Getting A Fast Start To Every Class

“What are we doing today?” That question is the very bane of my existence. Or at least it used to be. That is before I automated the whole process of preparing my students for each class period!

After hearing this same question from every student that walked in the door for 8 periods a day, I started looking for ways to answer their questions without having to repeat myself hundreds of times.

I started by writing instructions on the board, but by the time I finished teaching one class, I couldn’t get the new instructions written on the board before the question started circling my head. We came up with an idea that has saved us tons of time and energy answering annoying questions. It also helps us get a very fast start to every class. Here’s what we do!

I started posting the instructions for each class period in a Google Presentation slide. I also shared this slide show with my coworker so she could edit the slides that effect her primary classes as well. The slides include what is needed for the current class period, a brief description of what we are working on, as well as any other special instructions for the class period.

My coworker came up with the idea of linking a YouTube video of a timer into the slide so the students know exactly how much time they have to finish setting up and warming up before we begin class.

We simply bring up the slide for the next class as the bell rings, click play on the timer as the current class leaves. The timer ticking down as the next class enters the room ensures they hustle and stay on task…at least as on task as middle school students can be.

Here’s an embedded view of the slide show in Google Presentation, and a link to download it in PowerPoint.

PowerPoint Slides

A couple of tips for implementing this procedure in your classroom:

  • Use highly contrasting text on the slides to ensure your students don’t have problems reading the slides.
  • If your students have iPads, or other devices equipped with QR codes, feel free to paste them in the slide show as well.
  • Add as many slides as you need for each class for important upcoming dates, class discussion questions, or other resources you will use in your class.
  • Train the students to look at the screen before asking any questions when they come in the room. My default answer to any question when implementing this routine is  “Did you look at the slide?” Usually the students will look at the screen again (or for the first time) and the question is answered.
  • Stick to the routine! Post the instructions every day and refer the students to the screen every time they ask a question. It will take them a few days to catch on, but they will catch on.

It only takes us a few minutes to edit the existing slide show each morning, but saves us tons of time and frustration throughout the day. Feel free to create your own slide show, or download and edit our slide to fit the needs of your group!


5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Use Evernote

I used to have endless piles of educational resources around my office. Files full of hand outs from conventions, in-service training, workshops, and magazine articles. I used to keep stacks of educational and professional journals thinking I would some day need to reference those materials.

I no longer have the piles…I recycled them all. But I do still have every bit of information that was in them! And it’s completely searchable and organized where I can find anything by typing just a few keywords! Did I mention they’re also accessible from anywhere? How did I do this? The answer is Evernote.


If you’re unfamiliar with Evernote, it’s an amazing resource that operates as a digital file cabinet allowing you to keep track of anything. Literally anything! Instead of me giving a brief overview, I’ll just let the fine folks at Evernote. show you their product.


Pretty cool, huh? My life has been so simplified by using Evernote. Here’s 5 reasons why you need to start using Evernote today!

  • Evernote is Universal – If you are a Mac, PC, Android, iOS, or just about anything else, Evernote is fully functional on all devices. Not only does Evernote allow you to create new notes, it also allows you to import any file type you want to keep track of. Have tons of old Finale files? Need help keeping track of spread sheets and word documents? No problem, Evernote stores it, sorts it, and catalogues it where it’s easy for you to find! You can access your important files and documents from anywhere in the world on a web enabled device using either the Evernote app, or their website!
  • Evernote is Searchable – No longer will you have to spend time digging through file cabinets of paper in order to find that one handout from several years ago. Simply title and tag the note, or file it in a “notebook” of your choice. You’ll never lose a document or file again! Also, if you’re working with PDF files, the text within the PDF is searchable. That means if you have scanned 100 old magazines and are interested in finding every article dealing with flute tuning, simply search “flute” and “tuning” and every single document you’ve saved that has those two words will pop up! It’s an amazing tool!
  • Evernote is Shareable – Do you have an important project that you are working on with other teachers? Create an Evernote note, or notebook and share access to it with all the members of your group. An example could be a notebook where everyone shares lesson plans, or commonly used forms and resources, or anything else you want to share. The possibilities are endless!
  • Evernote is Great for Taxes! – For the past several years I have used the iPhone Evernote app to take pictures of every receipt every time I spend my personal money for work related expenses (school supplies, meals & hotel on trips, music supplies, etc.) This year I was able to deduct a huge amount because of how well I tracked these expenses. The IRS allows us to deduct these things, so we might as well make the most of it. Evernote saved me tons of money this year alone just because of the receipts I tracked!
  • Evernote is Easy to Use – There are tons of video tutorials on how to do anything you want with Evernote, and there’s also books and blog posts. I’ve found the best way to get started is to just play around with it a little. It’s very intuitive and very well thought out. Probably the easiest feature to use is the email function. Included with your Evernote account is an email address that is linked directly to your Evernote. If you receive an email that you want to save, simply forward that email to your Evernote address and it will automatically generate a new note containing the entire email. It’s a fantastic tool that I use about ten times a day.

