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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Before and After practicing assignment

The day before Christmas break, I taught students about the progress that occurs after dedication and focused effort.  This idea came when I was visiting the orthodontist with a couple of my children that have braces.  My son was instructed to brush his teeth more often and to make sure he got the message, the dental assistant showed us 'before' and 'after' pictures of patients who had brushed their teeth diligently and those who had not.  I decided that it would be good for students to discover their own 'before' practicing and 'after' practicing videos so they could see the benefits of regular practice. 

This video works well to demonstrate the point:

After watching the video, I want to make sure students understand that they can make progress every day when they practice correctly.  We talked about different ways to practice a small section of music.  For example:
1.  Play all notes as half notes - fixing intonation
2.  Practicing 1 measure at a time
3.  Playing the rhythm on open strings
4.  Playing open strings only to solidify string crossings
5.  Playing repetitions - 10x perfect
6.  Drilling eighth note passages using dotted rhythms

I divided each class by section and provided an iPad for each group to record their first try playing specific measure I selected from their music.  Students were then instructed to drill and rehearse those same measures - then record themselves again to see how much they could improve after just 20 minutes of hard work.  I was impressed with the diligence of the groups.  They were on task and determined to make their 'after' video a success.  At the end of class, we watched each groups videos and it was easy to see that there was progress made in every case.  I then gave the students an option to do this assignment as extra credit over Christmas Break...just a way to keep them practicing.  Most students took the assignment and they seemed excited to try this at home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Next Project: Shifting Method

I was really excited for Christmas vacation.  December is a tiring month for musicians/teachers.  There are so many performances in December - to prepare for, to direct, to perform, to watch.  Two weeks of no school is a much needed break.  I have been savoring sleeping in and staying up late reading fiction novels  (Wow - I haven't had time to read fiction in years.)   Today, I am starting to wonder if I am a work-a-holic.  I am still enjoying my vacation (day 2), but am the type of person that needs a project.  So far, I have cleaned out the pantry, organized my kids' bedrooms, ate my share of chocolate treats....already I am running out of things to do and I feel the need to begin something new.  That is why I am now on page 13 of my new book:  Exploring Shifting for String Orchestra.

I've been meaning to collect my shifting exercises and write a book about shifting for a while.  In my situation, students need to learn this skill earlier (beginning in their 2nd year) because our district does not offer beginning orchestra in school until 7th grade.  I feel we must learn quickly (yet effectively) in order to prepare for the high school level of playing.  After studying many different method books and analyzing how shifting is presented, I decided that method books do not spend enough time on this skill.  Students need more exercises that don't sound boring.  They need to be given the time to develop the shifting motion for accuracy and smoothness.  Students need a logical progression of exercises as they learn new fingerings for notes they had previously only known in 1st position.

I hope this will be of use to other teachers who need to teach shifting in a string orchestra class.  Here is a sample of the first few pages.  (I haven't even proofread, yet....but here it is anway...)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Developing good intonation in beginning string orchestra: Note Twins

In order to help students listen to their intonation, I teach them about note twins.  The first note twin they learn is open D, and high D - we talk about how they are not 'identical' because one is high and one is low, but they have the same sound - when played together, you can tell when they 'match'.  We listen and adjust to make sure those two notes sound the same - like when twins wear the same outfit.

 After some basic finger exercises to strengthen the pinky finger (L.H. pizz, finger taps on the fingerboard), we learned 4th finger A's on the D string.  Students were quick to understand that there is an identical note twin - open A.  They were immediately able to adjust their fingers and match their pitch to the open A - especially after I showed them how to swing the elbow to the right to help the pinky reach.  For the cellos, I taught them that they also had a A note twin - and we learned how to shift to 4th position on the D string and play an A with the 1st finger.  My young cellists loved to feel 'advanced' and I believe it is never too early to make these connections on the fingerboard.

I feel that students are able develop quality intonation more quickly when they know about 'note twins' and frequently practice matching identical notes, or notes in different octaves like open
D and high D.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

10 ways to RE-ENERGIZE your students

Classroom routines are a necessity, but sometimes these same routines can make class time start to feel mundane.  Occasionally, students need a change...something that will help them become excited about playing their instrument....something that will inspire them keep working to improve every day.
Here are 10 ways you can get your students FIRED UP!

1.  Begin class with a movement exercise using fun, upbeat music.  As students enter the classroom, their mood can be changed depending on the music they hear.  Crank up some music and have students follow your movements with a simple warm up.  Bow games work well (unless that's already part of the usual routine).  Any movement matching activity works well - where students move to the beat.  Sometimes, we put instruments down, and practice just moving to the beat.  Clapping, stomping, standing, sitting, rocking, bopping..etc.

2.  Perform for your students.  One time on a playing test day, I brought my instrument and performed a 'playing test' for my class.  I let students grade me using the same form/rubric that I use to grade their tests.

3.  Play tunes by ear.  Let students make song requests.  My students love to call out tunes to see if I can play them by ear.  When they hear me figuring out popular movie tunes, they want to try it, too.  Students love to show me pieces they have figured out how to play.

4.  Pass out new music.  After weeks of rehearsing the same few pieces, students need a change.  Find something light and fun for students to play.  Often students are inspired to practice once they have some new material!

