Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Motivating students to learn their note-reading

I got a letter on my desk last week and it really made my day.  It was from a student who thanked me for teaching her how to read notes.  She said in the letter that she had been taking piano lessons for 5 years and had always been struggling with reading notes.  She thanked me for not giving up on her.

Since reading that letter, I have been thinking about what made the difference for this student to begin reading notes.  What did I do that helped her?  I truely believe that the biggest factor is getting students to memorize their notes is convincing them to do it.  Ultimately, students must DECIDE to memorize the notes...I just have to motivate them to do it.

I have a note-reading book that I use and I believe the book teaches students the logic of the staff and how to figure out notes if they come across a note they do not already know.  It is the first step to getting students to read notes...but students need more than a workbook.

From the beginning of the year, I was continuously targeting students who were struggling with note-reading.  We did many exercises and games to encourage memorization.   I also had students make flashcards and pass them off in under one minute.  I taught students exactly HOW to memorize notes using flashcards and let them know that anyone can read notes if they memorize them the way I show them.  Here's how we do it:

Students have a few flashcards to memorize (I like to do 4 at a time).  Students say the note name on the card, AND they must pluck the note on their instrument.  Once students have all of the flashcards on the D and A strings, they must pass them all off by naming and plucking in under one minute.  Students can do this in just one week if they practice their flashcards 5 times per day and I show them that it only takes a short amount of time to practice them.

There are quite a few students to begin in my class with a knowledge of note names because they already play the piano.  These students have a bit of a head start and I use these students to quiz my true beginners.

I also tell my students stories about me learning notes to different instruments in college and how I learned the notes quickly.  I constantly encourage.

We begin class with lots of rote playing.  I don't use much out of the method book for awhile, but to get kids used to reading notes, I like to turn to the first note reading pages.  Even while doing rote activities through most of class, students can spend the last 5 minutes learning and reading ONE note - like open D.  Students need to be introduced to notes slowly, one at a time so that it won't be overwhelming.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Teaching Key Signatures

Understanding how to read and interpret key signatures is very crucial for music students.  I don't like nagging students to play C natural, when they would already know that if they read the key signature.

When introducing the concept of key signatures, I begin with a story about me in drivers ed.  I tell them about my first experiences driving on a real road and my teacher pointing to signs along and road and testing me to see if I knew what all of the signs meant.  We eventually came to a sign I had never seen before and I didn't know what it meant!  I didn't know what I was supposed to do!  We then discuss the importance of understanding signs.

Next, I show students these slides and we laugh at the silly signs.  We then talk about key signatures...what they mean, etc.

When reading music, our eyes are 'driving' along the staff and we must know what all of the symbols mean so that we can play correct notes, fingerings and rhythms.

Christmas Concert Repertoire and A Letter to Students

I haven't had the chance to post much lately because the time between Halloween and Christmas is always so crazy as we frantically learn new music for our Holiday Concert.

This last week, I had my concert and it went pretty well.  My beginning orchestra played 'What Child Is This' from the Strings Extraordinaire book by McCallister/Monday.  They also played A Chanukah Festival by John O'Reilly and A Christmas March by Handel/Meyer.  The Christmas March was quite difficult for my beginning class, but they totally embraced the challenge and they really sounded great.  They were determined to learn that piece and now I feel they are way better players.

My Intermediate orchestra played Dance of the Tumblers - arranged by Sandra Dackow, A Christmas Canon by Michael Green, and A Boomwhacker Christmas by Richard Meyer.  The boomwhacker one was the biggest hit and the audience absolutely loved it!

I sometimes have a hard time finding good Christmas arrangements for this concert, but I really liked what I found for my advanced orchestra this year.  They played 'Sleigh Ride' by Mozart arranged by Seinnicki from 'Three Christmas Classics.'  They also played Boreas by Todd Parish and Fiddle Like the Dickens by Tim McCarrick.

After the concert, I was feeling very grateful for my students and for their hard work.  I really love teaching orchestra and I appreciate the support I receive from students and parents.  I wrote a little note to students on my white board after the concert for them to read the next day.  When learning to play instruments, sometimes it is difficult for students to realize how far they have progressed.  I wanted to help students realize how far they have come since the beginning of the year, and that they are filled with potential to accomplish anything they choose to work on.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Checking for Proficency in Note Reading - 1 minute note-naming exercise

In my district, teachers make goals that we are to work on through the school year.  This year, I have been working on collecting and analyzing data in order to ensure that my students are developing proficiency in their note reading skills.