If you want to get started using Evernote, their YouTube Channel is full of helpful information. I would also highly recommend the blog posts by Michael Hyatt concerning Evernote (He’s the one that got me to try it!) I would recommend the following posts he’s written:

Evernote is an amazingly powerful tool that you can start using today for free! It’s well worth your time and will increase your productivity drastically.

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 One Thing Your Students Really Want

There’s an old adage in the band world: “Play music you can play perfectly at contest, play music you can play well for concerts, and play whatever you like in the band hall.”

Conant 2013 Homecoming Game

I think most of us abide by that adage in our teaching…except for the last statement. “…play whatever you like…” When was the last time you played/sang something just because you wanted to? Or your students wanted to?

Stop for just a moment and think back to why you wanted to study music. I’ll share my story. I grew up in a musical family and studied music from an early age. It was sort of a given that I would be musically inclined, but I clearly remember the moment I decided I wanted to be in the band in school.

I’m pretty sure my reason for joining is the same as the students in your program. All I really wanted out of band was one thing. And if we as music educators can keep this reason in mind, I think it will transform all of our programs, as well as our teaching. So, want to know what your students really want?

I was probably in the first or second grade when my grandparents took me to a high school football game to see my older cousin perform in the marching band. Like other kids, I played around during the football game with my friends, but my grandparents made me sit still and watch the halftime show where the band performed Ghost Riders In The Sky.

I have no idea why I remember this one moment from over 20 years ago, but I clearly remember thinking how much fun the band looked like they were having as they played that piece. At that moment I thought to myself “I want to do that when I grow up. I want to have fun playing music!”

That’s it. That’s the entire reason I started studying music as a child, then in middle school and high school band, then through college, and now as a career. I learned from seeing a group of high school musicians that music is fun! Yes it’s beautiful, yes it’s moving and meaningful to life in a deep and spiritual way…I understand that now. But the reason I got started in music was because I wanted to have fun.

Let’s come back to today. When first and second graders look at your program, do they see student musicians having fun? Does your program project that music is truly a joy! How about your students. If someone were to ask them if your music program is fun, how would they answer?

We are all aware of the “fun only” approach to music ed, and it’s horrible. Students learn very little and goof off the entire time. But every year I encounter music programs full of students who look like zombies when they perform. They have no joy in studying music. And it’s a shame. If we want the power of music to truly transform our students, they have to experience joy in music making! Tweet This!

Please don’t turn your ensemble into zombies who perform well but hate music. Make sure your students are learning, but make sure they’re having fun doing it! Tweet This! The students in your classroom will grow up to have kids of their own. They’ll become school board members, teachers, administrators, politicians…who knows. Will they have a smile on their face when they think about their experience in your program?

We have to reach kids where they are. And middle school and high school students want to be wherever they can have fun. So, have some fun this week in your class! Perform some music in your class just for fun. Let the kids choose a new piece of music “fun music” to play through! It will work their sight reading skills if nothing else. 

Music is fun…if we allow it to be. Let’s bring a smile to our students faces this week and surprise them by doing something fun in music class.

