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Monday, February 19, 2018

Stress Reducing Strategies

With winter dragging on and on, holidays past, germs spreading everywhere, and daylight still in short supply, this time of year can get stressful. Today I'm sharing some of my favorite ways to manage my stress levels at home and at school and make sure I'm taking care of myself. Most of these are quick and easy things I can do in the middle of the work day, in the middle of making dinner and supervising homework, or any other time I feel stress levels creeping up!


1. Give yourself a break

This time of year I often find myself pushing hard to do #allthethings before spring kicks in and my schedule gets crazy. Planning ahead and pushing myself to do my best are great, but if and when I find myself getting stressed and overwhelmed, it's helpful to take a step back and give myself a break. This can mean a lot of different things, but I try to give myself permission to take the "easy way out" and give myself a chance to relax a little:
  • Eat out or order takeout on a weeknight. 
  • Stop trying to cram so much into my lesson plans- allow my students to take more time getting settled at the beginning and transitioning at the end of the lesson, and if we have extra time, have a quick dance party.
  • Throw on a movie or watch a TV episode instead of trying to push through that to-do list all the time.
The most important (and most difficult for me) part of this is to release any sense of guilt. I'm no good to anyone at home or at work if I'm overwhelmed and stressed. 

2. Drink a tall glass of water

I've seen this advice so many times and I vaguely agreed with it in the past, but I have become a huge believer in the last few months. Any time I feel tired now, the first thing I do is pour myself a big cup of water. I've found I can slurp it down a lot faster when I drink through a straw, so I keep a tumbler handy on my desk at school and on my kitchen counter at home. It really does make a huge difference! 

3. Phone a friend

I know this comes more naturally to some than others. I have a dear friend from college who still seems to know just the right time to text or call or message me, remembers every holiday/ birthday/ event, and follows up on anything I share with her. My youngest sister is a busy law school student but still finds the time to squeeze in "just because" phone calls with friends and family all the time, and even makes visits to her friends and family across the country a priority. When I get busy, communicating with people is one of the first things to go- my response generally is to hunker down and plow through my to-do list rather than take the time to talk about it. 

There's definitely a healthy balance of doing and talking, but for me, I need that reminder to make the time to talk to people. I never realize just how many thoughts I have swirling around in my head until I sit down with someone who wants to hear about me and my life. Just getting it "out there" makes such a big difference in my stress levels.

4. Exercise/ stretch

I'm not someone who exercises for the purpose of exercise. The older I get the more I realize I probably should, but realistically it just isn't something I am motivated to do. Obviously if you can, going for a run, hitting the gym, or going to an exercise class are all great ways to reduce stress. But there are some quick, easy ways to get in some exercise (of sorts) that help me in particularly stressful moments as well:
  • Turn on some upbeat music. Sing and dance to it like I'm on Broadway.
  • Do the stretch I shared in this previous post a few times.
5. Listen to music

I've developed a list of go-to songs that I can turn on when I feel the tension rising. Sometimes I need a calming song, sometimes it helps to listen to something upbeat and fun, and sometimes I find it helpful to turn on one of those deeply touching songs to get inspired and refocused on my priorities. Here's a previous post with some of the songs that have gotten me through some of my most difficult moments- check out this list if you're looking for some new songs to add to your own stress-busting song list!

These ideas aren't rocket science, but I think we can all use the reminder this time of year to make sure we are taking care of ourselves. What are your favorite stress-busters? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Teaching Recorder: troubleshooting

One of the biggest struggles of teaching recorder is dealing with all the squeaks and squawks, especially in the beginning. After teaching recorder for over a decade I've learned to spot some of the most common issues beginners deal with, and the most effective ways to address them in the classroom setting. Obviously I won't be covering every problem I've ever encountered, nor will the solutions I suggest work for every student, but hopefully you'll find a few new tricks to add to your arsenal as you battle bad recorder sounds!


