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Monday, May 30, 2016

Gifts for graduating seniors

The orchestra program at the high school where I taught this year is just beginning to grow.  For many years, the orchestra program was run by the band teacher and it was difficult to retain students coming in from the junior high.  I taught the high school orchestra this year to help retain students and to get the program back in shape.  The high school orchestra doubled in size this year, but I am sad to say that I can't teach there again next year because of my full schedule at the junior high.  My focus for the year has been to create a positive orchestra experience and help students transition to high school and stay in orchestra!  I believe one way to do this is to highlight the seniors.  At the end of the year, we had a concert which featured all of the seniors playing solos with orchestral accompaniment.  I also gave each of the seniors a gift.  I am hoping that other students in the program will want to stay in orchestra to get the same opportunities.

It was hard to choose a gift for my seniors.  I searched online and could not find many ideas for orchestra gifts.  I wanted to give them something meaningful.  I finally settled on the book 'Mole Music' by David McPhail and a music journal that has staff paper on one side of each page and regular lined paper on the other side.  At the concert, I had all of the seniors come up front and I talked to the audience about the importance of music education.  I told the students about how they can now move forward to bless and inspire others with their talents because music makes a difference.  I summarized the book for the audience - you should look it up on's a great story about a little mole to makes the world better as he practices his violin every day.  I like the idea of the journal as well because the seniors have such a bright future where they can accomplish anything and I talked to them about opportunities to use their musical talent throughout their lives.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Summer activities for students

We all realize the importance of consistent practice, so it's hard to think that some students will go home for the summer and not play their instruments for a couple of months....especially after all of the hard work they did throughout the school year.  A few days ago, I was looking out my window while eating breakfast and I noticed my blossoming Japanese snowball bush.  It's amazing how large the blossoms grow in a short amount of time.  I was thinking about how much my students had blossomed this year...I am so proud of their performances and accomplishments.

I cut a few branches off my bush and took them to school to show my students and tell my students how much they have progressed.  It only took an hour for the flowers on my branches to begin to wilt.  It made the perfect object lesson.  After pointing out to students their progress, we talked about how the flowers wilt so soon after being separated from the tree.  The same goes for practice over the summer...when you cut it off and don't get the nourishment of frequent practice, skill and ability begin to wilt.  Talents need nourishment.  Students took this message to heart and many committed to continue working over the summer.  I made sure to have lists of private teachers available.

I have done a 2 week summer orchestra program in the past, but it is hard to find 2 consecutive weeks where students can commit to attend a daily activity.  Now, I keep summer activities simple and no-stress for me and my students.  I choose 3 days (each about 2 weeks apart) and hold a 'play-in.'  For the last few days of playing in class, I passed out new exciting music and we worked on it a little bit so students could hear how it sounds and continue to work on it when school is out.  Students are then invited to come on any or all of the selected summer dates to meet in my classroom and play the music.  The cost is free, it doesn't take a lot of time, and students really like to come.  Last summer, I had great attendance and students requested that I keep doing the play-ins as a summer activity.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

After the final concert - What to teach?

It always feels so good to finish the last concert of the school year.  Mine was last week.  I usually have my final concert sometime during the 2nd week of May.  That leaves about 1 1/2 weeks of school where students will still need to learn and play in class.  One student came to my class after the concert was over and said, 'Can't we just watch a movie every day until school ends?'  Students are feeling done with school, but I have to keep them busy or the last 2 weeks will be torturous.  Sometimes, it gets hard to fill the time.  Last year, I had students work as a class and in small ensembles from the Fiddlers Philharmonic and Jazz Philharmonic books to learn new styles.  This year, I am having students work on sight-reading skills.

To begin, I show students the SRMachine App (using my iPad) by projecting the app on screen in front of the room using a projector.

I tell students that sight-reading is RHYTHM reading.  If the rhythm is wrong, the music will not sound good, even if you play the correct notes.  I demonstrate how to maneuver the settings of the app to adjust the music to our desired skill level.  As a class, we pluck the rhythm on open D.  It's super easy to do a few different examples and pluck the rhythm - and all students can do the rhythm, even if they don't read the clef that is used.  If the settings are for violin, I next have the violins pluck the notes/rhythm while the rest of the class (who do not read treble clef, yet) plucks the rhythm on open D.  I change the settings so that each section can take turns playing the notes while the other sections still participate by plucking the rhythms on open strings.  My hope is that students will enjoy this enough to go purchase the app themselves and practice sight-reading at home.  

After using the app, I gave students a worksheet to create their own sight-reading example.  I told them to pretend that they were app developers and their job is to create sight-reading excerpts.  They had to write it for their stand partner to perform.  After completing the exercise, they would assess each other on their sight-reading abilities using the rubric at the bottom of the page.  I walked around the room and made sure students were accurately writing rhythms, etc.  Students seemed to enjoy the activity.  For a follow-up, we practiced sight-reading orchestra music in class.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Reporting SLO (Student Learning Objective) Data

My district provides sample forms for reporting SLO outcomes, but I guess I am a more visual learner because I like to color-code my information so that I can easily see student progress and quickly identify students who may still need help.  This year, I created SLO's for shifting and rhythm, but I was only required to do one for my assignment.  At the start of the year, I gave my beginning orchestra classes a pre-assessment to determine their level of ability on rhythm and counting.  Based on the results, I color code my class lists where I record scores.  Using a highlighter, I color the names of the high level, mid-level and low level learners.  As I record other grades and assignments, I can track each student to make sure they are progressing to higher levels of learning.

When turning in my SLO data, I like to visually see student progress throughout the year.  Here are my SLO reports from this year.  I blurred the student names for privacy reasons...but you can see the different colors and how I presented the data.  (My pre-assessment and post-assessment tests have been posted previously on this site.  Just do a search for SLO.)

The colored names on the left show student learning levels after the pre-assessment.  The names on the right show the current level of the student after the final assessment.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Are they really listening?


Sometimes I stop conducting during a rehearsal and I watch my students.  Do they notice that I have stopped conducting?  Do they notice when they are falling apart?  Do individuals notice when their tempo is different than everyone else's?  Students can be so focused that they forget to listen and notice things happening in their surroundings.  

A few summers ago, I took my kids to the local county fair and there was a 'ride' with giant inflated balls inside a shallow swimming pool.  People could pay to get inside a ball and run around like a hamster.  My children tried it and they had a great time.  I attempted to get my kids' attention for a picture, but they were so focused on trying to stay upright inside the ball, they did not see or hear me.  I share this story with my students and tell them not to play 'inside a bubble.'  I remind them to listen and to perform as a team.  The story helps, but students really need to practice listening and being attentive while performing.  Here are a few ideas:

1.  InTune

I recently purchased this app to use for ear training in my classes.  It's very basic and easy to use.  Two tones are played and you must decide whether the 2nd pitch is higher or lower than the first pitch.  It starts pretty easy, but by level 5 it becomes tricky.  To play it with my class, I plug my phone into my speakers and let students hear the pitches.  They give me a thumbs up if they believe the 2nd pitch is higher and a thumbs down if they think the 2nd pitch is lower.  I answer on my phone based on the majority.   It is interesting to see student responses...many students really need this kind of training to develop a more refined sense of pitch.  This game takes very little time, so it works great during a warm-up routine.  Even though the game is simple, students have not been bored when doing this in class. Several of my students went home and purchased the app to try to get a higher score than me.  After playing this game, I feel students listen more closely to intonation and pitch while rehearsing during class.

2.  GlowSticks/Conducting

My students performed at a festival last week and the judges made comments to my class about how they need to listen to each other.  They performed well, but almost fell apart in one section of the music because the back of the orchestra was a tiny bit behind the front.  This is because I have 2 classes of beginners (100 total) and we do not have an opportunity to rehearse together.  I teach the same music...we were just not able to combine for a rehearsal due to testing at the school and other teachers not allowing students to miss their classes.  Both of my classes knew the music and could stay together in class.  It's hard to see and hear when you find yourself in the back few rows of such a large orchestra.  After the festival, I started to brainstorm ways I could help my students be more prepared in the future.  A combined rehearsal would definitely help, but students must also learn to listen, count, and follow a conductor.

Recently I picked up a few cases of glowsticks and I had them in my office because I thought they might come in handy.  As students entered class one day, I had them pick up one glowstick and place it on their music stand.  We watched a quick video of the week about conducting and we discussed the purpose of a conductor:

After we were all settled, I turned out the lights and my classroom has no windows, so it was totally dark inside.  In the blackness, I taught students how to hold their glowsticks like batons and I taught them how to conduct 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4 times.  We could easily see when a student was not keeping the beat or moving the right direction because of the glowsticks.  We practice following a conductor in the darkness.  I directed various tempos and beats while students had to tap the glowstick on their hand in the air to stay with my beats.  Students LOVED this exercise and even my advanced class was enthralled.  It was a great visual - students could SEE whether they were together or not.  I tried some pics, but it was dark, so it's hard to capture the true awesomeness of this exercise.

Here's a video with an example of students trying to stay with a beat...I was holding my phone and not conducting, so you can see they are not totally together:

3.  Musical Chairs

On Friday, I could tell my students were getting tired of rehearsing our concert music yet again.  We had already performed the music at festival, and we know it well.  I wanted to have a productive rehearsal and listening skills were on my mind.  To liven things up, I allowed all students to sit where-ever they wanted in the classroom.  There were basses at the front of the room...violas, cellos, and violins all mixed up.  We then played our concert pieces and it was like a new experience for students!  They noticed other parts - melodies and harmonies.  They made many insightful comments and agreed that it was easier to listen to each other when they were mixed up.  They could hear themselves better with other parts around them.  Students had to focus on playing their music exactly to fit with the other parts that were so close.  I will definitely do this more often with my students.  It allowed students to practice everything I wanted:  listening, counting, awareness.

I hope you found something useful to help your classes learn to listen.  Happy rehearsing, everyone!