Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We recently returned from Italy where we took in Mondomusica, an annual exhibition featuring handmade string instruments, wood and tools for makers, bows, cases and accessories from nearly four hundred exhibitors.  There were also many lecture and discussion sessions (mostly in Italian) and some very fine concert performances.  All of this takes place in Cremona, hometown of Stradivari and the "mecca" of violinmaking, with nearly two hundred makers working in and around the city.

This was our fourth visit to Cremona. Every time there is something new, but many things stay the same, so visiting Cremona is a lot like visiting an old friend. In fact, we relish renewing the Cremonese friendships we have made over the years. Cremona is a small city and very walkable. It's not on the "tourist radar" at all, but there are many interesting shops and stores, wonderful restaurants and some very good museums, not all of which are related to violins. While I spend most of the daylight hours at the exhibition, Marj covers the town shopping and exploring.

I think every string player should visit Cremona at least once, and Mondomusica is a great excuse to go; to be able to look at, handle, and play on so many fine instruments in one place, as well as to meet and talk with the makers and dealers.  One can learn much and make many contacts with like-minded people from around the world.  Probably 90% of the exhibitors are European: mostly from Italy, France and Germany. There is an increasing presence of eastern European (Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian and Polish) makers who offer some very nice instruments at believable prices, as opposed to the unbelievable prices of many of the French and Italian makers.  The number of Asian exhibitors has decreased over the past few years, perhaps due to the growth of Asian shows like the one in Shanghai.  I saw no American makers, and the reason is probably economic--costs of exhibiting and transporting along with the sorry state of our dollar.  However, Mondomusica is mounting a show in New York City in January, and I'm betting most of the instruments there will be American.

Trips like this are renewing for me, much as attendance at music educator conferences has always "jacked me up." In many ways, my beliefs have been reaffirmed, but I always come away with new ideas, contacts and information to share.  In my next post, I'll share some instrument findings with you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


First off, I'm not going to comment on the private instruction high school students are or are not getting, except to say this: It's rare for a high school orchestra to have more than 20% of its members studying priately on their instruments.  For the other 80%, the only technical advancement they'll get will come through the school orchestra. If your group has 100% private study going, good for you! You don't need to be reading this unless you want to ponder how the other 99% of us get along (not a bad idea, actually.)

There's a strong temptation to focus more exclusively on literature at the high school level, but this is a huge mistake. Concert literature simply cannot be used be used to build good technique, but focusing on direct technical instruction will give students what they need to handle performance literature. Skills will stick with them and carry over, eliminating that trip back to "square one" for every new piece of music.

My solution to this problem is "Scales, Arpeggios and Chorales", by Ian Edlund, published by String Instrument Specialists and available from your sheet music dealer. This material covers what I consider essential technique for high school orchestras and allows the teacher lots of room for creative applications. It presents unbroken two-octave scales (major and minor) through four sharps and four flats, with corresponding arpeggios, carefully fingered for each instrument. There is also a Bach-harmonized chorale in each key.  I suggest pairing this material with "A Rhythm a Week", by Anne Witt, which does a great job of building rhythmic reading and understanding through exercises very well-written (idiomatic) for strings. Work with this material should occupy 20-25% of class time; however, with performance demands at this level being what they are, that 25% figure may not happen every day, or even every week.  But over time it needs to average 25%.

That leaves 75% of the time for "real" music. The main focus at this level should be on masterwork-caliber pieces for both full and string orchestra, using works from all musical periods, cultures and styles. Bear in mind that we are educators,  not entertainers, and everything we do needs to reflect that. Beware of pop tunes and movie music--cheese is still cheese. The criteria of involvement for all the instruments, appropriateness to instructional goals, and inherent musical value should still apply.

