New school year, new music classes, brand new policies for music educators....many confusions! I have been getting many emails asking about essential questions and applications to a music classroom. I think that a blog post can be a good way to start a discussion and reach other teachers in the online world. Let's take a look at the essential question; what it is and how it could be easier to think about it.


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For more detailed information on what essential questions are please continue reading below:

What is essential question and what does it look like in a music classroom?
The essential question should be very broad and general. Think about something that wraps up the whole unit.

The essential question needs to be chosen for a LONGER period of time, preferably one unit. Think about having to prepare an essential question for every lesson, every class, and every single rehearsal, then prepare for the music rehearsal itself. This will get very overwhelming very soon. Instead you want to choose a very broad statement that would incorporate the ideas of that unit. 

It is better to pick a broad essential question that can apply to ALL of your classes. This way you "kill many birds with one stone". 

The essential question is the essence of the ideas in one unit. You may have smaller units of one week or even a couple of days. In this case you would change the essential question at the end of the week or the smaller unit. My advice is to think broader and make longer units throughout the year. 

Unit study and having essential question for it could be confusing to music teachers. We simply work a bit differently. Think of unit study is equivalent of...concert preparation. So as the other core teachers talk about backward planning and unit study, the easiest way to transfer this knowledge is to think about your next concert of a festival. Think about the steps you need to take in order to get the students ready for the performance. Think about how you would get them prepared from seeing a blank music page to being ready to perform it. And voila! Here is your unit study! 

After picking a broader essential question, you may want to have a more specific goals/guiding questions for a specific class or week. These are also often called enduring understandings. This is where you would put the specific techniques the students will be doing (vibrato, shifting, etc), if they are learning a new piece, if they are learning about composers, etc. 
 What the essential question is not:
Something that you need to change daily.
Something that you need to stress about (well not after reading this post).
Something that is different from what you already do in your classroom. Think about a statement that generalizes what you are already doing in your classroom. You don't need to "reinvent the wheel". 

Sample Essential Questions:
How does music define a community?
How does music relate to history and art?
How does posture affect musicians' abilities? 
How does knowledge about composers help a musical performance?

Take a look at how I structured my unit with essential question and guiding questions this month:

My Essential Question and Lesson Planning for this Month

Orchestra, Unit 1, 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade

Essential Question: What Defines a Great Musician?

Guiding Questions (Enduring Understandings):
How does discipline and behavior define a musician and his performance?
What essential techniques are needed to achieve mastery?
How do we practice and prepare for a concert?
How does concert etiquette affect the performance?

Culminating Activity for Unit 1: Halloween Concert

In my meeting with my administrator: 

I would explain the steps I will take to get my kids ready for our final performance of the unit-the Halloween concert. I would include the same steps into my lesson plans of the unit. The lesson plan format may vary and many districts have templates they require their teachers to use. But you

At the beginning of the year we focus on discipline, rules and behavior.
We start learning the pieces and the techniques needed for these pieces.
Closer to the concert we would begin talking about concert etiquette, extra practice, stage appearance, etc.

Notice how broad this plan is. I could easily "plug it" into many different units and classes. At the same time I am going through all the essential parts of having a music class or a music rehearsal.

Easy, clear, and principal tested and approved!

If you enjoyed what you are reading
No spam ever, just great tips to help you in your teaching!

Please don't forget to leave a comment. Let me know if you have any questions.
If you have your lessons planned but are not sure what essential question to use for it, simply write about it in the comments and I will answer the best I can. 

Check other resources here
I remember the first four years after I started teaching at a public school. The months of April and May were so difficult for me that this was the time I always thought about quitting.

The end of the school year is the most difficult time for all teachers. All great teachers have bad days. Many of these days happen around this time of year. We are all counting the days till the end! Yet, the year is still going and the students need even more attention. As they are tired more behavior issues take place. It is funny, I wrote a post on handling a phone call home and scripting one. My blog stats skyrocket with people searching for that topic around this time. I know I am not the only one experiencing harder times at work.
Great teachers learn not only how to take care of their students, but also how to take care of themselves! Along with managing all competing demands at your work, you must also learn to minimize difficult emotions and work-related stress. Sometimes taking a step back is the best step toward effective teaching.

