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Thursday, April 29, 2021

Note to self: Bring in MORE GUESTS


I love teaching my students and I like to do things my own way...BUT I've recently experimented with bringing in guests to enhance my students' experience and it has been AMAZING.  It has helped my students gain new skills and insights while helping me focus my teaching.

A few weeks ago, I met Daniel Burt.  He was subbing for different classes at my school and he came and introduced himself to me when he heard the orchestra.  He told me he had a masters degree in orchestral conducting.  I wanted my students to get better at following a conductor, so I thought it would be fun to have him help teach my students about conducting.  I prepped my students by having them to a little NearPod about conducting and about how to read a can find it here:

Mr. Burt came the next day and taught my students some of the basics of conducting...then he ran a rehearsal.  It was totally eye-opening to see how my students responded to a new conductor.  I got so many tips to improve my own conducting.  I found myself taking a lot of notes...and I noticed things happening in the music I'd not noticed before.  It's sometimes tricky to switch between teacher mode and conductor mode.  I realized I need balance those 2 skills.  It was fun to see how a new conductor interpreted our music.  It was so good me for and my students I invited him to come back 2 weeks later.  

Before Mr. Burt came back, I re-directed my teaching to help my students learn how to respond to a conductor and how to interpret the music.  While observing my students, I learned they needed to develop more bow control in order to really follow the conductor and make the expressive elements happen in the music.  When Mr.Burt conducted them the 2nd time, they were more prepared and I feel it helped students better prepare for our upcoming concert.  I need to have guests come WAY more often. 

Mr. Burt would love to come work with your orchestra!  He's AWESOME with students and makes the rehearsal super fun and meaningful.  I would highly recommend you contact him! I paid him from my orchestra budget and he's worth it!

Monday, March 29, 2021

Why games?


I incorporate a lot of games into my rehearsals for many reasons.  Gamification has been shown to have many benefits in education:  According to, gamification (while this website is addressing e-learning, gamification can also be implemented with the same benefits without using tech): 

  • Increases learner engagement
  • Makes learning fun and interactive
  • Improves knowledge absorption and retention
  • Gives learners the opportunity to see real world applications
  • Enhances the overall learning experience for all age groups

One of the best books I've read for teaching is 'The Little Book of Talent" by Daniel Coyle.  It's a fast, easy read and contains many useful tips for coaching students to reach their potential.  My favorite quote from the book is: 

“Good coaches share a knack for transforming the most mundane activities – especially the most mundane activities  - into games.”

I love playing games and my brain is always coming up with fun new games to try.  Here are a couple of games I have recently used in my rehearsals:


Limbo is orchestra?  It works.  And it is fun and hilarious and it gets students working extra hard to play in tune!

To introduce the game I showed this video:

We then discussed how the girl in the video has to practice and push herself in order to do the limbo in such an amazing way.  

The limbo song goes, "How low can you go?"  Our game was about "How FAR can you go"...before your section hits a note out of tune.   I chose a passage from our concert music and had each section play for as long as they could without playing a note out of tune.   As soon as I heard an out-of-tune note, I stopped the section and counted how many measures they were able to play in tune.  After listening to each section, I ranked them by how far they were able to play.  

Next I had a volunteer come up from each section to do the limbo....for real...with the music going in the background from YouTube (  To make it more of a game, I altered the height of the stick based on the results from each round.  For example, if 1st violins won the round, they would get the limbo stick at the tallest point.  2nd place had to try to limbo with the stick lower by one notch...and so on.  As we continued with the game for a few rounds, the limbo stick would get lower and lower depending on how sections scored each round.  It was really fun to see how low students could go on the limbo...and how far they were able to get in their concert music with great intonation.  It was so fun to watch...I kept getting groups of teachers and students watching from the doorway.   

This game is easy to play with little to no preparation.  I used an empty string tube for my limbo stick and drew notches on the white board to designate the levels.


Last week I got the idea to do a 'spelling bee' in my class...but I didn't want it to put too much pressure on individual students.  I think there are many ways you could do a 'spelling bee' type of game, but here's how I did it:

Intro the game with a video (optional...I just like to use a lot of videos).  I showed a very short clip from the very end just to help students remember what a spelling bee is.  