It's always great to play original works, but don't downplay the value of a well-done arrangement which might better suit your needs. And, if a concert includes five works, only one or two should really tax the group (but remember: everything has to sound good.) Two should be less demanding, needing only a moderate amount of rehearsal/teaching time. One piece should be undemanding but still contain teachable moments and be of interest to listeners.  There's also a place for "rehearsal room music" which will never see the concert stage but still can provide valuable experiences for students. Teachers using these ideas as guidelines will give their students  a broad range of musical experiences over course of a year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Over the past several years as I attend conferences around the country and visit the exhibit areas, I've noticed an interesting  trend developing. Displays of instruments and sheet music are becoming fewer and are being replaced by  tour operators, promoters of festivals at far-flung destination resorts, uniform suppliers, and hawkers of every conceivable fundraising idea. It feels like I've fallen down the rabbit hole into a  wonderland where music is a lower priority.

Why are these enterprises becoming so prominent?  Obviously, they are proliferating because there is a market, and that disturbs me a bit. A lot of money is being spent on these ancillary activities. Since funding for these pursuits is never from school district budgets, it becomes incumbent on students and/or parents to raise the money. A lot of effort and time will be expended, and all of the money will leave town. The resulting student motivation might be for  the wrong reasons. Community identification with and benefit from the musical activities could well be hard to discern. Simply put: is it necessary to raise and spend all this money to teach music effectively?

As music educators, we must instill in our students the importance of their performances being the very best no matter who or where the audience is.  I submit we owe more to the parents and school people who make music possible for our kids than we owe to any out-of-town audience.

So much for my rant. I will admit views like mine probably come with "maturity." There was a time when I wanted to show colleagues with big names what a successful teacher I was, and travel seemed like a good opportunity. But I found that although I was a pretty good music teacher--I loved music and kids--I wasn't comfortable (and consequently wasn't successful) with raising money. So I decided to do all I could to help my students become successful players who loved music and each other, hoping that love of music would always be with them.  I decided those were noble goals, and I resolved not to lose sight of them.

In the end, each of us has to work within our own comfort zone to create meaningful and memorable experiences for our students. It wouldn't hurt to remember that we owe the most to our communities, and our students should be anxious to serve the cause of music at home first and foremost. Efforts devoted to the cause of music will pay back much more than effort expended on fundraising, glitzy uniforms, competitions and travel.  And that's as it should be, since it reflects what we are: music teachers.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The method books discussed in the previous post usually include two or three volumes. Volume One is almost always clear, direct and usable despite differences in approach or appearance. The problems arise in the later volumes as the instrument techniques become more divergent. It's generally advisable to dump Volume Two about halfway through (if you use it at all) and use structured specific technical material as multiple parts and performance pieces are added to the mix. The technical material may be in book form, but beware of excess padding. Do we really need two pages of bowing and rhythmic variations written out for each major scale? Take time to carefully examine how shifting and playing in higher positions are introduced.

I'm a firm believer in the value of scales to reach most technical goals, so for me a scale-based book is best. And (ahem...) I just happen to have assembled two which work well and allow for teacher creativity.  "Patterns and Positions for Strings" by Ian Edlund is published by String Instrument Specialists and is available from any sheet music dealer.  This book matches what I consider the main technical expectations of middle school players. It presents the concept of finger patterns, two-octave unbroken scales in C, G, D, F and B-flat major, studies in thirds, shifting, and chromatics, all carefully fingered. There's also a simple four-part chorale in each key, with melody and harmony lines for each instrument which increases their versatility. For good development, students should spend half their class time daily on pure technical instruction.

"Concert" music at this level needs to be very carefully chosen because  a lot of it isn't very good, and it may be "dumbed down" so much that only first violinists get any challenge at all. Besides finding the appropriate technical level, look for movement and interest in all of the parts. Two- and three-part writing and arrangements which contain a lot of unison work can be very valuable at this level, to develop tone quality, blend and accurate pitch.  It's important to select pieces in a variety of styles and musical periods, always with concern for musical value.  Pop, rock and movie themes are almost always cheesy hack arrangements which are seldom idiomatic for string instruments and are usually out-dated before we get them. Kids may be initially excited by the titles, but the tunes will wear thin very quickly.  And they have no lasting value, thus no "shelf life" in your library.  Watered down Beethoven is far preferable.