The Best, Easiest, And Cheapest Classroom Recording Setup Ever!

Have you ever felt like you just can’t quite determine what your ensemble needs to sound better? Maybe they just need a little extra help to sound awesome, but you can’t quite put a finger on it? I think I’ve found the answer!

I have often heard knowledgable teachers and clinicians claim that you must record your groups regularly in order to objectively determine how they truly sound. I agree completely! My problem is I always “hear” what I know I should hear, and my mind and ears sort of block out mistakes. Listening to a recording, however, gives me a much more clear and unbiassed view of the group.

I’ve also found that students benefit tremendously from hearing their own performances. We always listen to our recordings from contest, but what if I could record every rehearsal? What if I could instantly allow students to hear the changes we were making? I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I got to work.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been recording my groups in rehearsals. I discovered several ways that don’t work, but I’ve finally found the best and most affordable way to record your groups every day! Want to know how I do it?

I bought a hand-held recorder and used it quite a bit, but it often gave useless, lousy, distorted recordings. When I did record, it was a pain to import files into my computer, then open them, then convert them, then save them, then….you get the idea…it was a pain.

I finally decided I needed a permanent solution in my classroom because I knew recording rehearsals would never become a regular staple of my teaching unless it was easy to do and always ready to go.

Here’s how I created a high-quality and very low-cost recording setup in my classroom. It’s easy to use and always ready to go! I chose to record to a Mac Mini computer, though a desktop PC or laptop would work as well. Essentially, you need three items: microphones, an interface, and recording software.  If you already have some of these items, then use them!

Here are my equipment choices, as well as some images of how I have it set up. Hanging Mics Edited.jpg

I use the Audio-Technica Pro 45 Hanging Condenser Microphone as my microphone of choice. It come attached to a 25′ thin mic cable, as well as with directional supports that you can bend to point the microphone at the area you wish to record. And if you or your admin are looking for something unobtrusive, the mic does come in either black or white.

As far as quality is concerned, these are quiet microphones, leaving almost no traceable hiss or noise on the recordings. They are also very sensitive to the nuances of musical performance. In addition, they are affordable, quality microphones, costing (new) approx. $80 each.

I chose to hang two in my room near the front, outer edges of my ensembles. The cables are run above the acoustic tile ceiling and down a piece of plastic conduit to my table, where they connect to a USB interface.

USB interface Edited.jpgI chose the Steinberg CI1 USB Audio Interface. The device is equipped to provide phantom power (required for condenser microphones) and is powered completely by the USB power of the computer. This device does require you to download drivers in order to function, but the ease of use and exceptional functionality makes the install worth the hassle.

There are two channels that have both gain and volume controls. It took me about 3 minutes to get the desired levels dialed in the first time we used it, and they’ve virtually stayed the same ever since. I just had my students do a little playing on their own while I adjusted the levels to a good full volume that would not overdrive the inputs. Also of note for those who like to use headphones, there is a headphone jack with separate volume control on this unit so you can hear the signal you are sending to the computer!

Audacity On Screen Edited.jpg

There are tons of options when it comes to choosing a recording software.  Some programs even come installed as standard equipment on new computers, but for the easiest and most cost-effective recording solution, you simply can’t beat  Audacity’s Free Recording Software. It works on either PC or Mac, is very easy to learn and use, and it’s FREE!

Files can be exported using nearly any audio format you would want. Just click the mouse to start recording and tap the space bar to stop. It really is that simple! There are also ample editing tools built into the program if you need them.

Here are some ways I’ve used this setup with my students.