5.  Play a game.  Just saying the word 'game' to students perks ears and they want to listen to be able to play the game.  There are many simple games that require no preparation which can inspire students to work hard during class.  Recently, I created a game called 'Epidemic.'  To play the game, send 3-4 students to the hallway - these will be the doctors.  While the doctors are in the hall, the class decides on one 'disease' that will plague the students.  For example, you can have the plague be pancake wrists, crooked bows, bad bow holds, crossed legs...there are plenty of possibilities!  Then choose 5 students to be infected with the disease.  The doctors come back in and the class plays part of a piece while the doctors try to diagnose the sickness.  They get one guess.  If they do not guess correctly, more students are chosen to be infected.  The game continues and the doctors must try to figure out the disease before the entire class becomes infected.

6.  Record the class performing.  Students love to hear themselves and they get very motivated to improve when hearing their own performance.  Let students figure out what needs to be fixed in a certain passage by recording and listening to small sections.

7.  Let students perform for another class.  Invite students into your classroom and perform a quick piece, or invite office staff.  You could send a few students to serenade the school secretary (as long as she's not on the phone.)

8.  Watch a video of a fabulous performance.  Students are inspired by watching great performances.  Piano Guys, Lindsey Stirling, 2 Cellos, Simply Three, Time for Three - these are all great options, but there are many videos featuring classical music also.  I really like showing part of the Maxim Vengerov master class.

9.  Re-arrange the seating.  Students get tired of always sitting in the same place.  I make new seating charts every 2 weeks so that students get to know each other.  Also, they can feel the difference between playing in the back and playing in the front of the group.  I don't think any student should be forced to always play in the back.  All students benefit when seats are frequently changed.

10.  Give them a challenge.  Have you noticed that rubix cubes have made a huge come-back?  Students love the challenge of figuring out that puzzle - I am amazed at how many students carry those puzzles around and can solve them in minutes.  Students also enjoy the challenge of difficult music and technique.  I have had students work extra hard to play "Devil's Dream" as fast as I play it.  You can challenge students to do things like...shifting, vibrato, fast playing/string crossings, 3 octave scales... anything they haven't yet learned.  My students are always anxious to learn things that help them become more advanced players.

Do you have more ideas?  Feel free to add comments!  :)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Yea for C natural! Tips for teaching C to beginning strings

Last week, I taught my beginners how to play C natural.  This is one of my favorite skills to teach because it is so fun!  After demonstrating where  and how to play the note, we play our first tune using C natural.  I tell the class that something terrible has happened to Mary's little lamb.  It was trying to cross the road and it got hit by a car.  Mary feels terribly sad, so we have to change her song.  We play 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' with the notes C natural, B, and A.  Students are amazed at how the song is transformed by only changing one note.  We then try some other easy rote tunes and make them sound sad.  My students like to call out tunes to see if I can play them 'sad' by using naturals.

The next day, students need to drill the new note, but also review C# to make sure it stays where it needs to go.  There are so many intonation issues that can be fixed if students can develop solid finger placement from naturals to sharps.  Stories work well to demonstrate this point.  One time, I needed to head to the grocery store and my 2 youngest children wanted to come.  Because I was in a hurry, I told them they couldn't come.  As I drove away,  noticed my children weeping and wailing at the end of my driveway because they wanted to come so badly.  I tell students that they must be firm with C# and even D.  Sometimes, when we play a C natural, the C# and D notes want to come down, too...but you can't let them!

I don't know if you've ever heard of a 'Yea/Boo story,' but my dad used to tell these stories when I was little and I thought they were great fun.  This is a story that requires audience participation as the plot unfolds.  The story teller develops a story one line at a time.  After each line, the audience says, "Yea!" if the story is happy, and "Boo!" if anything bad happens.  This is how I drilled A, B, C sharp, and A, B, C natural with my students.  I told a story - and if my story was happy - students played A, B, C#.  They played A, B, C natural when anything bad happened in the story.   Here's an example:

     "Guess what!?  I get to take my high school orchestra to Disneyland!"
    Class is happy and plays A, B, C sharp.

     "And we get to ride on a fancy bus with built in TV's!"

     Class plays A, B, C sharp.

     "But the bus gets a flat tire and we have to stop."

     Class plays A, B, C natural

     "And we get stuck in the middle of nowhere!"

    Class plays A, B, C natural

Etc. etc.  --

I just made this up as I went.  I ended up telling my students about a tour experience they could have at a Disney studio once they reach High School.  After the story, many students said, "Wow!  I'm staying in orchestra for sure!"  What a great little retention strategy - and we drilled our new note.

At this stage, students really enjoy trying to play double stops.  Another fun drill is to have them play the A string notes with open D - fiddle style.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Leadership: Preparing students for the next level.

