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Monday, November 18, 2013

Working on slurs using the D Scale

I like to use the D scale as a warm-up for my beginners every day.  It's great for their intonation and you can add rhythms or bowings to the scale to make it relevant to the teaching concept of the day.

I have been working on bowings and slurs with my class, so I created this warm-up sheet using the D scale.  This helps me see if students are able to read rhythms and bowings... instant formative assessment.  I had students write the bowings (down and up bows) as part of their bellwork.

Motivating students to practice - my ramblings

Motivating students to practice is no easy task.  As part of my class, students are required to perform playing tests for me every 2 week, and that is supposed to be motivation for them to practice, yet still, students don't always do the work and I am left with some students who lack the skills needed to be successful in my class.  I lecture them about practicing.  I try to teach them how to practice effectively.  I show them videos of performances to help with desire to be successful and practice.  Still, it can be so frustrating when I see that the progress of my orchestra is slowed because of kids who don't practice.  Recently, I asked my students how often and how long they practice as a bellwork assignment.  I was astonished at the amount of practice that was NOT happening!  No wonder my large class of beginners feels like such a struggle right now!  What to do?  Require practice cards?  I don't know.  I want my students to practice because THEY want to practice.... I don't like to force them.

I am still trying to decide how to motivate my class.  I am currently holding a practice competition where my students are recording their practice times on a giant paper in my classroom.  The class with the highest average gets one playing test cancelled. 

I think I might bring a potted plant to class.  I will have students stand-up if they practiced the night before and I will count how many students practiced and I will mark them on my seating chart so they see me noticing and marking their efforts.  Then, I will water my plant a teaspoon of water per student who practiced and we'll see how my plant does.  My plant will die if not enough students practice.  I'm thinking this could lead to a great object lesson about nurturing your talent so that it can grow.

The power of red vines

I like to surprise my students with activities now and then.  Today, I surprised them with a game that I called Freeze Tag, but I suppose it is much different than a regular game of tag.

I brought in a huge bucket of Red Vines licorice and I and placed my seating chart in front of me.  I told the students, that any time I caught one of them playing or talking out of turn I would mark their name on the roll and they would be 'out'.  All students who did not get marking on my seating chart would earn a red vine at the end of class.   Students were very motivated by my giant bucket of red vines and I have never had such an attentive group and wow....classroom management became a breeze.  I wasn't able to mark many students as 'out' on my seating chart, so I decided that I had better make the game more difficult.  As we rehearsed, I picked out individual things that I wanted them to focus on.  For example, we are currently working on bow direction and slurs.  I told my class that I would watch for proper bow direction, and whoever misses a bowing would be marked as 'out.'  Next, I told them I would watch for intonation on F#'s.  Next, proper rhythm.  The students could not see who I was marking as out so they all continued to work hard throughout the class period.  My class focused and tried harder to get things right...more so than in any other rehearsal.  We made a ton of progress today.  It was also an eye-opener to me.  These kids are capable of a lot...I must now expect every rehearsal to be as focused.

See my follow up activity after the red vines here:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A couple of useful apps for the orchestra classroom

I love finding apps that are actually useful in my classroom.  Students love apps, and they frequently get themselves the apps that I use in my classroom...which is great because it helps them learn!

Yesterday, I began class doing bow exercises to music that I created with the app called Jelly Band.

Then I explained to students how an ensemble works...that you have to be able to count your own part even through there are other parts going on at the same time.  This turned into a little improv/composition activity where we instantly created our own little version of a jelly band.  I started with the basses and gave them a basic rhythm to pluck on open D.  I then gave each section a little rhythm to repeat using notes from a D chord.  The end result sounded pretty cool...we were jamming and doing improv at the same time.  This really helped pique my students interest to composing and I will probably do a follow-up activity where they actually notate a little 'jelly band' piece that they create.

The next app I am liking is called Rhythm Cat.

I show this app on my projector and the whole class can clap the rhythms while one student actually plays the game....I have never had a class learn basic rhythm so quickly.  If only there was a good note-reading app.  (Well, I do like flashnote derby, but it doesn't have alto clef.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

I Am Exhausted!