1. Overblowing

The best way to address students who blow too hard is to work on low notes before introducing higher notes- read this post on my first recorder lesson to hear more thoughts on this, but starting on G and low E right away forces players to blow more softly to have any hope of producing the correct note. This solves 90% of my overblowers, but if and when I do catch a student blowing too hard, a quick "softer" reminder usually fixes it pretty quickly. 

Other tricks you can try: 
  • Have them blow on your hand so you can feel how hard they're actually blowing, then have them blow on their own hand to feel it themselves. If you're both comfortable with it, you can also blow on their hand so they can feel it and compare.
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing bubbles- if they blow too hard they will pop the bubble!
  • Tell them to pretend they are blowing on a candle to make the flame flicker but not go out.
  • Have them practice blowing softly while you hold the instrument and cover the holes so they can focus on that one skill.
2. Improper (or lack of) Tonguing

I always introduce blowing technique by having students say the number "two", and every time I introduce a new note we practice whispering "two" (off of the mouthpiece) while showing the correct fingering. I also have them practice playing short notes (like sixteenths) from the beginning to force them to have to tongue (I talk about this in my post on the first lesson as well). That frequent practice helps, but there are always still a few students who, I think in an effort to blow softer, start blowing without tonguing, saying "who" instead of "two". I call them my owls 😉 Most of them have tell-tale puffy cheeks so I can spot them right away and have them practice blowing "two" in the air. Every few years though, I've had a student who was sneaky enough to get by blowing "who" (or some other strange variation) without it being obvious from the outside, and those are hard to correct!

A few things that have worked for me in the past:
  • Some of them have gotten away with blowing "who" for a while so they don't see any reason to change their technique. In that situation I have them play something with lots of fast notes and then I play it for them afterwards and we compare- you can always tell that my sound is better (if they need more convincing, play something that switches between low and high notes- that will really get them!). Once they're convinced, sometimes all they need is a frequent reminder to say "two" and they're fine.
  • Surprisingly, one of the most common problems I've found with these students is posture. I think they compensate for shallow breathing and poor posture by avoiding tonguing because they don't have good breath support/ control. One of the first things I'll try is to be very strict about their posture and really focus on proper breathing- sometimes the problem correct itself once they are breathing deeply and properly supporting their air. 
  • Sometimes the reason they aren't tonguing is because of where their tongue is in relation to the mouthpiece. Try having them take more or less of the mouthpiece into their mouth while saying "two" to see if it's easier for them.
3. Slippery Fingers

This is especially difficult if you are introducing recorder to younger students who have smaller fingers (a big reason why I advocate starting in 4th grade- read more in this post)- you get everyone's fingers covering the holes correctly, and then 2 seconds later half of their fingers have slid up away from the holes they're supposed to be covering. To be honest I think this is mostly unavoidable in the beginning- I think the only real "cure" is for students to have the time to get used to the finger positioning. With that said, here are a few things I do to help speed up the process:

  • I constantly walk around while students are practicing, echoing me, etc and tap on any fingers that are coming off of the holes. Usually when this happens they've just forgotten about their fingers because they're focused on one of the other million things their brains have to think about!
  • Some students struggle with this not because of their reach or the size of their hands but because they are double jointed. I try to spot the double jointed students early on and point it out to them. Any time I see their fingers turning "inside out" or their wrists clenching up, I silently shake my hand in front of them as a cue for them to take their hands off of the recorder and "shake it out" and then reset their hands. 
  • One of the most common causes of fingers slipping up is the left thumb. I've never understood this because my hand isn't built this way, but many students naturally point their thumb up towards the mouthpiece when they try to cover the hole on the back, which turns their entire hand in such a position that they can't comfortably cover the holes on the front. I do constant thumb checks, reminding them to point their thumbs towards the side wall, and that helps a lot of students keep their hands in a nice, rounded "C" position.
  • Some students, especially ones who either have played or have seen others play piano or bowed string instruments, naturally try to place their fingers over the holes on the very tips of their fingers (this is also a problem for double jointed people who are over-compensating in an attempt to keep their wrists relaxed and rounded). I always do this with the entire class in the first lesson, but I will have students with this problem repeat this exercise to make sure they are using the pads of their fingers rather than the very tips: get their fingers positioned where they think they should be, then press down hard enough to make a mark of where the hole is under each finger. Take their fingers off and look to see where the circles are (and if it shows a complete circle or a partial one). 
There are so many other little things we could cover here, but those are the top 3 most common problems I've encountered with beginning recorder. I know there are lots of other great tricks music teachers have developed for troubleshooting- please share yours in the comments!

