Search This Blog

Friday, December 27, 2019


A few days ago a received a letter from a reader:

I teach 4th and 5th grade beginning strings and orchestra. I absolutely love your website and use many of your ideas and tips! I am wondering if you have any advice on classroom management within orchestra rehearsals.

 I have 60 fifth graders who have been playing their instrument for about a year and a half. I am mainly having trouble at the beginning of class. Oftentimes there are about 15 kids lined up for me to tune their instruments, kids asking me a million questions about going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, calling their mom before the end of the day, etc. At my school, the kids have orchestra every other day for 40 minutes during the last period of the day. After I've gotten around to tuning many out of tune instruments and tending to my needy students, 10 minutes have passed before we begin warming up. My orchestra teaching colleague has suggested having the kids immediately find their seats and not ask any questions, not ask to be tuned and never use the bathroom during orchestra (unless it's an extreme emergency). I followed her advice recently and it seems to have gotten a bit better but there are so many instruments horribly out of tune during rehearsal and kids who still call out to me with all of their needs and it's a bit overwhelming. I am still very young and soft spoken and have a difficult time putting my foot down so that may be the main issue. 

If you have any insight on how to address needy 5th graders at the beginning of orchestra and would be willing to share, I would greatly appreciate your help. 

Here are my TOP 6 tips for classroom management:

TIP 1:  Find a management plan that fits with your personality.

Classroom management is a big topic.  There are so many ideas and methods for classroom management, but I believe to be successful in this area you must stay true to your own personality and style.  Several years ago I went to a great conference session about establishing ‘pin-drop quiet’ rehearsals.  There was some useful information and I thought I’d give it a try.  I experimented with the procedures as taught in the session, but quickly discovered that those procedures were not true to my personality.  I didn’t have fun while doing it and my class felt different.  The tone wasn’t what I wanted for my class.  That method might work for some, but it just wasn’t right for my own personality.  We all tolerate various levels of ‘noise’ or chaos.  I happen to be able to tolerate a high level of chaos, but only when I have complete control.  Sometimes a room of 50-60 beginners can get loud.  That’s not abnormal.  I don’t expect pin-drop quiet all the time.  But I do expect students to follow directions, be quiet as required, and work hard.  My personality is not that of a stern disciplinarian.  I don’t mind having some laughter and fun – and of course focusing and getting to work.  My classroom management suggestions come from that frame of mind and I hope some will find it helpful.  I recommend teachers try lots of different ideas until they find one that fits with their own style and vision.  I enjoyed reading some books about Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) in regards to classroom management.  You don't have to be mean, but you do have to be in charge.  You're the boss.  Expect students to do what you say and follow procedures. 

TIP 2:  Keep them busy

I believe most classroom management issues occur when students are bored.  They get bored when they are waiting, they get bored when they are lost,  and they get bored when they are not sure what they are supposed to be doing.  To ease the burdensome feeling of being bored, they creatively find things to do.  It’s not hard to find things to do while holding loud instruments and sticks.  The first step to great classroom management is well-planned, fast-paced rehearsal with highly efficient use of time.  I try to keep my students so busy they don’t have time to act up.  While creating lesson plans, think about what students can be doing during ‘down’ times, like tuning.  Or when you’re working with another section.  I keep students busy during tuning with bell-work activities.  Sometimes these are just rhythm or note-reading worksheets.  Bell-work can also be little practice exercises – like running through finger strengthening drills, bow games, or plucking a certain passage of music 10x perfectly.  When students are waiting for me to finish tuning, they know to finish bell-work and it put all of their music in order as listed on the board.  Sometimes I check and give points for following this procedure.  Once my rehearsal begins, there is no time for students to act up because my pacing is very fast.  While students are playing, my brain is constantly assessing and determining what I’m going to do next.

TIP 3:  Don’t be afraid to adjust and change.

