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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Slow Motion Week - Using Dums Dums and other Fun

Each of my classes have been preparing for an orchestra festival to perform for judges.  We haven't had a ton of time to prepare for this event...only 5 weeks to learn 3 new pieces.  I posted a couple weeks ago about an article I read about the importance of practicing slowly, carefully, and accurately.  ( I decided to dedicate an entire week on having my students practice and rehearse slowly.

I began my "Slow-Mo Practice Week" by showing this video as my 'Video of the Week' from YouTube:

My junior high students thought this was a pretty funny video, but I do realize that this video may not be appropriate for younger kids.  This video instantly got their attention and made them really interested to hear how I was going to tie this into my class.  During the slow-motion replays in the video, I told students to notice the many details that they missed when seeing the ball thrown at actual speed.

Next, I told my students about the study I refered to in my post about practicing slowly.  They were very surprised to learn that students who practiced the longest or with the most repititions were not the ones with the greatest accuracy and best performance.  Just like the video, if we always play fast, it is easy to miss the little details.

We then carried on with rehearsal and practiced small sections very slowly.  This went fine, but I realized that practicing slow is tedious, and it's not super fun.  Students were able to do it, but I wanted to make Slo-Mo week more fun.  That is when I decided to play a game every day so that students would be able to focus on slow practice and not get bored.  I tried to think of things that are fun to do slowly, and I had some trouble thinking of things at first.  Then I realized that some people enjoy eating yummy things slowly so that they can enjoy every bite.  I remember when I was in elementary school, students would bring treats on their birthdays.  Sometimes, I would eat my treat extra slow so that I could still be enjoying my treat while everyone else was done and back to doing school work.

On Tuesday, I slowed up to class with a huge bag of Dum Dum suckers and students were instructed to take one and NOT eat it.  Dum Dums are perfect to use for checking position, so before I used it as an object lesson about practicing, we did our warm-ups in slow motion using the suckers.  Violin and viola students balanced the suckers on their instruments and had to play without them falling off.  Cello and bass students had to keep the suckers on top of their elbows as they played.  Wow - this really helped students fix position!  I nag about position all the time, but this exercise helped me realize that students can be even better at keeping their instruments up.  They all looked and sounded amazing duirng our slow warm-ups...and they didn't get bored because they were so focused on keeping their suckers off the floor.

After warm-ups, we played a little game for the rest of the rehearsal.  I reminded students about the benefits of practicing slowly and carefully....just as slowly as some people eat candies and things.  After taking off candy wrappers, students had to keep the suckers in their mouths and try to make them last the longest.  Students who had the biggest sucker left at the end of class would win.  This may seem a bit pointless, but because of this little gimic, I was able to keep students practicing slowly and focusing all through class.  Plus, with suckers in their mouths, they were extra quiet.  :)

On Wednesday, I brought my Jenga game, because that is a game that must be played carefully and slowly.  I divided students into teams by section, then I had them take turns pulling out a jenga block throughout the rehearsal.  This was useful, because there were times I needed to have one section play a few measure slowly over and over.  As they completed this task, other sections were able quietly come up and keep the Jenga game going, so they didn't get bored.

On Thursday, I brought a game called 'Suspend.'  It is another game that has to be played slowly and carefully.  We played this game thoughout the rehearsal.  I had every piece worth points, so every time that a team was able to add to the wire without it falling, they could get points.  The team with the most points won.

These games helped students internalize the idea that practicing slowly is important and beneficial.  I challenged students to go home and play each of their pieces slowly 2 times each with extreme focus so they could fix mistakes before they happened.  Many students reported to me about their efforts at home and they felt they had improved.  I could have made this a required practice assignment, but chose not to since we were having a playing test the next day.

On Friday, I listened to every one of my students individually for a playing test.  I was really impressed with their progress and I feel  this week of focusing on SLO-MO practice was worthwhile.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Practice SLOW!

I just came across this article about practice habits and I plan on sharing it with my students:

I found it really interesting that longer practice time and more repititions did not show huge improvements.  Practice needs to be done carefully and students need to know that they must NOT practice their mistakes over and over.  This is one reason why I don't do grading based practice time or practice cards.  We really should be focusing on the results of practice and this can be done by giving practice assignments that require a specific accomplishment.

I just made this little poster for my classroom to help remind students about the need to practice carefully and slowly:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Effective demonstration for left hand position

I was reviewing position with my students last week and I noticed that I have a few students who still try to play with collapsed knuckles in the left hand.  We do finger exercises to strengthen the knuckles, but there are always some students who struggle and try to play with collapsed knuckles....especially cellists.  This causes many problems with technique and intonation.  I always nag students to fix position and keep the hand rounded, but I thought of this little demonstration to help them realize the importance of proper position and the importance to play using finger-tips.