This year I was asked to teach at my local high school, in addition to the junior high.  It has been a bit of an adjustment to add another prep and to be so busy.  Yet, it has been a good experience to be able to see my beginners in 7th grade, and view the progress and development of students up to high school.  Now that I have experience at the high school, I see how important it is to prepare my junior high students in certain areas.  Because of this insight, I have been working to be sure my junior high students are more comfortable with shifting and vibrato.  Also, I would like them to develop leadership skills and be responsible.  I used to begin teaching vibrato and shifting to my 3rd year orchestra (9th grade).  This year, I have already begun to teach my 2nd year students these skills and they have been doing an excellent job.  This summer, I plan on releasing a book with exercises for teaching shifting in a string orchestra setting.  

As part of the process to prepare students for high school, I passed out this 'assignment' to my 9th graders. 

I had my class divide into their sections to nominate and vote on a section leader for the term.  The goal is to encourage students to work together and feel a responsibility towards their sections and the orchestra as a whole.  This leadership policy/assignment was welcomed, and many students were desirous to take on a leadership role to serve their sections.  I will let the sections vote on a different leader each term.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

See my article about practicing published in the NAfME blog - Music in a Minuet

This article gives a little introduction to my session that I will be teaching at the upcoming NAfME national conference:

Here's the link:

Motivating and Inspiring Students to Practice Using Fun and Creativity

By Angela Harman
If you had a tree in your classroom that represented student practice, and you were allowed to water it only when your students practiced at home, would your tree survive?
music education

I actually bought a small plant for my classroom, and I told my students that it was our “practicing plant.” Our job was to keep it alive—just as we want to keep their talents alive by nurturing ability through careful practice. For every student that practiced, I watered our plant with just a ½ teaspoon of water. There were a few days where our plant received only a couple of drops of water, and it was sad to see the soil become dry, and the leaves begin to wilt. Students got the message—if they didn’t practice, their progress would stagnate and could even fade.

Wake-Up Call

A few years ago, I received a phone call from a parent of a boy who was transferring to my school. He was taking beginning orchestra at his previous school, but was not enjoying the experience because of the practice card requirement. Student grades in that class were heavily weighted with weekly timed practice cards where students were required to practice 30 minutes every day from the method book. I told the parent that I did not require practice cards, and I never base grades on practice minutes, so the student decided to take my class.
Thankfully, this student stuck with it and I was so pleased to help him LOVE orchestra. In fact, every single day after school, this student would walk through my classroom just to say, “Mrs. Harman, you’re still my favorite teacher.” I was feeling pretty proud of myself. After all, I did take a student who was burnt out and ready to quit, and I inspired him to love music.


My bubble eventually burst one day at the end of the school year. As we were cleaning out instrument lockers and getting ready for summer break, this student came to me and said, “I never practiced once for this class!” He seemed pleased with himself, but my heart sank. My student had done pretty well, but what if he had practiced? What about the potential development this student missed from his lack of effort? He was pretty good, but he could have been great. His comment drove me to reflect on my expectations and standards for my students.
I want my students to know that they are filled to the brim with talent and potential—they only have to tap into their ability through diligent focus and effort. I hope to instill in my students the idea that anything is possible. They can work to achieve anything they desire, and success is always worth the effort. Their talents can grow steadily when they are regularly nourished.

Three Strategies to Motivate Students to Practice

After much thought and research, I still do not believe in a regimen of timed practice cards. There are many reasons why I avoid time-cards, but mostly because total minutes don’t tell me anything about home practice except how long it was endured. Instead, I choose to inspire my students to practice, and I believe in goal-driven or progress-based practice assignments.
Here are three strategies you can implement to motivate students to practice without using practice cards:
  1. To motivate students, establish an expectation of excellence. This expectation is internalized by students through the use of class themes, mini-lessons about practice, and your own belief in your student’s abilities.
  2. To motivate students, they must sense progress. Students must feel that their practice is beneficial and worth their sacrifice. They can be given assignments that track their progress to help them recognize growth in their competence.
  3. To motivate students, make it fun! There are many ways to keep practicing fun. You may hold contests or competitions, or you might offer a small reward for diligent practice.
All students naturally want to be successful, and they want to play well. With proper care, they can be motivated to practice without having to track practice minutes.
music director

Discover more resources and teaching tips on my blog:
Follow me on Twitter: @teachorchestra
About the author:
music teacher
Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT. Since starting in 2012, she has helped the orchestra program at the school grow by 341%. Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of, where she posts ideas and methods that she uses in her classroom. Her recent books, Be an Amazing Note-Reader and The True Beginning: Before the Method Book have sold many copies worldwide through her website. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in K-12 Instrumental Education from Brigham Young University and completed Suzuki teacher training. Angela enjoys baking, eating sweets, and caring for her husband and five children.

Angela Harman will be presenting on this topic (Monday, October 26, at 11:30AM) and “No More Beginners Blues: Tips for making your beginning orchestra class irresistibly fun while still focusing on good pedagogy” (Tuesday, October 27, at 2:30PM) at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this month in Nashville, TN! Register today!

“Reprinted with permission from National Association for Music Education (NAfME). The original article was published on the Music in a Minuet blog.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

NAFVILLE 2015 - just a few days away!

I can't believe it's finally almost time to present my 2 sessions at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) in-service conference in Nashville, TN - EMPOWER CREATIVITYI!  Today, I finished the handouts I will be giving to my session attendees and added some last-minute touches on my presentation.  I hope to inspire my session attendees to explore new ideas in order to reach even more students and help them feel the thrill of success.

Here's a sneak peek at the title pages of my presentations:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

SLO 2015: This is what I'm doing for my Student Learning Objectives this year

Utah has now implemented mandatory SLO's for every teacher, and I have been working on my Student Learning Goals and pre-assessments.  I have to choose 2 learning goals to complete with my students this year.  For my first one, I am going to do the same goal that I did last year - the rhythm SLO for a beginning class.  It worked well for me last year and it was pretty easy to execute.  I wrote a post about it HERE and posted the final assessment HERE.

For my 2nd SLO, I will be teaching shifting.  As my students get more advanced, I really want them to be comfortable in other positions so that we can explore more difficult repertoire.   I have already started teaching my 2nd year students how to shift, and so far it is going great - they are doing so well!  I used to be afraid to teach shifting in a classroom setting because of scary intonation, but I have found some ways to teach shifting to make it very non-threatening and easy...but this post is about my SLO  - so maybe more on that later.  

I just created a pre-assessment for a shifting SLO.  You can purchase and download the 9 page file HERE - but here are some sample pages if you just want to get some ideas:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Music Magazine - October 2015, page 22 - Here I am!

During the summer, I was honored to be interviewed for an article in Teaching Music Magazine (published by NAfME) about technology in the orchestra classroom.  Yesterday I received my copy in the mail and I was so excited to see the article in print.  I love using technology in my classroom and I have found many ways in incorporate technology.  The article could only mention a few of the ways I use technology in my classroom, but soon I will write a post with more ideas.

This week to encourage my students to practice, I gave them an assignment involving the use of technology.  Students had to record themselves during part of their practice using a phone, ipad, or other recording device.  Next they answered questions about the things they noticed about their playing.  I have been so impressed with the insightful comments students have been making about their practice sessions.  After watching themselves in the recordings, many students have a renewed desire to work harder and get better.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Each Friday, I have been playing a sort of review game with my beginners as a way for me to keep class fun and to assess student progress.  I thought I would post a couple of the games I have done so far.  These games are super simple and I don't use the entire class period for a game.  Students really look forward to Friday Fun Day and I feel it helps students focus on the skills I am teaching during the week.

A week ago, my game was a simple balloon toss.  As students entered my classroom, they were instructed to pick up a balloon, blow it up, and place it under their chairs.  They were told that their balloon would be taken away if it was being mis-used.  For bow games, every student tried to keep their balloon in the air and they LOVED it.  I should have taken a classroom was full of color and students were engaged and determined to keep their balloons up.  By the way - I didn't let them have their instruments out during this activity.  I recommend that instruments are kept in cases, just to be safe.  Students could only play the game if their bow hold was perfect.  If I caught them with a bad bow hold, they had to sit down while I helped and corrected.

After this activity, I divided the class into 2 halfs (violins against viola/cello/bass).  They had to stay in their seats and try to keep as many of the balloons in the air as possible using their bows with perfect bow holds.  The team who whose balloons all dropped first was the loser.  This happened pretty quickly because students could not get out of their seats to reach balloons.  If I caught a student with a bad bow hold, they had to put their bow down and could not help their team.

This one is kindof hard to explain, but I'll try...
Throughout the week, I had been talking to my students about gaining ninja reflexes with note-reading and finding notes on their instruments quickly with perfect accuracy.  To play the game, I divided the class into 2 teams (violins against viola/cello/bass).  One team received a dry erase packet with a staff (one per student) so they could write note names ninja-fast - you could call this game NINJA NOTES.   I printed cards with note names in various combinations   This week, we were drilling and learning the notes on the D string, so my note combinations were:  D  F#  G   E, or G  E  F#  D, etc.  When I held up the card, students on the team had to draw the notes on the staff in the correct order and show me by holding up their packet.  As soon as EVERY member of the team was holding up their packet with the correct notes, the team had to pluck the notes in tune with best position.  The team had to try to finish drawing and plucking the notes before the other team finished their challenge.

Team 2 had to complete a ninja-reflex challenge as quickly as possible.  The challenges I did for the Ninja-Reflexes were 1. Pass a cup from bow to bow using the tip to each person on the team.  They had to try to get the cup to every member of the team before the other team finished the Ninja Notes.  2.  One member of the team had to throw a ball to every member of their team - back and forth - without dropping it.  (You need good reflexes to pay attention and catch a ball.)  3.  Students had to build a Jenga tower on a music stand.

After we did the 3rd variation, we switched so that the opposite team did the Ninja Notes while the other team did the Ninja Reflexes challenge.  Whichever team finished first on each NINJA NOTE/NINJA REFLEX challenge got a point.

This game really helped me to identify which students are going to need more help with reading notes.  I hope it also helped some students realize that they need to practice reading notes to gain speed.

Reader Question: Games for the Orchestra Classroom - Halloween Game Idea

I received the following email earlier this week and would like to answer this here on my blog:

Hi Angela,

First, thank you for all of your awesome blog posts!  I've used several of them with great success in my classroom.  You mentioned in one of your posts about Halloween compositions that you usually play Halloween themed games with your students that required more complicated setup than you had time for that year.  Would you mind sharing what you do for those games?  I'm searching for ways to make orchestra more fun and incorporate more games into our curriculum.  