Well, I have my largest class of beginners ever.  50.  It has been a bit more challenging than I expected...I see so many students that need help with holding their instrument and holding the bow can be overwhelming.  After 2 days of teaching them some basics, I felt like I was failing.  Too many to help in a sea of students.   So, today I tried something new.  I divided my class into 4 groups.  I taught one group some basics and fixed bow holds/position.  Meanwhile, on the other side of my class, I had students take a quiz where they label the parts of the instrument.  In the band room, I had 2 other groups playing games.  One game was just bow games where they try to keep a life-saver candy on their bent thumb.  The other game was Staff Twister.  I found these whiteboard spinners on

I made a large staff on the floor using masking tape.  Then I used 2 spinners on the of them pointed to left foot, right foot, left hand, or right hand.  The other spinner pointed to which line or space on the staff students should cover.

It worked great to divide my class, and I felt I was able to get a lot more done...even though kids had to rotate to a different station every 10 minutes.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

More pages to the rhythm book

I decided to add more pages to the rhythm book that I made and wrote about in a previous post. (see  I noticed that my method book only begins theory worksheets once students know eighth notes, so I created worksheets that will get beginners to that point.

This book is now available for download HERE!

Also check out my note-reading book!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Orchestra - Mission Possible

Check out this little video I just threw together for fun....I was just trying to learn PowToon.

Orchestra - Mission Possible.

Bow Games/Exercises

Bow games are an huge part of my routine in my orchestra class.  I use these games to check bow holds every day, but also to get student's attention and get class started.  As students enter the classroom, they bring me their instruments and I tune them.  All students must be on time and be tuned by 1 minute after the bell rings.  While they are waiting for class to start, they are working on bellwork that I write on the board each day.  The class can start getting a bit noisy with 36 beginners...(and this year I will have 54 beginners in one class...yikes!) class begins when they hear music coming through the speakers.  I always do our bow games to the beat of some music that I choose.  I use different music throughout the year....Here is a list of some of the music I like for bow games:

Stayin' Alive  - BeeGees
I Like to Move It - Crazy Frog
You Spin Me Right Round - The Chipmunk version
Lindsey Stirling music
Vanessa Mae electric violin music
Piano Guys music
Monster Mash  - at Halloween
Ghostbusters - at Halloween

I recently found a neat website that tells about some games and particular music to use for each game.  I may have to try some this year:

As soon as students hear the music start, they get their bows and their eyes are on me to lead them in bow games.  Later in the year, I turn that job over to a student, and I let students begin class so I can walk through the students and fix bow holds.

Now to the games:

1.  Rockets - moving the bow straight up and down.  For more challenge, you can have students hold a canning ring and move the bow through the middle...controlling the bow so that it does  not touch the sides.

2.  Side to Side - moving the bow left to right with right arm straight - this works the shoulder muscles.

3.  Open and Shut - moving the bow by opening and shutting the elbow - this is an important bow game to teach students how to bow straight.

4.  Tic Tocs - moving the tip of the bow back and forth like a second hand on a clock.  Students should be watching the tip of the bow while they do this.

5.  Stir the Mush - a stirring circle motion with the you are stirring a pot.

6.  Wind Shield Wipers/Railroad Crossing - moving the bow to point straight up, then tilting left until the bow is parallel to the floor.

7.  Pinky taps - for violins and violas only - tapping the pinky on the top of the stick

8.  Elevators - With the stick parallel to the floor, move the bow up and down.

9. Spider Crawl - crawling up and down the stick with fingers only

10.  Disco - moving bow from top left to down right - like the disco dance from Saturday Night Fever

Student don't get bored with these for awhile.  I like to introduce at least one per day.  When they do get bored with these exercises, I start to switch things up a little bit.  I bring a penny for each student and have them do bow exercises while keeping a penny balanced on their right bent thumb.  You can do the same with hard lifesavers, M&Ms, Skittles.  You can put gummy lifesavers on the tip of the bow and have them try to keep the lifesaver there throughout the bow games.  Students can race each other on the spider crawl.  I send a few students out in the hall, then pick certain students to do bow games with bad bow holds.  Then the kids that were in the hall have to come and find the students with bad bow holds.  I buy balloons and have students try to keep a balloon in the air while doing the rockets bow game. 

I feel bow games are important to do every day because a proper bow hold is so important.  I am constantly checking and fixing bow holds, and I find that students quickly learn to hold the bow the right way if I am doing bow games and checking their bow holds every day.

For violin/viola students that have trouble with keeping their pinkies on the bow, I buy the small size corn cushion stickers, and I stick one on the top of the stick.....we call the stickers 'Pinky Donuts' and the pinky will sit quite nicely in the sticker.  This can solve a lot of bow hold problems.  Sometime I use the sticker for cello/bass thumbs.

