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Saturday, August 31, 2019

New discoveries - How to prep for multiple levels

I survived the first 2 weeks of school and it wasn't easy juggling all the prep work for each class.  My schedule this year is packed full and I feel like I'm constantly running.  After my last class I check my Apple Watch and it always says I have 10,000 steps.  That's a big change after a summer of barely breaking 4,000/day.  It's an adjustment for sure.  :)

I've crammed my classes extra full (50-75 in each) so I can continue to teach at 2 schools - junior high and high school.  That means I have 5 different levels to prepare for each day.  It's hard to find that time to do everything I want to I've found ways to save myself a little time by unifying and aligning my curriculum across all levels.  For example, my beginners have been learning bow holds.  To keep my mind sane, I'm also focusing on bow holds in ALL of my other classes.  I adjust the curriculum for each level, but it saves me time in preparing for my classes because each class has a similar focus/objective.   Teaching my beginners bow holds helped me with ideas and strategies to build better bow hold dexterity with my older students.

Here's an outline of what I did with bow holds at each level:


  • Straw bow holds
  • Basic bow exercises
  • Balancing games - balancing fun little bunnies on our bent thumbs
  • Bow hold pass-offs

When I was fixing bow holds in my beginner class I found many students were squeezing way too much.  To help students form a better bow hold, I had them flop their hands until they were relaxed and then lets their hands and fingers drop.  I added the bow behind their fingers and let the stick lift their fingers up so that the fingers were curved over the top of the stick.  This helped students relax their knuckles and stay flexible.

It was simple to then just place the pinky and thumb.  

Students were way more comfortable after having their bows placed with their hands in such a relaxed position.  This technique helped me teach my intermediate/advanced students how to hang fingers over the stick in such a way to use arm weight to create tone (instead of squeezing).  It was also a great bow hold review for intermediate/advanced students.


  • Learn roles of each finger in bow hold:  hold bow with only middle finger and thumb and play a scale.  Ask class that the role is of thumb and middle finger.  Add 3rd and 4th finger - discuss that is gained when adding those fingers (more control).  Add index finger - discuss the role of the index finger.  I called it the 'power' finger.  We don't press, but it helps deliver arm weight to the bow.
  • Exercises to prevent squeezing - loosening the bow hold.
  • Dropping shoulder - adding arm weight


  • Building bow flexibility - play scales while moving thumb to prevent squeezing.
  • Practice right hand finger flexibility
  • String crossings using fingers
  • Bow changes using fingers
  • 16th note passages with relaxed hand and fingers

I've been using my new book - '18 Etudes for Advanced Orchestra Warm-ups' with my High School orchestras and it has been working perfectly!  So far I love using it.  The first pages contain advanced bow exercises to build dexterity - which works perfectly for my aligned curriculum.  The first etude is all about 16th notes and string crossings - so students have a way to practice maintaining flexible bow holds.  I'm so impressed at how well students are developing that skill - we sound like a more advanced group already!


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Alternate Rhythm Notation Exercise

I recently posted about a worksheet I created using alternate rhythmic notation to help students learn to follow and keep track of beats.

This activity worked so well in my classroom.  I did this with my 2nd year players on their first day of playing and it was a perfect way to help them focus and remember how to subdivide.  We tried to clap 'line A' without a metronome and quickly realized we were rushing like crazy, so I started a metronome and we practiced staying together as a class.  After practicing to maintain a steady beat and follow the code on the worksheet, we took it one step further and assigned each section a different line on the page.  The class had to keep their own part together while hearing other parts going at the same time.  (How many times do students get lost because they're listening to rhythms in other sections?)

After this activity, students sight-read some of their new music.  I couldn't believe how much better they were at sight-reading after practicing rhythm beforehand.  I wanted MORE rhythm code activities!

Here's why I think rhythm code helps students:

  • Rhythm code - or alternative notation - simplifies rhythm and uses few symbols.  Students have less to keep track of at once.
  • Rhythm code helps students maintain a sub-divided beat because each sub-division is visually notated.  This helps students maintain a steady beat.
  • Rhythm code make it easy to track/play 'off-beats.'
  • Rhythm code helps students who are struggling with rhythm
  • Rhythm code helps an ensemble count and stay together.
  • Rhythm code is helps students follow a line of 'code' in preparation for following a line of music (which is a kind of code).  
And just for you (and me) next rhythm code/alternate notation activity...
Download free at my TPT store: ORCHESTRA CLASSROOM!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Another game to spice up your rehearsal

Games are serious.  A seemingly simple game can tell you a lot:  whether or not students are learning, which students need help, which students are leaders, which students need friends.  I saw the 'Random Instrument' game on Jimmy Fallon and thought it would be perfect for a fun orchestra class activity.  This game helps identify specific musical skills in a fun way.

Can students figure out basic instruments?
Can students use their ears to figure out a basic tune?
Do students understand pitch?
Do students understand how to adjust pitch?
Can students recognize in tune/out of tune notes?
Can students hear and recognize simple tunes?

