Here’s to hoping everyone has enjoyed a restful, satisfying, and rejuvenating summer break with family, friends, and travel. With fall quickly approaching, this is a special time for me, as I start to get excited about the teaching and learning that will be taking place very soon.
Hitting the ground running is key to a successful year. As an educator who’s taught strings at the middle school level for 30 years, I’d like to share six favorite tips that have worked especially well for my 2nd and 3rd year classes. I really look forward to meeting and greeting new students who will get acquainted with a string instrument for the very first time. And, I truly love seeing my middle schoolers from last year ready for a new year of orchestra class. Many are taller, some come in with different hair styles, but most all come in with fresh, renewed smiles on their faces!
Let’s get started!
Tip #1: Be Organized
Consider these important “housekeeping”tasksbefore students walk through the door...
- Is your website (or web presence) up to date?
- Is your syllabus/handbook copied and ready to distribute? Does it include confirmed concert dates, festivals and spring trip dates so that parents can put them on their busy family calendars?
- If your district includes the adherence of the National Standards/Core Arts Standards, are you prepared with the required curriculum, toolkits, and other resources to guide you?
- Are your school instruments clean and in working order, and do you have plenty of supplies (extra strings, rosin, shoulder rests/sponges, rock stops, etc.) on hand to get everyone started with ease? Tune instruments prior to when students need them. At least you have a reasonable head start!
Create two weeks of lesson plans with room for flexibility; matters of jammed lockers, lost students, new students, incorrect schedules, etc., are inevitable. If you have a class period or two with students before instruments are distributed, try the following:
1. Distribute a “getting to know you” worksheet.
2. Ask how music was incorporated into their summer. You are sure to hear some amazing and unique responses!
3. Discuss items in the syllabus. Clarify expectations you have for daily classroom procedures, practice requirements, and concert/festival etiquette, etc.
4. Get music going right away with sight singing in D Major. Write some rhythms on the board and get students counting aloud.
Tip #2: Show Students How Much They Learned Last Year
Have discussions and remind students of their tremendous growth from a year ago. Give students a quick “snapshot” from their previous year of orchestra to spark their enthusiasm for upcoming learning (i.e. play a video from last year’s concert). Recall for them how tricky it was when initially learning to hold the bow correctly! Let them all know how far they have come in their musical journey! Kids love to reminisce about favorite lessons and fun pieces learned from the past. Get your students “jazzed up” about future learning!
Tip #3: Inspire Excitement About What They Will Experience This Year
At the beginning of every year, I turn into a salesperson and motivational speaker. A yearly “sell” (or re-sell) of the orchestra program is so important! I touch on valuable themes that will motivate them and provoke thought and conversation. “What a wise decision you have made being/staying in orchestra!” “Learning an instrument can have a positive effect on your math/reading test scores.” “When playing, you are using a part of your brain that doesn’t get used the same way in other subjects.” “Learning to function successfully in groups will help you in the working world someday.” “Studying music is so good for your concentration, fine motor skills, and discipline.” This type of dialogue provides students/families with concrete rationales for their all-important choice of staying in orchestra. Now is the perfect time to make a strong case for the countless rewards learning music is providing.
After giving this mini-presentation, I announce the planned performances, including festivals/trips and assemblies for the upcoming year. When chatting with your classes, be sure to show excitement in your delivery! Be inspirational! Middle schoolers feed off of the adults around them. Let them see your passion, energy, and love for the musical journey ahead.
Tip #4: Your Classroom Is Your Castle
A structured and safe learning environment is necessary and invaluable. Be sure to arrange the chairs/stands in advance of students’ arrival. It saves time!
Experiment with the room set up. For the first month or two, try setting all chairs and stands in vertical rows by instrument. Plenty of space in the aisles is best. You may use this arrangement for all grade levels if space permits. Each student has his or her own music stand, no sharing!
- Allows teacher to move throughout the room, giving manual assistance
- Eliminates “stand partner chatter”
- Accountability for each student to bring all materials
- Supports basic positioning; (i.e. students have space for good posture)
- Conducive to teaching the basics on the instrument in a drill style manner
As everyone sits in rows with their instruments, take a good long look at the postures and positions. Are they uniform down the row? Are the violin/viola shoulder positions all the same, or are some students “shooting alligators?” Are all of the cellos “set up” the same way? How do the basses look? Is everyone facing the front of the classroom, with knees forward? It’s never too late to fix a few problems after the long summer break. Additionally, some students will have grown since you last saw them and will need personal guidance to make adjustments.
Tip #5: Review the Basics
Communicate the basic class routines and procedures as soon as you can. Discuss (and post around the room) clear behavioral expectations to start class properly. Re-teach this daily and give frequent reminders. What is the procedure when students enter the room? Make sure they know exactly what to do and what not to do. Do you ever see “hanging out,” stalling, talking, wandering, always looking for a pencil at the start of class? Insist on a direct route to unpacking their instruments, sitting, and getting started.
Tip # 6: Make Music
- Begin making music by teaching simple tunes in a call and response style (rote learning). “French Folk Song”, “Scotland’s Burning,” and “Are You Sleeping?” are choices that work well. Select melodies that are familiar, simple, and easy to memorize. Can they play the tune again starting on a different note? Transpose!
- Rounds, or canons are my “go to” types of compositions when each year begins. Students love the sound! They feel successful and may sing the tunes on their way out the door! This is golden! Remember to work hard on the quality of sound (big and smooth!), bow management (placement, speed, weight), and good intonation throughout the lesson.
- Lastly, choose sheet music thoughtfully. Right away, pass out a couple of pieces that you would easily describe as “winner”-type pieces, and universally loved by everyone. All parts should have some “meat and potatoes” plus some nice melodies that are fun to learn and enjoyable to play.
Have a wonderful year!
Terry Shade has been teaching middle school orchestra for 30 years. She has built successful programs in Washington, Nevada, and Georgia during her long career. Terry has also taught throughout the UK, working with teachers on group class techniques. She currently teaches at Pacific Cascade MS in the Issaquah, WA school district. She conducts All State Orchestras and honor orchestras around the country and works with music teachers giving clinics and sessions at state conferences. Her orchestras have performed at The Midwest Clinic, NAfME Northwest and Washington Music Educators Association. She has been awarded the WMEA/ASTA Classroom Teacher of the Year.