Today, I had my beginning students do this little assessment to check for fluency on the notes of the D scale:

Students were divided up into groups of two.  I set a timer for one minute.  One student would hold the paper and point to each note while the other student had to name the note and pluck the note on their instrument.  The student holding the paper marked any missed notes with an 'x' and drew a line showing how far they were after one minute.  The students then switched roles so they each could have a turn naming and plucking the notes.

I really liked this assessment because it only took 2 minutes and the I got some great data!  I can see who my really fast note-readers are and I can see who is slower and who needs extra practice.  I was really happy to discover that all of my beginners are able to read notes and all were able to read quite far into the exercise.  I would now like to work on increasing note-reading speed for some of the slower readers.

I have been brainstorming ideas of how I can get my slower note-readers to get a little extra practice.  I decided that I will do this same assessment activity using lines in our method book.  If we do this just one time per class period, it would only take up 2 minutes and that little bit of extra practice with the notes will help all students gain speed and fluency.

Also, I think I will set up a little note reading app on my iPad during tuning time.  Students bring their instruments to me at the front of the room and I tune every student indiviually every day.  While they are waiting, they can play the note-reading app for a few seconds to see how many notes they can get right.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Video Games and Practicing

Just about all kids love video games and now that many students are getting smartphones, they have access to video games all the time.  Students bring their phones to school and in between classes, I see them playing different apps and watching each other play the latest 'cool' games.  That is what inspired my lecture about practicing a few weeks ago.

For my Monday Video of the Week, I projected my iPad in front of the class and played the game Flappy Bird while they all watched at how bad I was at the game.  I never could clear more than 5 pipes.  My students enjoyed watching how bad I was at the game and they were excited to tell me all of their high scores...many of which were in the 100's.  They let me know that I would get better and it would be easier if I play the game more.

I told students that when they practice a video game, it is fun because they see progress and they can get farther and farther in the game.  The same is true with practicing an instrument.  The more you practice, the farther you can go!  Video games are not fun when you don't see an improvement....and you have to play it a lot to get really good.

When you practice more, you sound better and playing becomes easier.  As playing is easier and you realize you sound good, you begin to develop a real love for the instrument.  The more you love your instrument, the more you practice.  The more you practice the better you get....and on you can go.

Someone really needs to develop a video game type of practicing app where students play their instruments for the app and are rewarded by earning high scores for correct intonation, rhythm, etc. and are able to clear different levels.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Need your orchestra to practice? Be creative!

I have written quite a few posts about various things I do to motivate students to practice.  During my parent meeting before school starts, I ask parents to support their student by allowing them to practice and by providing their child with quality instruments.  I feel it is really my job to get students to practice...not as much the parent's job.  This is because I have 5 kids of my own and 3 of them are currently taking music lessons.  Much of the time, I basically force my kids to practice.  It can be a struggle on some days and my kids don't necessarily love to play their instruments when I am forcing them to play.  That all changes when my kids are working on a piece of music they particularly love...or if they are working towards a goal...or if I work with them to make practicing fun.  My ultimate goal, of course, is for my students and my own children to be self-motivated.

In order to motivate my classes to practice, I am very careful to select music that I know my students will want to practice.  I often challenge my class to practice certain passages and have contests to see how many times students play a particular passage by having them make a tally sheet...the student who does the most gets a small candy or prize.  I show them a short motivational type video every Monday that I call "Video of the Week."  This week I will be showing a little clip from the movie Despicable Me 2 - where Agnes recites a poem and sounds like a robot.  I will relate this to my class by teaching them about dynamics and to help students understand that playing music with no feeling and no dynamics is like Agnes's poem...not interesting.  We will focus on adding dynamics and passion into our pieces throughout the week.

Throughout the year, I do a few different practicing contests/games.

My next concert for my students is in just a couple of weeks and I need all of them to be practicing so that we will be ready! I just started a little practicing raffle activity in order to motivate my students.  So far, I've been loving it!

I bought a roll of raffle tickets from  Then, I made this little practice sheet:

Students earn tickets based on the requirements on the practice sheet.  Students also earn tickets by earning a perfect score of their playing tests, or by demonstrating excellent focus and improvement during class.

At the end of the term, I will be holding a raffle where students can earn some great prizes.  I bought some remote control shark balloons from (those are the grand prizes) and some other cheaper prizes from

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Helping students become aware half steps using JAWS

When people hear that I teach orchestra, I get all kinds of comments about how painful it must be for me to listen to all those out of tune notes from my beginners.  People assume that beginning orchestras will sound a bit shaky, but it doesn't have to be that way!  I try really hard to stress intonation right from the start.  We are not always perfectly in tune, but I never stop fixing intonation during rehearsals.  