Three Tips for Finishing The School Year 
for teachers or parents

If there is one thing that teachers need the most at the very end of the year, this is getting enough rest. Just the exhaustion alone will make you more vulnerable to the challenges at your work. Do fight for your time to make sure that it happens. Prioritize your family demands so that you have adequate time to recuperate after work. This is very important to prevent burn out. This may mean that you leave a few dishes left for the weekend, or take pizza home, or even delegate house chores to other family members. You must open up your schedule to do the things that help you relax and ease the stress out of the school year.

Have NO Teacher Talk!
Teaching is sometimes difficult at the end of the school year simply because ALL teachers are tired. Talking to colleagues about work often results in them sharing their frustrations.  This can be draining while you have your own work to handle. While you want to support your colleagues, you must also find positive communication outside work. Go out and have a no teacher talk. Learn about these people outside their role as a teacher! Provide opportunities for positive interaction aside from teaching!

Counteract Difficult Emotions!
This is the most important part of this post. You can re-focus your mind in order to work on difficult emotions at work. After doing work associated with negative emotions, do something to counteracts it with a positive experience. Start practicing the opposite of what the problem is about. Look at the negative activities in your practice and see which ones could be paired with positive ones of the same kind.

Let’s take an example with parent communication. After making a difficult call home, focus on interacting with a colleague that is very positive and I can talk about something different than parent communication. Or as soon as I have completed a phone call letting a parent know about classroom disruption, I would think of another student who did well in class. I would call the second parent congratulating and reinforcing their child’s behavior. Instead of carrying the emotional load of the negative phone call home, I counteract the feeling with positive communication.

Teacher meetings? I have not met a teacher who enjoys these fine events! Schedule something that you enjoy doing RIGHT after the next teacher meeting this month. If you interact with other teachers, try to make this enjoyable activity free of talk about work. See how you feel afterwards.

I used to be very frustrated after negative teacher meetings at my school. I would go on with my day over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-proccessing the negativity. What I didn't realize at the time is that the energy I was putting into it was getting me further from focusing on my students. Now I do what I need to and I do not avoid the issues at my work, but I have also learned to re-focus my energy right after in order to not let the negative energy linger.

It is fun to think how many activities you can think of to counteract the negative ones at your work. Please share your examples in the comments!

Welcome to the 59th Kid Lit Blog Hop where we continue to develop a dynamic and engaged community of children's books bloggers, authors, publishers, and publicists. So, you are always more than welcome to join us by popping in a post and hopping around to meet some of your fellow Kid Lit bloggers and authors! This week, we are excited to be including a Pinterest Linky Party to be held in conjunction with the Kid Lit Blog Hop. These linky parties are designed to give you the opportunity to connect with and grow your network of fellow kid lit bloggers, authors, and parents through your various social media platforms.  

Children's Book Week Kindle Fire (Kids Edition) Giveaway

If you haven't entered yet, be sure to check out the Children's Book Week Kindle Fire, Kids Edition Tablet giveaway hosted by Mother Daughter Book Reviews where you can enter to win a brand new Kindle Fire HD 7", Kids Edition tablet + a $50 Amazon gift card to buy some new books (can substitute a $200 Amazon gift card or PayPal cash). This giveaway is open worldwide and ends May 31, 2015. No purchase necessary. Just click the image below to take you there. Children's Book Week Kindle Kids Edition Giveaway 2015

On to the Hop...


Mother Daughter Book Reviews

Julie Grasso, Author/ Blogger

Cheryl Carpinello, Author / Blogger

Stacking Books


Pragmatic Mom

Music Teaching and Parenting

Reading Authors

The Logonauts

A Book Long Enough

Spark and Pook

Happy Hopping everyone and enjoy the Hop!

Kid Lit Blog Hop

Kid Lit Blog Hop & Linky Party Rules *Please Read*

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* Don't link directly to your blog, it must be a specific post.*
* For Authors, we prefer you to link to your blog if you have one. Please link unique posts each time ~ no repeats please. *
* Make sure you include an image relevant to the POST (e.g., book cover), not your blog button or photo of yourself.*
* Feel free to link more than one post.*

3. KID LIT BLOG HOP: Please visit AT LEAST the TWO LINKS from the Kid Lit Blog Hop directly ahead of your own and leave them some love in the form of a comment. We are trying to build a community of bloggers, readers, parents, authors, and others who are as passionate about children’s literature as we are so please CONNECT and follow any or all of the blogs that interest you! 4. If you like, grab the button above and put it somewhere on your blog, preferably the post you're linking up. If you'd prefer, you can just add a text link back to this Hop so that others can find it and check out all these great book links! 5. It would really help us get the word out about the Kid Lit Blog Hop if you would be so kind as to tweet, share, and spread the word about the Hop!

Happy Hopping!



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I was just visiting my dear cousins back home while also spending time with their adorable five-year old boy. After talking about his parents shared that the boy is getting into the stage where life and death start to interest and worry him. As any parents, they shared their concern with introducing the concept of life and death to their son.

Helping a child deal with the death of a loved one or explaining the concept of life and death is so difficult. Children have to be brought into this concept with very gentle guidance and love. It is never easy. It is my deep belief that books can provide a medium for kids to deal and process difficult situations. The book below can be a invaluable tool for parents to explain the concept of life and death to their child.
Life Is Like the Wind (A Big Hug)

The book talks about wind and the way wind moves things. We cannot see it, but it brings life. It goes on to explain and make a comparison with death - sometimes the wind goes out of a human body and it becomes still.

The book offers solutions to dealing with the pain. One of them is being kind to others. What a wonderful way to develop character and help the anger that may arise after a loss of a loved one.

Reading this book made come back to my childhood years. There were situations in my life where I needed support due to difficult family situations. The concepts in this book were written with such love that I wished I could come back to my childhood years and experience the book wit a loved adult.

If a parent is thinking about gentle ways to introduce the very difficult concept of life and death, I cannot imagine a better way to do it but to read this book at a quiet time with their child. If a child is dealing with the loss of a loved one, then that book can become a point of safety and feeling of understanding about what is happening around the child.
Imagine designing your work environment with no stress or frustrations?

Teachers are incredible! We do so much for others, we juggle with so many things, we tame bureaucracy beasts every day in order to reach the kids we need.

Beyond the stress, beyond the politics, beyond the low pay, beyond the teacher burn out rate,we still manage to keep the profession going!

This is why teachers deserve a place where they can think about themselves and step back to cherish what they have achieved!

This time of year is when teachers need to take care of themselves! Burn out is a real problem and we want you, wonderful teacher, to remain in the profession.

For awhile I have been been working on a project writing about handling frustrations in the teaching profession. I would love if you could help me develop it further. It may turn into a book or short booklet for teachers. The main idea behind it is to provide support to teachers and help them withstand the demands of the profession especially at the end of the school year when teacher experience most stress.

The ideas you can consider in the book in order to provide a different look of your teaching are

building on the positive in your practice
building positive environment around you
managing better school paperwork 

I would like to send the first 10 pages of the book to as many teachers who are currently in the filed as possible. I would be delighted if you would read it for your own pleasure. The beginning of the book will ask you to find the positive in your practice through a 2minute a day activity. This is not a sales pitch or a scam.  I would love to hear your feedback on what you think, how it has worked for you. You will not receive a second email asking you to buy the book for $! Your help will be invaluable for continuing the project with success. If you wish, I will also be happy to publish your experiences on my blog at a later point.

IN ORDER TO GET IT PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO OUR newsletter  AND LEAVE A COMMENT (doing both will let me know you are not just signing up for the newsletter but want the book specifically) 

Setting up the left hand correctly is a essential to developing good technique and intonation. Here are some basic concepts to keep in mind.

