Welcome Aboard! Making New Students a Part of Your Ensemble


Welcome Aboard! Making New Students a Part of Your Ensemble

It’s a new school year. It’s your first day of music class, and you have a room full of students. Many of them are new to you. There are students who are brand new to your class or perhaps even to your school. How do you help them get to know one another and work together in a cohesive ensemble?

What do hula hoops, a buddy system, singing a round, and self-guided learning have in common? We’ll let some talented music teachers tell you.

 The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) asked some experienced music educators  to share their tips on how they create harmonious ensembles at the beginning of the school year. Five NAfME members who are also quarterfinalists for the 2016 GRAMMY Music Educator Award™ offer some suggestions.


Laura Nelson’s music students try out her exercises.


Breaking the Ice in High School Choir

Laura Nelson serves as the Lower School music teacher, High School/Middle Choral Director, and fine arts director at Orangewood Christian School in Maitland, Florida. She brings many years of teaching experience in both public and private school settings. She holds a bachelor’s in music education from Florida State University and is a two-time quarter-finalist for the GRAMMY Music Educator Award. 

music teacher
Laura Nelson

“It is always fun to see new faces in our high school choir at the beginning of the school year. To help our new choir students feel more comfortable, I pair them up with a veteran choir member who can answer any questions and help them navigate the daily routine.

“I’ve also found that laughter is a great way to break the ice and help our new students to feel included. Rounds and canons are a fun, easy way to get everyone singing, and it creates unity as students work together with their ‘team’ to stay on track. One of our favorites is a round called ‘Little Tommy Tinker.’  We add goofy movements, and everyone is usually laughing hysterically by the end,” Laura says.

“We also use our warm-ups to add a little fun and humor to class. One of our most requested activities is one in which I ask the students to sing a vocal exercise as if they are different ages. For instance, I might ask them to sing as if they are 3 years old, then 5, 10, 16, 21, and even 80. Not only does it make everyone laugh, but the students can really hear the difference between singing with a young, horizontal sound as compared to a beautiful, mature, tall vowel sound,” Nelson believes.

“Another variation is to sing our warm-ups using different emotions, such as anger, sadness, surprise, fear, happiness, etc. This exercise tends to create lots of laughter and enthusiasm, as well,” she says.

Laura says, “As an educator, I strive to make everyone feel welcome and included. When we are in unity and work together as a team, it can be heard in a beautiful, blended sound, and that is our ultimate goal.”


Exploring Music Genres in the General Music Classroom


music teacher
Rodney Harshbarger


Rodney Harshbarger of Old Kings Elementary School in Flagler Beach, Florida says,

“I teach K–6th general music. [One exercise] I like to use is to have 4 to 6 hula-hoops laid out around my room with a sign in the middle of each hoop with different genres of music written on the sign (rock, rap, pop, county, classical, etc.). I then play one of the styles of music as the students take a gallery walk around the room,” Rodney says.

music students
Students learn what they have in common.
music students
Harshbarger says his students also learn about different genres of music.

“When the music stops the students quickly but safely hurry to the hula-hoop that states their favorite style of music. I then start a different genre of music and have the kids start walking around again. As they are walking (and listening to whatever music it is I want them to hear), I tell them that this time I want them to go stand next to the hula-hoop that represents their least favorite type of music.”

Rodney adds: “Sometimes I have a hoop with a question mark. This is for an answer that I did not make a sign for. This makes for some fun conversation at times. The third time I have them stand next to a hula-hoop that represents music their parents listen to in the car. This teaches them different genres of music as well.”


Bulletin Board
One of Harshbarger’s bulletin boards.

“I do use this for my students as a means of developing their tolerance and understanding of one another. We talk about how our differences help us to see things from different perspectives when we work together and the importance of being willing to listen to other viewpoints, collaborate with one another, and grow from the experience,” Rodney explains.

Rodney received a Master’s degree in Trumpet Performance University of Florida, and he also played trumpet for the Christmas Brass at Walt Disney World. He is now in his 19th year of teaching music in Flagler County Public Schools. He is National Board certified and a former Flagler County Teacher of the Year. He was also named a quarter-finalist for the 2014 GRAMMY Educator Award.

