On Today’s Episode…
In the dynamic world of music education, one of the most persistent challenges is retaining and recruiting students for an orchestra classroom. The enigmatic process, however, can be simplified with strategic moves, systematic approaches, and a dash of creativity, as revealed by the esteemed Angela Harmon in our interview for Creative Strings Podcast.
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A Symphony of Engagement and Retention
The key isn’t locked behind tedious administrative tasks but is deeply intertwined with the art of creating engaging, memorable, and transformational learning experiences. The classroom isn’t just a space for imparting technical skills but an experience in which each moment keeps students anchored.
It’s not solely about the music but the relationships, the respect, and the immersive experiences that turn students into the most persuasive advocates of the program. Each positive interaction effects the classroom’s reputation, echoing in the halls and resonating with potential recruits.
Recruiting Shows – A Masterstroke
One of Angela’s most effective multi-step strategies is the ‘recruiting shows’ at feeder elementary schools. It’s a blend of energy, enthusiasm, and artistry, creating a magnetic pull that draws students towards the orchestra. The shows are not just performances but strategically crafted experiences, engineered to captivate, inspire, and prompt action in signing up for Orchestra Class. There are a few key steps in this that when done right, recruit and overfill the orchestra.
The Creative Pulse of The Orchestra Classroom
Angela addresses integrating creativity into everyday learning. The technical and the creative aren’t segregated entities but soulmates, fostering an environment where each student isn’t just measured by chair placement.
Retaining Orchestra Classroom Students isn’t a secret formula but a harmonious blend of strategic, creative, and relational elements that transform the orchestra classroom into an irresistible magnet for students. The orchestra classroom becomes not just a learning space but a world where music, relationships, and creativity converge.
Christian Howes: Angela Harmon. Thanks so much for joining me today. I just want to go right out of the gate and ask you a question about recruiting and retaining students in an orchestra program.
What are some of the top things you would say as far as recruiting and retaining students?
Angela Harman: My view of recruiting is that it’s not a one time event or just a specific time of the year. For me recruiting is something that I’m constantly doing and it’s just organically constantly happening with what I do. So my biggest recruiting strategy is how I design my curriculum and my rehearsals. Because of students stay and they know they’re going to have a good experience, be successful, have fun. Students are going to talk to each other.
And that is going to help with not only retention, but recruiting in the long run because students talk to other students. And word of mouth is huge in a school. And then the students talk to their parents and parents talk to other parents. And pretty soon I have all of this great positive news about my program.
And I’m very aware that it can happen in reverse. If I’m not careful about how I establish things and set things up, it could be negative talk about my program. And I don’t want that. So I’m very conscious about how I approach my rehearsals and how I treat my students, build those relationships because I want the good things to be spreading all the time.
Christian Howes: Wow. You mean just give them a good product, give them a good experience. It sounds like it’s front of your mind as far as serving every kid every day, almost like they’re a customer because I’m also interested in this from like just a business standpoint. Anything we do, we want to retain and recruit customers or clients if we’re in any kind of service business, including performing, teaching private teachers, whatever.
You’re saying that you try to make every class interesting and fun. You also are aware of your relationship with each student, making each of them feeling honored. Is that what I’m hearing?
Angela Harman: Yeah, and it actually is a big chunk of my recruiting because I informally ask my students.
In recruiting season or when a new year starts, how many of you joined orchestra just because you were already going to, you’d made that decision or you’d heard about it, and I’ve learned about 50% of my program, 50% of my students would have joined because of all of the things they had already heard, or any other recruiting efforts have been made. Which is a substantial number, and I think the longer a teacher is at a school, that number can even be increased, and I’ve been at my school for two years, So I think 50% of my students is that are already going to come to me based on what they know is great.
And then the other 50% I get from doing a show.
Christian Howes: How often do you survey your students and what questions do you put in the survey?
Angela Harman: I just informally ask them in class, raise your hand. You joined my orchestra because of the recruiting show you remember me doing, or how many of you remember when I went to the show?
What do you remember about my recruiting show? So I can see, what’s connecting the most for them when I go play for them. And I always ask them, how many of you joined because of that show? How many of you would have joined regardless?
Christian Howes: Wow, okay and half of them joined because word of mouth. What’s a recruiting show? How does that work? Who do you do it for?
