Differentiation in the Middle School Orchestra Rehearsal

by Denese Odegaard, Fargo Public Schools Performing Arts Specialist


“Great teachers consistently raise the ceiling of performance for each learner.   At the same time, they raise the support system for each student.”  Carol Tomlinson, Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom


Differentiation addresses the needs of all students in your classroom.  It will challenge those that already are proficient or above and provide more instruction and practice for partially-proficient and novice students.  In planning lessons, there are three areas that can be adjusted depending on the needs of your students.  These include presentation or how the concept is taught; process or how it is done; and product or how to demonstrate proficiency.

The first step is to pre-assess students to determine students who are proficient and those that are not.  In a large group rehearsal, this is often more difficult to do.  At the start of a piece, checking on proficiency of notes and intonation is a good place to start.  Two ways to do this are using SmartMusic to record excerpts of a piece or Google Voice.

SmartMusic requires a license to use, their microphones and access to the program at home or at school.  You can set up the assessment to record how long the student practices the excerpts assigned and students could record the excerpt as many times as they want before submitting.

Google Voice requires only phone access which every student has and can be done from home.  Teachers would need a Google account, set voice mail up to go directly to their office voice mail and can be accessed for review on email.  The phone number set up links to any phone you want so students don’t know your real phone number.

Once you have the pre-assessment data, you can determine how you will teach the lesson.  Be clear on what you want the students to know, understand and be able to do which are tied to the standards.  Consider using a variety of resources, multiple ways to instruct the students (teacher or student led groups, modeling, or showing examples of strong and weak work) and varied pacing plans.

The process may be paper and pencil for theory, teacher driven rehearsal, student led sectionals, tierred assignments or student choice boards. Pay attention to students who like to work independently or in groups  or vary assignments based on kinesthetic, aural or visual learning styles.

Differentiation also takes into account students learning style, multiple intelligences and students’ experiences and interests.  Teaching students more than one year is an advantage because you learn many aspects about them.  There are many web-based inventories for students to take to determine their needs:

Learning Styles Inventories



Multiple Intelligences



Personality Type



Hemispheric Dominance Inventory



Left vs. Right Brain



For students that already are proficient, raise the rigor of the lesson.  Many teachers mistakenly teach to the lower end of the learning spectrum losing the higher end students and expect the proficient and above students to teach the other students.  Our job as teachers is to provide education for all students by carefully planning lessons to consider reaching all levels.  Rigor is about all students learning at higher levels by creating lessons that reach to the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy (analysis and synthesis). In asking open-ended questions, probe and guide the student to a level you are intending to reach. Scaffold lessons to motivate all students to extend their learning at their own level.  Consider the many ways you will need to support the student to be successful as you write your lesson plans.

The final step is demonstrating proficiency through self-assessment, teacher assessment, SmartMusic or peer assessment. Assessments need to be appropriately challenging but flexible for students who need extra time or a second opportunity to succeed.  Bottom line – students need to feel successful in order to remain engaged in learning.  Failure is not an option.  A great rubric for gauging progress toward rigor is found on pp. 20-22 of: http://www.eyeoneducation.com/bookstore/client/client_pages/samplechapters/7176-8.pdf

Let’s begin with a simple lesson plan for a piece called Legend of Duffy’s Cut by Bob Phillips.  J.W. Pepper’s description of the piece is:  “In 1832, 57 Irish immigrants working for the Pennsylvania railroad, died under mysterious circumstances and were buried in a mass grave. To this day, there are mysterious happenings and ghost sightings around the area of their deaths, now known as Duffy’s Cut.  This music tells their story. The hopeful jig “The Irish Crossing the Sea” is soon followed by, “The Railroad Begins”, which musically depicts their hard work building the railroads that drove our country’s expansion. This soon turns into “The Railroad Reel “and then the celebratory” McCarrick’s Jig”. Their tragic deaths are portrayed in “Duffy’s Lament,” and the ghostly ending is titled, “Unanswered Questions”.

The following lesson plan is from an online template at http://differentiationcentral.com/examples/InteractiveDILESSON.htm.  You can also download a pdf version.  Another great resource for lesson planning is a chart called Critical and Creative Thinking – Questioning Strategies and Products using Bloom’s Taxonomy found at http://www1.dcsdk12.org/secondary/hrhs/teachers/teacher_resources/hots/hot_keyword_blooms.pdf.  Note that the new Bloom’s Taxonomy switches the last two aspects of synthesis and evaluation.


Name of lesson:Legend of Duffy’s Cut by Bob Phillips Number of lessons
Standards and learning targets addressed:

  • Perform with expression and technical accuracy. (Bloom’s Application)
  • Perform music representing diverse genres and cultures. (Bloom’s Application)
  • Compose short pieces containing the appropriate elements of music. (Bloom’s Synthesis)
  • Improvise melodic embellishments and simple rhythmic and melodic variations on given pentatonic melodies and melodies in major keys. (Bloom’s Synthesis)
  • Read and label complex rhythms in simple and compound meters. (Bloom’s Application)
  • Describe specific music events using appropriate terminology. (Bloom’s Comprehend)
  • Evaluate the quality and effectiveness of music and music performances. (Bloom’s Evaluation)
  • Apply specific criteria when offering constructive suggestions for improving the performance of self and others. (Bloom’s Application/Evaluation)
  • Apply principles and concepts of other disciplines to those of music. (Bloom’s Application)


Materials or resources needed:

