8 Back-to-School Orchestra Tips

8 Back-to-School Orchestra Tips

If you’re anything like me, August brings excitement and anticipation for the new school year. The days before students arrive are a time filled with meetings, trainings, and hopefully some time to yourself to prepare for the coming year. As music teachers, we frequently have more irons in the fire than our colleagues, so it’s important to have a plan to make the most of this time, and capture the energy present at the end of summer. Here are eight steps I take to ensure I get started on the right track.

1. Check Instruments and Update Inventory

The first thing I do when I get into my classroom is to check my instruments. They’ve been sitting in a hot classroom all summer (and in my case, in a room that’s used by a summer camp with pretty lax management). I look for any visible cracks and check for open seams with a knuckle rap all the way around the edges of the top and back. You can mitigate the risk of open seams and cracks during the summer by loosening your strings before you leave for the summer.

If you don’t have a good instrument inventory, now is a great time to create one or update an old one. I like to use Google Sheets, so in case my school computer crashes, I still have access to my inventory (I learned that the hard way this past year).

2. Contact Your Music Store and Set Up Rental Night

I contact my local music store to request a pickup of any new repairs, request my (free) music folders, and set up a rental night. I also let them know which method book I use so that any students who rent from them get the right one. About half of my students rent from local and national music stores, and I like to provide an opportunity for them to rent from the local store at the school itself, as it puts less strain on the families and gives me an opportunity to meet them early in the year.

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3. Plan Performances

Before students arrive, I always meet with my performing arts colleagues at our school to coordinate performance calendars. I am fortunate to work with some amazing teammates whose students perform frequently, so our performance spaces are always busy. We leave for the summer with a rough idea of when our performances will be, but we wait to finalize it when we come back in August, because our school’s calendar is not finalized until July.

I also use this time to finalize the repertoire for my concerts. I spend time over the summer listening, and I like to have themes for a few of my performances, so before my students arrive, I create a list of pieces that need to be ordered. J.W. Pepper’s Editors’ Choice and Basic Library lists offer a great place to start the search. In my experience, if a piece appears on either list, it’s a good bet, and if it’s on both, it’s a sure winner.

4. Plan Instruction

When your administration gives you time to plan, use it. I like to organize my units and assessments around my concerts, and work with a year-long plan. As an immigrant to the string world, I have found a few books to be invaluable in my planning. Strategies for Teaching Strings by Donald L. Hamann and Robert Gillespie, and the ASTA String Curriculum have been my primary resources for what to teach and ideas on how to teach it. I also rely heavily on my colleagues who are string specialists, who are always generous with advice when I request it.

Need a lesson plan template to get started? Here’s one you can download for free.

5. Trip Planning

If you are going to travel with your students, the planning process can be quite involved. If you haven’t yet begun this process, now is the time; most schools and districts have a protocol and some paperwork that need to be completed for an overnight trip.

For my travel needs, I work with a local educational travel company with a music focus. Most will host meetings for families at your school and will help you coordinate payment, as well as handle all the minute details so you can focus on preparing your students for the performance that is the purpose for the trip.

6. Order Supplies

If you’re lucky enough to have a supply budget, it’s a good idea to place an order early in the school year before budgets get thin. Strings, rosin, bows, rock stops, peg compound, instrument polish, and other consumables should be in ready supply so that you and your students can maximize the time you have together.

Local music stores (as well as national chains) can help you to stretch your budget so that your supplies can last as long as possible. Teaching your students how to care for their equipment responsibly will also pay dividends in this pursuit, but that’s another blog post.

7. Contact Families

I take some time to create a letter that I send to orchestra families. I use email, so I create and/or update my email lists for my classes. In the initial letter, I talk about how excited I am for the upcoming year, and I’m sure to include the performance calendar and the rental night date. I also provide information about where to rent an instrument for those who can’t attend rental night.

A list with contact information for private teachers is a great resource to share with parents in this email, too. I always include an invitation for parents who have time to come volunteer to help with concerts and fundraising. Finally, I include my contact information. Being a proactive communicator will help keep to a minimum the communication “messes” that need to be cleaned up later.

8. Set Up Your Classroom

Finally, if you have a classroom, you’ll want to prepare it for the first day of school. If you plan to play on the first day, you’ll want to make sure everything you need is in place. If you use fingerboard tape, take the time to apply it now, so students don’t have to sit around while you put it on.

Please forgive a brief digression on fingerboard tape. As a new teacher, I used fingerboard tape with all of my students’ instruments, and found that it made the early stages of playing much more palatable to the listener. However, it is easy for students to become dependent on their eyes and not their ears.

After some prodding from a trusted colleague, I stopped using them with my beginners, and focused more instruction on ear training, and have been pleased with the results. I still use a fingerboard tape here and there to help a struggling student (and when I introduce shifting), but it’s no longer a universal aid in my beginning strings class. If you’re on the fence about them, I encourage you to err on the side of ear training.

Additional setup might include hanging motivational posters and other decorations so your room feels warm and inviting. Anchor charts, word walls, and other visual aids should be in place before students arrive.

The more prepared you feel when your students arrive, the better their orchestra experience will be.

Randy Runyan

Randy Runyan teaches orchestra, modern band, and music production at Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences in Denver, Colorado. He has degrees from the University of Denver and the University of Northern Colorado.

Though primarily a trumpeter, he has taught strings classes in public schools every year since 2007. When he’s not teaching or performing, he can be found playing with his son and an adorable corgi named Rosie.

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