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.

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