The Best Student Incentive Program Ever!

Have you ever encountered a group of students that just don’t seem very motivated? Maybe they just need a little extra incentive to be awesome? I think I’ve found the answer!

For the past two years we’ve used an incentive program that our kids absolutely love. They get so excited that they are eager to answer questions, participate in class activities, pick up after themselves, and be just all-around awesome kids. Sounds too good to be true…but it is. Want to know what we’re doing?


I have to take just a minute to give credit where credit is due. We stole this idea from Sydney Cooper, a totally awesome and creative band teacher in our region! She gave us this idea a few years ago, and we’ve made it our own, so I’m not exactly sure if we’re still doing the same thing, but I wanted to give credit where it’s due. Thanks, Sydney! Now on to the awesomeness (apparently that’s the word of the day today…).

Based on Sydney’s idea, we created a house system similar to the houses found in the Harry Potter series, but instead of creating Gryffindor and Slytherin, we created Bach House, Mozart House, and Beethoven House.

All of our students are divided into these groups at the beginning of the year.  We split each class period evenly between the houses which makes separating the classes for group activities a breeze. All students in our Junior High, 6th – 8th graders, work together to earn points for their houses. This has really built a sense of unity and teamwork throughout the entire program.

We award points based on correct answers to questions in class (all of them at first, then maybe only 3 or 4 times throughout the class period when someone answers a difficult question), or if someone follows directions the first time when nobody else does. We also award points for taking initiative, such as when students go above and beyond what we ask of them.

We are not afraid to give more points for an awesome answer. We usually do something like 25 or 50 points per correct response. But if it’s a very detailed higher level answer, I might give 200 points.

Points can also be taken away.  The students know that if they don’t act as they are supposed to, we will deduct points.  As you can see on our leaderboard, there are more than a few points subtracted (all of the deductions seen below were for misbehavior).

IMG_4481As the year progresses, the kids get really excited by the incentive of more points per answer. I gave one house 1000 points today because only one student in the trombone section was ready to play when I raised my hands. You better believe the next time my hands went up every single horn in the room did as well!

Houses are rewarded a few times throughout the year at random. We don’t tell the students what the activity/reward is, and we don’t tell them when we’re planning to give a reward. But on whatever day we decide, we give a reward to the house with the most points. This gives all houses incentive to be in the lead every day because they never know when the reward is coming. When we give a reward, we reset all points to zero so it’s a clean slate again, leaving equal opportunity for any house to earn the next reward.

Some of our rewards have included:

  • a free day playing outside during our class while the rest of the group continues normal class activities,
  • candy giveaway (after school of course), 
  • getting to be teachers for the day.  They can pick whatever line in the book they want to conduct, select tempos, etc.
  • anything a student might think of as fun.

This program has taught our students that hard work, good behavior, and responsibility will be rewarded while anything else will not be tolerated. The students have begun to appropriately police their own behavior as students remind each other to pick up after themselves and not play at inappropriate times.

Some tips for making it work for your music program –

  1. Be spontaneous in assigning points. If the students come to expect rewards every time they do something right it develops an entitlement mentality.
  2. Don’t be predictable in giving rewards. Make it something different every time so students who aren’t motivated by a previous reward won’t give up on the whole program.
  3. Amend as needed.  We started out giving rewards every Friday, but the students acted terribly during the first part of the week, then cleaned up their act at the last minute. This is why we went to random intervals, but do whatever works for you.
  4. Keep points posted in a public place.  Students love contests, and they love the visual reminder on the board at the front of the room. They are constantly talking about how to earn more points and why points were lost.

If your program needs a little incentive program to take things to the next level, try the “House Program.” It’s worked wonders for our students and I have no doubt it can do the same for you.


The Best Teaching Prep Ever!

