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Thursday, June 15, 2017

5 Ways to Use Post-It Tabs to help violin and viola students

Post-It Tabs are a great little gem to have in your studio or classroom.  The tabs are thick and sturdy with enough adhesive to stay in place and are easy to remove without damaging the instrument.  These are different from the Post-It flags which look similar but are much more flimsy.  Here are 5 ways you can use these tabs to help students with bowing, left hand position, and shifting:

1.  Stick the tabs directly on the bow as a guide to show students what part of the bow to use when playing an exercise.  The colored tabs create a great visual to help students pay attention to their bow speed and bow placement.  If you allow the tab to hang below the stick it will make a noise if the student accidentally crosses one of the tabs.  This will alert the student to re-focus and correct bowing to stay within the allotted boundary.

2.  Use the tabs as a guide to help students keep their bow straight and keep the bow placed between the bridge and the fingerboard.  Cut one tab into thirds (for a tiny violin you would have to cut one tab into fourths).  Fold the bottom of the tab to create a small flap.  Stick the thin tabs in between the strings to create a 'wall' where the bow should not cross when bowing on the strings.  I like to tell students that the tabs are like the flags in downhill skiing.  The bow must stay in the boundaries.  When bowing, students watch to make sure the bow never touches the tabs.  In my experience, the tabs have always stayed in place, as long as you wipe off any rosin dust on the instrument before sticking them on. 

3.  Do you ever have students who keep the left thumb too high over the fingerboard?  These tabs create a great visual to help students break this bad habit.  Stick a tab on the side of the neck.  The student must keep their thumb on the clear part of the tab - they are not to allow the thumb to touch the colored part of the tab.  If the thumb comes up too high, the tab will be pushed toward the string and students can easily see the issue and correct the problem.

4.  Pancake wrist is a common problem among beginning violin and viola students.  Stick a tab on the underside of the violin/viola on the top of the saddle.  Students are to be careful to not allow their wrist to touch the tab.  If a student collapses their wrist, they will feel the tab and remember to correct their position.

5.  Tabs can be useful when teaching shifting.  Cut a strip from a tab and use it as a tape to mark 3rd position.  The flap should hang over the left side of the fingerboard.  When practicing shifting, students can use the tap as a guide, but also use the tab to help guide the thumb.  Some students forget to move the thumb when shifting.  The tab helps students remember to move the thumb with the hand during a shift.


Pick up some Post-It tabs next time you're at the store and try these ideas!  I hope this tips will help you and your students.  Happy teaching!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

After the Final Concert - what to do that last few days of rehearsal

My final concert was last night.  Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what to do those last few days of rehearsal.  Today I passed out music for NEXT school year.  It helped students get really excited for next year because now they love the music that I selected and they are excited for what is to come.  This could also be a great way to retain students - keep them looking forward to fun opportunities.  We listened to each piece and sightread through everything.  I told students to listen to recordings and practice the music over the summer.  Students who do this will be used in a leadership role next year.  I have many students who want to step up and be leaders - and they were happy to receive this assignment.

Tomorrow we are going to have BLAST FROM THE PAST day where we will play few pieces from earlier in the year and from previous years.  Students are super excited to play through some of their old favorites and it will be interesting to see if they remember everything.  I think this is a great use of the last few days of school.  :)  It keeps students working and I feel that a regular rehearsal routine keeps everybody in line.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A stroke of inspiration - helping students play on the tips of their fingers

Today during our warm-ups I was checking left hand position and reminding students about playing on the tips of their fingers to achieve better intonation.  One of my students raised her hand and told me that she cut her finger and had a band-aid wrapped around the top of her finger so she was forced stay on her fingertips.  Genius!  I got some scotch tape and I let students try it - we wrapped a few fingertips with tape and they played while focusing on excellent left hand position.  You should have seen the awesome position I was seeing!  Many students said the tape helped them focus on their fingertips and play more precisely in tune.

In the past when teaching about playing on the tips of the fingers I would draw a little dot on the thumb side corner of each finger (for violin/viola) and students would try to make that dot touch the tapes.

Some teachers draw 'claws' on the fingernail to help students aim the nail/tip of the finger straight down to the tapes.  These things help, but I think the tape works even better.  Students with smaller fingers may need the tape trimmed to make sure they can bend the 1st knuckle.  Flat fingers cause so many position problems and they kill a student's ability to play in tune.  This tape method helps get kids to the fingertips and it fixes a lot of the collapsed wrist problems.  (It's hard to stay on the tops of the fingers with a collapsed wrist!)  I'm so glad to have another way to teach proper left hand position!  Plus tape is cheap and easy to find at any school.  :)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tuner Station - make tuning easier in your string orchestra classroom!