Points of Contact
When holding a violin or viola we have three points of contact:

  1. At the the shoulder/chin rest
  2. At the base of the first finger
  3. At the thumb
The three points of contact are dependent on each other. If any of them are not set up correctly, they will affect the student's overall technique and ease of playing. Not paying attention to these points of contact often leads to "pizza wrist" where the wrist collapsed toward the instrument due to lack of enough correct support on the violin.
  • Make sure that the base of the first finger is touching the neck of the violin (as seen on pic2)
  • Thumb is soft. There is a space between the thumb and the neck of the instrument (pic1)
  • Fingers are curved, soft, and a bit separated.
  • Fingers are resting at about 45 degree angle from the strings

Learning And Fun
Sometimes I like using toys and "props" to explain it to students. It helps the younger beginners as well as the students who have a harder time getting the concept. As Easter is around the corner, here are two ideas to make things visual and easier.
When using games and props you would like to do it carefully. They will help your teaching and learning, but you should not rely on them. Learning about posture has two parts - understanding the concept and working on muscle memory. Eventually you would want to train your muscles to do the correct thing without extra help.

Shaping The Hand
Notice on the second picture above, the students is holding an egg inside her hand. Using this activity can help a students grasp a concept of soft and curved hand. Occasionally I would work with a student who wants to "squeeze" with their left hand too tight. The "Easter egg" helps me open up their left hand and get them to shape it.  I talk to younger students about "not cracking the egg". Fingers need to be soft enough to protect the egg as well as separated so that egg is supported from all sides.

Soft Hand and Elbow
The first picture shows the Easter egg resting on the student's elbow. This could serve as a game for tow concepts. The hand needs to be nice and soft so that the egg can gently swing. The same idea could be used when teaching left elbow movement when crossing strings.
So you are preparing for a school chair audition or youth symphony audition. Knowing how to practice is the key to winning the audition!

Smart Audition Preparation 

If you are a teacher-please share this with your students.
Are you making these mistakes or are you on the right track to a great audition? Read below:

Start preparing for the audition early!
There is no better feeling of walking into a music audition well prepared and confident. The level of preparation will affect your performance greatly. Start months before the audition. Do not leave preparation for the last days when you are already getting nervous and pressed for time. During the last weeks before the final day, you must have the piece ready and just polish them, not try to learn the notes at that time.

Don't underestimate the scales when preparing for audition
Most audition requirements will ask you to play a scale to start with. In some cases you choose your own scale. If you are more advanced, you may have specific sets of scales you have to learn. It is a misconception that they are not important. This is where the judges will look for your sound! They will get a feeling of who you are as a player. They will use listening to the scale to get informations about your techniques, your ability to shift to higher positions, and general level of advancement.

Also, starting the audition with a piece that is well prepared and you play well will make you comfortable playing the rest of your pieces the best you can.

This is the very first impression you will make - make it count.

When practicing scales for your audition be careful about:
  1. Practice beautiful sound. Often students want to play very fat and underestimate the importance of good sound.
  2. Focus on even sound. Watch that going up on the scale you don't loose the sound. Watch that you connect he notes. Practice making a crescendo to the top of the scale.
  3. Practice the shifts of the scale a lot. This will make or break your audition

Prepare for sight reading 
Sight reading is often an audition requirement. The trick is practicing sight reading often so you are comfortable with the process.

I wrote this detailed post talking about the importance of sight reading and how to practice it effectively. You can read more details about how to go about it.

Sight reading is often an audition requirement. The trick is practicing sight reading often so you are comfortable with the process. 

General rule when picking music to sight read is that is below your playing level. This could mean picking up your own method book, older or easier pieces. Talk to your music director for suggestions.

You need to check out Sight Reading Factory It is an excellent site for sight reading! The site generates different sight reading activities based on your playing level. You choose the instrument, instrumentation, and the level you want the sight reading to be. This is a GREAT home work out! 

Play your audition repertoire for as many people as possible
We all have experienced situations where everything sounds great in the practice room, then it all falls apart when playing in front of others. Don't make that mistake as you prepare for this audition. Schedule times to play for your friends, teachers, family members.  This experience will help you know where exactly to focus your attention. You will be closer to preparing for a successful audition.