Angela Harman: So there are six elementary schools that feed into the school where I teach. I take all of my second year students. To each of those schools and we have it down to a science. I call it a tour like it’s as if we’re going on tour like it’s a big thing and it takes two days. We go. We set up. We perform for about 25 minutes and then we hurry and pack up and then we go to the next school and do it all again. It really does feel like a professional tour for them because they do the same thing over and over and we put on a show.
We have costumes and props and it’s very high energy, fun. I keep them hyped up on Pixie Stix. It’s fun. We have a great time.
Christian Howes: That’s so proactive. It makes a lot of sense. Do most people do that?
Angela Harman: Yeah, around here, most people will go do a visit to the feeder school. And I think that’s common. But my issue with that is there are too many visits that are boring or that lack excitement. So I’m very careful about how I structure my show. Capture their interest, keep it exciting. That’s the important thing.
Christian Howes: . Do you give a specific call to action to people there, like join orchestra or here’s the next step you can take? How do you get them to take a next step immediately so that it connects to the following year that they join orchestra?
Angela Harman: Yeah, I’ve designed brochures and flyers that they have to fill out an interest form they need to fill out and I tell them to get into my program. I have to have that form back because my program fills up because it does. My program is maxed out. So I say if you really want to get in, I need that form back and I get lots of those back.
Christian Howes: The fact that your program is maxed out speaks volumes . I’ve witnessed your relationship with your students. Your work ethic and your innovation, which everybody can find going to Instagram or Facebook, to see Angela’s daily inspiration, orchestra teacher life on Instagram. Her Facebook page is OrchestraClasroom.Com or go to orchestraclassroom.com if you want to reach Angela. I could talk about how impressed I am and try to describe you as a teacher , but I think the facts speak louder, actually, the fact that your program is maxed out especially given that it’s a new program because you were at another program but then you started a whole new program and you build it up in a very short amount of time.
So those facts speak volumes. To review real quick. The way that you recruit is you focus on keeping them engaged and giving them a great class, keeping them active. And then you do these shows , which are like sales pitches and you really follow through.
Visiting every feeder program, six elementary schools, dressing up, making it a whole thing and making a sales pitch and then giving brochures and telling people to take the next step. Did I miss anything like that’s it?
Angela Harman: Yeah. The third prong to my recruiting process is how I do my concerts because people come to my concerts.
Again, I want news to be spreading about my program. as much as possible. Hopefully all good news. So when parents go to my performances and they see a successful, like amazing result, or they’re very entertained, that’s huge for me. I get so many emails from grandmas that was like, I usually bring earplugs to my concerts, my kids concerts, but I didn’t have to bring one to yours.
Over delivering on what that concert experience is going to be, even if it’s just a little middle school orchestra. That’s big advertising for me.
Christian Howes: I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but my perception is that of a lot of orchestra classroom teachers are just trying to survive. Hand in hand with that is the mentality that orchestra is an elective, a class where you don’t have to work. There’s lots of teachers that I think are just trying to get by. Like, I just need to get through a day without catching a lawsuit . But you clearly are all in with, no they’re going to play music and they’re going to enjoy it. They’re going to work. What are your thoughts about that?
Angela Harman: That’s what’s fun for me. If this is what I chose for my job and my profession, then I have this passion for it. And of course it’s not fun for me. If I’m going to work every day, they’re not progressing. Or they just sound terrible, which, can happen for some stretches of time, but it’s always my goal to be working on that and seeing the growth because that’s motivating to me, but it’s also motivating to students.
You can see that growth. And that’s, I feel like that’s where it all comes from. I have to have that growth and see progress in my students and I have to have fun myself and then I could project that with my students. If I’m having fun, they’re going to have fun as well.
Christian Howes: You start students in seventh grade, their first year playing the instruments, right?
They start in sixth grade, first year. Sorry. But you’re starting them and then you’ve got them six, seven and eight. Usually.
Angela Harman: Our school is just six and seventh grade. So I only have them for two years.
Christian Howes: Yeah. I got to work with six and seven at your school. I was amazed with how engaged the students were, how much they could already play, into just their first year. That’s really cool.
What are the kinds of challenges that you incur? Like with motivating students and keeping them enthusiastic or retaining them?
