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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

5 Orchestra Teacher Secrets to help build your strings program.

It's the time of year to officially be thinking about recruiting.  Really, recruiting is a year long process...especially if you want to build your program.  I started teaching at my current position 5 years ago with 63 total orchestra students.  It has been rewarding to watch my program grow to over 250 students this year.  Here are my secret strategies that helped grow my program and I hope you will find these tips useful in your own programs.

1.  Before your program will grow you have to make your program great!  Even though my classes were very small at first I wanted to make sure students were successful.  I wanted to make sure my class was fun and inspiring.  Your current students are your best recruiting tool.  If they fall in love with your class they will tell others and your program will grow.  Make every day your best day.  Appreciate the students in your class and make sure have a great experience.

2.  Make your concerts fun!  People talk.  When you can entertain and 'wow' people at your concerts they will tell others about your program.  I keep my concerts relatively short - 30 minutes is always my goal.  Choose a few tunes that the audience will recognize.  It is essential that your students sound amazing!  Work to get students to the highest possible level of performance.  After my first concert this year one of my students told me that his grandma came to the concert equipped with ear plugs!  After we started playing (in tune I might add) she realized she didn't need the ear plugs and she thought the concert was amazing.  Students feel good when they sound good and people like to come to concerts that sound good.   It is possible for beginners to play in tune with great tone.  Make it happen!

3.  Visit feeder programs often.  There is a morning strings program that feeds my program.  I go recruit for that program and I visit the classes now and then.  I even had them perform with my students at one of my concerts so they could see how fun my concerts are.  I bring them fun stuff to advertise for my program - like music folders designed with my theme for the year, locker magnets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.  I want students in my feeder program to feel special so they will want to continue.  This year I passed out these gold wristbands.  They will be wearing these when I bring my orchestra to the elementary school.  I can then recognize those students who have had experience in elementary orchestra and reward them with prizes during my recruiting tour.

4.  Prep students properly.  Ask students and parents to help you recruit.  I tell them all are needed to help keep the orchestra program strong.  I ask parents and students to promote my class by talking to others about orchestra and post on social media.  If they love your class and your concerts they are happy to tell others all about it.

5.  Make sure your recruiting program is fun with no down time.  Keep the pace up so the audience stays interested and excited.  Tell students to look happy while they play and demonstrate instruments.  Here are a few things I'm doing this year to keep it fun (there are more ideas in a previous post):

  • Use costumes.  The inflatable T-Rex costume is hilarious.  We're playing Jurassic park while a couple students in T-Rex costumes come out and 'fight.'   


  • While we play 'Pirates of the Caribbean' we are staging a little sword fight with our bows.

  • We are playing pieces students will recognize and adding a drum to keep a cool beat.

  • Throw candy/stickers/prizes.  We do a game where students play a super short excerpt from a popular song or movie and the audience has to guess the song.  They are then rewarded with prizes.  This year I have bumper stickers and candy.  To make it interesting I designed a golden ticket as a way for kids to win an orchestra T-shirt.

  • Let the audience try the instruments.  I bring a lot of kids recruiting because I have over 100 kids in my beginning classes.  After our 25 minute program the audience is allowed to come try any instrument and they get to talk with students in my program who will tell them they should join orchestra.  After they try an instrument, they get a fortune cookie.  I bought 400 fortune cookies online and took the fortunes out using paper clips.  Then I placed new fortunes inside that say stuff like, 'You belong in orchestra,' 'Join orchestra, you will,' 'Orchestra will make your life amazing,' 'You will dream about orchestra tonight.'  Etc.  This may seem extreme...but it's fun and it really doesn't take that long - especially if you have help.

Have fun!  Students can tell when you enjoy what you are doing.  May you all have many orchestra students next year.  :)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rhythm for beginners

Last week I wanted to check to make sure my beginners were internalizing note values and rhythm.  There seem to be always a few that struggle to write in the counting on worksheets and I wanted to create something to make it easier to understand.  I am so happy with the results.  My classes completed this worksheet last week by writing in the counting and they got it!  All students were able to succeed and my slower learners were able to understand.  After using this exercise as a worksheet I projected the image to the front and we practicing counting/plucking/air-bowing each line as part of our warm up for a couple of days.  I feel it really helped solidify counting/rhythm skills.  Especially that pesky dotted quarter to eighth note rhythm.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Piece Previews - help your orchestra learn faster and sound amazing

In my Suzuki training I learned how to introduce new pieces.  Suzuki teachers pick out sections of the music called 'previews' which contain the difficult passages, tricky bowings, special fingerings, etc.  I like to introduce new pieces to my orchestra in the same way and I feel it helps the orchestra master technique and be more ready to tackle the music.  There are a few different ways to implement the idea of 'previews' in a string orchestra setting:

1.  Rhythm training using measures from the music

Recently my Advanced orchestra was learning a piece in 2/4 time with some tricky counting.  I made these slides in PowerPoint and we drilled the rhythms as part of our warm-up for a couple weeks.  Students quickly mastered the rhythms and it was much easier for them to learn the new music.