A few years ago when my classes were smaller, I spent a lot more time on games that required a lot of preparation.  Now that my classes are so large, I do much more simple games that allow more students to play at the same time.  I believe that games must be selected carefully based on the size and ability of your class.  Games are an amazing learning tool because they are fun and everyone loves to have fun.  This year, I have incorporated 'Friday Fun Day' (see my post about Friday Fun Day)- where I play a game with my beginners every Friday.  The game is always based on the things we were working on during the week.  For the students, it is just a game.  For me, it is all about learning outcomes - I can instantly see which students need extra help and which students need to be challenged.

For the Halloween game I did with my students when my classes were smaller, I printed pumpkin cards at the following website:

Next, I came up with mini-games and labeled the cut-out pumpkin cards with the names of my mini-games.  (I also printed a sheet of cards that said 'treat' and some rhythm examples)

Here what I did for the games:

Spell it out:  Students race (one student per team) to the whiteboard and draw notes on the staff for any words that I say.  (I had a list of words using only letters from the music alphabet.)  Words like Badge, baggage, bead, cafe.

Noteworthy Dash:  Students race to the whiteboard (one student per team) and must be first to draw whatever notes I ask them to draw.  

Treat:  The student who draws this card gets to pick a treat/candy.

Printed Rhythm:  The student who draws this card must clap the rhythm for me with no mistakes.

Picture This:  One person from each team comes up and shows me their best bow hold, instrument position, vibrato technique, shifting technique (this can be adjusted based on the level you teach).  The person with the best position gets the point.  You could also do a pictionary type challenge with this one.  Have students draw something orchestra related on the board and the teams have to guess.

Show me the RHYTHM:  Students race to the board (one student per team) and must write a rhythm that I clap.  The first one with the correct rhythm gets the point.

Sightreading Showdown:  I bring some old method books and select a few lines for sightreading.  When a student draws this card, they get to select any student from any other team to compete against.  Each must sightread the same line.  The student who can play the longest without making a mistake is the winner.

Scale Jail:  The student who draws this card must play any scale I ask them to play.  If they play it right, they get a point.

Daring Duel:  Students duel against a student from their choice from another team.  You could have them play a passage from concert music to see who is best, or you could let them play bow game challenges.  I give them each a balloon and see who can keep it in the air the longest.  Or I let them play 'sabotage' where they can try to knock down the other person's balloon, but must keep their own balloon in the air at the same time.  The first person whose balloon drops loses.

To play the game, I divided the class into 5 or 6 teams of about 5 people each.  We sat on the edges of the room to leave the center clear to play the game.  One student from each team took turns coming up to choose a card.  They had to complete the mini-game on each card and points were given to the winning teams.  The team with the most points at the end of the class period was the winner.  Some of the mini-games are team games - where each team sends a student up to compete and any team can earn the point.  Other games were individual where the person drawing the card had to earn the point themselves  This game worked great when my class sizes were between 20 and 35.  I wouldn't recommend this game in a larger class because the teams would be too large - students would be sitting too long before getting a turn and they become restless.

I hope this post gets your creative juices flowing and that you have fun with your students!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reader Question: My lesson plans for the first 5 days

I recently received the following email from a reader and I thought it would be helpful to answer the question on my blog to help other teachers who may be feeling the same way:

Thank you for your great blog!! I am the orchestra director for two middle schools in New Mexico. I am grateful for your ideas.

So, I have some questions for you! Every year, I get frustrated and bored teaching my beginners. I do not know how to make it fun to learn to pluck D and A. This year, I switched to String Basic and I still feel frustrated. i always remind the students that it will get fun, "once you learn the notes", but what a lame excuse! Can I not make it fun in the meantime? Please help.

Middle School Orchestra Teacher

When I start a group of beginners, I always feel a sense of urgency to quickly teach the basics so we can really play, but talent needs time and careful attention to develop properly.  Students are anxious to play real tunes and it can be difficult to keep the beginning stage interesting.  Even though students are only plucking open strings, there are so many fun things you can do with the students to develop skills.  Students really don't have the endurance to hold their instruments up and pluck for very long, so it helps to break up the activities.   I LOVE the first few days because students are so eager and excited to learn.  

Here is what my first few days look like in my class, and I hope it will help you see how students work on a variety of skills and how they can be excited to learn, even while just plucking their open strings.  I keep student interest (and myself entertained) by: playing a game of some kind every day, teach something new every day, build on previously learned skills, varying the activites, keeping a quick pace in the classroom (time flys), and using open strings in a variety of ways (pizzicato, pizz/slap, open strings with bow, open strings with rhythm reading, open strings as a back-up to fun melody, open strings as first note-reading experience).

By day 5, my students have started using the left hand, and we progress and learn at least one small new skill each day.  We just finished our 3rd week of playing, and my students are playing Twinkles (melody and harmony parts), D scale, Sourwood mountain harmony (D string notes), Sourwood Mountain open strings back-up, Bonny James  open strings - half notes, Hot Cross Buns, and Mary Had a Little Lamb.  We also just started 'Largo' which is in Strings Extraordinaire.  Beginners have learned to count quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes so they can read the music on the 'B/harmony' lines of Largo which is all open strings.  'Largo' is their first experience reading music and it is very non-intimidating with simple rhythms and only open strings.