Angela Harman: Oh, it’s retaining them. I guess the hardest thing with retention, I feel like doesn’t always come back to me or my program. Just schools have a lot of. Decisions, administrators are making decisions about electives, so I feel like nationwide that’s a huge issue for any arts class. When principals or admins start cutting how many elective students, that’s a challenge. And I left my previous job for that reason. I knew the way that electors were run would affect my program.
So that’s a big issue as far as retention. Getting my students to stay. As far as just enjoying my class, that comes to, that’s all on me. I feel at least me, I feel like I’m the CEO of my program, and if all of a sudden a bunch of kids drop, then that’s on me. I’m very self reflective that way.
So if anything negative is happening that I’m seeing in my students, or things that I don’t like, or if my retention rate isn’t what I want it to be, then I go back to myself and think, what am I doing that could be causing this, and what, in what ways do I need to change? Or what strategies do I need to implement to make things better?
Christian Howes: Yeah, I can only imagine that there are situations where it has nothing to do with you, right? There must be a student here and there who’s leaving for some reason that’s totally outside of your control. Students are all different, they develop differently. But, I can appreciate that you’re making yourself responsible for everything, as a starting point.
What are the resources that Angela Harmon uses to become a better music teacher?
Christian Howes: What would you say to other teachers as far as where’s the biggest source of information or strategy for you as a teacher, when it comes to you getting better, being a better leader, being better at enrolling at relating, engaging kids, what domain do you go to? Is it like leadership? Is it productivity? Is it personal development?
Angela Harman: For me, professionally, any time that I am learning, it makes me better. I find that any time I pick up a book and I read it, it’s making me better.
And it doesn’t always have to be a book about… Music education. I just barely was reading a book about teachers that make the biggest difference. And that affects me. And I read it and I get ideas and things that I want to implement in my classroom, or maybe personal habits I might have that I want to look on change.
So anytime we are educating ourselves in any sphere, it could, maybe I read a book about leadership or one just about education, or maybe I work with you on learning creative approaches. All of those things are making me a better teacher.
Christian Howes: What was that book called? Teachers that make a difference.
Angela Harman: I think that’s what it was called.
I just on my nightstand right now. I’d have to, I think it’s called: teachers that make it different.
Christian Howes: I love that. And, just to reiterate for anybody here. I was thinking about what questions that I could ask you, but I know that you share so many tips that can make orchestra teachers life easier, quicker, faster on your Instagram, on your Facebook, at orchestraclassroom.com. You even have a shop at teachers pay teachers. So just want to encourage people to go find them. But I wonder if you could share, a couple recent things that you’ve discovered or implemented into your curriculum or workflow that have been effective .
Angela Harman: , I’ve been working on how to track my students better because my classes are huge and it’s really hard to keep track of what each individual student needs in a large class because a lot of them don’t have private lessons. It’s just hard for me to keep track and keep them progressing.
So I really worked this summer about how to implement a way where students can be assessing themselves and I can check in with them more often. So I’ve been designing. Some different types of files using Google. Sheets and Google Forms where I can be connecting with students more often and checking in with them more often, but because they’re going to have STAND partners help them assess each other, it’s not going to be over burdensome for me because, I have to be careful to not burn out on what I’m doing, be careful with my time. And so I’m much more selective now about how I run things and what new things I’m going to implement because I want it to work and I want to burn out.
Christian Howes: That’s beautiful. I’m guessing that you have some systems that you’re probably sharing with other teachers .
Angela Harman: Yeah, I started posting some of those ideas on my blog, which is, orchestrateacher.blogspot.com. And I’m excited to be implementing those things. I just think it’s big for students to be able to know where they stand by doing these little activities. They’re going to know what I expect and know where they stand and know what they need to do to improve.
So I think it’ll be, it’ll help them a lot.
Christian Howes: It does seem like you have a lot of systems. Can I share a system with you? And this is something that another full time orchestra teacher, Austin Schelzo. Adapted based on my recommendation. I heard about the effect that it had, and I’m curious if you’re going to like it.
Austin retired from his orchestra teaching job and he became a full time entrepreneur, freelancer. He’s performing and teaching privately . But he was teaching in middle school orchestra in Connecticut for many years. Austin Schelzo, it looks like Skelzo, it’s S C E L Z O, if anybody wants to look him up, and he’s great at teaching bluegrass , if anybody wants to listen back for that, just look for Creative Strings Podcast and look for Austin Schelzo the episode with him.
But anyway, this is the big game changer that I shared with him , like you were saying to kind of automate and personalize at the same time. So it’s email sequences.
Email autoresponders. I have about 10, 000 people on my email, subscribed to my email newsletter. And, when anybody enters into my newsletter, or most people when they enter in my newsletter, they get 15 emails from me over the first two months. Those have all been programmed as an autoresponder.
And, they’re personalized and set up To match with the reason the person’s there. And there’s also a sequence involved in onboarding and nurturing and giving them, frequently, ask questions, answers to those things. So anyway, Austin at my recommendation, he did this with his school. With his classrooms, and it really helped him. So, you know the things that you’re going to do for the first three months or six months those lessons can be programmed into emails ahead of the school year. You can change them , but you can also. Have a series of emails that are just for parents that teaches the parents how to be supportive and you can also have things for the students. Have you ever heard about that or thought about trying that kind of approach?
Angela Harman: I haven’t tried it yet. I can see it saving a ton of time. The hard thing for a teacher is being organized enough to set it up.
Christian Howes: Well, obviously you create curriculum, lesson notes, assignments and all this stuff, right? As you’re doing that this year, you can just be saving each of these emails into, I’m sure you have a lot of these things already saved from past years, right?
So all you’re doing is copying and pasting some of those into emails, and probably there’s tech at the school that can help you set it up if you don’t have a separate email autoresponder, or you could just have like literally. Google Doc, which is like email one, email two, email three, and then, you could just send them manually and just push CC on everybody or whatever.
I think the point is that you’re doing that work anyway. So if this year, if you do it in real time, you could just save it each time and you’ll have it for years into the future. But for example, with my son goes to a school, it’s a small private school and that school sends the parents like a lot of emails, which is a great way for them to communicate with us.
We’re not supposed to write back to everything. It’s just like they’re keeping us in the loop. I think it’s great for retention. It’s great for recruitment. It helps motivate. Actually, marketing and teaching are very similar in this way, right? Because. As you know, if you’re posting on Instagram, on your blog, people are seeing that they’re taking action.
They’re getting inspired because they’re seeing your tips every day. It’s just like the kids, you know? So if you’re sending them email on top of everything else, you’re sending emails to their parents on top of seeing every class, it’s just going to add more and more reminders and formats and contextuality. So anyway, Austin loves it.
I love it. I’ve been doing, email marketing for years, but really it’s teaching. I think that’s one of the things we learned from the pandemic. is how much we can do virtually to reinforce and inspire and motivate people and educate them.
Angela Harman: I agree. I sometimes get emails from parents that say, Hey, what’s my students supposed to be working on or where are they supposed to be practicing this week? So I think that could be a really good way to say. Hey, this week, here’s what kids will be practicing. And then I have. Parents may be on board because I don’t grade on practicing.
I don’t like them when they show up to parent teacher conference and they ask me, should my kid be practicing, which I’ve gotten in the past? Yeah, I think that can actually be a good strategy.
Thoughs on the Creative side an Orchestra Classroom
Christian Howes: One of the last pieces I wanted to ask you about. Is the kind of the creative side of things, improvisation, eclectic styles, learning harmony.
Obviously a lot of traditional orchestra class is just learning orchestra skills, which are reading music and playing an instrument and playing in tune, playing in rhythm. Very technical. I’m curious what you think about how orchestra teachers can incorporate other types of music, musical skills, other types of musicianship related to composition, arranging, harmony, groove, improvisation, etc.
Angela Harman: Yeah, you came and worked with my students for a while. One thing I noticed immediately was how many students who were not my top students, but who were so involved and engaged. And I realized that we need that creativity side if I’m really going to reach all of my students.
And not only that, it’s going to make my top players better. And it’s also going to help bring along those lower level players, make them feel successful. There’s so many ways that I thought to use the creativity in my classroom. One way is to just build some of their skills. Like I know my students were, had a weakness sometimes for just keeping in, maintaining a steady.
I thought, if I start doing some of these creative things, not just tied to notes. I knew they would build that skill. So I’m excited to try a lot of these things with them throughout the school year. But also, I just think students need that creativity and expression. If I want them to love music and love playing their instruments.
What better way than to have them have some ownership and to create things on their own. I think once they, they have the confidence to do that and just have that experience, then of course they’re going to connect more with music and love what they’re doing, love what they’re learning.
Christian Howes: For many years, I’ve heard a version from many, classical teachers, something to the effect of kids need to learn technique first. First, they need to learn proper technique. We need to teach them proper technique after that, then they can learn to be creative. What’s your take on that?
Angela Harman: I think students are, especially kids, they are creative already. Why would we squelch that and wait for later? Then they could be trying it and it comes so naturally to them. I feel like they’re, it would be a shame to be asking students to hold that back. When they’re so naturally want to explore and create and it’s fun. So I think that they should be allowed to have that creativity and exploration as part of their learning.
Christian Howes: Teachers also talk about feeling pressured by the need to teach towards the concert and, or towards the adjudication or contest or whatever. And therefore that doing creative things gets relegated or pushed aside or we’ll just do one week on it, but otherwise we need to focus all our attention. Do you have any thoughts on how to reconcile that?
Angela Harman: I think there are creative things you could implement in warmups every single day. I think warmup should be creative every single day. They shouldn’t be the same thing every how boring would that be? If it was the same D scale every single day, it would, it’s so simple to add that creativity as part of, there’s no reason why it can’t be a daily thing to build those skills.
Christian Howes: I work at a lot of schools. But when I came and worked at your school, I felt really gratified because you expressed that you were interested in implementing things that I was doing related to improvisation.
And, of course, for many years, I’ve been trying to knock that door down so I want to tell listeners that Angela and I co created a mini course for orchestra teachers.
It’s great for first and second year players. We co created a mini course. So if you’re interested in. Diversifying your curriculum. You can check it out. You can get it at orchestraclassroom.com. Just go to orchestraclassroom.com if you have any questions. You can reach out to Angela there. Or reach out to me . It’s accessible, super affordable, mini course. It’ll give you at least enough material to work with your students for a couple weeks. . I have one other thing that I wanted to ask you about. You did a bachelor’s in music ed, right?
Angela Harman: I have a bachelor’s degree in music education, K through 12, instrumental.
Christian Howes: And then you’ve taught in the, K through 12 schools for how long? Is that okay to ask?
Angela Harman: I’ve taught for about 15 years plus a few before school ones that didn’t count on my pay scale. So technically like 18. Wow. And I got Suzuki certified as well. So I did that training. I used to have a Suzuki studio. So I have five children at home. So I had a 10 year break from public teaching public school. And during that 10 year break, I had a Suzuki studio.
Christian Howes: So that’s really like 28 years of teaching.
Angela Harman: I, yeah, I’m old.
Christian Howes: I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant there’s a big difference between 18 years and 28 years. Cause it’s like you, you’ve been teaching in schools for 18 years, but you also taught. Private studio for 10 years.
Angela Harman: Yeah. Yeah, that’s kind of stuff a long time.
Christian Howes: You’ve told me that, you think highly of the Suzuki method. I feel like there’s a lot of, Misunderstanding. Obviously, I’m a Suzuki grad. I’m a Suzuki dad, twice, and so I’m a big fan. I guess the way I think about Suzuki when I talk to other people who are like Suzuki this, Suzuki that, that haven’t been a part of the culture, is that it’s a very diverse community of teachers, who just like any community of teachers, most of the teachers that I meet come from a place of love and they care about their students and they have, they might have different ideas about how to, get results.
But there’s a couple core principles within Suzuki that I think. everybody agrees with, but the rest of it is just like people caring about students and trying to do a good job and trying to be better teachers. What do you say to people when they’re like, Suzuki, this or Suzuki that, what would you say to educate them ?
Angela Harman: I study what Suzuki method really is, and especially the philosophy behind it. I remember when I was. A new mom. I had read the book from zero to I can’t remember the title of it now birth to which I remember the name of it. I just remember it. I think it was a book by Suzuki, and it just changed the way I felt about raising my children, about talent, where talent is, how to develop talent, and the gifts that each person is inherently capable of if it’s nurtured.
And I think that’s what the Suzuki program is really about. It’s about nurturing talent that’s already there, but developing those skills, and in a way that’s laid out systematically. That builds skills and confidence and there, there’s just a lot I like about the method. I think that it gets a bad name for us sometimes for note reading, everything being played the same way, but I think that it’s evolved and it’s not all like that anymore.
