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Q&A for Teachers

From 2007-2015, TMEA members asked and answered over 230 questions featured in a Southwestern Musician article series called "Tutti". Over 3,500 answers were submitted by TMEA members in response to practical questions ranging from pedagogy to fundraising. This bank of valuable knowledge and experience is available here and is searchable by topic and/or magazine issue.

Listed below are answers and questions published in the February 2015 issue of Southwestern Musician. If you would like to view another issue's questions and answers, select an issue from the drop down box and click "Go".

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Students often have excess tension when they perform--in their embouchure, torso, breathing, etc. What methods have been most successful in helping students reduce tension and produce the most efficient, beautiful sound?
Submitted by: Anonymous, Answered in: February 2015
I like to have my singers march quickly in place, or do dramatic theatrical arm movements with certain warm-ups. Both of these things make tension difficult (your marching will slow down if you start to tense up, for example), as well as distract students from the mental blocks that are contributing to tension.

Submitted by: Anonymous
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I discuss relaxing and sloping shoulders quite a bit, as this is where tension can begin. I also address posture to make sure the way they are sitting isn't prone to causing tension. They must be very relaxed when they breathe.

Submitted by: David Trewitt
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-Show the level of touch by demonstrating on squeeze balls or an arm when asking students to lightly set fingers on the bow or playing pizzicato. Some students with sensory issues need more feedback for their nervous systems. This is why they squeeze. It makes perfect sense to them to hold on tight to everything

Submitted by: Jennifer McHenry
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Doing relaxing breathing excercises before a performance.
I also like to make them laugh before a performance to ease their minds.

Submitted by: Edwardo Rios
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Talking about where the air comes from makes a huge difference. It seems that if you talk about taking the air from low in their body, it helps them out a great deal. When they try and take air from the throat, it really gets in the way and makes them tense.

Submitted by: Mark Nichols
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Teaching the students how to take relaxed breaths. Also teaching them about posture and how that relates to relaxation.

Submitted by: Brian
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Playing a passage on a wind pattern alone tends to relieve tension in a wind player's sound whether it be from breath or embouchure tension.
We have the students just move air and articulate on a syllable in rhythm without their instrument to break any sort of connections of tension they may have with a particular passage.
The second step is to allow them to now hold their instrument and finger or position through the passage with the same feeling as without their instrument. When returning to the horn, many times, better habits are now present.

Submitted by: Paul Heuer
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To produce the most efficient and beautiful sound on the violin, the bow arm must be relaxed. Specifically, with tense bow arms, usually a student's right shoulder and upper arm are unnecessarily lifted high. In this case I have the student tonalize (long slow full-length bow strokes) with a big tone, concentrating on relaxing the shoulder and upper arm. The next two areas which often have excess tension are the wrist and fingers of the bow hand. Again, I have the student tonalize as above, focusing on releasing tension in the wrist. For the fingers, I have the student think of the middle finger and thumb acting like the fulcrum, and the other fingers curving, flexing and helping the bow balance as it travels from frog to tip. Other bow stokes in different parts of the bow also should be practiced using these concepts of relaxation. Practicing this way helps to reduce physical tension in performances. To maintain the physical relaxation in performance, mental tension must also be calmed. For this, have the student think of beautiful tone, a positive focal point for the mind (i.e.: "fun" or "flowing"), and breathe slowly and deeply.

Submitted by: Amanda Schubert
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I use a lot of analogies when I teach. Most recently some of my sopranos were singing with a lot of tension. I talked about petting a cat gently and that right now their cat would probably not like the way they were petting it. So now when they are singing with tension I just say "pet the cat" and problem solved. Strange but it worked!

Submitted by: Amanda Ransom
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On brass instruments I have the students put the lips on the top and bottom portion of the mouthpieces to where there is no buzzing and count how many seconds they can blow a steady fast stream of air. This helps spread teeth and control air speed. We do a few of these and then apply a buzz while only 2 fingers are on the mouthpiece (thumb and pointer) trying to ensure they are still spreading the teeth, not applying too much lip pressure and controlling their air. We hold a buzz out and time how long they can buzz. Sometimes it's OK to get away from the whole note phrases and allow them to hold out fermata sustained sounds so it improves their tone, air speed, air control, while supporting the sound they produce. When the students apply the mouthpiece to the instrument all the things preparing them beforehand is applied on the instrument. These things could take a few minutes out of your teaching day, to a few days pending on what your style of teaching prefers.