2.  Let the entire class learn the same difficult section.  

If there is one section that has a hard passage, we learn it together as an orchestra.  In December students learned 'Appalachian Snowfall' arranged by Bob Phillips.  There was a tricky passage in the violin part that needed lots of practice, so we learned it as an orchestra and all students had to pass it off in a playing test.  The cello/bass parts in that piece are a little boring, so they welcomed the chance to learn a more difficult part.

Bushwhacker Stomp by Keith Sharp is a piece I often teach my beginners at the end of the year.  All students learn the melody to help the violin section with intonation on the high E string notes:

3.  Create a practice assignment that drills technique and tricky measures.  

When selecting music for my orchestras to play I try to pick pieces that will help students develop techniques we are learning in class.  I usually select different music every year, but there is one piece that I do every year in my 2nd year intermediate class.  It's called 'The Code' by Alan Silva.  Students love learning to play 'The Code' because it sounds cool.  It has been worth it to have students learn this piece because they get really good at extensions and high 3's in the key of A major.   As students came back to school after the new year, they had a practice assignment to drill techniques and tricky measures from our music.  After just one week of rehearsing these 'previews' and having students practice them at home, our piece is sounding so much better!

All of these previews were created with Finale, but before I had that program I used PrintMusic and it worked great.  I import the music into Microsoft Publisher to add the text.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

6 things parents can do to help students succeed in music.

I want my students to be successful and am always working and thinking of ways to help students progress and stay motivated.  There are a few things parents can do to help their children thrive in a string orchestra experience.

1.  Buy or rent a quality instrument.  

It's very hard to help students progress if their instruments literally will not stay in tune.  Parents should avoid purchasing instruments online.  Anything under $250 is not going to work (ever).  That is because a string instrument has many moving parts and pieces that need to be fitted exactly for the instrument to work properly.  When a student plays on an instrument that can not be tuned they become frustrated with their sound.  They recognize that they don't sound the same as everyone else and they feel like a failure, even if technique is correct.  Parents should communicate with the teacher for recommendations on where to find a quality instrument.

2. Support practicing and correct playing by providing appropriate gear.  

Violin and viola students need a shoulder rest.  I provide a free sponge to students who can not buy a shoulder rest, but all students must have one.  Brands I like are:  Kun, Everest, Bon Musica, and Comford Shoulder Cradle.  These are fine to purchase online.  Consider purchasing a music stand to help your student practice with correct position.  Slouching over propped up music is not beneficial and promotes poor position.  Students will need rosin on their bows to make a good sound.  I have tried many different kinds and they all work, but I recommend Pirastro Olive.

3.  Show interest.  

I don't recommend nagging your child to practice since that often causes contention, but you can provide a lot of motivation just by being interested in what your child is playing.  When your child is practicing, listen now and then without correcting and offer sincere and generous praise.  Let your child show you what they are learning and share in the excitement.

4.  Listen to string music.  

It doesn't always have to be classical music.  Find an artist on YouTube that features violin, viola, cello or bass.  Students are motivated by watching amazing performances.  Discover the Piano Guys, 2 Cellos, Lindsey Stirling, Time for Three, Simply Three, Apocolyptica, and Mark Wood...along with classical greats like Yo-yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Maxim Vengerov, Itzak Perlman, and Edgar Meyer.

5.  Stay through the whole concert.  

I know that parents and families are busy, but your child doesn't have that many concerts in a year.  Dedicate your time to stay through the entire concert.  I require my students to stay through my concerts (and some still sneak out. Sad.) because that is how they become motivated to continue and stay in orchestra.  The beginners get to hear the more advanced kids and they get excited at the prospect of learning more fun music in a year or two.  The Advanced students hear the beginners and reminisce about being a beginner and they realize how far they have come in a short amount of time.  They realize their abilities are noticeable improving.  It's worth it.  Don't leave early.

