No More Beginners Blues: Keeping Orchestra Fun


Tips for Keeping Your Orchestra Class Irresistibly Fun
While Still Focusing on Good Pedagogy

By Angela Harman

beginning strings


One day after a vigorous rehearsal, I was erasing my white board when I heard a student utter the unthinkable: “I hate orchestra!” I quickly spun around to see who would speak such a thing!

That is the last thing I would ever want students to say after my class. When I saw the student who expressed the surprising remark, I began to understand. The student who was not enjoying my class was a student who struggled. He was feeling “beginners blues” because he had not developed good position, and this was making the class very difficult for him.

How can I most effectively reach all students and help them become successful without them becoming frustrated or discouraged?

I believe that every student who joins orchestra has the desire to be successful and expects the class to be fun. When a student struggles with any pedagogical or note-reading issue, he does not feel the thrill of success and the class becomes a disappointment. Learning a new instrument is a lot of work and some students may feel beginner’s blues if they are not progressing or if they feel the class is too difficult. As a teacher, I care about the development of my students, and I want them all to succeed. The question is: how can I most effectively reach all students and help them become successful without them becoming frustrated or discouraged?

The Power of Games

There is a scene in the movie “Mary Poppins” where the children are expected to clean the nursery. The children refuse to do the work, until Mary Poppins turns the job into a game. She says, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, then snap! The job’s a game!” David Coyle echoes this concept in his book, The Little Book of Talent: “Good coaches share the knack for transforming the most mundane activities—especially the most mundane activities—into games.”

I learned about the power of games a few years ago when teaching bow holds to my beginners. Instead of only demonstrating and drilling proper bow hold, I turned the work into a game by giving each student a straw and a penny. We quickly learned a basic bow hold on the straw, and then played a game where students balanced a penny on the top of the straw while performing bow exercises. Students won the game by performing bow exercises without the penny falling to the floor, and they were disqualified if their hand shape was incorrect.

After playing the game, students were very motivated to go home and practice correct bow holds so we could play the game again. The next day, 100% of my students were able to demonstrate correct bow holds, and they had fun doing the exercises. I found that the game helped all students focus on the bow hand shape with greater intensity, and as a result they did not struggle with the new skill.

By introducing appropriate and effective games, you can inspire students to work harder, smarter, and faster. Because games are fun, students willingly concentrate on skills and they can improve without feeling frustrated or bored.

Three Steps to Transform Learning

Here are three steps to transform learning in your classroom:

1. Ask the right questions. I believe that games must be based on student needs. When creating lesson plans, think about specific skills or techniques that students need to improve. What can you do to make it fun? What kind of game can you implement? What will help students focus on this one skill?

2. Match student needs to the appropriate kind of game. There are many types of games that work well in a rehearsal setting. Some include:

  • Speed/race
  • Seek/find, Detective
  • Focus/Observe
  • Skill completion
  • Competition
  • Role Playing/Simulation
  • Experimentation
  • Challenge

3. Implement the game with enthusiasm and keep it simple. Games do not have to be time consuming or difficult. You can call almost any activity a game. Mary Poppins’s game was just a snap of the fingers (and a little magic). When you begin to add games to your lessons, you can create your own little “Mary Poppins moments,” and learning becomes magic.

Mary Poppins
Photo: Sim Lev | Shutterstock | Thinkstock

For example, when I notice my beginners are performing with a really crooked bow stroke, we have a “Straight Bow Contest.” It’s easy, and there’s no extra prep work! If your students are struggling with intonation on a passage, you may have a contest between stands or sections of the orchestra to see who can play the best. If pancake wrists are a problem, perhaps one student can be selected to search the group for the student with the best wrist position.

One of my favorite “Mary Poppins moments” is when I play a game called “Elimination” in my classroom. The game is simple—students are “out” if they do not focus and achieve the task I tell them to do. For example, if I tell them I am checking F# intonation, they are marked “out” on my seating chart if they are caught playing that note out of tune. I change the skill every few minutes so that students are working on a variety of needed techniques. We play this game through an entire class period, and students can’t see who I am marking “out,” so they continue to work and do their best. At the end class, students have accomplished more in one day than what we could previously do in an entire week.

Photo: Sergey Nivens | Shutterstock | Thinkstock

Using games for technique and correction in your beginning strings class will help students progress without feeling “beginners blues.” You can create your own “Mary Poppins moment” by motivating your students to work hard while having fun.

Discover resources, teaching tips, and game ideas on my blog:


Follow me on Twitter: @teachorchestra

Angela Harman presented a session on this topic at the 2015 National In-Service Conference.

About the author:

music teacher

Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT. Since starting in 2012, she has helped the orchestra program at the school grow by 341%. Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of, where she posts ideas and methods that she uses in her classroom. Her recent books, Be an Amazing Note-Reader and The True Beginning: Before the Method Book have sold many copies worldwide through her website. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in K-12 Instrumental Education from Brigham Young University and completed Suzuki teacher training. Angela enjoys baking, eating sweets, and caring for her husband and five children.

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