One interval that students must focus on getting in tune is half steps.  When F# to G is well in tune, with a high enough F#, it makes all the difference.  The half step interval also helps when students are learning E to F natural.

I teach the half step interval during the first couple weeks of school by having the students play JAWS.  We make it quite dramatic and students must only play when I am moving my bow...that way, we can stay together.  After we get faster and faster, I stop playing and plug my ears and the entire class screams as if we are being attacked by the monster shark, JAWS.

One thing to make this really fun is to buy one of these remote control flying sharks:

For a limited time they are pretty cheap on this website: (I just bought 3 to auction off in my class)

These sharks are hilarious and so much fun.  They are basically a balloon that you fill with helium at then attach a remote control device to make it fly.  I make students earn the appearance of the shark by practicing a certain amount of time or performing well.  We fly this shark down the hallway while playing JAWS in the classroom.  Students love it...and they will remember half steps forever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Influences of my Suzuki Method training in my Orchestra Classroom

One of the best things I have done to improve my teaching was to complete teacher training in the Suzuki method.  I love the Suzuki pedagogy and was able to teach private students for 7 years before returning to teach orchestra in the public schools.  Every time I attend a workshop or conference, I can see many elements of Suzuki method in the presentations that are offered by excellent teachers.  I often think, why wasn't study of the Suzuki method part of my study at college?  I feel it is so helpful when teaching beginners and I wish I would have learned it sooner!

Here are a few elements I have taken from the Suzuki method that work well in a classroom:


When Suzuki students are learning their instruments, they are constantly given small little exercises that help prepare them for what they will soon be learning.  I call these little exercises 'previews.'  Previews could be a new rhythm coming up in a piece, a new finger pattern, a tricky bowing...anything that is new.  Suzuki students practice new concepts like this...away from the music so that they can focus on the skill.  Each skill is broken down step by step so that students learn accurately and effectively.

I do previews all the time in all of my classes and I feel it helps my students progress more rapidly.  After daily bow games, I always do a warm-up and that is where I teach the next skill that students will need.


We are just starting to learn slurs in our method book, but I really began teaching slurs 3 or 4 weeks ago through very simple exercises in my warm-up routine.  Now, the slurs in the book are quickly learned and easily understood.  These are the warm-ups I use for slurs:

a.  Bow Games - have students move the bow Down, Down then Up, Up
b. While playing scales, students use the bowing Down, Down, Up, Up
c.  Students experiement and see how many notes they can fix in one bow direction (we just repeat 2 notes over and over again...D E D E D E etc..)
d.  During warm-up, we slur from D to E while rocking our bodies with the bow direction.  On a down bow, students rock to the right..on an up bow, students rock to the left.  This gets the whole class moving and they easily get the bow direction.
e.  Slur 2 notes at a time on the D scale while rocking with the bow direction

We learned the hooked bowing today (slurs with the dots) and I told students to think of the dots as little stop signs.  They were immediately able to stop their bows for the hooked bowing.

C natural and F natural

Even though we have not learned C naturals in the method book, I have already introduced them in our warm-up.  Students have been doing well with this new note.  Here's how I introduce naturals:

a.  I tell students that something terrible has happened and that I have bad news.  I act very serious and sad and they all get very quiet.  I then tell them that Mary had a little lamb, and she was walking to school with it one day, and they lamb ran into the road and it got run over!  It's so sad. We have to play the song a new way because it's so sad.  We then play Mary Had A Little Lamb on the A string and I teach them how to make the song 'sad' by playing a low 2.

b.  We turn to the front of the method book and make songs sad.  It is very effective to learn low 2's with tunes that the students already know and can already play.  Students get a kick out of the way the naturals make the tunes sound so different.  We rename Ode to Joy to be Ode to Depression and change all the F sharps and C sharps to low 2's.

c.  Introduce key signature and how to recognize when to play F# or F natural, C# or C natural.   I don't get into all the theory quite yet.  I really  simplfy things for my beginners and tell them that the first sharp is for the D string and the sharp means to keep it 'happy' - as in F#.  The second sharp is for the A string and it means to keep the C# happy.  If there is no 2nd sharp in the key signature, they must make the A string 'sad.'  If there are no sharps, the A and D string must be made 'sad.'

d.  Write 3 different key signatures on the board - 2 sharps, 1 sharp, 0 sharps.  Students play the D scale, but change the fingering based on the key signature.  We use only the D scale because they have not learned the notes on the other strings, yet.


I print and use rhythm cards with any rhythms I need my class to master.  We work on new rhythms using rhythms cards before students see the rhythm in printed music.  It is very simple.. I hold up a card with a rhythm and the students clap and say the counting.  When doing this every day, students begin easily recognizing rhythms.


