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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.