It's a teacher's job to use great music to inspire students. When that watered-down Beethoven or easy Handel and Mozart come alive for kids, that connection will stick, lives may be changed, and kids will hold onto the effect of that teaching for a long time. There are great arrangements (and not-so-great ones) of the classics out there.  There are also many excellent original compositions published every year for students at these ability levels.  So search carefully, compare notes with your colleagues, and attend a good reading workshop.

In addition to all the above, it's important to keep in mind that no matter what, the orchestra has to look and sound good!  It all comes back to constant attention to fundamentals of technique.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I believe the most important task facing string educators is the selection of materials. Informed, careful choices go a long way toward insuring success. Unlike many in education, most music teachers enjoy the luxury of nearly complete freedom in choosing instructional materials.

The basis of instruction at any grade level is appropriate technical training material. This may be a method book or supplemental material to teach more specific technical skills. I generally refer to these materials as "the book."  Working systematically in "the book" is the only way to insure technical advancement. Working with "the book" should continue from the beginning level through high school.

Coupled with rote activities, "the book" should be virtually the only music that  first-year students see. To insure good setup as well as ear, pitch and tonal development, all of the first year's work should be in unison. Years of trial an error have convinced me of the truth of this belief.

There are many choices of basic method books, and all of them have strengths and weaknesses. They may use a gestalt approach or a mind-numbing one-finger-and-one-note-value-at-a-time presentation. The choice is yours.  Some methods are very trendy and may be overloaded with graphics, technology and assorted "bling." Look past this. The most important factors are the logic of the way the notes and skills are presented and the progression of activity.  Some methods also bombard you with tons of supplementary materials options, most of which may be unnecessary. Simple is good. Direct is even better.

Remember that the book is a tool for you to use as you deem appropriate to teach your desired skills. You are the teacher--the book isn't.  Remember also that the perfect method book hasn't been written yet and probably never will be.  So look them over carefully, discuss them with your colleagues, and choose the one that looks best to you. Then improvise as needed.  Virtually 100% of the first year's work should be from the the basic method book.

My next posts will deal with materials issues and ideas for advancing students (2nd to 4th year) and for high school students.  It's timely to throw these ideas around now since they can serve as a springboard into this summer's W-ASTA Birch Bay String Teachers' Workshop, which always has a heavy emphasis on materials and literature.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Supportive parents make their enthusiasm for their music programs known in ways the music teacher may never be aware of. While it's nice to be surrounded by happy parents after a concert, what really makes me feel good is when a parent says something like, "Oh, by the way, I ran into Mr. Principal in the store the day after the concert and told him how wonderful I thought it was."

Supportive parents are knowledgeable parents. Creating knowledgeable parents is an important part of string teaching. Communication has never been easier; we just have to make sure we do it. Email is a great tool for promoting activities. Face-to-face communication is still best, so after email gets parents to a program, use that concert as an opportunity for personal interaction.  Parents need to be involved from the beginning so they can support their kids and your program.

Here are some ideas for making a child's early musical experiences more meaningful to parents:

  • Be sure parents are present on enrollment night and that they have to sign something to have their child enrolled. A short presentation of yourself, your expectations of students and parents, and a brief preview of the year's planned activities will strengthen your case for parental involvement as a critical component in their child's successful experience.
  • Put beginners on a performance as soon as possible, hopefully in October. Maybe in conjunction with PTA.  It's not a concert; it's a demonstration  of what they are learning. Parents can see their kids being taught posture, playing position and class routine as they listen to open string cycles, finger pattern drills and a couple of favorite one-line tunes like Twinkle or French Folk Song.  If you have a 2nd year class in the same school, those kids can continue in the same vein demonstrating techniques and ending with one or two pieces.
  • This is an opportunity to call attention to how well the students are presenting themselves, and to inform parents how to meet their responsibility to be a supportive audience.  Then after the 30-minute (or less) program, it's meet and greet for you and the parents, who may even help you clean up afterward.
This foundation can be expanded on with middle schoolers:
  • Make the first concert a short one with only your orchestra students involved. Try to visit a bit with parents (especially if they don't look familiar) as they arrive. This can be tough to do with performers of this age, but give it a try.  Again, this program should be very early in the year.
  • Instead of warming the groups up in a separate area, start the program (after the greeting and decorum reminder) with a warmup demonstration which could show tuning procedure and some variations on a scale or two. This reminds parents that we are actually teaching, not simply trying to entertain. 
  • Next, briefly tell the audience what the students will be doing over the next few months--your program goals. Then introduce a couple of program pieces chosen to show off their newly-acquired skills.
  • Have cheap, easy refreshments after (cookies, pretzels, etc.--no drinks). Meet and greet the audience and ask them to help you clean up. Practice your social skills.
High school students can usually take care of themselves, so be sure they know what to do while you:
  • Stand at the entrance to personally greet each audience member and thank them for coming. Just like church! Remember, these people came early so their kids could make the call time, so you have time to visit a bit while your section leader make sure everyone's tuned, ready, and in the right place at the right time. 
  • Again, start the program by reminding parents of their involvement, of the need to avoid creating distractions, and how much their kids appreciate their applause.
  • Keep the concert short. Forty-five minutes is a good maximum. Any more and you're on borrowed time.
As the year progresses, performances may take on different flavors, but they should always reflect the direction our instruction is taking. We are educators first, entertainers a distant second.  Consider doing a showcase concert to feature the entire program--beginners through high school. Properly prepared and annotated with narration by an "eminent emcee" (e.g., the superintendent), this is the ultimate way to be sure parents and decision-makers "get it" regarding their children's musical development.

The underlying things to remember are that what we do must have integrity, and the kids must look and sound good.  The program's support in the school and community can't help but be enhanced when performances for parents are carefully planned and executed.  Management is everything.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Nobody would disagree that our most basic responsibility as school orchestra teachers is to make sure our students acquire sufficient technical skill and  awareness of what's happening in the music so they can be moved and enriched by their recreation of art.  Indeed, many careers are built around this one premise.

But there's more.  Music education is not confined to the rehearsal room. The program's survival needs to be assured.  One needs to successfully negotiate the minefield of education politics. There is a need to be an advocate--to the decision makers, colleagues, parents, taxpayers and to other students.  Each one of these aspects deserves an article (or ten) of its own.  This time, some thoughts about the need and value of music education outside the classroom:

An obvious outcome of instruction is a successful public performance. For our programs to have fidelity, performances must be the musical culmination of of our technical efforts in the rehearsal room. Primary objectives should be for students to demonstrate technical mastery, awareness of musical value, and awareness of stage protocol and presentation style.

I like to view a performance as the "final exam" of a period of instruction--in today's jargon, a "performance evaluation."  So we dutifully select an appropriate program which builds and demonstrates technical and musical accomplishment, we teach these skills and ideas to an optimal level, and we make students comfortable with proper appearance requirements and stage demeanor.

Then comes the concert--the performance evaluation--where our students are tested in front of an audience. It's almost always presented without sufficient rehearsal time in the venue, which is almost always inadequate. We find ourselves performing in a cafeteria (where people walk around, eat, and socialize), or in a gymnasium (where people walk around, yell and scream, eat and socialize.) And what happens?  Our audience, made up mostly of parents, act as people act in cafeterias and gymnasiums. Our well-trained students see the less-than-exemplary audience behavior and are uncomfortable and ungratified despite our best efforts in the rehearsal room.

It's obvious who needs to be educated here, and we teachers are ones who must do it.  From the very first time students appear in front of an audience, we must, in polite but certain terms, make clear to our audience our expectations of them. The expectations are pretty basic no matter the age level of the students: remain seated for the entire concert, do not talk during performances, and do not distract the students from their task in any way--no flash photos, video, cell-phones, waving, whistling, yelling, etc.  It is possible to impress these things on an audience in a positive manner without insulting or offending them, and this should be done at the very beginning of every performance.  After that, the teacher must not be reluctant to stop the performance if the audience needs reminding.  It's important to remember that training the audience is an educational activity, too.  These parents and friends are often new to this activity, and they deserve to have all the etiquette spelled out.  This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our concern for our students' success while introducing our audience to its very important role in the long-standing ritual of concert performance.