First, I told all students to pretend their right arms were cello or bass fingerboards and to hold their arm in front of them.  With their left hand, I asked them to demonstrate a correct cello position on their arm...only with collapsed knuckles.  I reminded students about how we never want to squeeze with our thumbs, and how we 'pull-in' with our arms to add the necessary weight to get the strings down.  Students were able to feel that their thumbs were loose...and they could feel the lack of effectiveness of their collapsed knuckles when sinking in.  We then did the same exercise...only with a rounded hand with fingertips on the arm.  Wow...right away, students could FEEL the difference with the fingertips sinking into their arms.  There was more focus with the finger-tips and students could see why it was so much more effective to play using a rounded hand with strong finger-tips.  This demonstration really helped students have the desire to fix position and play correctly.  I saw them checking their own position frequently throughout the lesson and I immediately heard a huge improvement in tone and intonation.  Try it!

Collapsed knuckles
Rounded hand on fingertips

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I'm Going to the NAfME Convention in Nashville!

I'm super excited to be presenting 2 sessions at the NAfME National In-Service Convention in Nashville!   I submitted a couple of ideas back in December, and I was pretty surprised to find out that I was selected to be a presenter.  The convention is in October 2015.  Here are the details of the orchestral sessions:

Start saving your pennies!  :)

Beginners and Bowings

Now that the year is almost over and my beginners are getting pretty proficient with rhythm and note-reading, I have really started focusing on bowing.  I have noticed that the bowings get quite complex in the method book that I use, and difficult bowings definitely add a level of difficulty to the exercises.

We were just learning a tricky bowing with a tie, and I wanted to be sure all students were accurately reading and interpreting bow markings.  I created this exercise that corresponds to a line in our method book.  This was super easy to throw together and I believe that this exercise would work as a rehearsal technique on any other short tricky passage of music.

 The exercise is really just one measure from an exercise in our method book...over and over to fill up the page.  I took away the bowings in the first measure so students could focus solely on notes and rhythm.  In the second measure, I wrote the bowing from the method book for students to read.  For the remaining measures, I had students create their own bowing varations.  I then asked students to play that measure over and over with the different bowings that they created.  Because students were writing their own bowings, I knew students were reading and interpreting the bow markings.  Students were quickly able to determine that some bowings made the measure more difficult to play, while other bowings made it easier.  I love this exercise because students were practicing the notes and rhythms over and over in an interesting they really started to understand bowing technique.

To help all of my classes (all levels) understand the importance of uniform bowing, I had them close their eyes and listen to me play scales with different bowings (separate notes, slur 2, slur 4, slur and separate).  They were to listen and tell me what bowing I was using on my scale.  It was very easy for them to hear whether I was slurring or using separate bows.  This helped students understand that bowings really are important and we want a uniform sound through-out the orchestra.  Different bowings DO make different we must read and perform what is written as a group.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Supplemental Music to teach key beginner concepts

I just completed a couple of multi-level supplemental pieces for beginning orchestra.  I really wish that more music came with more than one level of diffulty.  When I first start my beginners, I have some in my class who have never touched an instrument, and some students who have already played for 1/2 a year.  In order to keep everyone interested, I like to use multi-level pieces so that all can participate at the same time.  I have found that this method also keeps the brand new beginners motivated to practice so that they can learn the 'hard' parts.  My class moves at a quick pace thanks to the multi-level pieces that I have accumulated.

When teaching a piece with 3 parts for each instrument, I always start with the more basic part 3.  That way, the advanced kids are helping the beginners and everyone can learn it very quickly.  Once we have the basic part down, we add the more advanced parts.

One piece I just finished is called 'Caterpillar March.'  Parts 2 and 3 are all open D or open A - so it is very easy for students who are just starting to read notes.  Part 3 is pizzicato, and students get to slap the fingerboard for a little percussion effect during the rests.  Part 2 is still just open strings, but with a more advanced rhythm and students are practicing smooth string crossings.  Part 1 focuses on good hand shape and good intonation as the melody goes from G (all fingers down with good hand shape) down to open D.

The other piece I finished is called 'Epic Shuffle'.  This piece is reinforcing the notes from open D to open A (so the whole thing only has 5 notes).  I found that some beginners lift every single finger every time they change notes.  I wrote this piece specifically to help teach students to keep fingers down.