Review is a huge part of the Suzuki method.  Many Suzuki teachers expect students to play everything they know every day.  I am always reviewing in our method book after our warm-ups to reinforce previous notes and skills.

3.  LISTENING - all the time!

Students must listen to the music they are playing!  It helps them learn so must faster.  I use SmartMusic quite frequently during rehearsals as a tool to help students listen as they practice their parts.  It really helps students play better in tune and they pick up on rhythms more quickly.  Modeling and having students echo what you play is also a great tool to help students develop skills for good intonation.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How to implement differentiation in orchestra

I think it is impossible to keep an entire orchestra class at the same level.  There are always some students who practice harder and as a result they progress way more quickly than some students who don't practice or who struggle with position or note-reading.  I have been trying to find a way to target strengths and weaknesses of individual students and customize certain learning activities based on their needs.

As mentioned in other posts, I do not require practice cards, but I do hold a playing test every 2 weeks where students play alone for me during class.  In the past,  I have always had each student play the same test, no matter how advanced or how behind they might be.  I have finally found a way to differentiate for my playing tests so that I can have students practice and work on things that are more relevant to their current level of progression.

Today, I announced to all of my classes that they would have a playing test on Friday.   I assigned my advanced players a more difficult solo melody that we will play at our next concert.  I assigned one line from our method book to most of the rest of the class.  Then, for my lower-level learners, I made a specialized assignment and I passed this out to them individually.  My lower level learners will concentrate on instrument position and note-reading so that they can gain the skills they need in order to catch up with the rest of the class.

Here is the assignment I am using for my lower-level learners:

I made flashcards for each student using this template and stapled them to the Alternate Playing Test form:

I am excited to see how this will help my students.  I wish I would have done this sooner!

Saturday, November 8, 2014


I just finished another piece for beginning string orchestra.  Right now, you can download this music FREE since  I'm not famous.  :)   You can find it at my STORE ( or HERE.

I wanted to write a piece that is fun to play and that students would love to practice.  I think this one is pretty catchy and students get a little taste of percussion as they take turns stomping and clapping to create 'drums.'

I would say this is a grade 1 or 1.5.  I did use eighth rests, but students stomp their feet during those rests so I think they would be able to learn that rhythm very quickly.

Here is a link to a sound file:
I could not create that exact effects with my notation software, but it should give you an idea.

 Here are a few sample pages:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Note-reading Performance Assessment for notes of the D Major Scale

I just created this worksheet for my students to do tomorrow.  You can purchase this worksheet HERE.

This is a worksheet designed as a self-assessment for students to determine their current note-reading skills on the notes of the D scale. (D and A string notes.  D and G for basses)  I will be using this like a sight-reading exercise so that students will not be able to play by ear.  Students will quickly be able to determine their strengths and weaknesses in note-reading skills.  Included in the download are parts for violin, viola, and cello/bass.

Here is a sample:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Note Name/Note Reading Review Game

I want to make sure my students are feeling confident with their note-reading, so tomorrow we are going to play this game.  Each student will receive a note name bingo game sheet.  Each student must fill in the bingo sheet by drawing each of the 8 notes of the D major scale - one note per box.  In order to fill all of the boxes, students will use each note 2 times.

Next, I will use my whiteboard spinners that I got from

I will draw this on my whiteboard and place a spinner in the middle:

I will spin the spinner and students will place a marshmallow or other game piece on the note that the spinner points to.  (They may only mark note at a time.)  The first student to get 4 in a row horizontally or vertically may call BINGO and they must play the notes they marked in order to get their prize.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Liven up your orchestra class with Balloon Bow Games!

I always keep a few bags of dollar store balloons in a drawer in my classroom so that we can do these fun bow games.  These are great to keep class interesting when students fall into a rut.  You can use balloons in many ways.  I give each student a balloon and have them blow it up themselves and tie it (I usually have to blow up one or two for students who can't tie balloons on their own.)  I then put on some bow game music and the students try to keep their balloon in the air using a perfect bow hold.  They must hit the balloon with the tips of their bows and they must sit down if their balloon touches the ground.    After this game, I collect all of the balloons and save them for the next day.

On the following day during bow games, I begin throwing out balloons all over the orchestra.  The students stay in their seats and try to keep all of the balloons up in the air - hitting them around to each other.