I made this tuner station for my classroom using a double sided easel/blackboard from Wal-Mart.  Ten tuners are clipped to each side.  To keep track of them and make sure they last a long time, cello and bass students were assigned a specific tuner.  (I numbered each tuner with a silver Sharpie).  I requested that my violin/viola students buy their own tuner to keep in their cases.  After tuning, students clip the tuner onto the underside of the rim on their music stands. At the end of class, all tuners must be returned to the 'tuning station'.  If there is a tuner missing, no one gets to leave until it is found.  Students have been really responsible and I feel like we are all tuning more carefully.  Plus, it shaves a few minutes off our tuning routine.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to teach your beginners to tune: Lesson 2

This is a follow up to LESSON 1.

1.  Have students pick up the worksheet, "How to NOT break a string" on the way in the classroom.  I allowed students to study their notes from the day before for a couple of minutes.  Then we had our quiz where students wrote the 5 rules on their worksheets.

2.  Review ear training games.  Spend a few minutes playing the games on iPads or on the computer.  This can be done as a class or in small groups.

3.  Teach about pegs and fine tuners.

  • TRADITIONAL PEGS.  It is important for students to understand that traditional pegs are fitted to the instrument and they come out.  They naturally will slip out a little bit so when tuning you have to push the peg inward while turning the peg. You can't turn the peg, then push in and expect it to stay.  Only use very small turns.  A small movement will create a big change in pitch.  If the string is only marginally out of tune, it would be better to use a fine tuner if available.  Stress the need for SMALL movements.  

  • PRECISION/PERFECTION/WHITTNER PEGS.  Many of my school cellos now have precision pegs, which are totally amazing.  They work just like fine tuners and make tuning very easy.  These pegs are great because there is no need to push them in while turning.  They turn easily and always stay in place.  You can make small adjustments with these pegs, so there is no need to ever use the fine tuners.

  • FINE TUNERS.  These are for small adjustments.  It is important to watch the mechanism of the tuner below the tail piece. If the tuner is turned all the way to the right the metal mechanism may start to dig into the wood of the instrument and create a buzzing sound.  If the fine tuners get too low, you have to loosen them and re-tune using the pegs.  How do you know which way to turn a fine tuner?  If you want the pitch to go higher, turn the fine tuner towards your higher string.  If you want the pitch to go lower, turn your fine tuner towards your lower strings.
4.  Allow students time to study their instruments and find which string goes to which peg and fine tuner.  Have them teach their stand partners about pegs and show each other which string goes to which tuner.  I teach students to hold their instruments so they are facing the instrument.  Turning the peg away from them will cause the pitch to go higher.  Turning the peg towards them will lower the pitch.  We practice this in the air and students teach each other this concept.

5.  TUNERS.  In order to tune we have to begin with a reference pitch.  I get out a few different types of tuners and demonstrate how they are used.
  • Tuning Fork.  When I was a student, this is what I used to tune my instrument.  Students enjoy seeing how it works - and how you can make the 'A' audible by placing the end on the instrument.

  • Pitch Pipe:  I found this old chromatic pitch pipe in my desk and I thought it must be an antique but them I saw them at an online store.  I show students how you can play a pitch on the pipe and compare it to the open strings to tune.  During this demonstration I project my TE Tuner app on my screen and we learn the pitch pipes are not very accurate.  The 'A' on the pipe proves to be very flat.

  • Cell phone apps:  There are many great tuning apps.  I use TE Tuner and Tunable the most.  I show students how to read these apps and I tune my instrument with their help as they read the signals from that app that is projected on my screen.  I recommend students use their phones for tuning at home, but it is not as useful to use a phone in class.  It has to be very quiet for a phone app to be useful - otherwise the mic on the phone could be picking up people around you.

  • Clip-on Tuners:  These are what I recommend for cello/bass students to use in class.  Clip-on tuners like Snark or D'Addario pick up the vibration of the instrument so they are ideal for noisy classrooms since they will pick up only one instrument.  I just purchased a set of these tuners for my cello/bass students to use in class.  They tend to get lost if you're not careful.  I plan to make a docking station to help me keep track of my new little toys.

  • My Favorite tuner for violin/viola students - D'Addario NS Micro Violin Tuner.  These are my favorite because they can be attached to the instrument and they just stay attached.  No need to take them off and on.  This is great because they never get lost!  I have had so many students bring Snark tuners to school and lose them.  The battery life is great and they are so easy to use.  I highly recommend all my violin/viola students purchase one of these to make tuning faster and easier.  

We do need to hear small variations in pitch while tuning, but tuners help us with speed and precision.  When a tuner is used properly there will never be an accidental broken string!   