Submitted by: Jessica Reyes
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In choral singing, during warm-ups have the students put the tension in their hands by pointing their fingers (as in jazz hands), but don't have to hold them up. By stretching their hands it moves the tension their instead of the vocal chords.

Submitted by: Paul Norris
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We do a lot of different physical warm ups at the start of class. Some can be games and others are a lot like yoga. Students eventually realize and see the value in physically warming up before the vocal warm ups - they are more relaxed and their voices are able to flow more freely. While working if we get frustrated or there is an issue with tension, or breathing, we will stop immediately and go to a vocal warm up like a siren or use a physical warm up like stretching with our arms above our heads and coming forward with some neck rolls. Deep sighs and yawning also help to refocus. I think the added oxygen to the brain does us all some good to relax and refocus. Suddenly, the tension leaves and we are able to sing with ease.

Submitted by: Nyadia Thorpe
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It all goes back to technique and students' beginner teacher who sets the foundation hopefully for success. I have seen students overcome poor instructors, but these are ones that will succeed no matter what obstacle is placed before them. I always teach that the technique must always serve the music. In other words, let's not get too technical and analytical when the overall picture and ensemble is at stake and not for musical expression sake when dealing with intermediate and advanced students. I believe you have to balance the two. That being said, an impassioned performance will include tension at appropriate times. There are instances where performers grab the bow like a primitive tool to achieve a crunch and harsh slam to play a stringed instrument. Also there is a time and a place for all these less conventional strategies. Many contemporary composers instruct players to do very funny things. Some of which require or result in tension. We must always ground ourselves back towards good relaxed technique intermittently.

Submitted by: Tristan Roberts
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I explain that these feelings happen, it's normal and it happens to everyone. I've played several shows, performed vocally and with instruments, and it still happens to me. The way we help calm these feelings a little bit is to practice, practice, practice until we know our music so well that it's natural.

Submitted by: Cary Vanarsdall
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Directors/teachers/conductors can help students manage tension by practicing daily. Relaxation during performance takes practice. It must be rehearsed as much as the production pieces. Remind students mistakes are great opportunities for learning and maybe even exploring other options. Afterall, Edison learned of more than 1000 ways to NOT to make the lightbulb. We excel and we do occasionally fail - it's a fact of life we cannot avoid. Don't wallow in self pity - Get up, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Submitted by: Kim Fritz
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The best advice I can give is summed up in one word: Relax. Not only is it important to accurately perform a musical piece, but it is also important to relax, to connect emotionally with the piece, and to enjoy the moment. Students need to understand that they are making the community they are performing in an even more beautiful place to be through their performance...there is no need to add unnecessary stress or tension. Relax, and enjoy the moment!

Submitted by: Marcus A. Johnson
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When students are playing with too much tension, I use words like "relax your shoulders," "just breathe," relax your throat," or "you've got to let the air out." I'll often tell them to "make it look easy." When they finally do relax, I overemphasize how beautiful the tone was. I like to make them repeat it 5-10 times to build the proper habit.

Submitted by: Anthony Wilson
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I enjoy teaching master classes on "performance readiness" and encourage students to remember the physical and mental changes we can experience when performing are a normal response to "stress" and that we can choose to label this as "anxiety" or "excitement". We can also train ourselves to opt out of tense performing. Some of my go-to techniques include: relaxed/mindful breathing before starting and at phrase endings; noticing and letting go of physical tension during mental or actual rehearsals without allowing oneself to become attached to or distracted by it; exercising to elevate heart rate during practice to simulate performance and practice "winding down" or focusing back in; and, using mental focus techniques to ensure the mind stays on the task/phrase/chunk.

Submitted by: Robin Korevaar
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I like the "think" method. Ask students to think about relaxing the shoulders, arms... Focus on what to do and not what not to do. Say "think about being relaxed..." Don't say "play without tension."

Submitted by: Rick Brockway
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It all relates to two fundamentals of sound: air and vibration. Both must be freely produced and consistent. Every aspect can be related to these principles. If air or vibration are restricted, then something must change. The breathing gym exercises are wonderful for understanding of body tension. Any heightened awareness will improves sound production.

