Orchestra Gives You Wings

Orchestra Gives You Wings

How to Propel Student Learning for a Flying Start

By NAfME member Angela Harman


My family has a pet bird.  He’s a parakeet that lives in a quaint little cage with a mirror and a swing. The bird lost interest in the mirror and swing long ago and seems to have only one ambition…to escape! For hours each day, the bird bites the door of the cage and attempts to lift the lever to open the door. He is tireless in his escape attempts. Perhaps that is because he once tasted freedom. As I passed by the cage one day, I noticed the door was open and the bird was gone. It wasn’t hard to find him though because he could barely fly. The cage that traps my bird did not allow him to develop his wings. When I got close, he stretched his wings and took flight, but did not have the strength or control to travel far and was easily placed back into captivity.




When I was a student in orchestra class, there were times when I felt like I was trapped in a cage. I was ready and willing to work hard. I was hungry to learn and wanted music that would stretch me and make me better. I felt like I was being held back so that others in the class could catch up. It was a frustrating feeling to have my wings ‘clipped’ in this way. This experience has helped me as I reflect on my own teaching. Am I allowing my students to spread their wings? Are my students fulfilling their potential and given the freedom to move ahead as quickly as they are able?  What about students who ‘fly slower’ than the rest?

Teaching can be like a balancing act. If I choose material that is too easy, the class becomes bored, but if I select material that is too hard the students become frustrated. It can be overwhelming to attempt to teach the many different ability levels in one classroom and meet all of their needs. As I attempt to allow students to learn at their own pace and give them freedom to constantly grow, they have truly taken flight in their progress.  Every year, I find that my classes learn faster and become better. Here are 3 strategies to propel students forward to accomplish all they are capable of doing:


  1. Embrace Differences in the Flock

In order to help all students succeed, embrace their differences in ability by ensuring all levels can learn together.  Sometimes one size doesn’t fit all in an orchestra class, but differentiation can be simply implemented to create an atmosphere where students motivate each other to progress. On the first day of class, give students a survey based on previous musical experience to determine which students will likely learn quickly and become ‘advanced’ beginners. Using information from the survey, create a seating chart which pairs ‘advanced’ beginners with students who have had little or no experience with music. When teaching the basics, allow a lot of interaction between stand partners. Let them work together to check and fix bow hold, position, intonation, and notes.   Students learn leadership through teaching their peers and take responsibility for learning correctly. 


birds on a wire


Another differentiation strategy is to use music that includes varied skill levels.  At the beginning of the school year, all of the music I use with my class has multi-level parts to include all abilities.  Some students may be working on open strings while others are given the freedom to learn a more difficult melody. Students who play the more simple parts hear their peers playing the melodies and soon decide they will learn it too. They are continually motivated to keep learning and working to play the more difficult part. As students progressively learn the harder parts the entire orchestra becomes stronger.


  1. Leave the cage open: Raise Expectations

If you want students to learn better and faster, raise your expectations. Instead of trapping them in a cage with a pre-determined idea of what they can and can’t do, let them test their limits. I will never forget a performance I once heard of Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper performed by an 8 year old cellist.  I was mesmerized as I watched her fingers fly up and down the fingerboard with precision and finesse. That performance is what helped me expand my view of what is possible for young musicians. They can do more than we think!  Sometimes, there is a tendency to make students wait to learn a particular piece, but such limits can inhibit their natural motivation to progress. 




Music selection is crucial.  Find music that is challenging, yet attainable after a reasonable amount of work. Next, you must ‘sell’ the music to the student. Sometimes I play a recording for students to encourage them to love the music and want to learn it. Just letting students know that a particular piece will make them better players will inspire them to master it. Allow students to help make a final decision on the music to give them a sense of freedom and ownership. When students have a desire to learn the music, they will work harder than you previously thought possible. They embrace the challenge and gain a heightened sense of achievement. The music that takes the most effort is the one that becomes the favorite. 

  1. Ignite a passion for flying

Though they begin with an immense amount of energy and motivation, students can begin to slow down or stagnate in their progress. In her book The Passion Driven Classroom, Angela Maiers offers an explanation for student slumps. She states, “Students fail because we have not yet found a way to sustain the energy, excitement, and love for learning they came with when they first entered our classrooms.” If excitement and energy levels begin to decline, praise more. Nothing motivates like sincere and hearty approbation. Notice and make specific comments on every step of progress in the right direction. To keep students excited about learning and ignite a passion for playing, do something new or unexpected to get them out of their regular routine. New music, a change in seating, games or the introduction of a new skill will keep students wanting to progress. I have found that students are not afraid of learning hard things. They embrace and welcome new challenges and that is how they progress.


iStockphoto.com | proksima


Once you capture and retain student passion, the stage is set for infinite potential.  When students love to learn, they will find energy and purpose in rehearsals and practice routines.  They will be able to overcome obstacles to discover their true capacity.  Recently I was able to witness my students perform an amazing concert that inspired me and the audience.  After hardships, struggles, and a lot of work, students were able to prove themselves.  They were able to reach a new height in their playing.  After learning the hardest music I have ever given a group of 2nd year players, they magnificently demonstrated what is possible when students work to achieve their fullest potential.  Their performance touched all who were in attendance because it proved that anything is possible.  The words of Thomas Edison which adorn one wall in my classroom proved true: “If we did everything we were capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”

Discover resources, teaching tips, and game ideas on my blog: http://orchestrateacher.blogspot.com/

Website: www.orchestraclassroom.com

Follow me on Twitter: @teachorchestra

Angela Harman will be presenting a session on this topic at the 2016 National In-Service Conference.

About the author:


Angela Harman teaches orchestra at Spanish Fork Junior High in Spanish Fork, UT. Since starting in 2012, she has facilitated a 440% growth in the orchestra program at the school.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Angela oversees the elementary orchestra program for her district where she trains and helps other strings instructors.  She frequently seeks out special performing opportunities for her students and has been privileged to be selected for “The World We All Deserve Through Music” program in 2015.  She was awarded a Music In Our Schools grant and ‘Ardy’ by Radio Disney and the Give A Note foundation in 2016. 

Angela is passionate about music education and is the founder of www.orchestraclassroom.com, 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.  Her ideas have also been featured in professional development publications.  She just completed a workbook called Exploring Shifting for String Orchestra to help students become more comfortable and confident with shifting skills.  Angela enjoys presenting at conferences and has presented sessions at the National NAfME conference.  She holds a 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.


Angela Harman presented at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference


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