1.  Bow holds with straw only. Learn bow exercises using the straw bow hold.  Balance a penny on top of the bow and play 'minute to win it' to see if students can keep the penny while moving the straw various ways while keeping correct bow hold.  Try balancing ping pong balls on tops of the straws.
2.  Learn the Staff - notes lecture - cars/motorcycles on lines
3. Notes anatomy - practice drawing note heads on staff 
4.  Learn instrument parts using 'Instrument parts song.'

Video of week: Junk food at gym - good position is essential
Bellwork: The rule for drawing stems on notes -up or down
Review bow hold - teach yet again:  Hang on monkey bars
Bow games with music
Cello/Bass Pow-Wow - how to handle instruments
Rest position - Play position
Plucking songs (Ants and The Plucking Song) - learn open strings
Instrument parts Kahoot

Video of the day:  Nolan Cheddar Cheese commercial: Rat caught in trap - you can do it!
Review bow hold:  Fingers in drawer
Bellwork:  Bow hold checklist - students mark their own progress.
I CAN statements  -first week- self check
Instrument parts worksheet practice
Bow games to DISCO music
Instrument positions
Plucking songs - Play Simon Says as a way to test student attention/focus and to see if they have memorized the names of the strings.  Gain fluency with plucking correct strings.
Tukka Tukka on shoulder/lap.  Think of other words for the rhythm: Pepperoni pizza..etc
Tukka on open strings - bowing on string for the first time. Teach how to keep bow straight. Have students pair up and be the 'spotter' to keep bows on the highway between fingerboard and bridge.

BELLWORK:  LABEL OPEN STRINGS on a worksheet/fingerboard
 *Required practice assignment
1. Bow holds - AGAIN - dots - WATCH VIDEO about bow holds
2. Penny game and spider race - balance penny on bent thumbs for bow games.
3. Rest - Play position
4.  Plucking songs
5. Bow/Scrub the string  - bow on shoulder
                *RE-ROSIN - teach about rosin
6.  FIRST MUSIC: Sourwood - pizz/slap

Bellwork:  Ledger lines - practice drawing notes above and below the staff
During tuning, mark dots on each violin/viola students thumb side corners. (This is where the fingers will touch the tapes on the fingerboard.) Draw smiley face on left thumbs. Students must hide the smiley face on the thumb when placing thumb on the neck - no hitch-hiker thumbs!)
Bow games with m&ms - balance M&M's on thumb)
Suckers - balance on instruments - ruff ruff game
Cans of pop for cellos to 'freeze' left hand shape
Strengthen left hand - use stress balls and do finger strenghening exercises and finger pops.
Teach left hand position for violin/viola.  Set hand on instruments for the first time.
Use left hand fingers for the first time - finger taps on fingerboard
Sourwood - with iREAL app on iPad - super fun back-up to the open strings.

As you can see from my basic plans, students are plucking open strings every day, but we are working on a wide range of activites so students are never bored.  I did not even crack open our method book until last week (3rd week of playing)  We play a game of some kind every day.  Students LOVE to play open string back-up part to my Sourwood Mountain because I teach them how to pluck, then slap the strings so that it creates a percussion type sound.  When we add a back-up track via the iReal pro app, they really sound like they are making real music and it makes the open strings pizz. more exciting.

Sourwood Mountain can be found in a book called "Basic Fiddlers Philharmonic."  For my class, I use my own simplified arrangement and we learn 3 different parts: open string back up, harmony, then melody.  I made a chord progression for my arrangement in iReal Pro, and set the back-up to be country/bluegrass style.  I have a number of arrangements I have written that have open string parts which a more advanced melody.  Students learn the open strings first, while I play the melody along with any advanced students who may be in my beginning class.  This keeps the beginners very motivated because they want to learn the melody and many work extra hard to learn notes so they can play melody.

I hope this helps!  I realize my lesson plans are not super detailed, but I did explore many of the details in the book I wrote called "The True Beginning: Before the Method Book.".  Feel free to comment with questions.  :)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

First day of School - Introduction to bow holds - beginning orchestra

Things have been crazy busy since the school year started a couple weeks ago.  This year, I am teaching 6 classes with a total of 275 students.  It's been really hard to find any spare time!

I had a fabulous first day and it felt so good to be back in the classroom.  I tend to do things differently every year because I like to try new things.  Because students are always bombarded with teacher disclosures and classroom policies, I like to wait until day 2 to start going over business.  Students are excited to learn to play, and I want to keep them excited and give them something to practice from the very first day.  This year, I passed out straws to every student.  We learned how to hold the bow using the straw.  We then played a game where students had to balance a penny on top of their straw.  Students took the straws home and practiced their bow holds and they were determined to be able to keep the pennies on their bows.  When they came to class on day 2, their bow holds were already looking quite good.  To add difficulty, we practiced our straw bow holds and tried to keep ping pong balls on top.  Students LOVED these exercises and teaching bow hold became so much easier and faster this year.  Every day during the first week of school, I taught bow hold in a different way (same bow hold - just showed different steps/imagery).  By the end of the week, all students had it.

