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Preparing for the First Day of Middle School Orchestra

When I think back to my first year of teaching, I distinctly remember the feeling of panic as I considered the mountain of work that needed to be accomplished for the first day of school. Here is the checklist I came to rely on for the start of each school year. Was it exactly the same each year? Definitely not. Your checklist will adjust and change as you gain experience and become more acquainted with your own routine and preferences.

Prepare your classroom:

  • Check that instruments are ready for student hands.

  • Instrument storage location: If you are able to control where instrument shelves and racks are located, place the storage shelves in an area where students coming in and out won’t disrupt your class (because they will likely be coming and going at all times of the day).

  • Make cello and bass racks easily (and safely) accessible. For example, placing racks behind the violin section will only create opportunities for bonked bridges and chipped instruments.

  • If you require students to maintain orchestra binders, consider providing space for students to store them.

  • Create a “teacher only” space. Your personal instrument(s), paperwork, computer, and personal items will be in this space. This may simply be your desk (as space is limited for many of us), but I believe it is important to have a spot that is designated as your own.

  • Consider creating a large and very visible calendar. Any additional form of communication can only help in the middle school world!

  • If you plan on incorporating technology in your lessons, orient your rehearsal space so students can easily see the board or projector screen.

  • Remember to reserve a space in your classroom for stacking chairs and stands.

  • Create a system and space for students to have easy access to classroom resources.

    • Classroom resources could include: class syllabus, printed homework assignments (such as practice logs), field trip forms, lesson handouts, sheet music, etc.

    • Keep this space clear and organized (perhaps close to the classroom doorway) and encourage your students and parents to access this resource as needed. Middle schoolers will always lose paperwork. When students get comfortable and in the habit of checking this resource first, this system will save you a significant amount of time.

Prepare your documents:

  • Create your syllabus. Check if your district requires a specific format. Otherwise, I recommend keeping it simple and direct. For example:

    • Class title and description.

    • Your contact information (your classroom phone number and district email address).

    • Class mission statement and educational goals for the year.

    • Grading system, including a list of known required assignments and due dates.

    • Events calendar.

  • Events/Field trips: Double check all field trips and events are approved before you publish the events calendar.

  • Consider a classroom expectations/behavior contract.

    • Include your expectations for respectful behavior in class towards classmates, teachers, and school/classroom equipment. Your fellow arts colleagues may already have an existing form you could align with or use as a template.

  • Consider a “Tell me about yourself” first day sheet with minimal questions since the kids are already doing this(or something similar) in their other classes. If you can gain an insight into where your students are coming from, it may help to inform how you kick-off the academic year.

  • Prepare review activities and exercises. The “Tell me about yourself” sheet could help to inform some of the review activities. Perhaps an 8th grader confesses they still struggle with counting 6/8 time signatures but they are too embarrassed to voice this in front of classmates.

  • Prepare sight reading. Start nice and easy (and fun!), and gradually ease into more challenging exercises. The idea is to refresh, review, and solidify fundamentals.

  • Have your required method books ready for handout.

  • Be prepared to email all First Day documents to parents/families (in addition to handing out the printed form in class).

  • For Beginning Orchestra: The first week is about learning how to behave and move safely within a class that uses instruments. This is entirely new information for beginners and takes some getting used to! Also, now is the time to explore the different types of stringed instruments available, begin instrument demonstrations, and start basic music theory lessons.

Prepare your first day activities

  • I recommend making the first day a non-instrument day.

  • Plan some get-to-know-each-other activities.

    • One of my favorites: Draw my portrait! The catch? You can’t look at your paper while you are drawing me! This created some very interesting art work we could enjoy and giggle over. Then have students draw portraits of each other.

  • Provide the “Tell me about yourself” handout you created.

  • Prepare students for the first day of rehearsal: Where do you put your instrument when you get to school? What do you bring to class each day? How do we start each class period? What is our tuning process? When do you pick up your instrument before going home? I called this my “nuts and bolts” talk. This insured that when students walked into orchestra class the next day, they would do so confidently, knowing exactly where to go, and what to do. Middle school students do well with structure and routine. Within these guidelines and expectations, students can feel safe to then be the expressive musicians they came to be!


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