Orchestra version of spelling bee is a bit different...ours is an INTONATION BEE.  Each section plays the 'words' (which are a sequence of notes selected from our concert music).  If the section plays in tune, they get a point....if not, they don't get a point.  I didn't do this like a traditional bee with one student at a time because the rest of the students would get BORED.  

To prep the game the made simple into slide:

Then I typed a list of 'words' (note sequences) in PowerPoint.

To play the game, I showed one word at a time.  I demonstrated how to play the sequence, then had the class practice it together.  Then I listened to each section play the 'word' and gave them a point if they played it in tune (as a section).  I don't like to have students sitting doing my pacing was QUICK.  I made sure the game moved fast and kept everyone involved.  

This game helped students drill some of their tricky measures.  In the middle of the game, some students started recognizing the ' words' and blurted out...'Hey!  That's from our concert piece!"  

I could have just showed the notes and made them practice the sequences...but this kept students more engaged, more motivated, and it was fun!

        Wednesday, March 10, 2021

        A break from the norm - send me your best work!


        Recently I saw this video on YouTube where Rob Landes hires violinists from to play a portion of one of the hardest pieces to play:

        This video really got me thinking.  These musicians are getting paid for sending something that looks a lot like a playing test.  Because someone is hiring them to perform, they prepare well, they practice, and they submit their highest quality playing.  They must be in tune with accurate rhythm.  It takes a lot of preparation and responsibility.  My students send me playing tests in much the same way...but sometimes could use a little more preparation and a little more responsibility..  What if they thought of their playing test as a 'hired' performance?  Would they practice more, prepare more carefully, and send me higher quality work?

        Instead of doing a regular playing test this week, my students are creating a fake 'FIVER' account and will be sending me a video sample of their best work to highlight their strengths.  Their job is to make ME want to hire them.  All students are important to our ensemble. We should practice and prepare as if we have been hired to do a great job.

        First of the week:  To begin the assignment, I had students answer a few questions:  1.  What are your strengths as a player?  2. What strengths would you like to highlight in your Fiver audition video?  3.  What piece will you play to demonstrate your strengths?

        Mid-week: students sent me a short sample of their piece by recording a video on FlipGrid.  Students then watched their own videos to tell me what they need to work on before recording their final video.  This allows students to reflect on their own playing.  I was just watching these videos and I'm so inspired by my students.  I love that they are sending me playing samples that demonstrate their strengths.  They sound confident and proud.  I'm impressed with their progress and enjoy hearing their piece selections.  Every student gets to be successful because they get to play music at their own they like...something they're good at.  

        End of the week: Students recorded their final audition/profile video using Canvas.  Their videos showcased their strengths as a musician.  These are fun to grade.  I'm realizing just how far students have come since we began the year.   I have some fake music money...and I'm planning on passing out money to officially 'hire' my students to play in my class. :)

        I think it's cool you can hire musicians on Fiver.  I may hire someone to write an arrangement for my orchestra to play.  My students are dying to play some meme music and I don't have time to write arrangements.

        Monday, March 1, 2021

        Note to Fingerboard Matching Activity


        I've spent the last few month exploring all kinds of ways to use technology in my orchestra class.  This year I have been almost paperless and I love not having to grade piles and piles of papers.  I've moved many of my resources and curriculum online and students access everything through Canvas.  A few months ago I posted some online worksheets made with google slides where students drag and drop notes to the correct place on the fingerboard.  I received a request to make a version that showed the notes on the staff.  So, here it is!  Students open the file in google but do NOT run as a slide show.  Students grab the notes and drop them on the correct tapes.  This version does not have every possible note...only the notes my beginners have learned so far.  This kind of worksheet works great in Canvas as a 'google cloud' assignment.  This is where each student gets their own copy of the slide show where they can edit and turn it in.

        Access your own copy HERE.