Here's a few clips from Jimmy Fallon's show so you can see how the game works:

The plan for class:  divide the class into teams.  Collect a variety of instruments.  Have teams take turns sending someone up to choose a tune and an instrument.  That person tries to perform the tune while their team guesses.  Teams get points for calling out the collect tune.

Instruments I've collected for the game:
Toy accordian
String Bass

Tunes everyone should know:
Mary Had a Little Lamb
Row Row Row your Boat
Itsy Bitsy Spider
Are you Sleeping
Star Wars
Happy Birthday
Wild - any tune
Yankie Doodle
Head Shoulders

One fun way to do this is to use to create spinners.  I made one wheel for my instruments and one for the tunes.  Students get to 'spin' the wheel to determine their fate.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Pre-note-reading activity

I grew up in Michigan where there was a solid elementary music program in place.  I had a great music teacher who taught me how to read notes and basic rhythms.  This helped me a lot when I began studying the violin and it helped me teach myself how to play the piano.  I wish every elementary school was able to help children with develop skills in music fundamentals.  

My beginners come to me with many different backgrounds.  Some have had years of piano training, while others have hardly seen what a quarter note looks like.  Rhythm is something that came so naturally to me...I sometimes forget that some students find it very difficult to measure time.  These pre-rhythm-reading/rhythm code worksheets are great for introducing students to the world of rhythm and counting.  Instead of reading notes, students simply have to notice whether a box is shaded or not.  These basic rhythms can be used in a number of ways in the classroom.  Students can perform these as a group by clapping, plucking open strings, air-bowing, or bowing open strings.  I may even get out some of my unusual percussion instruments for these exercises.  A teacher should use a metronome or drum beat to help students feel a steady pulse as they perform.  The challenge is to make it through a line without messing up with the entire group staying together.  These worksheets may also be used for group or individual practice.  

So many possibilities with these pre-rhythm reading worksheets!  The class could divide into 2 teams and play 'rhythm tennis' to see who could make it through a line without messing up.  If a team performs correctly, the next rhythm is passed to the next team, and so forth (just like tennis).  Students can create their own rhythms at the bottom of the worksheet.  These creations can be used as additional material for 'rhythm tennis.'

After completing the basic rhythm reading and learning the concept of quarter notes, quarter rests, and half notes, students easily begin writing the note values.  

Download them for your beginners HERE!

Monday, August 5, 2019


I officially head back to school next week and I've been working through my summer to-do list.

Copies of books/resources for students: CHECK
Design and order T-shirts, stickers, etc: CHECK
Choose/purchase music: CHECK
Edit disclosures/handbook: Not done
Purchase extra strings/rosin/supplies: Not done
Team Building games: CHECK


I wrote a resource called '5 lessons to motivate and inspire' where I gave some ideas for some fun team-building games.  An orchestra class should definitely be working as team.  I went to a session at the ASTA conference about a program in New York with a teacher who seated students randomly at every concert.  They were never seated by ability.  Students found out their seats just before playing in the concert.  It was so interesting to hear about the results.  The students worked better as a team.  They took on greater personal responsibility to learn their parts and perform well.  Students had ownership of their own playing as well as the group's performance.  There was greater cooperation with students helping each other.  Students bonded with each other and created a true team spirit.

I really want this kind of cooperation and ownership in my classes.  I'd like to experiment with different seating arrangements.  I'll also work on ownership by using the '5 lessons' and seeking to build teamwork skills.  I recently went and bought some supplies for some teamwork activities to use during the first week of school.  Here are a couple more ideas that were not included in the book:

See instructions about how to play:

I went to WalMart and bought a bunch of skinny, inexpensive wooden dowels.  I will have students divide up into teams for 6-8 people and do the helium stick challenge.

Teams have to work together to get their ping pong ball to the other side of the room using the pieces.  I can't afford to purchase that game, so I made my own version using pool noodles and marbles from the dollar store:

Don't Lose Your Cool - Orchestra Edition - FRIDAY FUN DAY

Have you seen this game?  It was on clearance for $5 at Target, so I got one and thought it might be a hilarious game to play in orchestra.  You strap the crazy looking head piece to your head and it calibrates to your heart rate.  Then, people are supposed to do crazy things to make you lose your cool.  The headpiece monitors your levels and an alarm goes off if you don't stay calm. 

I've been experimenting with it at home with my daughter (she plays cello but I wanted her to feel the stress of playing an instrument she doesn't know, so here she is on violin).  This would be a funny way to lighten up the mood on playing test day...see if a student can play for the class without losing their cool.  I think this game is also a good way to help students be brave, focus, and perform in front of others.  If they lose their cool, it's's just a game.  Students could try to play a difficult passage without losing their cool, or play a passage without getting distracted by others.   I think this game would help students practice focusing and staying calm in a classroom full of distractions.  Perfect for a future FRIDAY FUN DAY!  I think I might just go pick up a few more of these....