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Friday, May 31, 2019

5 Maintenance Tips I wish I would have known earlier

After a year full of rehearsal and practice some of my school instruments look a little thrashed.  Most of my school cellos are shared by 3 students - so they get a lot of use in a day.  (Someday I hope to have enough cellos for all my students, but right now I’m about 40 short.) After our final concert I do an instrument cleaning day and get everything looking shiny.

It’s good for general maintenance to have all students clean their instruments at least once per year.  We use spray bottles filled with distilled water and 1-2 tablespoons of white vinegar.  I tell students to never spray ‘cleaner’ on directly on their instruments.  We use a collection of bandannas I found in my classroom and students spray a little vinegar water on a bandanna to wipe down their instruments.  They use a dry bandanna for buffing.

Recently I was able to tour the repair shop of a local music store, Summerhays Music in Orem, UT.  I learned some maintenance tips I wish I would have known when I started teaching!   These tips would have saved my program budget a lot of money.  Summer is a great time to check instruments and do these simple steps to make sure instruments stay in good condition.


Do you have any of those fine tuners that are super hard to turn?  In my classroom I have a few cellos from the dark ages with tuners so stiff it hurts my fingers to try to use them.  When instruments are cleaned you should unscrew the fine tuner and put a drop of mineral oil in the hole where the screw goes.  This will ensure the fine tuner keeps working properly.  I will be having students do this on our instrument cleaning day from now on.  You can also use mineral oil to lubricate bass pegs/mechanism.


I have a little epidemic going on in my orchestra.  Students are constantly losing those little endpin bolts and we’ve had a few endpins go inside the cellos.  I can’t stand it when that happens because it’s so frustrating to get those endpins back out!  I once tried to get an endpin back in place with a back-scratcher…..doesn’t work.  Inevitably I have to send those cellos to the repair shop to have them retrieve the endpin.  At school I’ve just been wrapping masking tape around the end of cello endpins to keep them from going inside the cello.  It doesn’t look great...but that was my quick fix.

At Summerhays I learned you can just go to a hardware store and buy bolts (size M8 1.25) that will screw right back on the endpins.  They’re super cheap..and you can SUPER GLUE them in place so they never fall off.  This is going to save my program some money for sure.


A have quite a few cellos with warped bridges.  I thought it was happening because the wood was bad, but I learned that the warping happens when the bridge is crooked.   I have never consistently checked the bridges on all my instruments to make sure they are straight.  This will now be part of my routine.  The Summerhays repair shop taught me how to properly adjust the bridge.  They said you do NOT loosen the strings to adjust the bridge (unless it needs major adjusting/placement).  You brace your hands on the bridge and move/adjust from the top.  You don’t try to move the feet...just the top of the bridge until it is 90 degrees.


I actually discovered these pegs a few years ago.  I was wasting too much time trying to tune old cellos with ill-equipped pegs.  When these Wittner pegs came out I loved them so much...I slowly started using my school budget to have these pegs put in all my school cellos.  It is worth every penny!  Saves a ton of time with tuning.  When I start a class of 50+ beginners I have to be able to tune them all in 3-5 minutes.  These pegs make it a breeze.  It also helps students tune their own instruments with ease.  I teach beginners how to tune about mid-way through the school year.  I now rarely have a student who breaks a string.


I’m guilty.  There are cellos and basses at my school equipped with some ancient strings.  At school I usually only replace strings when they break.  I’ve never made room in my budget to replace old strings.  I know some of my instruments would sound way better if I would just put on new strings.

Part of my summer maintenance will be to finally start replacing strings and keeping track of when new strings are put on.  My inventory is currently organized in a google spreadsheet.  I can type notes directly on my inventory regarding when strings have been replaced, what repairs have been done, etc.  That way I can create a rotation to begin replacing strings without having to do all 50+ instruments at once.

At Summerhays I learned that it is best to purchase strings that are straight (not wound in a packet).  This ensures the winding on the string lasts longer.  The core and the winding of the string can deteriorate when the winding is bent and compromised.  Buying local is ideal because you can buy strings that are straight.  Summerhays has awesome low prices (even lower than online retailers) and stores all their strings straight.

I hope you find these tips useful as you spend time with your inventory at the end of the school year/beginning of the new school year.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reader Question: Classroom Management and Orchestra Handbook

School just ended for me and it feels nice to have a little extra time to rest, rejuvenate, and reflect on the year.  I tend to make lots of changes in my teaching every year as I work to find the best possible strategies for teaching my students.

A few weeks ago a received an email from Kathryn Larsen.  She requested I write a post about classroom management and wanted me to share my orchestra handbook.  So, here it goes...

I remember interviewing for my current job.  The principal asked me how I felt about classroom management and I told him I had no concerns and that I was very confident with classroom management.  I feel a well-run classroom will have few classroom management problems and busy students don't have time to act up.  I told the principal about my belief in setting procedures to help a classroom run well.  This is true...but I know you're thinking...but there's one kid who just_________________  you fill in the blank.  Let's talk about that in a minute.

First, classroom procedures are the secret to classroom management.  I start to teach these to students immediately.  Their first lesson is how to get completely quiet, and focus their eyes on me.  (I don't just want them quiet...I want them focused).  We do an activity on the first day of school where I teach them my signals and procedures for getting their attention...then we practice.  There are many ideas for implementing quiet procedures, but here is what works for me:

1.  When I stomp on my podium (and it's loud) everyone is quiet.  When I stand on my podium ever...even quietly, everyone is quiet.  They need to respond to both.  If the class is noisy I will stomp loudly on my podium to make it obvious I'm there.  Otherwise just stepping on my podium is a signal for silence.

2.  When I hold a bow - or bow bunny shaped hand - in the air, all copy and do the same...and be quiet.  I've seen some teachers have students place bows/bow hand on top of their heads - that works too.  

3.  When I say 'ARCO!' everyone says 'SOLO' and they all get quiet.  Sometimes it takes a couple 'arco's.'  This is straight from Whole Brain Teaching - and I recommend that book as it has some good ideas for classroom management.  I tell my students that if they don't get quiet they'll have to play a solo for the class...but this is all done in a joking way -not threatening.  I don't feel students respond to a threatening presence.

Now, what about that kid who just won't stop....plucking, talking, poking, annoying others...   Every student is different.  I keep a positive atmosphere in my classroom and don't yell at or belittle students who are acting up.  I firmly tell them to stop what they are doing, and I completely expect that it stops.  If it does not stop, there is immediately a consequence that would make sense...moving their seat if talking, switching their bow to a crappy bow with no hair if they are mistreating their bow (since they will then have to earn the privilege of having nice things), making then sit in 'reverse rest position' if plucking.  I rarely have a problem in class because of quick pacing and positive rapport with my students.  They want to please me and they get a lot of praise when they are doing well.  Expecting compliance, excellence, and having a sense of humor to laugh with the class clown a little...that's all it is.  With that said, if you came to observe my teaching you probably would not find a completely silent classroom.  You would find a focused classroom.

About my orchestra handbook...this is an ever evolving document.  I tend to change it every year and I keep making it shorter and shorter and shorter...because NO ONE READS IT!   One year I put my handbook in a google form...paragraph by paragraph...and had a question that had to be answered after each paragraph to ensure parents and students would get the information.  Even then I had people not reading the handbook.  I have decided to keep making it shorter...and email bits of info to parents/students as needed.  With that said, here's one of the versions of my orchestra handbook for beginning orchestra: