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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Beginning Orchestra Final Exam - Rhythm and Fingering

I've been posting some ideas and things I do during the last couple of weeks of school.  This is a final exam that I created for my beginning orchestra to go along with the SLO (Student Learning Objective) I have been working on all year.  At the beginning of the school year, I gave students a pre-assessment on rhythm to determine their level of ability, then I divided the class into high level learners, middle-level, and lower-level learners.  By the end of the school year, I wanted every student in my class to reach proficiency (writing, labeling, and performing) on whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, dotted quarters, and corresponding rests.  This final exam helped me to determine their final level of proficiency.  In one of my beginning classes, every student passed the test and I was feeling good, but then in my other beginning class, I had 4 or 5 students fail the test and I felt like I failed.  I still need to work on differentiation to reach the kids who really struggle.

Students worked on this exam while I held a playing test on the rhythms at the bottom of the page.  For the playing test, I listened to each student individually and I let them choose 2 out of the 3 rhythms to perform.  They were sight-reading these rhythms, but the last students to perform did have an advantage after hearing the rhythms performed previously.

This is the 2nd page of the exam.  I wanted to be sure that all beginning students knew these basics about fingering and they did very well.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Organizing Inventory and a little re-decorating

This year, I decided to finally get more organized with instrument rentals and inventory.  There have been plenty of times when I wanted to know who was assigned to which cello and I didn't have that information readily accessible.  My orchestra has grown by 349% over the last 3 years and it has become necessary for me to keep better track of these things.

At the start of the year, I put white labels on my cello and bass racks and I labeled them with the students names so I knew who was playing each instrument.  We did have a problem with the bows, however.  Students were complaining about bows being switched around and it was frustrating to try to deal with issues like that when I want to get my class started.  I also found that it is a pain to rip off labels because they don't always come off very nicely.

Here is what I set up to hopefully make inventory and instrument rentals way easier.  I bought vinyl chalkboard labels and liquid chalk markers from  These labels are great because they remove very easily and are still sticky enough to be reused.  The liquid chalk markers are perfect because they are erasable, but only if I use water.  Students can't erase or smudge the numbers easily and so far the things I have written with the markers have stayed and they look great.

I labeled each instrument with a small avery white sticker - right by the endpin.  I wrote the same number on the chalkboard label so that each instrument will have its own assigned and permanent 'home.'  I also labeled each bow with a white sticker and used the chalkboard labels to assign each bow a hook on the rack.   Now, students won't be able to switch bows around without being noticed.  I didn't show it in this picture, but I have been writing the student's name who has rented the instrument under the blue number.  It looks way better than my other labels and I can quickly and easily change names if needed.

The school year has ended for me, and I already wanted to redecorate for the next school year.  I found a cute little polaroid camera at called Instax.  It takes really cute instant pictures and students are amazed when the photo pops right out of the camera.  The film is not cheap (not too bad on Ebay), so I have been taking pictures sparingly, but it has been motivating for students to practice and do good things so that they can make it onto my new bulletin board:  Wall Of Fame.  I have only taken a few pictures to get the wall started, but once the new school year starts, I will be watching for students doing awesome things and I will honor them by taking their pictures and posting it on my Wall of Fame.  By the end of next year, I expect that this bulletin board will be full of awesomeness.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Great Group Games that I have used in my orchestra class

I like to do games with my classes throughout the year.  Usually my games have something to do with rhythm or note-reading, but at the end of the year, I just want my students to bond and be friends and I want them to have fun together.  I found a few games on YouTube that were great fun.  The dollar store sells lightweight balls that don't hurt that are perfect for these games.  I also use lightweight dollar store balls for rhythm activities during the year, so it's nice to have them on hand.

GAME 1:  Air-Darts using straws and Q-tips.