If you want to read more about recorder teaching, here are all of my posts on the topic. If you want to see my complete lesson plans for my recorder unit, along with all of the teaching materials, they are included in my 3rd grade curriculum set.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Snow Day Activities

We have definitely had more than our fair share of snow days this year, and if my friends' comments are any indication, many people around the U.S. are having similar experiences! Yes, being able to sleep in is nice, but getting cooped up inside, especially with young children, can get old really fast! Today I've got 3 ideas for things to do with elementary-age kids when you're stuck inside on a cold winter snow day- hopefully this will help you mix things up and survive the rest of the winter without losing your mind!


1. Put on a show

A favorite at our house right now is putting on a "show"! Pick out some outrageous costumes, rehearse some choreography, add some music, create set pieces.... the possibilities are endless and we can all let our imaginations run wild. With two 6-year-old's, the stories can get pretty wacky and there's definitely a lot of improvising involved, but it's still a lot of fun! Most of the time the stuffed animals are our "audience", but sometimes I'm permitted to videotape the performance ;)

2. Watch a movie (PJ's and popcorn included)

OK, nothing revolutionary about this idea, but it's nice sometimes to scroll through Amazon video (or Netflix, or whatever else people use these days... technology...) and find a new movie you've never seen before. And of course when one watches a movie on a snow day, one must be sure to wear pajamas and have party popcorn as well (recipe here).

3. Make slime

What is it about slime that makes it so irresistible and endlessly entertaining?? There are several varieties- we like the saline solution slime and fluffy slime the best- and of course you can make them all different colors, or add beads or glitter... Here is a blog post with a great compilation of some different slime recipes to try.

So now it's your turn: what are your family's favorite snow day activities? Leave your ideas in the comments! If you want even more ideas, be sure to check out this post I wrote a few years ago on snow day activities with toddlers- many of these ideas are ones we still love now! :)

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Teaching Recorder: establishing fundamentals

Let's talk some more about teaching recorders! Over the last few weeks, I've written about logistical considerations for getting a recorder unit started, and about what I teach on the first day of recorders. Today I want to talk about how I teach the next few lessons after the first day to make sure students are starting with good habits that will help them be more successful for the rest of the unit.


1. Start with rote

Reading from treble clef notation is definitely an important aspect of learning recorder, but in the beginning it is very hard for young students to focus on the process of note reading when they already have so many new skills they are trying to master on their new instrument! I stay away from notation completely in the first few lessons. As I mentioned in my previous post, I start my students on G first, and then E. Every time I introduce a new note throughout the recorder unit, I always have students go through the same process to practice the new note:
  1. Discuss and practice the correct fingering (no playing)
  2. With their fingers in the correct position, have students echo me singing 4-beat rhythms on the pitch letter name 
  3. With their fingers still in the correct position, have students echo me blowing "two" softly on 4-beat rhythms
  4. Echo me playing 4-beat rhythms on the new note
  5. Echo me playing 4-beat rhythms using the new note and 1 other note they already know
The last step is an important one- I did not used to consistently take the time to have students echo me with 2-pitch patterns, but I have found it makes a huge difference in students' ability to integrate the new note into melodies. They need the time to practice going to and from the new note. 