6.  Say thank you!  

I don't think teachers choose to become teachers for the money.  We are there because we are passionate about music and we love to teach.  Teaching is rewarding, but also draining.  Sometimes we have bad days and frustrating days.  When I get a nice note or email from a parent my teacher batteries are re-charged.  I am able to continue on and do my best to help and inspire my students.  Teachers want to make a difference and knowing that it's worth the effort will keep us going.  'Thank-you's' are teacher fuel.  (And diet coke helps, too.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Pick up the PACE! 8 Strategies for effective rehearsal pacing:

We live in an age of speed.  High speed internet, faster speed limits, and shorter attention spans.  Orchestra teachers need variety and quick paced lessons to help students stay interested, involved and focused on progressing.    Every minute is important to me in my classes and I don’t like to waste a moment.  By establishing effectives routines class time is used effectively and time flies.  I love it when students are amazed when the class is over and when they wish they didn’t have to leave.   Here  are 8 ways you can maximize rehearsal time in your orchestra classroom:

1.  Learn to tune quickly.  

In my beginning classes with 30-45 students per class I tune every student one by one.  Students hurry and line up next to me for tuning and then frequently have a bell-work assignment to occupy their attention while I tune other students.  I make sure this takes 5 minutes or less and very little class time is used since I start tuning as soon as students enter the classroom before the bell rings.

I use a couple different tuning procedures for my Intermediate and Advanced classes.  Often we use the tuning sequence from this website:   I like this routine, but usually only let each pitch play for about 40 seconds instead of a minute.  Other days we tune to my violin.  I play 4 open A’s while students listen and they echo back with 4 A’s and tune/adjust as needed.  We repeat this procedure several times for each string and it goes very fast.

2.  Put music in order.  

This simple procedure helps create smooth transitions in the rehearsal.  I write an agenda on the board listing the things we are working on that day.  Students are required to open their method books to the appropriate page and have their music in order.  I don’t like to wait for students to open books, find pages, etc.

3.  Talk less.  

I remember my orchestra teacher in 7th grade used to talk a lot.  I wanted to be playing and would become frustrated when rehearsals came to a halt because of unnecessary chatter.  Sometimes students need a story or an analogy to help them play the music better, but they also need practice and they need to work hard in class to get better.   When drilling passages, keep a quick pace and talk very little.  My favorite words to start the class are ‘ready, play.’  They can get the tempo and start from just those 2 words.  When I want to repeat a section, I can quickly say, “Measure 35!  Ready, play!”   I like students to keep their instruments up so we can get a lot of playing done in a short amount of time.

4.  Know the music. 

It’s very helpful to have music memorized so that you don’t have to be staring at a score.  If you know the music well, you are free to walk around the room and help students throughout the rehearsal.  You can be more attentive to the needs of your students.  I often walk through the room during a rehearsal and if I need to check a part or play along on my violin I just look at their music.  When you know the music you can always be thinking ahead of what to work on next.  Right now I can tell you all of the measure numbers that need work in our concert music.  It’s all memorized in my head because those places need drilling every day and we do it a lot. Tricky passages need to be reviewed and carefully practiced every day.   Always have a specific objective for each rehearsal to be sure students are constantly progressing.

5.  Follow a rehearsal schedule.  

Set an appropriate amount of time for each part of your rehearsal.  If I was a student, I would get very frustrated if 20 minutes of class was spent on scales and only 10 minutes on concert music.  Use time to your advantage and cover all the material with careful planning.  In general, I spend 2-4 minutes on a warm-up.  We do scales, but also cover new technique.  For example, last week I taught my beginners about 4th finger (4th position for cello and 3rd position for bass).  We did left hand pizzicato and finger taps to strength that finger, then played D, E, F#, G, A A A--.  Students worked to match intonation (A on the D string to open A).  It didn’t take very long and next week students will be reading 4th fingers in their method books.  With pre-exposure  in the warm-up students are set up for success.

Here's a video of a warm-up I did with my beginning students.  They had been playing about 2 months and my objective for the warm-up was to help them be comfortable with string crossings, match pitch and correct intonation on D scale note, and play the D scale.

We spend 5-8 minutes in our method book to reinforce note-reading and technique.    Sometimes I use GarageBand to play a drum beat during method book work.  This helps things move along and we don’t waste time.  The last 25 minutes are spent on concert music. 

This is a sample from my beginning class.  This was the first time looking at that line in our method books and the video shows how we rehearsed it that day.