Have you ever made a lesson plan for a group you know nothing about? A week ago I was invited to teach a group of students that I don’t know from another school district. This is the first time I’ve been asked to work a group of musicians that I really have no prior knowledge of. I’ve worked groups of students I’m familiar with many times, but this one is new and exciting for me.

As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming experience (will happen this Friday) it’s made me really rethink my approach to teaching! This process will definitely change the way I prepare to work with my own group. Here are five things I’ve realized about the process of preparing to clinic an unfamiliar group.

1) Mark everything in the score – The piece of music the students are working on is only vaguely familiar to me. I’ve heard the work played twice, and looked at the score only once before this week. Not knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the group has made me extra aware of every little detail.

I searched out the most difficult syncopated rhythms and made sure I wrote the counting in just so I don’t bobble the counting in front of the group. I marked tricky fingerings and hard to notice accidentals. Basically I tried to mark every mistake that the students were likely to make.

If they can nail notes and rhythms the first time (and I hope they can) I need to be prepared to dive deeper into the score. What about phrasing? Style? Blend and balance? I asked myself, “If I’ve been working with group for six weeks on this piece, what would I want to hear?” Of course I’ve always advocated for marking up your music, but I went crazy on this one. Hopefully I’ve thought of every possible contingency and will be able to add value to the group in my time with them.

2) Play every part yourself  Yes you read that correctly. I sat here at my kitchen table this evening and played through every note in the piece myself. I can look at every student in that room and honestly tell them that I’ve played their part and can understand what challenges their part offers.

I should note that while I was doing this, I was making notes on each part as to the tricky segments. If nothing else, I can at least offer them an educated opinion as to fingering options, phrasing, and overall musical approach to those difficult sections. I can do this with some authority because I actually have played their part.

3) Be sensitive – This group may do things totally different from the way I do things, and that’s ok. But I need to realize that not only do I not know them, they don’t know me. There are things that I will joke about with my students, corny inside jokes we’ve had for several years, like calling a student a “unicorn killer” (long story) might not go over so well with another group. I have to be sure that if I do joke around, it’s 100% clear that I’m joking, and it’s in no way at the expense of the students.

4) Be considerate – Also musical choices that the group has made without me might not be apparent. I need to be careful to not tell them that I don’t like the way they’re playing a passage because they may have made an intentional decision to play it that way. I should instead suggest another way of playing the passage…not right or wrong, just another option they can choose from.

Everyone approaches interpreting music a little differently, and that’s a good thing. Can you imagine how horrible it would be to hear every ensemble play the same piece the exact same way every time?

5) Remember my role – My job on Friday will be to add musical value to the ensemble through making helpful suggestions. It may be fixing problems while I’m there, or suggestions on how to fix problems we can’t fix in the time frame I have. It could be confirming good choices they’ve already made, or possibly an adjustment in the mechanics of playing, or tuning, or ensemble awareness.

Or it may be none of these things. But I need to be sure that I remember at the this is not my ensemble, and the students and director are free to take my suggestions and use them or forget everything I ever said. But at the end of the day my goal is to add musical value to the group.

It’s difficult enough to clinic a group, but when you add the unknown factory, realizing I don’t know what I’m going to hear when the group plays… Well to me it adds an extra need to prepare so I can contribute something worthwhile.

Action Plan: If you have an hour to spare, go pull a score from your library that you’re not familiar with. Pretend you’re teaching a group you don’t know that piece of music and you only have 30 minutes to do it. What would you do? What will you say? I promise this will change the way you approach music with your bands!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”  

5 Rehearsal Secrets Every Music Teacher Should Know

Wow, what an amazing week! TMEA this year was the best I have experienced in quite some time. The clinics I attended were exactly what I needed to hear. The concerts were beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. I saw old friends, made some new friends, and spent time sharpening my axe. And now it’s time to get back to work!