My straws were extra wide from IKEA and the cotton swabs were really cheap from the dollar store.  This game doesn't last very long, and it worked better inside than outside.  First I divided the class into 2 teams and let them try to get all of their darts on other side of my classroom, but this got old quick.  After doing this game a couple times, I found that students had way more fun just running around and shooting each other.  (It really doens't hurt)  Then, we played 'tag' with the 'numbing' darts.  As soon as a students was hit, they were to freeze.  The last person wins the game.

GAME 2:  Human Battleship.

We played this game with various rules.  It's fun to change the rules after every game.  We played one time with the rules in the video, then we changed it so that a ship was only 'sunk' if they had a direct hit from the ball without catching it.

GAME 3: Quiet Ball

There is no video for this game, but I'll try to explain how it works.  I think this was my students' favorite game.  First, have students get a chair, place it anywhere they want in the classroom, then stand on the chair.  During the game, students have to be completely talking.  If a student talks, they have to sit down on their chair and they are 'out.'  To play the game, students throw the balls to who-ever they like and the person must catch the ball.  If the ball hits a person and they do not catch the ball, they are 'out' and must sit down.  The last person left on a chair is the winner.  I also added the rule that there can be NO face hits.  If a student gets hit in the face, the person who threw the ball is out.  Also, no throwing the ball as un-neccessarily hard.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What to do the last couple of weeks of school - exploring a new style of music

I have a confession.  I don't like the last 2 weeks of school.  Our concerts are over, the music has been collected and filed, and I need to entertain teenagers for 10 more days!  My first temptation was to find a movie that I could somehow tie into my curriculum, but students see plenty of movies these days.  I asked myself, "How do I want to end the school year?  What do I want my students to feel and be inspired to do when they leave my classroom before summer break?"  As I comtemplated these questions, I realized that I really want my students to be inspired.  I want them to feel a passion for music and a desire to practice over the summer - just for fun.  I want students to be excited to come back to my class next year.

So, instead of movies, I bought some new books:  Fiddler's Philharmonic by Dabzinski, and Jazz Philharmonic by Randy Sabien.  We had not explored any jazz music in my class, and I thought students would enjoy trying a new style.

Here's how I began the week.  For my video of the week, I showed a YouTube clip from the group Simply Three.  I wanted to students to see how a small ensemble can work together and play fun music.

For 3 days, I used the Jazz Philharmonic book as a class.  We learned how to swing and practiced 3 different tunes from the book and performed them in different ways.  Students were able to catch on to the swing rhythm very easily.  I first had them play a D dorian scale with straight eighth marching.  I then had them play the scale as if they were skipping instead of marching.  The physical  motion of skipping feels just like swing.   For the first song we learned, I taught as the book suggested and did everything by rote.  Students echoed exercises from the CD and we played the tunes and back-up parts.  I do a lot of rote exercises in my class, but we had never learned a tune by rote.  I feel my students really opened up and got into the new style.  After that, I thought it would be easier for students to read the music, so I passed out the books.  It actually took longer for students to learn the songs while reading the notes and I they didn't notice the overall ensemble as much.  I would recommend using the book as much of it by rote!

For another activity, I divided students into 8 groups and had them pick any piece from the book and work on it in their groups.  Each group then performed in front of the class.  I was hoping to show students that they can form their own small ensembles and play all kinds of different music.... and it's fun!  I also did small ensemble work with the Fiddler's Philharmonic book in my advanced class.  The nice thing about these books, is that students can be creative and every group can perform different variations using the same piece.  I had some groups that added pizzicato, dancing, and even percussion by tapping on instruments.

I have learned that it is important to lay out your expectations before sending groups off to do their work.  The first time I had students practice in small groups, I saw a lack of motivatoin, direction, vision, and focus.  This time, I made sure that I communicated my expectations.  I expect participation, leadership, respect, and hard work.  Half of my class period was spent showing a YouTube video about leadership and having students complete a worksheet about the video.  I believe this helped students stay on task when it was time to take on the responibility of learning a new piece on their own.