        Saturday, February 27, 2021

        Rhythm Activities for Beginning Orchestra


        My beginning orchestra is currently learning 'Medieval Wars' by Brian Balmages and students are loving it!  It's a grade 2, but I would say it's on the easy side of that grade.  The rhythms are not too difficult, but for some reason my students are struggling to count while they play.  Progress has been slow because students haven't been counting as I've been mostly drilling notes/pitch.  Last week I decided to starting reviewing rhythms and counting to help students play without getting lost.  With rhythm as our focus, students made it through the entire piece and they're learning it so much faster!

        Here are some of the fun rhythm activities I've done with my students:

        1.  Rhythm reading/coordination:

        Since I always do a 'video of the week' on Mondays, I had students clap/count rhythms with these videos:

        We talked about how we sometimes must play 2 different rhythms at the same with our bow hand and one with our left hand.  For example, when playing 2 quarter notes that are slurred, the right hand plays a half note rhythm while the left hand plays the quarter notes.  This takes a great deal of coordination!  We practiced rhythm coordination with both hands using part of this video:

        After we practiced with the video, I had students write their own right hand/left hand composition.  They practiced their own composition then we traded papers and students practiced each others rhythms and graded the assignment based on a few key components: 1.  Is it neat?  2. Are there 4 beats notated in every measure? 3. Is it challenging?    Students took this assignment very seriously and they enjoyed having me try to perform their compositions.  They were sure they would get me to mess up...but it turns out I'm quite coordinated.  :)


        2.  Rhythm challenges using scales.

        I used the 'Around the World' rhythm game just to use the rhythm slides for this easy activity.  Students had to play a D scale and change the rhythm every time we changed pitch.  I just scrolled through the presentation while they played the scale.  It was very challenging for them to switch rhythms so quickly!

        I asked the students if the entire orchestra HAS to play the same rhythm in order to stay together.  Most said yes - we must always play the same rhythm.  We then experimented with scales and discovered half of the orchestra could play a D scale using 2 half notes per pitch while the other half of the orchestra could play at the same time with 4 quarter notes per pitch.  We discussed how each section can play their own rhythms in our music, but must count carefully for the rhythms to line up - like a puzzle.  I projected my score to Medieval Wars on screen for students to see different rhythms in each section and how the rhythms were supposed to fit together.

        3.  Rhythm Dictation

        I've done dictation with students before, but this time I made a quick NearPod for students to draw the rhythms they hear.  I liked using NearPod because it allowed me to see student responses right away. I was easily able to identify students who needed help.  I was in a hurry when I made the audio files for the rhythms so they're kind of low quality...but it works! 

        You can access and edit the nearpod HERE.

        4.  Rhythm Detective Game - variation

        I've used the Rhythm Detective game in my classes before and students have always enjoyed it, but I changed the game a little bit to make it more applicable to drilling specific rhythms.  I found tricky rhythms from our concert music and had students repeat the one measure of rhythm over and over in different ways as determined by the 'leader.'  For example, clapping, stomping, snapping, sliding their hands, tapping their cheeks, patting their heads, etc. The class repeated the rhythm and copied the leader while the detective tried to figure out who the leader was.  My class practiced rhythms over and over again...hardly realizing they were drilling concert music.  It was such a hit with my beginning classes I used the same game in my intermediate class to help them drill a few rhythms from 'The Code," by Silva. 

        5.  Rhythm Telephone

        This is the first time I've tried this game and it went so well!  I LOVE it!  I found the idea on this website.   I put away all the music stands and had students sit in 4 long rows.  I showed a simple rhythm to the students on the end of each row.  They then had to tap that rhythm on the shoulder of the person sitting in front of them...and so on...until the rhythm reached the other end.  The student at the far end then had to write the rhythm.  Teams got a point if the rhythm was correct.  I then had students every student eventually had the opportunity to sit at each end of the line.

        6.  Rhythm Self-Assessment

        I used this assessment to help students determine their level of ability in reading/counting rhythms.  It was good for students self-assess their skills because it made them more motivated and willing to work hard to improve and get to the highest level.

        Free assessment for beginning rhythm and notereading HERE.

        Saturday, February 20, 2021

        Battleship game for String Orchestra


        Are you looking for a super fun game you can play with your orchestra students that won't take much time to prepare?   Try BATTLESHIP!  This game works great to review any type of music students have been learning.  It's very simple to play and students love it!