  • The Legend of Duffy’s Cut by Bob Phillips
  • internet for video and audio clips
  • practice chart with guiding questions about symbols, time signatures, key signatures, specific practice spots etc.
  • rhythm worksheet for demonstrating knowledge of counting in 6/8 time
  • composition paper  for composing a new ending to the piece based on the new ending students write about describing what they think really happened to these 57 men
  • line paper for writing activity and blank paper for artwork
  • performance rubric


As a result of this lesson my students will: 

Understand (big ideas)

1.  Music can tell a story or create a picture

2.  Music can create a mood through form

3.  Music can depict a culture


Know (facts/vocabulary)

Bowing:                         tremolo/pizzicato/divisi/arco/accents

Tempo:                         andante/moderato/accelerando/

Irish dance:                  reel/jig

Symbols:                      accent/crescendo/decrescendo/fermata/slide

Keys:                             e minor/A Major/b minor

Endings:                       1st/2nd

Time signatures:         6/8     2/2     3/4

Words:                          lament


Be able to do (skills)

Bowing styles:            tremolo/hooked bowing/accents

Irish Style:                   slides

Key signature              A major





  • Exit Slip containing a short excerpt of the piece in 6/8 time – student writes the counting under the notes so the teacher can determine which students already understand 6/8 time.  An exit slip is a short activity that allows you to check for understanding
  • Google Voice recording – perform a short excerpt in 6/8 time and an excerpt in A major.  Students call from their phone and you access in your email.
What will I Differentiate?                  


Content can be varied by using a choice board with varying activities on it from the very simple to the complex so that all learners have a choice.  Let students take control of their learning – Choice Board example is below.



Students can use the mp3 of the recording for aural learners, video for visual learners and creativity through composition, artwork, dance or improvisation.



Assessment will address the areas of performance, composition, improvisation or literacy (writing).


How will I Differentiate?                   

For readiness 

The pre-assessment will help determine which students already understand how to perform 6/8 time signature and the key of A major.  These will be the two focus areas of the activities.



Varying the activities on the Choice Board, below, will allow students to experience this piece through writing, artwork, dance and performance.


Learning Profile

This takes into account a student’s ability to work independently or in groups, being hands-on or reflective, literacy skills, and what environment best suits the learner.


Instructional Groupings: After the following group activities, the students will then move to the Choice Board:

1.  listen to the recording from JW Pepper to hear the different styles that create the story

2.  warm-ups include the scales of e minor/A major/b minor and 6/8 time

3.  view a simple reel and jig performance – see You Tube videos listed below – and understand the

characteristics of each

4.  talk about the story behind the Duffy’s Cut – lots of news documents on the internet as well as the

description on the score


Formative Assessment (checking for learning along the way)1. use SmartMusic or Google Voice to have students record excerpts of the piece or any of the scales

2. have students complete the interactive practice chart that you create

3.  exit slips that answer questions about the style of Irish music or 6/8 counting

4.  writing samples that discuss how the music portrays different parts of the story


Post-assessment1. live or recorded excerpts of the music and the scales of the three keys used in the piece assessed by the teacher

2. composition or worksheet using 6/8 time

3.  student’s self- assess their own performance through writing based on a performance rubric


CHOICE BOARD – students select and complete three activities vertically, horizontally or diagonally on a normal choice board but it’s difficult to align their learning styles with 3 choices in a row, so I would recommend the student selecting 3 of the choices on the board which could be vertically, horizontally or diagonally.



Bloom’s Application

Record the e minor, A Major and b minor scales

Bloom’s Application

Using online resources, develop a plan and teach other students to Irish dance. You may teach the whole class or a group of students who can perform for the class

Bloom’s Synthesis

Write a new ending to the story and compose the music for it. Perform the new ending for the class (it can be just melody or an ensemble)

Bloom’s Synthesis

Improvise 8-16 measures in 6/8 time in the key of b minor, A Major or e minor.


The student creates a task and has it approved by the teacher.

Bloom’s Application

Using one of the Irish Fiddling Lessons videos, learn a new Irish tune and perform for teacher, class or on video (memorized)

Bloom’s Application

Create a piece of artwork that depicts each section of the piece from coming to America, working on the railroad and then the demise of the group (cartoon, flip book or a page with a square for each section of the piece)

Bloom’s Application

In a small ensemble, perform the piece for the class paying close attention to the tempos, key signatures, accents, fermata etc.

Develop and portray the emotional aspects of the piece.

Bloom’s Analysis

Write a one page paper that compares and contrasts each section of the piece while listening to the mp3 of the piece found on JW Pepper.




Dance Videos

Irish Dance Master Class2 on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUBFNvhOQOs 15 minutes

River Dance – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8EXDtoGfrs 7 minjtes

Feet of Flames http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QER37hafbU  10 minutes


Performance of Irish Fiddling

Lord of the dance (Riverdance) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZfR4CG-3_M 4 minutes

Three Irish Fiddlers from Absolutely Irish http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2NGlBPFPTg  4 minutes

9 Year Old Girl Playing Irish Music http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZ3YJV3ZHaY  2 ½ minutes

Learn a tune by rote

Irish Fiddle Lessons (The Silver Spear) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bo2S-N58Kg 4 minutes

Irish Fiddle Lessons (Irish Washerwoman) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrQJqUywAfY 3 minutes

Irish Fiddle Lessons (Cooley’s Reel) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDXz4UGdQC8 3 minutes

Irish Fiddle Lessons (Smash the Windows! – jig) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqxwO1v1qvg 3 ½ minutes


Differentiation Sites