I've been in the presence of a few teachers who truly were masters at handling this important aspect of music education. Their parents respect them for insisting on exemplary behavior from everyone involved. I firmly believe we all need to do this, and I encourage everyone to give serious thought to the creation of a short, positive and clear presentation of proper audience involvement, and use this statement to begin each performance.

Audience etiquette is one of the cornerstone identifiers of a civilized society. It is our responsibility to be sure it is understood and practiced by our audiences as well as by our young performers.  I believe audiences will be more aware of the accomplishments of our students as they become more connected to what is happening before them.  Then they will perhaps be more meaningfully supportive when their help is needed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Most of the teachers I know have spent two weeks recovering from a frenzy of concerts and are now facing the start of the festival season.  Interspersed among the performance activities and high-stakes tests are state Music Educators Association conferences, and for string teachers the granddaddy of them all, the national convention of the American String Teachers Association.

I have always been struck by how isolated we can feel in our work.  Most music teachers work in an environment where, literally, no one else speaks their language.  Teachers and administrators who are well-educated and highly trained as teachers freely admit they know nothing about music.  So much for those who are supposed to be the mentors and the improvers of teaching processes.  Schools focus their inservice offerings on the generalities of teaching (some of which can be quite helpful) and on basic subject areas such as math, reading and science.  This situation can leave a striving string teacher feeling frustrated and alone.

The obvious answer would seem to be closer contact with other music teachers.  You think?? But the problem is how to achieve that.  I believe that all of us need to make an extra effort toward professional accomplishment.  I truly believe that every string teacher knows something that can be useful to other string teachers.  The problem is that most of us seem to operate in a vacuum.  We go to work each day, interact (for better or worse) with our students, don’t interact much with other teachers due to the peripatetic nature of our work, leave late every day after all the extra rehearsals or whatever, and go home to have a life outside of teaching music (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”)  This has always been the way our jobs work.

In my younger days, when there were fewer schools and fewer things to do in our free time, we used to go to each others’ concerts, which were usually followed by some friendly libations. These events were always learning experiences and we always left with a new idea or two. It seems like this kind of comraderie doesn’t happen much any more.  This makes participation in your music teacher organizations and attendance at your professional conferences all the more important. Imagine how helpful and uplifting it can be to spend two or three days in the company of a thousand or more other people who speak the same language you do.  Imagine being able to choose from a multitude of presentations and gain new skills, knowledge, ideas and materials from people who are recognized leaders in our profession. Imagine being inspired by performances from the finest musical organizations, led by people who may be a lot like you. Imagine having the opportunity to get involved in the advancement of our profession.  Imagine gaining the skills and experience to guide others down the path to success.

Every time I say these things, someone comes back with how it’s so expensive, it’s so far away, it comes at a bad time, it eats my only three-day skiing weekend, yadayada.  The truth is, none of us can afford NOT to attend these conferences. We NEED that information.  We NEED that inspiration so we can face the challenges of our teaching situations.  We NEED to support each other, professionally and personally. We NEED that professional association which is our collective voice to the powers that be.  So we need to pay those association dues, read those journals, attend and learn at the conferences those dues help provide, and contribute time, money, talent and effort to help make our work better in some small way. You may find that you want to be a leader. That’s great. But good followers are needed, too.

So sacrifice a few lattes and make your plans to go to those conferences. Go to a friend’s concert.  Be part of an adult orchestra of some kind and encourage your students to come hear you. Take part in a summer workshop.  It’s our professional responsibility to be more than someone who goes to work every day and grinds it out. We all have a responsibility to give to our profession as well as to take from it.  If you live and teach in Washington, I hope I’ll see you in Yakima in February.  And if you really want an experience, I’ll see you in Atlanta in March. Then there’s Birch Bay in August, when a whole bunch of positive-feeling folks get cranked up to do their best for another year.  This is really a wonderful thing we do, teaching kids to play strings as we open up their world.  Take part!