        Here's how to play...

        1.  Choose your music.  I chose one of our concert pieces, but you can use exercises from method books or anything you like.

        2.  Project your gameboard on screen.  I quickly made a gameboard using JAMBOARD.  You can use my game board.. you just have to click the 3 dots at the top of the screen...then click MAKE A COPY.  


        3.  Each section of the orchestra is a team.  Each team gets to fire a torpedo at any other section of the orchestra class by calling out one measure (you could do between 1-3 measures) from the music they have to play.  If the section plays the music in tune and in time with correct bowing, the torpedo is a MISS.  If the section does not play the measure correctly, it's a HIT and I move a little explosion icon on top of their ship on the gameboard.  Any team who gets 3 hits goes down in flames.

        A FEW NOTES:

        *When playing this in class, we rotated turns between sections:  bassess, cellos, violas, 2nds, then 1sts.  Game play continued in this way until the students sunk a few ships.  I allowed sunk teams to still fire torpedos at other sections so they could continue to participate.

        *Before starting the game, I had my orchestra play the music we were using in the game so they could 'spy' on other sections to find measure where they could fire some torpedos.

        My students are already asking to play this game again!  It was a great way for them to review tricky measures and find places that still need practice.

        Thursday, January 21, 2021

        Teaching students how to tune


        I've re-vamped all my lessons about teaching students how to tune.  I wanted to use NearPod and make the experience more interactive.  I made 3 lessons using google slides and incorporated them into NearPod with websites for students to explore, games to practice adjusting pitch, and quizzes to check for understanding.  

        I think it's important to establish some pre-tuning skills before students actually get to tune their own instruments.  These skills include understanding what 'in-tune' and 'out of tune' means, how to adjust pitch, and how to use pegs/fine tuners.  Here are snapshots of the lessons I can use them at Nearpod:

        Lesson 1:  Exploring Pitch:

        I LOVE LOVE LOVE this game!  It's at    It's GREAT practice for studetnts to learn to adjust pitch to be 'in-tune.'  Students enjoyed practicing using this game. 

        Lesson 2:  Pegs and Fine Tuners:

        Lesson 3:  Rules of tuning:   (the videos don't work in this lesson...I don't use them.  It was created in google slides...and I didn't really need the videos when I presented this to my class.  Videos can be cut out and replaced with pictures.)

        After lesson 3 I help students tune themselves for the first time using my tuning procedure. It worked great - and no broken strings!

        Sunday, January 17, 2021

        The path to greatness - music selection grid and taking ownership


        I've been thinking a lot about the different playing abilities in my classes.  I realize all students learn at different rates.  Students come with varying backgrounds, opportunities, and skills.   All students have different needs and desires in their quest to learn their instruments.  I don't have an audition group, so my students are lumped together by grade.  I choose challenging music and help the class learn it together.  But I want them to learn it better and faster...and that takes some student accountability.  Much of the variance in abilities can be minimized if all students are taking ownership doing their part to achieve greatness.  

        Term 3 jus started.  I have a concert in 5 weeks.  Students chose the music for this concert....and I really love how that went!  I normally like to maintain control over the repertoire, but a few weeks ago I did a Music Selection assignment with my classes where I chose 12-14 pieces and had students listen (and view the music at JWPepper if there was preview) and take a few notes about each piece.  Students then used google form to vote of their top 4 choices.  

        Here's a sample of the form I used (students typed directly in the form using Canvas.)

        My class didn't pick the pieces I expected they would pick.  We started worked on the new music a couple weeks ago and it has been a blast!  Students are motivated and they're working extra hard because they really WANT to get it.  Often at the end of class I hear the best words ever...."That was so FUN!"  Allowing students to have ownership for what they are learning has helped them progress more easily.

        Now I'd like to help my students take on even more ownership and accountability in their own playing.  I'm still hashing out the details.  Maybe I'll have them make goals then record their progress using FlipGrid.  But it's all going to start with this poster....  Too many students settle for progressing at walking pace.  It's time to drive.  I want these students cruising.  You can access and edit this poster for your own classroom at