This year I started some very large classes of beginners – 55-60 in each class.  One day I had some bellwork for students to pick up as they entered the classroom and it was taking forever for students just to get through the door.  I had inadvertently created a traffic jam.  Students couldn’t pick up papers fast enough so there was a huge line of students trying to get in the room – then trying to get in line to be tuned.  It all look way longer than I wanted and I realized there was too much chaos for my classroom.  It was chaotic because entering, picking up work, getting tuned…it all took too much time and students were left WAITING….which is a classroom management no-no.  I talked to my class about it and said, ‘It seems like the start of class was really chaotic today.’  I saw students nod their heads -they wanted a smoother start and so did I.  We spent a couple minutes talking about how we can set up faster and how we could distribute necessary bellwork more effectively.  (I now ask students who come to class early to pass out bell-work.)  Students appreciated having their voices heard, and the next day we started some new procedures that were a better fit for such a large class.

Classroom management is moldable and changeable.  If something doesn’t work, you can change it right then.  You can establish new procedures, revise old procedures…you are the master.  Students like routine, but they can also learn and adapt to new routines. 

TIP 4:  Establish procedures.

Procedures are the heart of classroom management.  Students should always know what to do and how to do it.  What do you want students to do when they enter?  How should they act when they enter?  What is your tuning procedure?  How should students act during rehearsals?  What should they do if they have a question?  You and your students should be able to answer all of these questions.   One of my favorite ‘rules’ for my class (after tuning) is - NO ONE GETS UP.  I don’t want students out of their seats, ever.  My classroom is so packed it is very unsafe students to try to move through the group.  Since I don’t allow students to get up, there has to be a procedure for them to get papers they need, get tuned, etc.  It cuts down on chaos when students stay put. 

Here’s a list of basic procedures I use in my classroom:

TIP 5: Tuning in 5 minutes or less.

It can be daunting to tune a huge class of beginners, but I believe it can be done quickly.  I give myself 4-5 minutes total for tuning all 55-60 students.  I have students line up as they enter the classroom and get out instruments– violins on my left, viola/cello on my right.  I can fly through the whole class in record time.  For me, that is fast and easy.  But everyone is different.  If you don’t want students to line up, you can to go to them.  I’ve done this too, but I think it takes just a little longer.  Some days I like to go to them because then students can pluck the strings while I make the adjustments.  Then students are involved in the tuning.  Just before Christmas I spent a week and taught my beginners how to tune themselves and established a new tuning procedure where they tune themselves.  It’s pretty great!  Read more here: 

TIP 6:  Establish student-led procedures for the start of class.

Teaching orchestra is high energy, busy, and tiring.  Last year I was feeling exhausted after teaching a full day of 400+ students.  I didn’t like the feeling of starting each class as an exhausted, tired teacher.  I decided I needed to give my students more responsibility so I didn’t have to feel so drained.  I’ve been experimenting with having students start class and lead the group though tuning/warm-ups and it has been AWESOME!  It frees me to help students, watch how students are playing/focusing, and gives me a moment to think.  Here’s how it works:

I allow a student to be a ‘leader.’  As soon as the bell rings, the leader stomps loudly on the podium – a signal to the class to go to rest position and listen.  The leader plays 4 long open A’s and the class echos the open A’s while tuning.  The leader then repeats the 4 A’s, and the class echos/tunes.  I’m free to move through and help students if needed.  Once a student is in tune with that string, they go to rest position.  When most of the class is in rest position, the leader goes to the next string…etc.   This tuning procedures only takes 2 minutes.  Next, the leader goes through the warm-ups I outline on the board.  I get to watch and observe my students and assess their progress.  I take over after that – mentally ready to do my best and reach my students. 

I hope this is helpful!  I’m passionate about teaching and maintaining a well-run orchestra classroom.  I’m not perfect and I make mistakes, but I enjoy the problem-solving process and love the thrill of helping a group of students to discover new abilities and talents.  I believe in my students.  They want to do well, they want to sound good, they want to be their best selves.  I am just one of their life-guides to help them discover the power in themselves for goodness.  Your class will rise to your leadership.