  • My students like seeing what they sound like. With Audacity projected on the screen at the front of the room, they can clearly see a clean unison start to the sound verses a sloppy entrance. And if you have a metronome clicking in the background, it’s very easy to see where your tempo lines up with the click and when your tempo fluctuates. Also, as your dynamics change so does the size of the sound waves. Did you crescendo and decrescendo evenly? You can now hear and see the answer.
  • Has your group been invited to perform at an event that they can’t attend? Why not send a CD of your group instead? I did this with two of my groups just last week and the results were great! Our ensembles got credit for putting forth the hard work to rehearse and create the majority of the music for the event that none of the students attended. We rehearsed just as if we would be giving a concert, but instead recorded our pieces in class in the days leading up to the event.
  • I think it’s important to include students in making musical decisions when approaching a piece of music. Is there a question about whether we should ritard in measure 55, or should we attempt a more drastic crescendo in measure 63? Try recording the section in question a few different ways and allow your students to listen and vote on what they like best. You may be surprised at the very mature interpretive choices your students are capable of making!
  • The recording doesn’t lie to you.When I started recording my groups I found the recording rarely sounded like whatthought I heard on the podium, or what the students thought they sounded like. For some reason it is so much easier to hear mistakes on recordings than live. If you hear tuning issues on the recording, there were actually tuning issues when you played. Spending some time recording and listening to yourselves will insure there are no surprises coming from the judges at contest. You’ll know exactly what your group sounds like before you ever compete.
  • Listening skills have greatly improved for my students and for me! I’m not talking about simply how to listen to recordings. We have all discovered what we should listen to in a live setting based on our discoveries from the recordings. I receive much more educated comments coming from my students now. Even before hearing the most recent recording, my students can often tell me every mistake we’re about to hear. Before we started this process they didn’t have a clue!

There are countless ways you could use a setup like this, but I would strongly encourage you, if at all possible, to allow your students to be able to see what they sound like. This has been an enormous aid to our students from our high school ensembles all the way down to our beginner classes. Best of all, it’s cheap! Our entire setup cost under $150 (I purchased one mic used).

It took me about an hour to hang the microphones and run the cables, but it was a very easy install that I’ve done many times before. The educational value in this one setup far outweighs the cost, plus the return is endless! I encourage you to start recording your groups today!

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 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.

4 Surprising Takeaways from My Reader Survey Results

A few weeks ago, I launched my Reader Survey. This is the first year I have gone through this process, and I have benefited enormously. Ultimately, I think it also benefits you, because it helps me improve the content I create, whether on this blog, or elsewhere.


A few dozen participated in the survey that was made up of 10 questions pertaining to demographic information, as well as questions related to what content would benefit you most. To say I was surprised by the responses is an understatement!

If I boiled the results down into a “reader profile,” it would look like this.

  • My typical reader is a male (67%) between the ages of 41-60 (62%).
  • He enjoys learning about “Music Education” (95%), as well as “Educational Technology” (58%).
  • The biggest challenges he faces are “Not Enough Time” (47%), “Not Enough Money” (47%), and “Not Enough Inspiration” (42%).
  • He prefers learning through reading (80%) or through watching videos or webinars (75%).
  • My readers like my current blog format, but only 50% have recommended my blog to someone else.
  • They would like me to explore the following topics: “Challenging students in a fast-paced tech culture,” “Expression, creativity and emotions through music learning,” “How to deal with the changing student population in public schools,” “Teaching mentally unwell students,” “Time management,” and “Orchestration, music analysis, and basic composition of music.”

To be honest, I was very surprised by my readers’ comments, and through this process I have come to five conclusions:

  1. Keep Blogging. Nothing I do takes more work than creating new blog posts, and at times it’s quite draining. Creating new content all the time without repeating myself isn’t always the easiest thing to do, so if you have suggestions (like you gave me on this survey), I’m all ears. Also many appreciated the fact that I post regularly (though the last week of dealing with income taxes has prevented it!) I will continue to create regular content focused on Time Management, Overcoming Budget Problems, and finding Inspiration through Teaching Music.
  2. Stay personal, honest, practical, and down to earth. One of the main themes I picked up on the comments you like it when I tell personal stories. Nearly everyone said sharing a challenge or failure I am facing or have faced has mades them feel like they are not alone when they face similar challenges. They also appreciate breaking down specific how-to actions into step-by-step instructions. Be looking forward to more of this soon.
  3. Be more open about struggles I’m facing in teaching. Let’s face it…none of us like to admit when we’re struggling, but the fact is we all face difficult times in our profession. Not everything is roses all the time…not in my school district, or any school district for that matter. When you work with and for human beings, issues will arise. I intend to include more examples of how I’m weathering storms that arise in and around my classroom.
  4. Don’t try to please everyone. As I read through the comments I found people had differing opinions on many aspects of the survey. Some of the views were so different that there would be no way to please everyone, so while I am certainly open to input for topics and resources on the blog, the fact remains that I can’t please everyone all the time. My blog may or may not be for you and that’s fine. All I’m doing is sharing my experiences and hoping to help someone else along the way.