Submitted by: Scott L. Taube
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I am a student of the Alexander Technique, and through that I have studied Body Mapping and Tai Chi. I use these in teaching the proper use of the body in sitting, holding the horn, breathing, and playing. Understanding the way the body works allows students to play without tension. The AT starts with the concept that if there is tension in the neck, tension will be present elsewhere. The first order of the AT is to, "Allow the neck to be free." To do this students (and teachers) must have a correct map of the neck. Many people map the neck as just in front, or in back, or just above the collar of their shirt, when if fact the neck is a large and complex system of muscles. However, very few of these are actually involved in playing. There are no muscles that by contracting can 'open the throat.' One of my favorite Barbara Conable quotes is, "There are many necks that THINK they play the trumpet!" Feel free to contact me for more information.

Submitted by: Michael Hardy
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We incorporate the breathing exercises that we do daily right before a performance. I have found that this helps students to focus on staying relaxed rather than on the stress of performing. Also, I provide many solo performance opportunities for my students which helps give them a higher level of confidence whenever they are asked to perform.

Submitted by: Paul Najera
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We using breathing tubes to teach our students to stay relaxed. Part of our routine is relaxing the neck and shoulders before taking the breath and breathing low (while remaining relaxed).

Submitted by: Marc Nichelson
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How do you manage teaching very large classes effectively? How do you maintain the focus of so many young learners?
Submitted by: Anonymous, Answered in: February 2015
Alongside establishing a strong classroom routine, I like teaching in five-minute blocks. I'll plan an entire class (even for high schoolers) in five-minute chunks that jump quickly from one activity to another, very different activity. Even when learning repertoire - in fact, especially when learning repertoire - we avoid spending more than just a few minutes on anything. It leaves the kids hungry for more and keeps them moving. I also find I'm able to build up their skills more quickly this way as I can't get too caught up by a single aspect of anything.

Submitted by: Anonymous
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Having spent my first three years of teaching to at-risk youth (grades 5-8), beginning band pedagogy is crucial towards retention when building a successful band program. For one, I gave up my conference periods and even lunches to have sectionals--time with just beginner flutes on Monday or advanced clarinets on Tuesday, etc. This allowed me to focus on whole-band issues instead of individual concerns.

Submitted by: Neil Dusseault
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The choir program at CRMS has four sections of sixth grade, with sixty students in each class. Structure and pacing are what lead to success with these large groups. We spend the first few weeks of school making sure that students know exactly what is expected of them when they walk into choir each day. Once their routine is solid, it's all about pacing and time management. Downtime, or too much time on a single activity is what leads to a loss of focus or off-task behavior. Our students work bell to bell, and even as they walk in to class, there is always a starter for them to work on or a rhythm to study as they wait for the tardy bell to ring. We transition quickly into each segment of class. Proper time management in the choir room helps keep students interested and engaged.

Submitted by: Courtney Kelly
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It is important to hit the ground running with class and have activities they must do to keep them engaged. I've also put timers up and said "ok we have this long to do this, go!" I also constantly ask random students questions about what they hear, and how it can be better.

Submitted by: David Trewitt
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A large beginning ensemble requires that we keep everyone very busy and maintain a fast pace with delivery of instruction. Take the time to teach code words and visual nonverbal cues for preparing to play. This builds position awareness, listening skills, and the need for preparation and advance planning. I play arpeggios on the piano to cue the students when we move from rest to play position. Students know it should take each person 5 seconds to prepare bow and instrument position before each piece. Then, they have a piano introduction for proper tempo (or clicks from the iTunes accompaniment) before the piece begins. Take the time early on to show students stand height and adjustment capabilities and where to place the bow and instrument when it is not in rest or play position. Be very specific so the risk of damage to instruments is minimal. It has also helped me to introduce students to self tuning, as they find it fun and rewarding to prepare their own equipment. A good teacher fosters accountability and independence from the start.

Submitted by: Jennifer McHenry
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Play, Play, Play, Play!
Typically it will be a lot of back and forth playing between the students and I. Intermixed between group playing is hearing an individual so I can hear everyone at least once.

