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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Inspiration from YouTube

I was looking for game ideas on YouTube and came across this video:


I think this activity looks like fun, but it really would not work in an orchestra classroom.  (And I'm pretty sure my junior high students would not want to hold each other's hands).  I thought of a revised version of this game that I played with my class today to get their brains focused and to get them to concentrate.  It was super easy to do and the students really enjoyed the challenge.

I wrote on the board four commands:  STAND UP          SIT DOWN
                                                             CLAP HANDS    STOMP FEET

I then told the students they must repeat my command and do what I say.  That was very easy, of course.  Next, I had students say the opposite of what I say, and do the opposite of what I say.  (I told them that sitting down was oppposite of standing up, and clapping hands was opposite of stomping feet) Again, students had no troubles doing this and they felt very smart.  Time to make it hard!  

The next command was for students to say what I say, but do the opposite.  That was tricky, but many students were able to get it.  The last command was for students to say the opposite of what I say, but do what I say.  That was the hardest one.  It really messes with your brain. 

Anyway...I just thought you  might enjoy this little activity to get your class energized and focused.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Having trouble fixing students with habitually bad position? Use the force!

Graphic from:

I have one cello student I have been nagging every day for the last few weeks of school.  This student has been holding the bow by just grabbing it in a fist and holding the cello completely sideways...a habit he developed throughout his first year of playing before coming to my school.  During class, I was walking over to this student and fixing his bow and hold and position at least 5 times per day, but as soon as my back would turn, he would just switch to his old poor position.  He told me that he liked to hold his cello and bow HIS way.  I even tried to tape this student's hand to his bow (with his permission).  The frustrating thing for me is that I know he can change!  I told him that all he had to do was decide to fix it...and he would be able to do it right!  That didn't work, either.

Yesterday, I spoke with the student's mother at parent teacher conference and told her about my stubborness....I was determined to fix his position!  Then, inspiration struck...I just needed to use the force!  During the summer I happened to hit Target at the right time and their dollar section was 70% off.  I stocked up on a ton of little Star Wars themed notebooks, pencils, dry erase boards, etc. to use as prizes and incentives for my orchestra class.  I told this student at parent teacher conference that I was going to time him...if he could keep a good bow hold for at least 3 minutes, I would let him pick an awesome Star Wars prize from my box.  This sparked his desire he said, "Let's make it 5 minutes!"  I said "ok" and I told him that after he earned the 5 minute prize, I would then time him to see if he could keep good position for a longer time.

Today as soon as he came to class, he asked me about earning that prize.  He held his bow perfectly all through class  He was determined....and very proud of himself at the end of class when I allowed him to pick a prize. (All this was done in secret...I don't want every student to be begging me for rewards all the time.)  I am so happy for him...I knew he could do it.  And it was totally worth 30 cents.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Focus Challenge-Red Vines Follow-up

I used my red vines activity (see in class a few days ago and it went very well.  Even though I have done this activity before, I am again amazed at how much better my classes focused and at how much more we were able to accomplish.  I need this to happen every day...but without having to bring candy.

Yesterday, I spoke with my class about focus and the power of focused practice.  I pointed out to them that they accomplished much more when working for red vines.  I spoke to them about the difference between an instant reward candy...versus the reward that comes after hard work and a successful performance.

Next, I implemented a non-verbal cue to remind students to focus their energy.  Every time I show students my bow hold, students must immediately show me their bow hold....and they must not be the last person.

Students really bought into the idea of focus and were able to follow my cues perfectly.  I was able to continue with a quality focused rehearsal without having candy and I feel students will be able to progress more quickly.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Noticing the RESTS - My little secret to help students count

 My beginning students are just starting to read music and perform written notation on their instruments.  I have been noticing that many students ignore the rests because they are so focused on reading the notes.  Tomorrow, I will introduce my little bell to the class.  I will have students take turns being my soloist and will allow them....just this ring the bell only the rests.  This little exercise brings students' attention to the rests so that they begin to count more accurately.

Practice Records and Practice Strategies for the Orchestra Classroom

I am always working to motivate my students to practice.  I believe that it is important to use a variety of systems to get students to practice.  Students get bored with filling out the same practice cards or completing the same practice assignments over and over again.  That is why I use many different practicing strategies through-out the school year.

I have created a packet with downloadable resources you can use with your orchestra class.  Included in the packet is a practice sheet, tips for effective practice poster, practice cards that can be stamped by the teacher when practice is completed, 3 different practice assignments, music money, and a GradeCam practice record.

You can now purchase this download HERE or HERE.

This year, my theme for my orchestra classes is "Orchestra Gives You Wings" and I have designed t-shirts with that slogan.  One practice incentive I am doing with my classes is to have them earn pilot wings pins that I ordered from  The pins really turned out looking great and students really want to earn them.  I established 3 requirements and made a bulliton board in my classroom with instructions on how students can earn their wings pins.  The first requirement is for students to practice a minimum of 3 times per week.  The second is for them to watch or attend a concert.  The last requirement is for students to receive at least 50 out of 56 points on every playing test during the term.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Another focus game for orchestra class

(Artwork: Pencil portrait of a young cellist:

This is a really simple game, but my students all love it...even the older kids like to play.  When I want to make sure that I have my class's attention, we play "Harman Says" (I use Harman because that's my last name - it's the same game as Simon Says).  I am always amazed at how easy it is to get my entire class out.  They really have to focus and work to get better at this game.  I play this now and then during class warm-ups.  Some commands are: (beginning with or without "Harman says")

Pluck your D 4 times
Echo what I play
Rest position
Show me your bow hold
Sit up straight
Now louder this time...ready play
Raise your hand if you're still in (I get the entire class out on this's hilarious)

This game works best if you give commands very quickly and you get a lot of kids out by saying things like...'great, now do it again!' without saying 'harman says.'

