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Skills The next section on the card, called Pass-Off, reflected skills the student was expected to learn during the quarter (see Figure 3). Listing the basic curriculum elements also kept me on task with my instruction. Young teachers tend to focus on literature with the goal of having good performances, which makes sense, as often that is how a teacher’s success is judged. Effective teachers have good concerts, but this is the result of thorough teaching of skills rather than repetitive rehearsing of sheet music. Master teachers rehearse skills— especially foundational ones—with a constant, concise, and systematic approach that allows students to transfer those skills to the literature, and they do all of this with an intense sense of urgency (Brand, 1990; Hamann & Gillespie, 2013).

Pass-Off cards were given that name as credit was assigned to the student after he/she showed mastery of a skill. The reward on the card was a smiley face sticker. For many students, this mastery was demonstrated during class when playing that week’s Pass- Off. For students not demonstrating mastery during class, there were other opportunities to prove themselves. Pass-Off simply meant they needed more practice on the skill. This process provided an opportunity to discuss how musicians learn at different speeds, which we emphasized as normal and expected. “Test” or “Playing Test” terminology was never used because a test suggests a one-time event of success or failure while the rest of the class marches on. Pass-Off means “keep working and show me you can play it later.” Before school, lunch, and after school times were often busy, but became valuable one-on- one times with students needing extra support to master Pass-Off skills.

Figure 3

Written Assignments Written assignments were designated on the next section on the card. In my classroom this often meant music theory assignments, usually theory worksheets to be completed throughout the quarter and, naturally, smiley face stickers were put on the card when a student received a grade of an A. Other topics could also occupy this space such as history assignments, reflective writings on

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Information The final section on the Pass-Off card gave information including concert dates, reminders of assignment due dates, extra assignments or practice ideas, etc. I simply labeled it “Comments” (see Figure 6) and used it to be information specific for that student. When the class size is large this section helps me to remember specific issues for each student.

Figure 6

performance (theirs or others), reading assignments, etc.

Other Issues

Different classes have different needs throughout the semester of which the Pass- Off card accommodates. My younger students were allowed to play in graduation, but only as an honor given them for hard work throughout the year and if they could play the music. The Pass-Off card reflected a section labeled Graduation Music (see Figure 4). Under this labeling were lines, “Excerpt #1, Excerpt #2,” etc. I didn’t label specific excerpts as different ensemble sections had different difficult passages. If a student didn’t acquire full points, I would make quick remarks about where to focus their attention. These comments helped focus their practice and reminded me each student’s individual improvement needs. The excerpts section proved useful for regular concerts as well and in some classes was a regular section on the Pass-Off card.

Figure 4

Suzuki, Shinichi. (1986). Nurtured by love: The classic approach to talent education. Van Nuys, Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

Chamber music was an important aspect of my program as well. Most of my classes went through a chamber unit in the third quarter, culminating in a performance at Solo and Ensemble. Specific concepts were delineated and assigned a set of points. These concepts included rhythm, intonation, musicality, group grade, and final performance (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

Matthew H. Spieker has been a music educator who has taught all levels of orchestra and general music in U.S. school districts of South Carolina and Colorado, and internationally at the John F. Kennedy Schule in Berlin, Germany. He now works at the University of Arizona teaching violin, and music education courses and he conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Dr. Spieker guest conducts honor orchestras and lectures at music education conferences through various organizations and events in Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, and in cities abroad including Brussels, Vienna, Geneva and Beijing.


Engagement and Accountability Engagement and accountability are common educational buzzwords. We expect teachers to keep children involved and parents informed. I agree. A teacher’s responsibility is to be engaging and accountable, but it can be challenging to do this every day. Pass-Off cards do both. The German’s have a saying, “Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen.” Translated this means to kill two flies with one swat. Pass-Off cards accomplish exactly that and this is why I feel it was one of the smartest things I ever did. Truthfully, the smiley face stickers only helped.


Brand, M. (1990). Special focus: The making of a master music teacher. Music Educators Journal, 77(2), 23.

Hamann, D. L., Gillespie, R. (2013). Strategies for teaching strings; Building a successful string and orchestra program. New York: Oxford University Press.

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