Next we finally get to tune and I teach my tuning procedure.  Students sit with their instruments facing them.  I play an 'A' from my tuning app.  We quickly have a discussion about different octaves....cello A sounds like a 'Daddy' A and Bass A's sound like 'Grandpa' A's.  I had a student break a cello string once because he was trying to tune it to a 'Mommy' A.  Once students are aware of this they seem to have no trouble.  After listening to the reference pitch, they are allowed to pluck their A's to determine if it needs adjustment.  Students then make small adjustments if needed as I walk around the room.  I remind them to pluck as they make adjustments and stop when they match the reference pitch.  We do this for every string.  Sometimes I sound our tuning pitch in a lower octave.  I feel students do better when I play the pitches in the cello range.  This takes approx. 5-10 minutes.  Students find it's nothing to be afraid of and are relieved to finally to be able to tune.  We review this tuning procedure every day and students are aware that our goal is to take only 3 minutes for tuning.  Many have begun purchasing tuners and that will help tuning happen even faster.

Now go ahead and do a happy dance.  It is truly a joyous day when students can tune themselves.  :)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to teach students to tune in beginning orchestra: Lesson 1

Oh happy day!  This week I taught my beginners how to tune and I wish I would have done it months ago.  They were excited to learn how to tune.  Students want to be able to tune their instruments because it's not fun practicing when your instrument is way out of tune.  Sometimes we assume that students can not tune their instruments and we don't want to risk it because strings are expensive.  I usually don't have my students tune themselves until their 2nd year, but I teach how to tune at the end of the 1st year.  After my experience teaching tuning this week, I have decided to teach tuning much earlier - probably in January.  Teaching tuning was a breeze and thanks to technology it is easier than ever for students to tune with confidence.  Let's all be brave and start teaching tuning earlier!  Think of the time it will save in your rehearsals!

LESSON PLAN for Day 1:  How to NOT break a string

This lesson plan introduces ear training and fine listening skills needed in order to tune an instrument.  We learn and memorize 5 rules of tuning so that we don't break any strings.

Pass out the worksheet:  How to not break a string.  Students can write down games and apps for ear training on the back.

1.  Begin the lesson with a demonstration.  Play your A, and turn the fine tuner just a tiny bit.  See if the students can hear a difference.  When we tune, we have to discern very small changes in pitch in order to tune accurately.  There are games to help us improve our hearing and sense of pitch.

2.  Show the 'Intonation Game' from  Students should write down the web address on their paper so they can try playing the game at home.  Play the game with the class. I start with the Advanced level and I tell students that is the level they need to to use to train for tuning.

3.  Project the app InTune from your iPhone or iPad.  Play the game with the class.  They can use hand signals (thumbs up and or thumbs down) to indicate where the pitch it too high or too low.

4.  Project the app Blob Chorus from your iPad.  Play the game with the class.  Students love to see the blobs explode when they guess incorrectly.  After playing these games in class students often choose to purchase the apps and play and home.

5.  I next address the biggest fear of students and teachers alike....breaking a string.  Explain to the class that strings are expensive.  Tell them the difference between quality strings and cheaper strings.  You might want to share personal stories about strings you have broken.

6.  Show slide presentation (You may make your own presentation or purchase mine HERE):  How to NOT break a string.  Explain and demonstrate each rule using your instrument.  Students can practice turning/tuning with you with their imaginary instruments.  Let them mimic your movements in the air.  Students are required to write down the 5 rules on their paper.  Their assignment is to memorize those 5 rules by the next day.  They take their notes home to study.  For bell-work the next day, students have to write those 5 rules from memory.  They are not allowed to try tuning if they don't have those rules memorized.  After the presentation, have students 'teach' the 5 rules to their stand partners using imaginary instruments.  This will help them remember.  Students should not try to tune their actual instruments, yet.  Let them internalize and visualize the process of tuning before they experiment.

Watch for 'How to teach students to tune' lesson 2 coming up later this week!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Beginning Orchestra Rhythm Final

It's that time of year to finish up my Rhythm SLO and give my students their final summative assessment.  I used my previous rhythm tests for students to practice and it really helped me see what to re-teach.  Student were able to fix their mistakes and understand better.  I think students will do very well on this new rhythm final.  Here's a peek:

Saturday, March 25, 2017

GradeCam blog post

This week I was able to write an article for the GradeCam blog to show how I use that program in my orchestra classes.  I'm lucky to have students willing to be my TA's (teacher assistants) and it's very convenient to have them grade papers by just scanning them into GradeCam.  This articles shows how I use rubric based assignments in my class:

These assignments are helping me finish up my SLO the year and GradeCam helps collect the data to show my results:

Friday, March 17, 2017

Strategies for teaching steady beat

I've been thinking a lot about how to teach steady beat/pulse.   Have you seen the videos on YouTube that show Japanese precision walking?  It's amazing how these kids have such perfect timing:

My orchestras are somewhat large so I have to teach multiple sections of the same level.  I currently have 3 beginning orchestra classes, 2 intermediate classes and 1 advanced class (which should be 2 classes).  Each group learns the same music and combines into one large group when we perform (Approx. 105 in Beginning and 80 in Intermediate).  It is not possible for us to practice together at the school because we don't fit in a classroom.  This makes concert days interesting since we only have a few minutes on stage to practice with the large group.  My students have done a great job with this, but we sometimes start to rush and it's hard to get a large group to keep a tempo when they don't have adequate rehearsal time to get used to playing together.  In most cases students don't realize they are rushing and are not aware enough to look up at the conductor to fix it.  We don't always encounter the same rushing tendencies in class because students are not nervous in a rehearsal.  When we perform students get that natural dose of adrenaline and our pieces sometimes speed up.  I joked with my class that I would give them all a dose of Benadryl to counteract the adrenaline, but I believe we can fix the problem with these teaching strategies:

1.  Move.

Students need to internalize the beat to learn to keep a steady tempo.   There are many ways to have students move to a beat to help them develop an internal rhythm.

Younger students enjoy playing 'leader' and directing the group in various movements to the beat.  Start a fun piece of music and have one student stand in front and move to the beat by clapping, tapping their legs, snapping, stomping, etc.  All other students follow what the leader does and the entire class is feeling the beat.

You might have students walk around the room during a warm up.  It's fun for them to get out of their seats and play!  Have them march as they play a D scale with various rhythms.  When I taught Suzuki lessons, we would have young students do a Tukka Tukka Stop Stop March around the room and kids loved to get moving.  This doesn't work as well for cello and bass students, of course.  Perhaps they can participate by tapping a beat on their instruments, or trying to march in place as they sit and play.

Sometimes when practicing slurs I have students rock back and forth with their bow changes.  It's amazing how they are able to stay together and switch bowing exactly at the right time.

One fun activity might be to have students sit or stand in a circle all facing the same direction.  Have one student tap the shoulder of the student in front of him/her at a chosen speed.  The latter student mimics the speed and taps the shoulder of the student in front of him/her...and this keeps going until all students in the circle are tapping and simultaneously feeling the same tempo.  Choose students to change the tempo...speed up or slow down the tapping and have change of speed spread around the circle.

2.  Conduct.

Teach students how to conduct!  Give them each a glow stick and turn off the lights.  Turn on some music and have them mimic your movements through simple beat patterns.  It helps to also have them count along out loud as they conduct to the beat.

Let students try to conduct the class when rehearsing simple activities like scales.  Let them feel what it is like to get a group of players to speed up or slow down.  They soon realize that students need to be attentive in order to stay together.

3.  Technology. 

There are many great metronome apps you can use to help students hear the beat.  Lately I've been using Tunable for my tuning procedure and my metronome.  But since the tone of metronomes can get a little annoying I more frequently use the smart drums in GarageBand as a steady beat.  Students enjoy playing their tunes with a drum beat.

I recently started wearing an Apple Watch and I enjoy an app called 'Tacet.'  It's a simple app that allows me to set any tempo and will then pulse that speed on my wrist.  No annoying clicks...I just feel the tempo.  It helps me when conducting to not start rushing.  If only all my students could feel the same pulse. :)  

4.  Listen.

Most of the time students have no idea when they are rushing.  Record students often and let them listen to themselves.  They are more able to fix issues on their own when they are made aware of what needs to be done.  Phones and iPads work great for quick recordings.  Videos take up lots of space, so I like to use the voice memo recorder on those devices.

5.  Play. 

One great thing about Suzuki students is they listen to the music they are learning.  When my son when in lessons he was required to listen to his pieces all night.  That music was on everywhere we went because it was always playing in the car, too.  When students listen to their music they can pick up on bowings, rhythms, intonation, tone...and also steady beat.  I encourage students to listen to our pieces on  We also play along with the recordings during rehearsals using JWPepper or SmartMusic.

6.  Count.

When trying to count out exactly 60 seconds without a clock we learn to say words between the numbers to keep the speed steady.  For example, many people count by saying "1 1,000, 2, 1,000, 3, 1,000."  Some say, "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, etc."  Teach students that just counting 1, 2, 3, 4 is not as accurate as filling in the space between numbers.  Teach counting with subdivision (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 etc.)

One way to teach this is to demonstrate a beat/speed by saying "1, 2, 3, 4."  Students are to then think that speed and count one measure in their heads, then clap on beat 1 (they count in their head for one empty measure then clap on beat 1 of the next measure).  It's usually not super accurate until you teach them to count using subdivisions.  You can also have them try to do it with their eyes closed.  There are many variations on this activity that can get students thinking, counting, and staying together.  Have them count for 2 empty measures before clapping, or change the beat their are to clap on.

I hope you find these strategies helpful in your performing groups.  Let's put an end to run-away tempos! (or tempi if you prefer)   :)