My students start focusing much better after this game.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Warm-up/Listening/Focus Activity Idea

I just found this drum video on YouTube and I was thinking about trying something like it in my orchestra class to teach students how to listen, focus, and respond to rhythm.  I think it would work great as an opening activity to get students ready to focus and work hard during rehearsal.

This is how I would change it to  work in my class room...We obviously don't all have drums, but we are all holding instruments.  Instead of saying, "Let's all play our drum"...I would switch the commands for students to pluck open strings.

Let's all pluck our D - and students would have to immediately pluck their D's all together with correct timing.  You could even call out different open strings to make sure students know their open strings.

Other commands:
Let's all pluck our D
All pluck your D
Pluck your D
Pluck D

Let's all pluck our D because it's so much FUN.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rhythm Game for Orchestra - Rhythm Cat LIVE!

I started teaching my beginning orchestra about beat, note values and rhythms last week.  Kids learn very quickly when I use the app called Rhythm Cat.  I have students take turns playing the game as it is projected on a screen in front of the classroom.  The rest of the class can participate by plucking the rhythm on open strings or clapping the rhythm while saying the counting.  Students really love this game.

The next day after we played the first 5 or 6 levels of the game, I brought a bag of large sized marshmallows to class and told students that we are playing Rhythm Cat LIVE!  I made about 10 cards with notes on them - just quarter notes, rests, half notes, and whole notes.  10 students would then come up and pick a card and would receive a big marshmallow for each beat.  They then had to stand in a line and as the class counted and clapped a steady beat, students had to show their note card and pop their marshmallows in their mouths as we went the down the line.  The kids loved having the whole note because they had to shove 4 big marshmallows in their after the the beat.  Students then passed their cards to other students who wanted a turn and every student was able to participate.  One way to make the game better would be to organize the students in groupings of 4 beats so that it is easier to count....but I didn't do that because I wanted to move the game along quickly. We just counted the number of beats on each card.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Open Strings Note-reading Exercises: A Supplement to Be An Amazing Note-Reader

Many teachers are now using my note-reading book in their classes and I hope everyone is finding this resource useful in teaching students to read and understand music notation.  In the workbook, students learn about the staff as they figure out the names of the lines and spaces for their instrument.  You can read more about the workbook HERE.

The first notes that I have my students actually perform on their instruments are the open strings.  It is very easy for students who are just starting to read music to recognize the difference in the notation of the open strings because there is so much space between each note. I ask students to make their own flashcards with the open strings for their instrument (I draw exactly how each note should look on the board and students copy my example).  This is the form I use for students to make their own flashcards:

I then ask students to put the flashcards in order with the lowest note first...then on to the highest note on the staff.  I ask students to figure out what the notes must be if they are open strings.  Students can quickly recognize on their own which note goes to each string.  Next, students can practice memorizing their flash cards for a few minutes before trying to read some real music with open strings.

I have just completed some music for students to read with only open strings.  I wrote an 'A' - melody line for the teacher to perform (or for advanced students) and a 'B' line which consists only of open strings.  I have found that students love to hear an advanced melody over the open strings.  It makes reading the music way more fun!  Plus, students are very motivated when they hear the advanced part and many go home and try to learn the harder part.  This helps students learn to read music even faster!

You can download my new Open String Exercises for Beginning Orchestra HERE.  Downloads are very convenient for a teacher because after purchasing the file, you can just print as many copies as needed each year.  You never have to worry about lost or missing parts!

Here is a sample:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Arkansas Traveler - available for download! This is what my beginners are learning on the 3rd week of school.

This is the 3rd week of school and so far, my beginning orchestra has learned to hold their instruments and bows (I still reinforce proper position every day).  They can also pluck basic open-string back-up parts to a fiddle tune called Sourwood Mountian and they have learned how their instruments are set up so they can find any note on any string by going through the music alphabet on each string. (I taught this using a basic fingering chart).  After that, I had students practice placing fingers up and down the D and A ladder and plucking/bowing using tukka tukka stop stop.  We then learned the D scale.

I have not done anything in our method book, yet.  I like to have students gain confidence AWAY from music for awhile so they can focus on proper position, finger placement, and intonation.  When we do start our method book, we will be able to cruise through the first several pages very quickly because students will already have a solid foundation.

Tomorrow, I am going to pass out the music to ARKANSAS TRAVELER.  There are two levels in my beginning class and my advanced-beginners need a challenge.  They will learn the melody line while I teach the back-up parts to my true-beginners.  Since they are not reading music yet, they will use a special back-up part that I prepared with fingering and note names.  I like to have them learn without written notation at first so students quickly learn and place fingering on the D string.  After they learn the back-up part, they will know where all of the notes are on the D string and when we are reading music, it will be easier for them to make the connection with notes and finger placement.

My true-beginners will be memorizing the notes on the D string in the next 2 weeks and once they can read those notes, I will have students read the actual back-up sheet music with a new rhythm.

You can purchase a copy of my Arkansas Traveler arrangement HERE and may print off as many parts as needed each year....a great value!  Included in the download is 23 pages...included a score, parts for each instrument, and a pre-notereading simplified back-up part for each instrument.