In case I haven’t mentioned this before, I write this blog to organize my thoughts so my teaching can be more effective. I write as much for myself as I do to share information with others. As I head back to teach this week the need for making the most out of every rehearsal is weighing on me. Over the past month I’ve gathered a few secrets from some master teachers for making rehearsals much more focused and effective. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

Be More Energetic! – Even if I don’t finish my coffee (or heaven forbid not get any in the first place) I will still be energetic and passionate. Attitude is contagious! Is yours worth catching? Click here to tweet this When I stand at the front of the room and look and act like teaching is a chore, the students will feel like learning is a chore. When I’m excited and moving with lots of energy the students will be more likely to feel the same.

Have a clear plan and stick to it! – I always enter into rehearsals with my “Steak List” to guide my teaching. The problem is I tend to fixate on one of these items and spend far more time on it than necessary. My list is now going to include times indications. If I can’t fix the problem in the time allotted I will move on and come back to it tomorrow.

Don’t talk so much! – I love a good story as much as the next guy…ok, I love to tell a good story more than the next guy. I firmly believe that telling stories can be a valuable part of education. Moving forward I will refrain from telling one until all the work for that class period is complete. No time left = no story. Just more motivation for us to stay focused!

Give more responsibility to the students! – This one is a new idea for me that Allen Gray mentioned in his clinic “The Inside Track on Arranging and Publishing” this past week at TMEA. Gray indicated that turning over the responsibility to fix mistakes to your section leaders can save a lot of time. The students (who are closer to the mistakes than I am by the way) will address any issues immediately after we finish playing. My approach will be as follows: 1) Run a section of music, 2) Wait silently while the group fixes their own issues for 10 seconds, 3) Run the section again, 4) If issues aren’t resolved then I’ll comment on them briefly…which brings me to my next point.

Be succinct! – Why use 30 words when 3 will do? I don’t have to stop the rehearsal to say someone should play louder. I can address some issues while the group is playing. At the end of playing a passage I am going to keep my comments short and to the point. “David, more staccato at measure 39, please. Holly, 27 is marked forte. Let’s start at measure 19 again please.” My students are intelligent and can turn that information into a better performance next time.

These five tips will save me time, frustration, and will make my rehearsals far more focused, effective, and fast paced as I move forward. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Discussion Question: What tips do you have for making your rehearsals/lessons more effective?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

The Abraham Lincoln School of Music Education

Ok, seriously. What does our 16th President have to do with Music Education? Allow me to explain!


When was the last time you sharpened an axe? I spent my fair share of time chopping wood when I was a kid and quickly became familiar with the process of sharpening an axe. I got really good at it too! It’s a very tiring and painful task to chop wood with a dull axe. I speak from experience here so you don’t have to head to the woods this week to learn this lesson for yourself.

How much time have you spent sharpening your teaching skills lately? Is that a touchy subject? Let me rephrase the question. How much time have you wasted in rehearsals due to a lack of sharpness? Let’s face it, we all go through cycles in our teaching when we’re really on top of our game, and other times when we could really use a boost…a sharper axe if you will.

“If I was given an axe and was told that I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

I was recently reminded of this quote while reading Teaching Music with Passion by Dr. Peter Boonshaft.  I’ve read the book a number of times before and I try to make it a point to reread this book about once a year.  I always read it with a highlighter and pencil and no matter how many times I’ve read it I always find myself making new notes and discovering new helpful tips to better my teaching. Dr. Boonshaft uses his experience to help us find places where our teaching could be just a bit more effective. Excellent axe sharpening tips in this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who teaches music!

I also highly recommend attending your state’s music educator convention. Texas Music Educators Association, one of the largest in the U.S., begins this week.  Nearly 16,000 music educators (past, present, and future) will descend upon the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio from all over the state of Texas, and the U.S.  I have friends driving in from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania to attend our convention. If you’ve never been, I would strongly encourage you to drop by this week, or make plans to attend next year. It’s well worth the trip!