I received tons of great ideas from reading your responses and have already started working on several of them. Some of the content I thought was my weakest was appreciated the most by my readers. Others I thought were great didn’t resonate as well with my audience. But I’ve taken this information and have adjusted my plans for the future of my blog. I think you will like the changes I have planned for the rest of 2014. If you haven’t read my blog yet, it’s never to late to start! And if you participated in the survey, I would like to take this opportunity to officially thank you for taking the time to do that. It means a lot to me!

3 Questions for Making Better Career Decisions

Have you ever found yourself trying to be something you are not? I don’t mean you’re Professor Harold Hill, but somehow some way you find yourself involved in projects that you really aren’t good at?

I browsed through my old computer files the other day and found tons of unfinished projects. They’ve been in a folder unfinished, moved from old computers to new computers, and still sitting unfinished…some of them as old as 10 years. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but after looking at those files I realized just how much time I had wasted trying to operate outside of my ‘wheelhouse.’

If you’re not familiar, it’s a baseball term referring to the place in the strike zone where the batter will have the best opportunity to turn on a ball and really hit it well. It’s different for every batter. Some like pitches fast and inside, while others prefer breaking balls out across the plate. Every batter’s ‘wheelhouse’ is different.

The same is true for us as musicians, teachers, and even composers. We each have different strengths and weaknesses, and I’m working hard to make sure that my time is spent working in my strengths.

Every new project I agree to will go through the filter of my strengths. I’m starting by looking at things I’m involved with currently. If I can’t answer “Yes” to these three questions below, then the project in question is not helping my career and I shouldn’t waste my time with it.

1) Is this something I would want to do even if it didn’t pay well? My wife and I were having a discussion about this the other night. There was a business opportunity on the horizon and we had to ask ourselves are we interested in this opportunity, or simply the money that could possibly result from the opportunity?

In the end, we determined that we would not truly enjoy the work required and would only enjoy the money if everything went well. Because of that, we passed. If you won’t enjoy the process, don’t get involved. Simply pass and go to the next opportunity.

2) Does this help me get to my ultimate career/personal goals? I think we all have an idea of where we would like to be professionally and personally in 10 years. If not, you may want to spend some time thinking about that. When an opportunity comes around, ask yourself if this will help you reach your ultimate goals, and how?

You have to be careful here. Sometimes I let myself get blinded to reality and come up with this Rube Goldberg-esque explanation of how taking a project will get me to my ultimate goal when in reality it doesn’t.  Be honest with yourself here. On the flip side, do your research or you might miss out. That project you don’t want to be involved with may wind up being the next big thing. 15 years ago, who would have taken a company seriously with a ridiculous name like Google?

3) When others see the finished product, will they be looking at my best work? There are a lot of things I am capable of doing that I won’t do professionally. I’m a pretty good cook, but you won’t see me opening a high-end restaurant. I’ll leave that to the pro’s. Just because I can cook doesn’t mean I should cook professionally.

Most of us get roped into doing something at some point in our careers that we’re not really that good at. And though the immediate payoff might be tempting, how will sub-par work on our part affect us in the long run? Will you always be known as that teacher who messed up that important project? Will a failed endeavor follow you from job to job? Only accept those opportunities where you can proudly create your best work.

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that if I can spend the majority of my time working in my stronger areas, and limit my time spent working in my weakest areas, I feel better, get more accomplished, and produce much better work overall.

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.”