I still think it’s a great way for young kids to learn.
Christian Howes: Was the book: nurtured by love? It was not that one. It was ability development from birth.
Okay. Great. Great.
Angela Harman: I think that’s what it was called.
Christian Howes: Yeah. That’s a great answer. Thank you. Some teachers that teach Suzuki will encourage sight reading, right? Some teachers that do Suzuki might encourage fiddle playing, theory, or chamber music, or there’s all kinds of ways to modify the specifics.
Why Angela likes to be a teacher?
Christian Howes: Last question. So, I know that you had a training. In music education, and I did not. I was, trained as a performer and then had a performing career for a long time before I even started my journey as a teacher and I’ve worked on that for about the last 20 years, but it was mainly like just figuring it out. And just doing it and then asking teachers that I met such as yourself for feedback, like everywhere I go.
And I went to so many orchestra classrooms and work with a lot of Suzuki teachers and group classes and stuff. And I would just ask for feedback. I was like, what can I do better? What did I do wrong? No, really tell me you’re a teacher. I’m asking for your advice, and I got different feedback over the years, which has been really helpful. But one of those times I asked a math teacher or an English teacher in Norway and he organized this program for me to visit a ton of music schools in Norway. I stayed at , his family’s house. And I asked him one day, I was like, what is it that. That makes a good teacher and He said there’s three things He said:
Number one come from a place of love. Number two come to every student at their level and number three just be a step or two ahead of them with whatever they need to learn. Is there anything you would add or say differently about you know what it is in your mind that makes a good teacher or why you like teaching?
Angela Harman: I like teaching because, like I said before, I love to see that growth and that progress in students. And I have fun when I teach. I feel like it’s my alternate personality. I have two different people. There’s the home me and there’s the teacher me. And I just, I love motivating and inspiring students to be their best and progress.
That makes me happy. As far as being a good teacher, I guess always knowing, having an idea of how you’re going to fix things, and then if you don’t know, being willing to go work on it and come back with a strategy. I never would leave a rehearsal and just be like, I guess they’re not going to get that.
Always trying to think and problem solve, so being really reflective. On what you’re doing and where you’re going with your students and in the problem solving and the creative work at home to keep that momentum, I think, is a big part of teaching.
Christian Howes: That’s beautiful. Thank you. First of all. For everybody out there, like connect with Angela Harmon. Go to on Instagram, orchestra.teacher.life, go to OrchestraClassroom.com on Facebook or just the website. Go to orchestrateacher.blogspot.com for her blog. and reach out to her. She’s helpful. Bring her into your conferences to present because I know that, she presents on so many things beyond the topics we covered today.
Like just really a very diverse array of specific topics, all of which you can see if you just like peek at her Instagram, like you’ll see just like just constant stuff, productivity, curriculum, pedagogy, leadership, just so many things. Thanks for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being open to my improv ideas and giving me a shot to come work with your students. And I’m looking forward to us collaborating on more things. Anything you want to leave people with?
Angela Harman: Oh, just thank you. I’m learning a ton from seeing what you do and I’m Super excited. One thing that when a new school year starts. It’s just fun to have something new to start working and trying with students. So I’m just really excited to dive into it and see how it goes.
Christian Howes: Awesome. Awesome. Cool. All right. Thanks again, Angela.
About Our Guest...
Angela Harman is a devoted full-time orchestra teacher based in Mapleton, Utah, with a remarkable 15-year tenure at Utah’s Nebo School District. Her unwavering passion for music education has been the driving force behind her substantial contributions to the growth and enhancement of orchestra programs across various schools.
In 2016, she was honored with the Give A Note Tour and Ardy from Radio Disney and the Give a Note Foundation. A year later, the Utah Music Educators Association bestowed upon her the Superior Accomplishment Award. In 2020, she earned the Best of State in Public Music Education award from bestofstate.org, marking another milestone in her illustrious career.
Angela is a sought-after presenter in the field of music education. She presented at the NAfME National Conference for three consecutive years, from 2015 to 2017. Angela’s insights have also enriched audiences at the UMEA conference, Rocky Mountain Strings Academy, OKMEA conference, NMMEA conference, ASTA National conference, among others.