Music Buddies in General Music


music teacher
Lisa Simone


Lisa Simone says, “At Hooper Avenue Elementary School, I direct a chorus of fourth and fifth grade students.

“Some of the fifth grade students help get the year off to a good start by mee ting with the fourth grade classes and telling them about their chorus experience,” she says of her Tom’s River, New Jersey, music students.

“For our first rehearsal, I make large cards with homeroom teachers’ names and put them where I want students for that day. Students feel more comfortable standing with their classmates in the beginning of the year. The placement is staggered so that fifth grade classes can be paired with a fourth grade class.

“Incorporating these tips will boost your chorus numbers, save on valuable rehearsal time, give your students a sense of ownership, and create a well-rounded sound for your ensemble.”

“The fifth grade shows their ‘buddy’ class how to take attendance and pass out music packets. Each class is assigned a class captain who checks for attendance using their class folder. Inside each folder, is a music packet for each child which the captain passes out. At the end of rehearsal, the captain collects the music and puts it back in the folder. This helps to ensure neat folders and quick attendance.

holiday concert
Lisa’s chorus performs a 2014 holiday concert for an appreciative audience.


Lisa says, “When it comes to balancing sound, the quickest way to identify your strongest singers is to begin with simple partner songs. After a few weeks, you can move some stronger singers around to create a more cohesive and balanced sound. Attendance is still being taken by the class and then children move to their assigned places. I have found children to be remarkably good at remembering where they are supposed to be.

“Incorporating these tips will boost your chorus numbers, save on valuable rehearsal time, give your students a sense of ownership, and create a well-rounded sound for your ensemble.”

Lisa is a bassoonist and graduate of West Chester University with 18 years of public school teaching experience. She has taught general, vocal, and instrumental music at the elementary and intermediate level. Lisa currently teaches K-5 general/vocal music at Hooper Avenue Elementary school in Toms River, N.J.


Creating an Atmosphere of Cooperation


chorus teacher
Kathryn Ingerson

Kathryn Ingerson of Thousand Islands High School and Middle School, in Clayton, New York, works with a wide age range of secondary music students.

“As a 6-12 vocal music educator, I do a few age-appropriate exercises for each group. For my younger groups, these involve rhythmic name games. This helps me learn the names of each of the 50+ new students more quickly but also to gets students participating from the start.” 

“My High School Select Vocal Ensemble is my festival and tour choir. Since it is a class, our first day is a meet and greet, but we always have a first parent/student meeting at the onset of the school year. It is here that parents and students get to meet one another and also form committees in which they will work together all year-long. Names, phone numbers, emails are exchanged and the friendships begin. This culminates at the end of the year with our festival trip; many of these parents join us for this lifelong bonding experience. It’s very powerful,” Kathryn says.


“One other important aspect of our work is recruiting,especially for the high school groups. It’s our students who get out there and beat the bushes for prospects. I have become the class of 2017 adviser which puts me in front of a lot of kids. I’m sure this doesn’t hurt, but honestly the credit really goes out to my students. They are passionate about what they do so their invitations are sincere and have a lot to do with the success of our program.”

“One other important aspect of our work is recruiting,especially for the high school groups. [The students] are passionate about what they do so their invitations are sincere and have a lot to do with the success of our program.”

“One of the first programs I developed years ago to recruit the incoming 6th graders was a concert presentation of the 6th grade band and choir, called the 6th Grade Band and Choir Tour. When I first began at Thousand Islands, I was the 6th grade band director and then slid over to the choral position when the vacancy became available.

“This program gives all the students an opportunity not only to hear and see the finished product (it is done in May or June), but also introduces them to the instruments through demonstration, familiarizes them with our classroom practices, lets them ask questions and also lets them hear our own students speak about the program. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 6th grade performers get a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride showing the younger students and their former 5th grade teachers what they have done in only a year’s time!”


theater, music education
Thousand Island’s annual Dessert Theater and Silent Auction showcases their High School Select Vocal Ensemble and is the major fundraiser for their annual competition trips. “Grease” was the latest production.