Submitted by: Edwardo Rios
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I believe that offering a variety of activities during rehearsals helps keep students focused in large classes.  For example, have your students 1) stand in alphabetical order while warming up (this will help with checking roll), 2) have them move positions for sight-reading.  I often have students stand in a circle during sight-reading.  I believe this helps develop independence and they are also not allowed to hide behind anyone on the back row.  3) During the rehearsal of choral pieces, I will have yet another, if not several, positions for the choir.  Consequently, there is planned movement during the entire rehearsal which keeps a fast pace during rehearsal and helps students maintain focus.  At least they won’t get bored from being in the same spot for the entire rehearsal.  I am also a strong proponent of individual accountability in rehearsals and have my student sing alone, or in duets, quartets, etc. on a regular basis.  In addition to that, I generally have weekly “sing-offs” where each student sings prescribed passages or pages for their section leader—typically these are the toughest spots in the literature.  My expectation is that they are always ready to sing alone or in small groups, which typically means they will work harder between rehearsals to be totally prepared.  Finally, during rehearsals, I move a lot.  I’m behind the piano, in front of the choir, walking around, getting up in the risers, etc.  I really don’t give  them an opportunity to become unfocused!

Submitted by: Anonymous
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Keep everything you say to 5 word or less, Brass on mouthpiece and tell them not to put it down till you say. Turn on metronome and play,play, PLAY.

Submitted by: JR Martinez
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You have to pace the lesson quickly. No one thing for too long. The more you can throw at them the better. I try to review things they know first to establish consistency and then learn something new. They want structure and they want to play. Keep them active and give them a plan to work with.

Submitted by: Mark Nichols
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One has to move very fast. Although it would be nice to break down every detail it just isn't feasible with a large, young group.

Submitted by: Brian
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Finding the median for the pacing of the group definitely helps in managing very larger classes. If you are able to, divide and conquer the classes as much as possible. If that is not an option, then get to know your students before they enter the classroom and discover as much as you can about them. They will appreciate it but you cared enough to find out information about them. Be active, know your students, and have fun! Students want to be a part of a fun group!

Submitted by: Al Torres
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I make sure the class knows who the beginners are and who the intermediate kids are (this usually translates to new to choir vs. repeat choir student). From there I encourage my repeat kids to be leaders and help out the new folks. I also encourage my new folks to seek help from the repeat kids. Usually this leads to a class that works together and can identify who is really helpful in certain areas.

Submitted by: AmandaRansom
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Three things I have found that works. First is having the students sit and stand. Up and down. If i put in little relax time, I have found that they have more focus when we work. Second, is to do announcements halfway during class. This gives them a little break. The last method I found that helps is simply to have them run. A few times my students sound was not where I it should have been due to their focus being off. I had them run to a certain part of the school and back. Once they returned they were energized and ready to go. Got the blood flowing!

Submitted by: Paul Norris
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With beginner classes at 40 or more students, I find the best way I can effectively teach is by changing activities frequently and to limit how long we work on any one piece or activity. For example, when class begins, there are student leaders assigned to assist me in taking attendance while another leader begins a physical warm up (like stretching, breathing, etc), then they lead a vocal warm up. Of course, this structure is taught daily from the first days of school and eventually students know exactly how to start class without much help from the director. After a 2 minute student-lead warm up, we'll begin class. I'll give the "menu or agenda" at the very beginning as well as "housekeeping or announcements". Keeping things short we immediately start music work, sight reading, small group and large group singing. We work on rhythm excerpts, sight reading excerpts, memory work...all this varies in time and students are also constantly changing physical positions. Each activity lasts no more than 7-8 minutes. Students will move from sitting back, but up, to sitting up tall, to standing, circles, different corners of the room and sometimes practice rooms while other groups are out in the large classroom. We'll work section by section, row by row, etc. I believe variation keeps students "on their toes" as well as the time will fly when they're all having fun. The next day's lesson will build on the day's prior and will "sandwhich" activities to continue building upon prior knowledge. Students seem to learn so much quicker and remember more when I teach in this way.