See more about bow games at another post HERE.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reflections from my First Year Teaching Orchestra and Advice for NewTeachers

I remember in college my professors telling me that the first year of teaching is always hard and difficult and not to worry...that the first year is terrible for everyone, but that things would be better after that. I cant say those words made me super excited for my first year, but i had a great mentor teacher who would say, "can you believe they pay us for this!?" My mentor seemed to always be having fun and he enjoyed his work.  I liked his attitude and enthusiasm.

 I found the mentor's words to ring true my first year (2000). I wondered when things were going to be as scary as my professors said, but that never happened.  I remember there were some interns doing their first year teaching at the same time as me and some of them struggled a lot.  One of them even quit, but my first year was just plain fun. After being told what to do and how to do it all through college and student teaching, it felt great to make my own decisions and run my own classroom.

So, my advice to new teachers......

1. Be Yourself. Sometimes I see and hear of amazing teachers with huge award winning programs and I feel a little intimidated because I dont know if I can ever be as good as they are. But really, I can't be someone else. I have to teach my own way and my own style and not pretend I am someone else. Students know when you are genuine. Let your own passion of teaching and music come through.

2. Have Fun. If it's not fun for you, its not fun for the students. If you have fun, the kids have fun. When I notice that I am stuck in a routine or if I am getting bored, I go home and think of a way to switch things up in class. I play games and I try to surprise my students to keep them interested.

3. Make friends. I remember hearing this in college...make friends with secretaries, janitors, helps a lot!  One thing I regret about my first year is that I did not make strong connections with my co-workers.

4. Trust yourself. You know what you are have had plenty of instruction....go with your gut. 

5.  Be Aware.  I am constantly gauging student reaction to my teaching.  If I see they are bored, I try to change what I am doing.  If they look lost, I try to another teaching strategy.  If they are noisy, I get their attention.

6. Pacing.  One reason why I rarely have discipline problems is because I keep my classroom busy.  The kids don't have time to goof off.  There are some days where I am better at this than others....and sometimes the pacing has to be different based on what we are working on.   I have to keep my energy up and get enough sleep to keep my pacing as fast as I like it.

Feel free to add comments!  What happened during your first year?  What advice would you give a new teacher?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Do You Do The First Week Of School?

I recently was asked what I do during the first week of school...this is my response:

Well, the whole first day is going over my orchestra handbook/dislosure...I also like to do a little getting to know you sort of game and I have kids fill out a little questionnaire as they come in for bell work so I can get to know them and find out what music they want to learn.  The next 2 days are taken up with instrument rentals for cello and bass, locker assignments, folder assignments.   Students will work on my note reading workbook while I make the assignments.  The next day we will continue with note reading and perhaps start rhythm...and show a PowerPoint I just created about instrument care...(I put it on my classroom website).   I also like students to start bringing their instruments so I can put tapes on them.        On day 5 we will start to play...learn bow hold and bow exercises first...then how to hold instrument...we practice that in steps over and over...then names and notes of open strings....making good tone with bow speed, bow weight, bow placement.....and echoing rhythms on open strings.

Students are always so anxious to start playing...I try to get through the classroom business as quickly as possible.   I love teaching beginners because they are so excited about everything they learn and I love to see the progress a beginner can make in just a year.

Recipe for Amazing

This is a little poster I made for my the 'recipe' for quality practice:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thoughts on how to practice

Everyone has the potential to be amazing...You have the ability inside of you to be as good as you want to be on your instrument.  Like an acorn that grows into a huge tree...your talents can grow as big as you want it...but you have to take care of it.  You can't neglect your talent.

Are you willing to do what it takes?  It doesn't take as much time as you think.  It's about practicing smart.

Most students approach practicing like reading a book.   They 'read' through a line of music...struggle over some notes and rhythms, but eventually make it through.  They made it to the end, so they think they are done.  Practicing is not about how far you get in a piece of music.  Practicing means repetition. 

My kids have gone to soccer practice.  At soccer practice, they don't just play the whole game.  They practice different aspects of the game.  My kids learned to kick a ball in to the net from a certain distance.  They took turns doing it many times.  At soccer practice, they don't just kick the ball one time and say they can do it.  They practice until they can get it in the net every time.

When you practice music, you are not just playing through a piece of music.  You are practicing small sections...maybe even just 2 notes...over and over until it is EASY.  Until you can play those 2 notes perfectly every single time.

It takes discipline to practice the right way.  You have to make yourself stop and fix mistakes.  You have to be diligent and spend time playing something that might be hard over and over again until it is easy.