6.   Don’t offer free time.  

The weather is changing and those cheap violins just won’t stay in tune.  Instead of halting an entire rehearsal to re-tune that eBay special, give students a specific assignment.  You can have them play a certain measure 10 times, or play a line of music for their stand partner while the stand partner checks for proper position or perfect finger placement.   They can hunt for ½ steps or mark dynamics.  They don’t need free time – put them to work!

7.  Use a looper. 

I enjoy using SmartMusic as a rehearsal tool.  It has that great looping feature that plays specific measures over and over again.  This is a great tool to help drill tricky passages while keeping you free to walk around the room to help students.  Just set the measures and let it play.   You don’t have to talk…you don’t have to start and stop the group.  This helps get a lot done is a short time.

8.  Read facial cues.  

Always be aware of the attitude and feeling in your classroom.  Are students working, are they frustrated, are they bored?  Adjust pacing based on what the students need.  If you spend 5 minutes on one measure students might begin to ‘check-out.’  Switch things up and let students try something else.  Allow them to feel success in every rehearsal.  It’s okay to leave a piece of music and come back to it another day.  Baby steps.  J

Sunday, November 6, 2016

SUB PLANS for Orchestra

It's not easy preparing for a sub in orchestra.  I have tried many different activities for students to do when I am gone and some work better than others.  I always wish students could just work in small sectionals and practice but they just don't use their time wisely and some students don't cooperate when there is no teacher present.  Here are some ideas for sub plans in orchestra:

1.  Plan a composition activity.  Let students create a short piece of music.  You can create a worksheet and keep it on hand for those days when you will be gone.  A fun variation might be to show a short clip from a silent movie - there are lots of options on YouTube - and let students work in small groups to create music for the movie.  Here are a few worksheets I have used over the years:

2.  Create a listening assignment.  Have students listen to music and draw pictures of what the music make them think or feel.  You could have them listen to their concert music and mark the sheet music with things they need to work on.  This is a listening assignment I created using The Planets:

3.  Play a game.  Recently I used this ORCHESTRA OLYMPICS (click the link for access to the presentation) game for my beginners.  The sub showed the presentation from google drive and students completed each activity and filled out the worksheet with their scores.

Next week I am heading to  Dallas to present at the NAfME National Conference.  On one of the days I will be gone students will play this card game I just made - Music Matching Spoons (This is a free download at TPT - just click the link!).  The rules are the same as regular 'Spoons.'  I bought a couple packages of plastic spoons from the Dollar Store and I think students will have fun.  Students need to pay attention and have good reflexes when playing an instrument and this game is all about developing those skills.  This did require a lot of prep work because I printed 4 sets of the game and had to cut out all of the cards.  

4.  Make a video.  I don't usually do this, but since I will be missing 3 days next week I wanted to make sure my students are practicing and rehearsing in class.  I recorded 9 videos using my iPad and uploaded them to YouTube so my sub can project the videos in front of the class as they follow along with my teaching.  Learning music takes a lot of repetition so my sub will use the same videos for 2 days in a row as students follow along.  I recorded videos for our warm-up, method book, and concert pieces.  It didn't take me very long and I have 45 minutes total...which is the length of my classes.  My beginners will use the videos through most of the class period.  I didn't record as much for my intermediate and advanced groups because it is easier to rehearse those groups.  This was really easy to do....Here's a sample:

5.  Practice Assignment.  This works well for smaller classes.  If the class to very large it would be too noisy for quality practice unless students can spread out into practice rooms.  Assign specific sections of music for students to play perfectly 10 times.  I like to use this repetition tracker:

Monday, October 17, 2016

From Formal to FUN: Family Friendly Halloween Concert

I have 5 children.  I like to take them to plays and fun performances and enjoy the arts.  But of all the artsy things we can attend, it is hardest to bring them to orchestra performances.  A few years ago I took my husband and daughter to a Joshua Bell concert.  I listened in fascination to the beautiful crystal clear tone and intricate harmonies of the solo violin/piano performance.  My daughter and husband had an expensive nap.  My children don't attend all of my concerts.  They like to come, but it is sometimes hard to keep their attention for an entire concert.  I live in Utah, where children are aplenty.  Families have lots of kids and I want them coming to my concerts!  They can learn young to love music and to see how fun it is to play in an orchestra.  I want families to feel free to bring all of their children to my performances.  So, for Halloween we are putting on a family friendly fun performance with interactive activities to involve the audience.  Here's what we've got planned:

1.  I sent official invites to all of the parents and let them know that this concert is suitable for the entire family.

2.   In the hallway in front of the auditorium, we are setting up a 'selfie station' where our guests can take fun pictures by life-size cut-outs of famous people or use prop to create fun photos.  Some props will be orchestra instruments (the unplayable stash from my school).  I want guests taking pictures with orchestra stuff!  Here's a pic of my stand ups in their temporary home (my living room).

