behind left thumb - trying not to squish the marshmallow.

4.  Balance marshmallow on left elbow while maintaining perfect posture/position.

5.  Pass off perfect bow hold with bow placed on the D string.

6.  Pull a perfectly straight bow - staying in the correct lane between the bridge and fingerboard.

7.  Watch and make sure all bow hair flat in contact with the string

8.  Play what I call 'F# and F natural turns' with perfect bowing, intonation, finger placement.

My student teacher marked students who were 'out' on my seating chart and I gave the top 10 students chocolate coins who didn't get out.  The entire class focused so well and really worked to improve and maintain great position.  The best part is THEIR PLAYING WAS TRANSFORMED!!!!  We played a couple of our concert pieces and the students could all tell how much better we sounded after focusing on position.  It was amazing.  :)

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Intonation Meme exercises

On Friday students were showing me a bunch of little meme videos from YouTube.  It made me feel old.  There's a meme from 'super sax guy' that repeats a a few notes over and over....there's a 10 hour video of this on YouTube.  Ugh.  Then they showed me the one with the apple pineapple pen.  Students think it's hilarious.

I started to think we needed our own orchestra memes.  I set out to create little short intonation drills that I will call 'memes.'  Each has words and I'm planning on having students memorize these quick little exercises.  That way in rehearsal, if I need to fix C# for example, I can tell them to play the C# meme and they should know what it sounds like and play it perfectly in tune while saying the words.  My beginners have been working on intonation with low 2's and high 2's and I think this will help a lot. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

This little piggy helps rehearsals stay on target

I went to the UMEA conference last weekend and went to a session about teaching students how to tune their instruments by Michael Hopkins.  My favorite quote from his sessions was, "If they tune like pigs, they sound like pigs."  So true!  I'm trying to be more consistent with my expectations during tuning time to make sure all students follow directions to stay quiet and tune carefully.

The beauty of that quote is that is works for ALL aspects of playing and rehearsing.  I noticed that some of my classes were getting a little lax in their rehearsal behaviors.  Students were not all stopping together and it drives me crazy to waste class time waiting for students to stop and listen.  I reviewed my expectations with them...we practiced the expectations...and it was getting better, but not perfect.

In the middle of rehearsal the other day, that quote popped in my head and I told students about it.  I told them how it applies to our rehearsals - if we rehearse like pigs, we sound like pigs.  Then I drew a PIG-O-METER on the board and gave them points on the 'clean' side if they started and stopped together, and a point on the 'slop' side if they were not together.  This little game IMMEDIATELY transformed my classes!  I did this with 7th, 8th and 9th grade - and am tracking their scores on the board each day so every class can see how other classes are doing.  We've gotten so much done in the last few days. 

Is there something that's bothering you about your rehearsals?  It's fixable.  Anything you want to change can change for the better.  Teach on, my friends.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Just practice!

We're halfway through the school year!  Now is the time students seem to get a little tired of practicing.  Time for a little motivation!  Students really don't respond to nagging and lectures, so I try to keep things positive and fun.

I recently surprised students with this 'citation' on their cases.  I put one on every instrument that was left in my room after school.  The next day students received their little reminder..and I gave extra credit for any students who wanted to actually pay up with practicing.

It's fun to show fun videos to gently remind students to's a few of my favorites:

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Need a presenter for your orchestra sessions?

I love presenting!  It is so fun to meet other teachers and share ideas.  Over the last few years I have presented 4 sessions at the NAfME National Convention and traveled to several other states to present at MEA conventions or other string teacher in-service meetings.

One recent attendee wrote:  "I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a workshop that I enjoyed more than yours!!  I have brought back many of your fun ideas and used them this week."   Another spoke to me about always feeling depressed after attending conferences, but my sessions left her feeling empowered and inspired.  

Feel free to contact me if you are looking for sessions which explore new ideas that engage and inspire teachers and students.


No More Beginners Blues:  Tips for making your orchestra class irresistibly fun while still focusing on good pedagogy.

Talent Doesn't Grow on Trees, It Grows in Orchestra:  How to inspire students to practice without using practice cards.

Orchestra Gives you Wings - How to empower students to learn more quickly and effectively.

Top 10 Tips for Beginners:  10 things that will help get your beginners off to a great start.

Rehearsal Strategies for Middle School Orchestra - Tips for lesson planning, procedures, and engaging rehearsals

Winning at Recruiting - how to create a BULGING program.

The Business of a Successful program:  Advertising, Advocacy, Promotion, Retention, and more.

All-Encompassing Concerts:  How to create a concert experience never to be forgotten by involving the audience in music making.

Contact me for availability:

Teaching Key Signatures

My beginners have been just learning about key signatures and how to tell when to play F sharps or F naturals or C sharps and C naturals.  This is a concept that is so important for beginners to understand.  I know it will save me tons of time if my beginners can learn to read key signatures now. 

Before this point we had been practicing 'high 2' and 'low 2' finger-patterns, but had not connected the finger-patterns to key signatures.  I use this very basic diagram to practice a 'D' scale:  Play D scale with 'happy happy' (F#, C#), 'sad sad' (F and C naturals), or 'happy sad' (F sharp, C natural).  This helps students establish the basic finger-patterns on those strings. 

The next step is to make sure students understand when to play the different finger-patterns.  For some reason students sometimes struggle making the connection between key signatures and finger-patterns changes.  After teaching what a key signature means, I change my diagram to help students understand:

Once students understand how to interpret a key signature, we talk about the other strings.  (Why violins have always been playing low 2 on the E string, etc.)

Next it is important to check for understanding to make sure all students can accurately read and interpret a key signature.  I just created these worksheets to use this year...