Regardless of where they’re coming from, they’re all working on sharpening their “axe” in a number of ways. Some will go to classes, others will be inspired by rehearsals and concerts by All-State musicians, university ensembles, and world-class professional performers. Classes and vendors will be aimed at improving the skills of orchestra, band, choir, elementary, mariachi, guitar teachers, and anyone else who claims music as their profession. Whatever your needs as a music educator, TMEA has something for everyone!

What are you doing to sharpen your axe?  What are you doing to make your teaching more effective, more powerful, and more meaningful? Spending some time working on yourself will pay huge dividends in the way you teach, the way your students learn, and the way you feel in the process.  Well…go on! Get to sharpening!

Discussion Question: What are some things you do to sharpen your teaching skills?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

The Shocking Truth About Drugs In Our Schools

I saw it first on Twitter, then a breaking CBS News report, and then the details started becoming clear.  Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin overdose.  Why does there always seem to be a link between the arts and drug use? There seems to be an endless list of musicians, artists and actors that have suffered the same fate, all because of drug use. And unfortunately, it appears the list will continue to grow.


At the beginning of this semester my jazz band studied jazz history in pretty good detail, including watching portions of Jazz : A Film By Ken Burns.  What my students kept noticing about the history of jazz was the rampant drug use by some of the most famous artists, and the unfortunate toll it took on their lives.  I tried to stress the point that so many promising careers and lives were ended due to drug abuse.  I’m glad they realized the dangers, but many teens seem to have no idea.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, illicit drug use among 8th-12th graders is at a 20 year high. The study of close to 42,000 students found that 25% of the 12th graders studied used illicit drugs on a regular basis.  It’s a very real problem, and one that students face on a regular basis.  I teach in an area that has lots of drug problems, including at our school, and the problem just seems to get worse and worse each year. Drug abuse costs our national economy $193 billion every year, and what we have to realize is the next generation of drug victims are sitting in our classrooms.

I really don’t have any answers on how to solve this crisis, but I felt I needed to bring it to your attention.  As we’ve already discussed on this blog, we as music educators have a powerful influence over our students.  My encouragement to you is to take those teachable moments that we have with our students every day, and remind your students just how dangerous drug use is. Remind them that their lives are valuable and that no drug use is ever safe. By talking to students about the dangers of drug use, we could literally save their lives!

Question: What can we do as a society to put an end to drug abuse?

Can’t Keep Up? 11 Technology Tools to Simplify Your Teaching

I think I have a fairly unique job description.  I teach High School Band, Junior High Band, Jazz Band, Beginner Band, and Guitar Classes.  And because that’s not enough to keep me busy, I’m also the Assistant Technology Director for my district.  While it’s sometimes annoying that I can’t focus all my resources toward teaching music, the cool part is I’m constantly working with technology, learning about new tools available to the world of education, and teaching teachers how to use these tools.

I always grasp onto those items that will save me lots of time and frustration.  Hopefully, I can save you a lot of time by sharing my favorite (and mostly free!) solutions with you.  I also want to stipulate that I am in no way making any money, or receiving any incentive for recommending these products.  I’m recommending them because I use these services personally and professionally, and have found them to be great products.  And if you like what you see, feel free to share with others!