Don't just practice the notes
Regardless of your playing level or whether you are a beginner or a very advanced student, all music directors will be watching for good tone, intonation, rhythm, style and dynamics.

When auditioning for orchestra or band - rhythm and tone are most important! These are the aspects affecting the whole music group. Make any effort to be consistent with these two aspects of your playing. Again, play for others to check if what you are doing is correct. See if you can find a friend hear you play and act as a judge. If you are auditioning outside your school, then your school music director will be of great help to you.

Don't just practice for your audition - know how you will be judged!
Most music directors and judges will have a rubric, or a scoring sheet with specific aspects they are looking at. Having a scoring sheet helps them especially when hearing many musicians on the same day. It is very wise to practice with this in mind. See if the organization you are auditioning for has the scoring sheet posted on their website. If not, you can shoot me an email-I will be happy to send one your way. Practice scoring yourself. Record or videotape your performance and score it using that scoring sheet. This way your preparation will be more accurate.

Found this helpful? Before you go, take a minute and share this post with your other music friends!
Getting your students to remember what you teach them and retain the information is possible. Consistency and varied instructional methods will help you succeed. 

Prepare Your Classroom for Success! 
Plan Your Lessons for Maximum Retention! 

 I was just talking to one of my interns at the university about teaching and retention ideas. We were discussing the best ways strategies for a music students in a note reading class. She asked me what activities I would suggest to help students retain information and develop better note recognition skills. Even though we talked about different activities, the main idea I had for her was consistency. We focused on just one activity. When planning for retention and best lesson plans, keeping your ideas consistent is the best strategy. We both liked it because it was simple, engaging, and the kids responded well to it. She did it consistently for a number of weeks. As the kids started improving, we shortened the time for this particular activity and eventually kept it as a review. The students improved very fast and they were able to understand and retain the information well.

A teacher can help the students retain the information by designing the lessons in a way that students are consistently engaged and they get to review the material as often as possible in may different ways.

Here are the questions I ask myself when I analyze my lessons to optimize student retention:

1. Am I doing consistent review?
The biggest secret to student retention of information is simple- do lots of review!
Simple does not mean that it is always easy. We teachers have so much to cover that sometimes we forget to go back consistently and review.

I spend the very beginning of each class reviewing what was previously taught. Most times I do this by simply questioning the students.  We review the old material a bit every day. At the same time, as one concept gets polished, the review of that concept needs to gradually fade until the teacher no longer has to come back to it. I add new questions for review as we get more advanced. I drop older ones when I feel the students are solid with the knowledge. 

2. Is my teaching engaging? 
I try to engage students in movement. I also try to change the pace of the class consistently to keep their focus. If my students are not interested in what I am teaching, they are not going to be interested in learning it!

3. Is there consistency in my lesson plans or am I jumping form one idea to the next too soon?
Again, the review activities are very important. If the students are not able to go back to the previous concepts or material that means that I have moved on too soon.

4. Am I active in the classroom?
Nothing can replace the teachers actually teaching. Getting in front of the class, modeling and guiding the students is a key.

5. Am I making connections for my students?
When working with very young students I have the students play more and save the explanation for their parents. However, working with upper elementary, middle and high school students is different. They need to know why they are practicing a specific skill. Every time I take the time to explain why exactly I am asking them specific things, they respond much better. 

6. Am I providing more that one way to learn? 
Difficult concepts may require that students see it visually, hear it orally, get peer to peer tutoring, etc. I need to make sure that I am reaching to all types of learners in my classroom.

Teachers also need retention of all teaching ideas:

And last you may think...this is harder to do when in applying in an actual classroom! You are right! Teaching is so much harder that writing about it. You have to be flexible with the unique situation you are in. It is also so much more complex in today's educational system. Yet, designing lesson plans in a way to improve student retention rates is possible and takes only a bit of extra planning.

If you have a specific situation you would like to share, please feel free to write a comment or send a direct message

Extra Resources:
Humor and Retention