2. Improvise

Improvisation is something I include regularly in music class starting in kindergarten (read more about that in this post), so the concept itself is not new. One great way to quickly see how students are doing (and provide some additional challenge for students who are moving ahead of the others) is to have students take turns improvising a 4-beat pattern using 1 or more pitches that they are learning. I establish the beat, then go around the room counting 4 beats for each student in a row with no gaps in between. It's a quick and lower-pressure way for me to do individual assessments so I know who I need to spend more time with.

3. Practice time

One of the concepts I establish early is the idea that there is always room for improvement, so everyone always has something they can practice. Every so often, I will announce a 30-60 second practice session, where I give students a specific skill to work on (practice a new note, practice switching between 2 pitches, practice a specific measure, etc). This gives me a chance to go work with individuals that need some attention, gives students that are feeling a little panicked trying to keep up with the class a chance to stop and find their way, and gives the faster learners a chance to practice that skill at a higher level. 

One thing I tell everyone from the beginning is that they need to use the entire practice time to improve, not just mess around on the instrument or relax and do nothing. If I see anyone who isn't using their practice time to practice, I take that as a challenge to a duel and I make them come up front and do whatever I asked them to practice in front of the class, then I do the same to see if they can do it better than me. I tell them they aren't allowed to stop practicing until they're better than I am. Once I do one or two duels they usually get the idea!

4. The first song

After doing all of that echoing and improvising, it's pretty exciting when they first get to play a *real song*! After working on G and low E for a lesson or two, I make my last 4-beat pattern that they echo using the two pitches be the first line of "Rain, Rain Go Away" (G-E-GG-E). After they echo me, I stop, surprised, and exclaim proudly that they just played a song! I have them stop and listen to the pattern and usually they will recognize the tune. How exciting!! :)

Once they are getting a decent sound on G and E and getting used to switching back and forth between the two, I introduce A (with the same process I described), and then eventually have them learn the 2nd line of "Rain, Rain Go Away" (GG-EA-GG-E). I teach it to them by rote first, taking plenty of time to practice the fingering (it's quite a jump to get them to switch between E and A then back to G!). 

Once they have already learned to play the first 2 lines of the song, I go back and show them the notation for the first time, and we go through the process of learning a song from notation (more on that in a future post 😉), so they can focus on coordinating the thought process of interpreting the musical notation with the physical process of playing their instrument.

Once they have gotten to this point successfully, most students have a solid foundation for the rest of the recorder unit! If you want to see my full lesson plans for beginning recorder, check out my 3rd grade curriculum set here.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Two Things to Stop Saying to Parents of Elementary-Age Twins

There are a lot of amazing posts that have already been written about annoying things people say to mothers of twin babies and toddlers- that is definitely the toughest stage in terms of stranger comments because you're so much more conspicuous with a double stroller and a giant bag full of enough supplies to keep multiple infants alive long enough to buy some groceries. But as my girls have gotten older, I've found that the comments and questions I get over and over again have changed. Here are the things I hear all the time that I wish people would stop saying.


First of all yes, this is a bit of a rant/vent, but I want to say that do not really fault people for saying these things. We all have things to learn about other people's perspectives, and if you don't know what it's like to raise multiples it's hard to know that these things would be negative in any way. Just take this as a PSA- now you know! 😉

1. Which one is older?

This is by far the most common thing people say to me, and frankly I don't understand the point. I just told you they're twins. That means they're the same age. Are you wanting to hear my birth story? What's worse is when people ask my daughters who is older. Trust me: in no way is it helpful to add any competitive element to the twin dynamic.

2. Who's the ____ one?

This is one that I hear more and more as the girls get older, and I can see what people are getting at. I appreciate that people want to get to know the girls as individuals, but that's not the way to ask it- again, it's never a good idea to compare or add competition to twins. They do enough of that on their own without help from outsiders. Plus at this age, I wouldn't want to label any child as "the athletic one" or "the artsy one"- they're still exploring who they are and what their interests are! A better question that will get you the same information: "What is ____ into right now?"

Have you ever said either of these to parents of multiples? If you're a parent of multiples yourself, what are the things people say to you that bother you the most? I hope this gives everyone a chance to learn more about how to relate to each other!