Submitted by: Nyadia Thorpe
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We achieve this mass production one step at a time and it has very large drawbacks. I don't however have all the answers to getting the schedule just perfect for homogenous classes and or private instruction, all of which are necessary, but less available to our students. Wold students be as excited early on and stay enrolled if they only learned in these homogenous environments? This aside, the simple answer is pacing. If one paces the class and constantly knows the tipping point or point of diminishing returns for players and student behaviors, then one may temper the class period with appropriate amounts of ensemble skills, sectional technique, and overall achieved aesthetic effect. You have to read your students and program carefully to achieve this. Energy helps too. Laying out a clear plan that engages all helps as well. If they can see the end goal, at times, that is motivation enough. Plus, is it a bad thing for students to make a little bit of noise as long as it's directed at the music. I always would rather conduct an energetic passionate orchestra than one that is too machine like. I also enjoy interaction and believe it helps develop leadership and want to have students take responsibility by expressing their developing musical opinions, but this style does not work well for all teachers, nor does it work at all times in rehearsal. One must cultivate his personal podium style and custom fit that to each different group one teaches.

Submitted by: Tristan Roberts
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One of my strategies for working with a specific section within a large ensemble setting is to give the other students a listening assignment, then ask questions: For example, when working on a passage with the saxophones, I might ask the trumpets to listen for areas where the style does not match.

Submitted by: Stephanie Wlodkowski
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Quick pacing is the key. You will need to hear individuals play in order to help them progress but the less time you can get bogged down on one student, the better focus you will get out of the rest of the class. I also feel that you should give them all instructions on what to do while you hear each individual play. Having them all finger along while individuals perform gives everyone something to work on while they wait. Sometimes, I also like to be less predictable on who is coming up next. Rather than always going down the row, I alternate between rows or just seemingly go at random. That one thing will keep them on their toes because they never know when they might have to perform. Keep the pacing quick and keep them working on fingering, toe tapping, and having fun playing their instruments- they are there to learn to play the instrument- not sit around and listen to others play all class long!

Submitted by: Adam Powell
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At the elementary level, a set beginning routine is essential. At each school I have taught at, I have talked the principal into purchasing a carpet with five rows of colored rectangles, which helps define each student's space and helps in discipline control. Also, I meet the students at the door and lead them to their places with varied world music with different tempos and time signatures and continue with varied movements, matching the musical phrases.

Once seated in their rectangles, encourage, or should I say, insist, on proper posture with, "students ready for learning, sit up nice and 'tall' !" A vocal warmup of three or four short well known songs, helps students concentrate on their vocal quality. For upper grades I use patriot songs as my base.

As students move to other activities, set routines of movement, which are a must to maintain the focus of students. Move by rows, boys first, girls first, last name by certain letters of the alphabet and so on. Routines are order, and students appreciate it once established and maintained. Enjoy!

Submitted by: Brian Halverson
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Establish consistent routines and expectations at the beginning of the year and stick to them. There should be a routine and expectations for every single type of activity you do. Re-teach these as necessary. Change activities frequently and, with the youngest kids, include a movement activity several times throughout the class. Include several different ways to learn a concept or skill - visually, aurally, kinesthetically - to engage every type of learner.

Submitted by: Kris Lytle
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You have to be the boss, and remember at the same time the age of the kids you're working with. It is unrealistic to think that kids who aren't even teens yet can sit in a band class the same way that seniors in high school can. So you let the kids know what you will and will not allow, and you watch for when the kids need a break. We all have SmartBoards in our classes at my district, so what I do is I YouTube a dance for them to do. This releases some of the jitters that are starting to happen and gives them a chance to have a break from moving from piece to piece.

Submitted by: Cary Vanarsdall
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Keep it moving! You must plan - maybe even over plan for these little ones. I like to always have more than I need instead of too little. They can smell fear and know when you are 'tap dancing'! Stay calm and act like it's in the plan even when improvising.

Submitted by: Kim Fritz
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Keep them busy, always playing, counting, or responding. Res are any teacher's best friend.

Submitted by: Nicholas Durham
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I have found that large classes need to have a well organized set up. For my beginner classes, I set strait rows with the 2nd and 3rd row in the windows. I make sure I'm able to walk between rows from every angle. It is very important I am able to get to every student. The students that need the most attention are seated in the front row so I'm able to help them plus they stay focused when they're closer to me.

The pacing of the class is very important. When playing around the room I give feedback to one while listening to another play their line or measure that is being assessed. The key is speaking with confidence and giving feedback that will produce instant results. I keep students engaged with very little down time plus, it develops the embouchure and the mind has little time to wonder. My students know I love them and I try and smile when giving feedback.