Last week, I taught left hand shape, and students were able to learn this very quickly because I let them earn this little balancing eagle.  I demonstrated and taught my exact expectations for left hand form and shape and told students they could only earn an eagle if their hand shape met my expectations.  Students were determined to get it right, and I found that I haven't needed to be constantly be fixing collapsed wrists on my violin/viola players.  Wow - when students are really motivated to get it right - they do it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

5 minutes to make an impression: Orchestra is your ticket

Today was the 7th grade orientation at the junior high where I teach.  This is when the 7th graders go to each of their classes for 5 minutes so they can have a little practice following their schedule and finding their classes before school starts.  I had 5 minutes with each of my 7th grade classes - 5 minutes to make a first impression.  I've done these orientations before, and I used to just tell the students a few annoucements - when to bring instruments, where they will store their instruments, etc.  But this year, I starting thinking....this is the first 5 minutes I get with my new beginners.  Do I really want to just rattle off information that they will probably not remember?  I want them to be super excited for my class and I want to plant the seed that motivates students to stay in orchestra for years to come.  That is why I changed my 5 minutes.

As students entered my classroom today, I greeted each student and gave them 1 carnival type ticket (I already had a bunch on hand from doing raffles for practice motivation).  They had no idea what the ticket was for because I didn't say - and they were so scared they didn't ask.  But they all wanted a ticket.  As soon as my 5 minutes started, I starting talking about the tickets - about how each student who enters my class now has a ticket.

Here's a quick summary of what I said:  Tickets remind me of carnivals - where there is so much to do and so many opportunities for fun rides - but you need tickets to go on those rides.  When you join orchestra, you get your first ticket.  Tickets mean opportunity.  Because of orchestra class, you will have many opportunties available just for you - and the more you focus and work, the more 'tickets' you earn and the more opportunities you have.

I had the picture above projected in front of the room.  I then talked about the different tickets of opportunity - doors that will be opened - because of the talents they are about to develop:

Kids were mesmerized. After I was done, I had 1 minute left.  I called out a few random raffle numbers and gave prizes (magnets printed at that I designed for students lockers with my orchestra theme.)  Since I only gave a few prizes, I told the rest of the students that they could still earn a magnet and I would tell them how later.

This presentation went over really well.   I had one parent come to me afterwards to tell me about how much she agrees that orchestra opens doors of opportunity.  Another parent mentioned that her son is already determined to do whatever it takes to earn one of those magnets.  I'm so glad I ditched the annoucements.  Now students have had a glimpse of where orchestra can take them and I think they took it to heart.   I meant to tell students to save their ticket as a reminder of this lesson, but I forgot.  You would think I would have found a bunch of discarded tickets on the floor of my classroom after this mini-lesson, but I didn't find any.  Every student kept their ticket.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tunes for teaching shifting

It has been difficult for me to find music for teaching shifting.  When learning how to play in position, students need music that is somewhat simple so they can focus on developing the muscle memory for solid intonation.  I believe many tunes in method books which emphasize shifting are too difficult - requiring the student to think about too many skills at once (bowing, shifting up, then down, then up, fingering, note reading, rhythm).  I still remember when my private teacher told me that I was ready to learn shifting.  She gave me a technique book filled with page-long exercises in every position.  I hated those exercises!  They had no melody, they seemed to go on forever, and they were not fun to play.  I rarely practiced them, so it's amazing that I ever learned any of the positions.

I will be teaching both junior high and high school this year, so I am building up my curriculum for more advanced technique.  I had this tune in my head and I quickly wrote it down - perfect for learning 3rd position (violin, viola, cello) and 1/2 position (bass).  It's just a quick exercise - with a melody - to be played all in one position.  It would make a great warm-up for solid intonation, tone, and expression.  I named this tune 'Woe is Me' - after my own memories of learning 3rd position.  :)

You may download the score and parts free HERE.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Seating Chart, anyone?

I was just asked a question about a seating chart template, so I thought I would share mine.  You can download it free here:  String Orchestra Seating Chart

I change seating in all of my classes every 2 weeks because I don't want any students getting too comfortable in the back.  I try to put strong players with those that need help and I feel this helps propels students to learn more quickly.  The layout is specific to the size of my classroom (I can't fit more than 4 rows of violins and 3 rows of celli).  But, if you can use it, great!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bell-work for the Strings Class

Our district has been really focusing on student learning objectives and  teacher/student goals.  As part of this process, we have had quite a few trainings about 'checking for understanding,' and I believe this concept really helps improve teaching and student growth.  I remember a time during my first year when I taught a new concept - low 1's, and then gave a playing test at the end of the week.  As I taught the lessons, I thought my students were getting it.  They sounded in tune - at least in the front (we know how that goes).  At playing test time, it was pretty discouraging to learn that most students were not understanding the skill and they were extreemely out of tune.  I should have checked for understanding earlier in the week so that I could have targeted my teaching to what my class needed.  Students could have then had the experience they needed to do well on the playing test.