3.  Our first number is a variation of Twinkle which starts with a simple melody/harmony then gets more complex with an added advanced part.  While we are playing, the audience will be trying to keep 8 jumbo giant balloons with flashing lights in the air.  The entire audience has to work together to keep those twinkling 'stars' in the air.

4.  While my beginners play Demons, they audience will be allowed to stand and dance.

5.  While my beginners play Country Gardens, the audience will wave glow sticks in the air back and forth in time.

6.  We will play 'Pepperoni Pizza Rock' and feature some students on electric instruments.

7.  Next up - the intermediate Orchestra.  They will play Chicken Dance and we will invite all young children to come up and do the chicken dance in front of the stage.  We also will have a student dressed up like a giant chicken to dance with the kids.

8.  In between numbers, we will play a game called 'Lay It Or Break It' with some audience volunteers and our giant student 'chicken.'

9.  Advanced students are playing Brave.  I make a dramatic entrance dressed as Brave for this one.  Maybe I'll even practice a scottish accent.  :)  I'll look ridiculous, but hey - half the audience won't know it's me!

10.  While playing 'Blazin Bows of the West,' audience volunteers will have a potato sack race up the auditorium wearing funny western paper masks.

We have regular pieces where the audience will just listen, but I'm hoping kids will love coming to this concert and be inspired to join orchestra in school!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

D String Assessment

My classes have been working on D string notes and I want to make sure students have mastered them before I move on to the A string notes.  Tomorrow, students will complete this assessment so I can determine if they are ready to learn more.  They have to write note names, fingerings, and play an excerpt to determine fluency on the notes.  The exercise gets progressively more difficult as they play to give me an idea on the level of proficiency for each student.  
This would also work great as an SLO (Student Learning Objective) assessment.  I usually evaluate my classes on rhythm for my SLO, but this would work well as a pre-test. Our district is looking for a higher depth of knowledge for student goals, so re-call/memorization isn't good enough for a final test.  A good final test would be to compose and perform a piece of music utilizing notes and rhythms which have been mastered throughout the year.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

How to Practice: A lesson about Reps

When I started learning the violin I didn't mind practicing.  I played through my pieces once or twice and enjoyed playing, but was never taught how to practice effectively.  It is helpful to teach little practice tips in class to help students learn how to use practice time wisely.  Recently, I showed this video for my weekly motivational video:

We talked about how our muscles require lots of reps in order to become stronger.  Same with practicing music...we can complete a lot of reps to help with muscle memory and to become stronger players.  Playing through a difficult measure only one time is like doing one push-up calling it an effective work-out.

I try to do lots of reps in class and encourage students to aim for 10 times perfect each day on every exercise to become PRO players.  This has been helpful for students first learning D string notes.  They have to fill out this tracker at home when they practice:

Grading Papers

Every Saturday I go to my classroom and file stacks of papers, put things away, and bring home a towering pile of worksheets to grade.  People are often surprised to learn that I grade a lot of papers.  They say, "You have worksheets in music class?!"  Almost every day, my beginning classes complete a short bell-work assignment which helps me check for understanding.  After a recent assignment which reviewed basics about note-reading, I was able to identify a few students from each class who did not understand how the staff works.  Our school offers a 25 minute flex time each day where students can go to any teacher to get help or make up missed work.  I had each of my struggling students come to me during one of these flex times and was able to re-teach note-reading basics.  Even though I don't love grading papers, I feel the worksheets help students improve basic music skills and it is important to identify students who need extra help.

There is one worksheet that I don't mind grading.  Several weeks ago I posted about playing tests and included a picture of a goal sheet/reflection paper that students complete after every playing test.  I love reading these papers!  They give me insight into how students feel in my class.  I learn if they are preparing for tests and I learn about their struggles and goals.  I can then tailor lessons to help students and I can offer encouragement to specific students.  Reading the reflection papers motivate me to be a better teacher.  Students want to do well and when I see how hard they are working it helps me work hard for them to help them succeed.  Since using these reflection papers, I feel my students are achieving higher test scores and taking ownership for their progress.  Here's one I just randomly pulled from my tower of papers...pretty cool, huh?