Thursday, December 1, 2011


So here we go!  I'm starting my first-ever blog experience, and it will probably take me a while to settle into a groove. My hope is to able to bring up topics of interest to string teachers and orchestra conductors. Of course, I also hope to throw out some thought-provoking ideas along the way.  And you'll occasionally find a commercial message. I've accumulated a few thoughts and ideas after over forty years of teaching, which I'm pleased to have an opportunity to share. So check into this space every once in a while to see what's on my mind at the moment. One of the privileges that comes with the attainment of a certain age is the right to work without deadlines, so don't expect something new every day or every week.  This will be like fishing--some days you don't catch anything.

I've come to believe that the most important thing to assure the success of a school string program is numbers. As string teachers, I hope we are all concerned about quality. We should be.  But there's nothing like numbers to cement your program into a secure place in the curriculum.  When I began teaching, a healthy beginners' class was about fifteen students, and a good sized high school string section might be thirty-five players.  And the "end" was always near. The decision makers didn't put a lot of importance on such small numbers, and the string teacher was often seeing fewer students per day than other teachers in other subject areas. Today the picture is much different.  I see beginning classes numbering upwards of thirty students in an elementary school, and many (most?) high schools have at least two orchestras with total enrollments approaching a hundred or more.  The ability to show off this many students makes a much different impression on the decision makers.

This week I participated in a festival performance which featured over three hundred string students in grades five through twelve (in four orchestras) all on a gym floor at once, playing to a capacity audience of enthusiastic parents and friends.  It was very early in the school year, and there were a few rough edges in the performances, but the enthusiasm and pride which permeated the evening was palpable.  The level of parental support was evident to all the administrators there, as was the feeling of positive accomplishment on the faces of the students.  What a great public relations event for the string program, highlighted by a great script delivered by a principal acting as the emcee for the evening. Every school district should present shows like this.  The two teachers involved were obviously very proud of their students, and everyone left the concert smiling.

The point of all this is that the same effect could probably not come from a presentation which only involved a few students.  Effective introductory techniques are obviously being used, and fifth graders are being introduced to the music program, rather than into "band" or "orchestra", although they do choose one instrument and stay with it. If students and parents are asked to commit to a year of instruction, it is critical for that instruction to be effective--that students enjoy success and keep the desire to continue.  Classes need to be fast-moving, engaging, positive, and gratifying for the students who must be made to understand the goals and strive to do their best at all times.

Teachers need to recognize that students have varying abilities, but it important that they feel proud of each of their successes, no matter how small.  If parents come to a concert and see students well-dressed and attentive, sitting/standing tall, playing with all the bows going the same direction at the same time while the audience is able to recognize the tune and enjoy the sound, those parents will be completely in awe of the teacher.  But are we selling snake oil? I hope not. I think it would be hard to achieve the things just mentioned without stressing quality in class.

The teaching of anything (music included) has certain "givens"--kids must feel success, the operations must be learned and performed correctly, the class must be managed well, and the goal must always be in sight.  Certainly there are other considerations too, but I feel these are the most important, especially in the early stages.  But we need to have the numbers in order to give the program real credibility. Without numbers it's difficult to make the quality as evident. And in today's world where so much of the emphasis in education is on things which work to the detriment of the arts,  humanities, and human expression, we really need to demonstrate that quality of accomplishment while involving a  significant number of students.

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