The final game I play with balloons is Sabotage.  I have 2 students come to the front...each must keep a balloon in the air with their bows, but they are allowed to try to hit the other player's balloon to the ground.  The first one to have their balloon hit the ground has lost.  This game is pretty hilarious to watch...and it makes a great Minute-to-win-it game, as well.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last Minute Halloween Class Activity

I normally play games with my students on Halloween, but I have been super busy and it takes a lot of time to prepare for the games that I normally play.  So, I just quickly prepared this composition actvity for my students to do on Halloween.  This assignment will help me target students who are not understanding the components of notated music.  In order to complete this, students must understand clef, key signatures, time signatures, rhythms and they must know their notes.  While students are working on this assignment, I will be helping them one-on-one with notes, position, rhythm or whatever the student currently needs to work on.

This is for all you other procrastinaters out there:  :)

For a more advanced group - revised page 1:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Student Learning Objective for Orchestra Class -Rhythm

My district is one that is implementing Student Learning Objectives...which are basically large-scale goals for each student in class based on their ability levels.  Teachers have to set target scores/learning outcomes for lower level learners to higher level learners.  That means there has to be some sort of pre-assessment in order to determine the level of the students.  I really have struggled in attempting to create pre-assessments for orchestra.  It has been hard to wrap my head around giving a test to see what I know students don't know yet...since I haven't taught the skill, yet.

Anyway, I am focusing my learning objective on rhythm.  I want to be sure my students are fluent note-readers and rhythm readers.  For my pre-test, I will use the 'I Got Rhythm' form that I created.  This can be used many different ways and can be a useful tool in a variety of rhythm exercises.  For my pre-assessment, I will perform the rhythm from one box on each line...and I will have students circle the rhythm that they think I played.  This will help me see if students are already recognizing these rhythms.  The rhythms get progressively more difficult as you move down the page, so I will be able to set some learning targets for individual students.  Eventually of course, students will demonstrate the ability to perform these rhythms on their own - by the end of year 1.

I can also use this form as a rhythm exercise...students can perform the rhythms across and down each line.  They can cut them up to make flashcards. You can use the different rhythms for warm-ups and scales.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tunes by Finger Number

I was looking through my files online and found these little tunes I put together by finger number.  I created this for a quick activity at the beginning of class.  I wanted to make sure students were able to read not only note names, but also finger numbers.  I needed to know that when I told students to play a 3rd finger...they would know what I was talking about.

The first tune on the paper is Go Tell Aunt Rhody, the second is Pirates of the Carribbean, and the last one is Bile Them Cabbage.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Do your students know how to follow a conductor?

I have a concert coming up next week, and I have been thinking about my role as a conductor.  Do the students even know what I'm doing up there on my podium?   During class, I am much more of a teacher than a conductor and I don't think I have taught the students to watch and follow my conducting.  Before school today, I was thinking about how I could teach my class to understand the role of a conductor and how to follow a conductor.

I got the idea to play a game called family feud.  This idea came to me pretty last minute, so I didn't have much time to prepare, but I quickly downloaded the family feud powerpoint game template from this site:

Next, I edited one of the slides to say what I consider to be the top jobs of a conductor - (for my little beginning orchestras - I'm sure this list could have been more complex, but remember, this was for beginners.)

The students LOVED playing this game!  I split the class into 2 team and designated a spokesperson for each team.  I spoke to the class about my job as a teacher and also my role as a conductor.  I told them that I listed 5 of my jobs as a conductor on the game board - in order of importance.  The spokesperson conferred with their teams to decide on an answer to guess.  I gave each team one guess to see if they could guess any items from my list and they got 100 points every time they got a right anwer.  (I didn't worry about the whole 'Survey Says' bit.)  The winning team got a few M&M's.  In the real game of family feud, teams get to guess until they get 3 strikes, but we just alternated turns.

This was a great way for me to find out what students know about conducting and it helped them understand that I'm not just flapping my arms around!  After playing this game, students were really trying to watch and follow my conducting and I had them practice watching me and following me with scales....then on our concert pieces.

INTRODUCING...My latest original piece written for beginning string orchestra - CASTLE RISING

Beginners love to play in minor keys, so I wrote this piece in the very playable key of e minor.  This is a piece students will love to practice and every instrument has a fun part.  You can purcase the download of this music for your class - 18 pages total and it includes an 8 page score, and parts for 1 Violin, II Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass.  Right now, I am offering this sheet music download for only $8.00 at my STORE (for a limited time)!  This is a very economical way to get some music for your orchestra...and you can just print parts - you never have to worry about losing originals.

Check it out!  And I would love to hear feedback.  If you would like to hear a recording, please email me at:  I will send you free midi file so you can hear what this piece sounds like. (I can't figure out how to attach the recording to a blog post.)