The secret is SMALL CHUNKS.  It doesn't take much time to practice a very small chunk of music.  In fact, it is easy to practice small chunks and you can immediately see improvement if you will play one small measure 10 times in a row.  By the 10th time, it will be easier.  And how long do you think it takes to practice one measure 10 times?  Not long.

What if I told you that you have been writing the wrong way your whole life.  You have been writing with the wrong hand and now you need to switch.  Try it.  Doesn't it feel strange?  It would take lots of time and practice and energy to make it feel right again.  That is what happens when we practice our mistakes.  Little mistakes can become a habit is as little as one day.  I have seen my own children during practice play a wrong note a few times in a row, then struggle to fix it later.  That is why it is essential to practice slowly.  Your practice repetitions need to be perfect every time.  Perfect notes, perfect rhythm, perfect position, perfect bowing.  It is possible to be perfect on a small chunk of music.  It will take longer to fix performance issues in the future if you practice mistakes.  Do it right the first time.

When you need to practice a piece of music, first find one measure that is tricky.  Play the notes in the measure and make sure you can play them all, as slowly as you need in order for it to feel easy.  Look at the rhythm and add the correct rhythm.  You may have to play the rhythm on an open string a few times.  Then add the bowing.  Play that one measure until it is easy.  Once you have turned all the tricky measure into easy measures,  you can play the whole piece.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

My latest poster creation

I have been teaching myself how to use photoshop and have created some t-shirt designs and this poster.  I plan on hanging this poster over the window in my classroom so students will not distract the class from the hallway as we rehearse.

A download of this print is available for purchase HERE.  Once I receive notification of payment from PayPal, I will email you the file and you can print it as you desire.

Check out my t-shirt design for next year HERE.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rhythm book

I was thinking of writing a beginning rhythm book for students who have had no background in counting or writing rhythms.  I wrote these few pages, but I don't think I need to make more because of all the rhythm worksheets I already have that came with the String Explorer teacher pack. 

These worksheets show how I like to teach rhythm to my students.  Last year, I even brought in a box of oranges...each orange representing one beat.  I then showed the students how the beat can be cut into 1/2's - for eighth notes....or into 4 chunks for 16th notes.

This workbook is now available for download HERE!

Practice cards for orchestra?

I am curious to know how many orchestra teachers use practice cards.  I do not like to use practice cards and I do not feel like they would benefit my program.  Students always play the best if they are self-motivated to practice and I am always trying to find ways to inspire my students to want to practice.  I do hold playing tests every two weeks...and I suppose the fear of playing in front of a class inspires frantic last minute practicing. 

After much Suzuki training, I have learned that every student really can learn to play a stringed instrument.  The Suzuki method turns practicing into a sort of a science.  If students are taught to practice as the Suzuki kids practice, they would see the fruits of their labors.

I came up with this practice record that I will pass out to students to teach them how to practice and show them what they should be practicing.  The blank boxes under "Mixed up Measures" are for students to write-in measures of pieces that are giving them trouble.  I want the students to focus on what needs to be practiced, instead of just playing through a line of music.  The students mark tallies with how many perfect repetition they play each day.

My plan is to have students staple this sheet to the front of their music book.  I won't require students to turn this in... but maybe I will accept it for extra credit now and then.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beginning Orchestra Note Reading Book - hot off the press!

You may purchase this 43 page resource at my store:

This is my latest creation....a workbook for beginning orchestra students to help with note reading.  I have found that some students come to class with some piano experience and they already understand music notation.  There are also students who have had no experience with music notation and they often struggle to keep up.  Some students play by ear and never learn to read notes!  Students who are good at reading notes have a definite advantage in orchestra class.   I am hoping that these worksheets will help students who have had no previous experience and help them understand note reading and basic theory.  These worksheet do not replace teaching the concepts first, but I plan to use them as a tool to assess student understanding and give them practice at note-reading. 

A great time to use worksheets like this is the first week of school...before students bring their instruments to class.  It takes a lot of time to assign lockers, folders, renting instruments, etc...and these worksheets are basic enough that the students can begin learning notation right away.  Once students have their instruments, it is very helpful to teach the class in sections.  For example, violins can work on a page in the workbook while you teach the cellists how to hold their instrument and adjust their endpins.  Then the cello players work on the  notebook while you teach violins and viola correct left hand position for their instruments.

This 43 page workbook is now available for download here or here.  After purchasing the download, you may print the workbook as many times are you need for your entire class and you will be able to use it every year.  No need to buy separate theory books every year when you can just print this workbook!