Strategies for Creating Student Leaders

Kara Ravina, director of instrumental music at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, California, says she is a proponent of “self-guided learning.”

“I think the most important thing to know about our program, or really my approach to my classes, is that I spend a good deal of time trying to create a climate in my class that is student-driven. I do less ‘dictating’ from the podium, and encourage asking questions — through small group rehearsals, and teaching my students to be self-guided learners, and to be curious about the subject matter. In order to do this successfully, they have to be a team,” Kara says.

“I think the most important thing to know about our program, or really my approach to my classes, is that I spend a good deal of time trying to create a climate in my class that is student-driven.”

“We don’t have the benefit of a marching band style of hierarchy, because there’s no marching. This means that I really need them to buy in to the concept of wanting to be good. I spend a good deal of time building up leaders and showing them that everyone is valuable.  Successful or not, the first few days are crucial for this. 

“The older students often arrive back to school with a feeling of ‘We’re never going to be as good as last year . . . these underclassmen aren’t as good as me.’ The underclassmen as excited, but nervous about being mixed in with older kids. The freshman (in their own group) have a very narrow scope of what band/orchestra really is. Here are some of my strategies:

  • My students have a practice requirement each quarter that requires them to have a student-led sectional for 45-60 minutes. I prefer for this to be off campus, but occasionally they use a portion of their lunch periods to accomplish this. Because everyone is busy, it requires a lot of planning to pull off. 
  • I give the students a piece of paper with spots for them to fill out contact information about each person in their section. I take them outside, have them sit in a circle and fill out the forms. Included in the form is some sort of silly question like favorite ice cream flavor.
  • The idea is to get them to laugh and learn something new about a section mate. We do this exercise BEFORE section leaders have been identified. It is a quick 20-25 minute exercise that is fun. At the end of it, they have a sheet of paper with each person’s contact information, and name (in case they can’t remember it).
  • I give the students a piece of paper to fill out about themselves. I mix in questions about their summer, likes/dislikes, and background. I then take these answers and create a one-page “scavenger hunt” of guess who fits each category. It is a basic ice-breaker where each person walks around asking the other people if they are the person that a particular box describes. Tougher for shy kids, but I usually try to pick answers for them that include other people, such as “Find three students who all like sushi.” This allows them to be part of a group from the start, instead of feeling isolated.

“This year, I am going to try something that sort of branches out from both of the previous ideas. I am going to split the class into four groups — the groups will be based on the months when they were born (ex. January-March, April-July, etc.). Each group will be given a piece of paper with ten fill-ins on it. 

“The group will talk with each other and come up with ten things they have in common. They may not all be in agreement on all ten (for example: all ten may not be right-handed), but they could write: ‘Six of us are right-handed.’ I will take the finished lists and create a back-to-back ‘quiz’ for other groups to work on. For example, Group One may have written, ‘six of us are right-handed.’ I will give Group Two a sheet that reads, ‘Which six members of Group One are right-handed?’ The next day, each group will meet with two other groups to discover interesting things about them.

“Here is an example of the day two meetings:

“Group One meets with Group Two, Group Three meets with Group Four – 15 minutes; Group One meets with Group Three, Group Two meets with Group Four – 15 minutes, Group One meets with Group Four, Group Two meets with Group Three – 15 minutes. It won’t be a competition, just a social event.

“There are a few of the ways that I plan on starting the year. Different classes have different needs, so I will tailor them to fit the individual goals I have for each group.”

The GRAMMY Foundation has announced 213 quarter-finalists for the 2016 GRAMMY Music Educator , and of that number, 122 are members of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). In all, more than 4,500 initial nominations were submitted from each of the 50 states. From elementary general music teachers to band directors, choral conductors, string teachers, and college professors, NAfME congratulates these talented, dedicated music teachers. The GRAMMY semi-finalists will be announced in September. 

Nominations for the 2017 Music Educator Award are now open. 


Roz Fehr, September 3, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org).