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.