  1. LastPass – Most of us juggle tons of passwords for the many sites we access daily.  The most common response to this is making every site accessible with the same password, but this is a very dangerous choice to make.  All a potential hacker has to do is crack one password and they have access to all of your personal records and your money! LastPass is the last password you’ll ever need. This web browser add-on generates secure passwords for each of your websites, remembers and will auto-fill them, and uses government level encryption to keep them safe.  When you leave your computer simply log out of LastPass and your passwords are safe, unlike saving your passwords in your browser. Don’t worry, your passwords are also accessible from any computer you might use via the LastPass website.
  2. Evernote – Evernote helps you remember everything! Think of Evernote as a giant cloud-based digital file cabinet for all of your materials.  Whatever you would usually store away in a file can be sent to Evernote with much better results. Either type a note, scan a document, or snap a picture.  These “notes” are all searchable within the program, including the text within each scanned document.  I routinely scan my music education magazines and use Evernote to store them in digital format. Later I can search these magazines using Evernote to find the valuable resources without having to dig through shelves of magazines hoping to find what I want.  Everything you put in is searchable and within easy reach on all of your mobile devices.
  3. Google Calendar – This is an essential part of my day!  I have different calendars set up for my band, work, home, and personal time and can view any or all of these events on one screen.  I can share events with my coworkers, allow them to view my calendar so they can make scheduling decisions without me having to be present, I can set reminders to alert me of upcoming events, and I can embed any of these calendars (like my band calendar) into a website.  I can now update my public band calendar that’s visible to parents on our website from my smartphone by just opening my calendar app.
  4. Audacity – Audacity is a free, open-source, cross-platform recording and audio editing program that is extremely easy to use and manage.  If you need to edit sound files, simply import them, utilize the easy to use tools to manipulate your file, and export.  I primarily use this program to record my rehearsals for review later using some old choir mics and a USB interface I found unused at our school. Simply press the space bar to start and stop recording.
  5. SoundCloud – Take all those sound files you want your students to hear and upload them to SoundCloud.  You can then embed these sound files into a streaming format on your website.
  6. SignUpGenius – If you teach music for more than a day, you’ve tried to round up volunteers and keep track of who’s working when…then you have to remind the people who volunteered of their time. SignUpGenius takes care of this entire exercise for you! Simply create a signup list using their website (which has lots of pre-made templates).  They host your signup list and you distribute the link via email, or link from our website.  Volunteers sign up for a spot, and the site sends them a reminder email.  It drastically simplifies the entire volunteer round-up process!
  7. Remind 101 – Want a safe way to send messages to your student group and parents? Remind 101 is a one-way text messaging system that students and parents can subscribe to.  You can send them SMS messages from any internet connected device (including your desktop computer), but they can’t text back.  I use this every Friday night to notify parents when we leave football games and when we’ll return.  You can also schedule reminder text messages so kids don’t forget to bring important items, or use it as a reminder for scheduled rehearsals.
  8. HootSuite – Have a Facebook account for your group?  Have a Twitter account too? Google+? Other accounts?  Manage the all from one easy to use website or app. Great functionality to post simultaneously to all your social media outlets, or to simply read all your feeds in one place.
  9. WordPress Blog For Your Band – It’s very fast and easy to create a basic website using WordPress for your school groups.  You can embed your Google Calendar, post to it via HootSuite, embed a Remind 101 widget to post those text messages to your website, and basically give everyone a home base to get all the information they need for your groups.  Create multiple pages, or multiple blogs for each of your groups. It’s all free!
  10. Google Docs & Skydrive – Both of these services allow you to create documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows from any device with internet access.  Don’t have Microsoft Word at home? Log in to your Skydrive (a Microsoft product) and create them via the web.  Google users can create similar Google-based documents in their Google account and export them in a variety of formats for use in other programs.  Both of these services include cloud storage, which brings me to…
  11. Cloud Storage – Lots of options here, but being able to access your most important documents from anywhere is a must! I personally use Skydrive, Google Drive, Copy, and Dropbox. While Copy offers the most storage space for free, each of these services has unique advantages over the others.  But with it all being free, why not take advantage of them all?

What sort of tech/education questions do you have?  Leave a comment below and I’ll answer those questions in an upcoming post.

5 Things Your Students Need To Hear You Say

As music educators, we have a unique relationship with our students that most teachers never get. Click here to tweet this! We spend far more time with our students than their other classroom teachers through rehearsals, sectionals, concerts, contests, trips, and the like.  We also get to see the same students year after year…as one of my seniors reminded me, I’ve been teaching their class for six years now, longer than any other teacher they’ve had, and probably ever will.  We may not realize it, but because of music we have far more influence over the lives of our students than their other teachers, and that’s a huge responsibility! Do something positive with it! Click here to tweet this!