Submitted by: Maria Chadwell
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Never let the students sit without participating. Have them shadowbow along with whatever group you are working on. Have one group arco while the others pizz. Have one group play while the others count out loud. Have students take turns demonstrating a skill to their stand partners while you walk around and work with individuals. When testing out loud, have the students not testing work on a short worksheet (I like to give them rhythm sheets to count) that is due at the end of the testing period. Write down in your lesson plan the specifics you need to work so you don't get bogged down in one section.

Submitted by: Susie Moten
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We work on good rehearsal etiquette and understanding the educational purpose of a school. I often call on students to evaluate what other students said or played to keep them alert to what is going on. I do not allow them to repeat my instructions to students who were not paying attention. I appreciate their helpfulness, but I don't want them to teach others that they can get away with not listening. I'll have the whole group sing along with other parts (such as the solo part) to occupy them during their rests. I often make rhythm sheets for each song. I have the whole group count the selected rhythm, then I can refer the target section to that rhythm in their song. This limits the amount of time where the rest of the group is disengaged. I limit my comments to 2-3 specific things per cut-off. I try to be really animated on the podium and really graphic with my commentary to break the monotony and regain their attention (thanks Peter Boonshaft!!)

Submitted by: Anthony Wilson
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Note: the second question should probably read "How DO you maintain..." :)

Submitted by: Robin Korevaar
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Start everything with silence. Wait for it. Never talk over them. It takes patience, and diligence as a teacher. Insist that the EVERYONE is calm and still...every time.

Submitted by: Rick Brockway
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A flexible well-thought out lesson plan, established classroom procedures, moving from one section to another during the lesson, staying out from behind the piano, and planning for time to laugh together are things that make it easy to manage a large class.
Other ideas:
-"Good News" - allow the students 2-3 minutes to share what is good about the day or something exciting that has happened. This allows them time to talk in a planned way and then move on with class.
-Establish small groups to work on a section of music while you work with a section. Appoint a student leader to count off and keep the singing moving forward.
-Prepare a survey for the sections to complete while you are working with a section. Sample survey topics: how does talking effect the rehearsal? Favorites: books, music, food, color. Collect the surveys and report back. Have your officers help with the tabulation if you do not have time.
-Question of the day at the end of the rehearsal: What did you learn? What is your favorite food? Go down the row and students say an answer or pass if they don't have one. This builds in talking time and time for laughter.

Submitted by: Dorothy Wilson
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At our middle school the average girls choir class is about 60 young ladies (and it's not unheard of to have as many as 75 in one class.) With that many each and every class, we establish our classroom routines and expectations early and enforce them often. We also have an "attention getter" that is used when we need to refocus or all "come back" to the task at hand. My daily classroom management is to not leave much idle time and move from task to task. That way there is less time for us to be unfocused and we are always ready to move on to what is next!

Submitted by: Amy Logan
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You must always have a detailed plan of action for any size group but most especially a large one. Maintaining a good flow between different parts of the rehearsal is critical. Whether you are splitting with other directors for smaller group work or staying in the large group setting, you cannot have hardly any dead time. Younger learners will especially loose focus if you have lots of dead time.

Submitted by: Paul Najera
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We adopt the idea of more playing and less talking. The more time the students are kept on their horn the more ingaged they will stay. We have a couple tunes we can go back to that we use to teach good fundamentals and students can be successful playing. Keeping them on their horns lets them do the activity they are in the class for (playing music) and get better.

Submitted by: Marc Nichelson
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I teach Pre-K through 3rd graders. I have 44-54 students at a time for 45 minutes. When I need their attention or need to calm them down after a busy activity, I use several musical attention getting cues or songs. It works great for the other teachers or during an assembly because I see all children in the school. to reward whole groups, the partner classes each have a point system also for behavior. I let the group earn points for entering (1 point), leaving (1 point), active participation (2 points) and no time outs (2 points). At the end of 10 class times we cash in for a treat. Some of the treats include extra Music centers, games (inside or outside), sing-a-longs, Just Dance/Wii party or something tangible. The prizes vary in point value. It works well to have a goal for the younger elementary students to achieve. The big ticket rewards like the centers and dance items help the kids to strive for more points. It is a whole team effort for the classes. The students will remind each other to behave where they can earn a certain prize. We usually "cash in" our points on a Friday. I like it because I can fit the learning centers or fun learning activities in without the kids thinking they are really reinforcing musical or dance skills.

Submitted by: Destiny Kennedy
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