Now, I try to check for understanding constantly.  One way I do this in my beginning strings class is to have bell-work that students complete every day.  An added bonus is bell-work gives students something to quietly focus on during tuning. Here's what's been working for me:

6 Tips for Implementing Bell-work:

1.  Establish a routine.  From the first week of school, teach students to always read the board where you will have instructions about bell-work.  Students should enter the classroom, set up their instrument, get it tuned by the teacher, then complete bell-work.  The student must be finished with bell-work BEFORE the teacher is done tuning.  When bellwork is finished, students place the paper on their music stands in full view for grading.  Students who do not finish do not get points and there is no way to make-up missed bell-work assignments.

2,  Keep stacks of staff paper (half sheets) and blank paper (half sheets) on hand so you can write directions for bell-work on the whiteboard and students answer on one the papers. Then, you never have to hunt for specific worksheets or make copies.  (I do use my 'Be An Amazing Note-reader' workbook pages for bellwork during the first few weeks of school.)

3. Don't stress about creating bell-work assignments - it's easy!  As you think about what students learned the day before, what could you ask them to check for understanding?  What it essential that you want to make sure students understand? It can be short, simple, and easy.  Possibilities are endless.  Here are a few examples;

Note-reading        - draw 10 notes on the staff
                             - draw your clef 10 times and circle the best one
                             - divide the staff into 4 measures and draw 2 half notes in each measure
                             - draw one note on every line of the staff and label the note names
                             - draw the notes for your open strings

Rhythm                - music math
                             - copy a rhythm and label the counting
                             - draw a dotted half note. How many beats?

Skills:                   - what should your thumb look like when forming a proper bow hold?
                             - Show your bow hold to your stand partner.  Write about anything you                                                   see that is good, or that should be fixed.
                             - What are the notes on the D string?
                             - How long did you practice last night?
                             -  List anything that was hard for you to play yesterday?
                             -  How do you play F#?

4.  Keep grading simple.  During warm-ups, you can walk around the room and look at the papers on the music stands to see who has done their bellwork.  Give every student points for completing the work, and collect only the ones where you see the student needs help.  Then, you can spend time at the end of class re-teaching the students who did not understand.

5.  Consider investing in clear pockets and fine tip white-board markers for quick bell-work assignments.  It saves paper and they are very convenient.

6.  Be sure students know what to do with bellwork papers at the end of class.  You don't want little papers left all over your classroom. You can have students hand them in or throw them in the recycle bin on the way out the door.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Karate Strings Pass Off Sheet and Curriculum Guide

Part of my job is to mentor the instructors that teach beginning strings in the elementary schools in our district.  Our elementary orchestra classes meet before school only 2-3 times per week.  We have been doing a karate strings program and the students really enjoy earning the belts.  This year, we will be using a different  method book and I am totally re-structuring the curriculum.  I just finished making a new karate strings pass-off sheet and curriculum guide. Students will staple the karate paper in the front of their method books and pass off the belts throughout the school year.   The curriculum guide is for teachers so that we stay on track for our final concert when we combine all students together (over 300!) for a giant Monster Concert.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

New Trinkets for Teaching Beginning Strings

I'm always on the lookout for trinkets to use in my classes to help students learn position and to keep the class fun.  I had a colleague once tell me that he would never use trinkets in his class, and that's fine.  Every teacher needs to stay true to his/her own personality.  Yet, we do teach children, and children like little toys.  Object lessons and mini-challenges help students remember our objectives and they help students focus on accomplishing specific goals in their practice.  I recently found a site called and I bought a few items to use in my class.  Things from this site were very inexpensive and I am impressed with the quality of the items.  Here are some pictures of the items I will be trying out in my class.

My favorite item that I found is this balancing eagle.  It will work great for teaching students to keep violins/violas level on the shoulder.  Students can practice balancing the eagle on their instruments.  The eagle toy is pretty awesome and I bought enough of these for students to earn throughout the year by meeting certain practice goals.  It's amazing what students will do for a little 30 cent toy. :)

The balancing eagle can also be balanced on the fingers.  This works well for showing violin and viola students to keep fingers round and tall.

I thought these eyeball rings might be useful for placing on the bow as a bow distribution lesson.  After trying this out, I noticed that these rings will only work for full size bows.  The circle part will be too wide for smaller bows and these probably would not work on the fingers of young students.  I teach 7th grade beginners, so these rings will fit my students.

These rings could also be balanced in the scroll as the student plays.  It is impossible to keep the eyeballs in the scroll with poor position.  This draws students focus to proper playing position as they practice their music.

I love these little emoji stress balls.  I will be using these for finger strengthening exercises and some team rhythm games.  (I should write a post someday about the fun rhythm games we play using balls)

I purchased a bunch of these 2 minute timers to use in class and for students to earn as a practice incentive.  I don't want students to watch the clock as they practice, but I do want them to realize how much they can accomplish in only 2 minutes when they really focus.  We can use this to time students as they perform repetitions on a small excerpt of music and see who can get the highest number of perfect reps.  When students practice, we don't want them to just play through a piece once.  We want them to work...and I will be teaching them how to really practice using these timers.  I have used this timer with my son in his piano practice, and it really helps keep him motivated and focused.