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.