800px-College_graduate_studentsAfter nearly ten years of teaching, both private lessons and public school, I find myself saying the same things to students each year…and unfortunately sometimes wishing I had said certain things along the way.  Being a dad now only amplifies them. Here’s 5 things that we should all tell our students, and our children, on a regular basis that may make them better musicians, but will definitely make them better people.

  1. Actions have consequences. – If only Washington could grasp this one…but that’s a subject for another day. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with too many major issues over the years, but there have been several moments where I have learned that students today don’t understand this main principle of life.  Some are surprised to learn that if they don’t do their homework they won’t pass their classes. Most don’t realize that their words hurt others until it’s too late. And none of them realize how fragile life is until a classmate is gone forever because their actions and bad decisions had eternal consequences. Realizing this one truth can change the way our kids approach every day.
  2. Music is far more than notes on a page. –Most of us decided to make our careers in music because of how music affected our lives.  We can sit here and discuss the likelihood of music students scoring better in school, having a better chance of going to college, etc., but what we should also be explaining to our students is how music enriches our lives.  It allows us to express and wrestle with our emotions and feelings in a way words simply can not.  In a country and world that is so widely divided today, music connects us without the slightest care of our ethnicity or political ideology.  Music empowers us to live up to our full potential and to be the quality human beings we were created to be. Click here to tweet this!
    As Henry David Thoreau said,  “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
  3. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up. – Yes, high school sucked for me too.  I’m not one of those people who thinks the high school years are the best years of your life…they aren’t!  But there is a certain innocence that disappears a little more each year because kids are being pressured from every imaginable outlet to hurry up and act like adults.  And deep down don’t we adults wish we had a few more days where we could just be kids again and not have the worries of the adult world to deal with? Teach your students that their best years are ahead of them, but don’t be in too big of a hurry to get there…enjoy every unique phase because there are no repeat performances of this show we call “life.”
  4. You are valuable. – I teach in a socioeconomically disadvantaged school district (which is the fancy way of saying most of my kids have never seen an Xbox One.)  We have a program at our school called “Backpacks for Life” where generous people in the community buy food to send home with students every Friday so they can eat during the weekend.  I have students that live in shacks that aren’t as nice as the house I built for my dog.  To make matters worse, their parents are often absent and show very little concern for them, their education, or their ambitions in life. With a student coming from that type of situation it’s easy to see how they could have a very low self-esteem.  Yet in the music classroom, what they do matters!  They’re part of a team of musicians working together to achieve a common goal.  They may slack off in math class and nobody notices, but in a music class they are a valued part of the group.  At least they should be.  Do each of your students realize that their education is valuable?  That their lives are valuable?  Is your classroom a safe place where everyone belongs and everyone is valued? If they don’t learn these things from you, they may never learn it at all.  If you want a truly eye opening experience look up your student’s addresses and drive by their house after school.  It may shock you what they have to deal with on a daily basis. Make it a point to teach your students how valuable they are.
  5. Thank you. –  Most of us don’t spend enough time thanking our students for truly being the best kids around.  I was having a conversation with one of our staff members just yesterday when she stated, “You’re so blessed to get to work with all of the best students.” YES I AM!  There are some student names that bring fear and trembling when mentioned in the company of teachers on my campus.  I can happily say that I have no idea who they’re even talking about.  We are very fortunate to have awesome kids who have an equally awesome outlook on life, who love music, and who are full of energy and the willingness to spend endless hours at school with no pay just to make music and keep us employed. THANK YOUR STUDENTS!  Whenever they do anything that’s above the bare minimum, thank them!  You’re really teaching them that hard work is rewarded, and isn’t that really what it’s all about?

What did I miss?  What else should we be telling our students? Leave me a comment with that important message you teach your students!