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A Basic Approach to Sizing String Instruments

A Basic Approach to Sizing String Instruments

Proper sizing of string instruments can at first seem mysterious. Much of this mystery comes from the different sizing terms and sizing needs used for each member of the string family. Below is a discussion of each instrument’s terminology and sizing considerations, intended as a resource for educators and parents. This is not intended to replace the knowledge of an expert in sizing string instruments, however; who should always be physically present to assist in measuring.


Violins are available in quarter increments from 4/4 down to 1/4th; as well as smaller 1/8th, 1/10th, 1/16th, and 1/32nd sizes. A large majority of teen-aged students should be able to play on a full-sized instrument. Generally speaking, students should expect to move to a larger-sized instrument every other year, with 8-year-olds often playing on 1/2 size, and 10-year-olds often playing on 3/4 size instruments. These are rough guides though; and much depends on the size of the player, and especially the length of the student’s arms and shoulders.

Because of variations in each student’s size at a given age, there are more accurate ways of sizing violins; which require the student to be present during sizing. One is to hold the violin in playing position, and have the student cup the palm around the very tip of the scroll. If the student has a natural 95-degree bend at the elbow in this position, then the violin is likely a playable size. Another sizing method is to measure the arm length from the player’s base of the neck to the cup of the palm. Generally, there is a two-inch arm length range for each fractional size: 18.5” will require a 1/4 size, 20.5” will be in the range of 1/2 size, 22.5” will require 3/4 size, and a student over 23.5” can be ready for a full-sized instrument.


Violas, unlike violins, are sized by the length of the instrument’s body. The “junior” size viola is sized between a 3/4 and a full sized violin, with a 12-13” length. This size is often used by students who would otherwise be playing on a 3/4 violin, which means that a viola may be sized larger than a violin would be for the same player. This in turn means that the teacher needs to use caution not to have the student overstrain the hand and arm while playing.

The “intermediate” viola is an additional inch or two longer in body size, and often lasts the player up until the teenage years, once their arm length is generally over 23.5.” When the student has a playing arm length of 25,” then a 15” instrument theoretically becomes usable. For each inch that the player’s arm grows, an additional 1/2” of instrument body size can generally be added in the equation, at the teacher’s discretion and of course considering the student’s comfort.


Cellos, like violins, come in fractional sizes. But where the size of the violin is often based on arm length, on the cello the student’s finger span is a primary consideration. Generally, a cellist who can comfortably extend 6” or more between the tips of the index and pinkie fingers should be able to play on a 4/4 instrument. Some adults still play on a 7/8 instrument, so not every student will play a full-sized instrument. For each inch less in playing span between the two outer fingertips, a smaller fraction should be assigned. So a 5” span generally means a 3/4 sized instrument, and a 4” span a 1/2 sized one. The arm length is also a consideration though, as students with long fingers but shorter arms may not be able to place the bow in a good sounding place on a larger instrument’s string.


Double basses are also listed in fractional sizes, but in their case the fraction refers to string length and does not refer to instrument size. Basses labeled as 4/4 are very rarely used, and should never be used by students: Most professional players play on a 3/4 sized instrument. Students in middle school generally play on a 1/2 sized instrument, whereas beginning players in 4th or 5th grade should generally play on a 1/4 size. With sizing bassists, a combination of finger span, arm length, and body size should be considered. To assess finger span, have the student make their hand into a comfortable playing position. More than a 5” span between the tips of the outer fingers will be needed to comfortably play the lowest notes on the E string of a 3/4 sized bass. The bow arm should be long enough to touch the bridge while in playing position, and physically the student should be able to span the entire range of the instrument without strain.


This chart summarizes the information presented above.

15 years-adult:

25” or greater arm length

Min. 6” finger span

13-15 years old:

23.5” to 25” arm length

5.5” finger span

9-12 years old:

22.5” to 23.5” arm length

5” finger span

7-9 years old:

20.5” to 22.5” arm length

4” finger span


18.5” to 20.5” arm length

Violin 4/4 4/4 3/4 1/2 1/4
Viola 15” and above Intermediate 14” to 15” Junior 12” to 13”
Cello 4/4 3/4 1/2 or 3/4 1/2 1/4
Bass 3/4 1/2 or 3/4 1/2 1/4 1/8 or 1/10

In general, do not size a student with a larger instrument and expect that he or she will grow into it. This makes playing very difficult, and is certainly more dangerous physically. In fact, the student may not even be able to reach all notes if the instrument is too large for the player. As mentioned before, work with a capable string instrument specialist, and consider and confirm that any string rental program allows the student to move in size as part the rental agreement. Each student grows differently, and therefore the teacher needs to evaluate the needs of each student individually on a consistent basis—including instrument size, shoulder rest needs with upper strings instruments, and endpin length with lower strings. Finally, be sure to match the bow size to the instrument size, and be sure that the bow is balanced, well weighted, and matched to the instrument.

Numerous print and digital resources exist to assist with proper sizing. Any resource, including this one, is meant to be a guide, and authors of this or any guide are never responsible for problems, including injury, from following the information contained herein. With proper sizing however, the risk of discomfort and injury is lessened; and the teacher’s work can be focused on making great music, because of—not in spite of—each student’s instrumental setup.

Richard NiezenRichard Niezen is a double bassist, conductor, and string teaching specialist. He currently oversees the strings program at Colorado Christian University, and has worked as a conductor and adjudicator throughout the Rocky Mountain region. He has a Master’s Degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and a PhD in Educational Research from the University of Colorado. Dr. Niezen has spent his last decade actively working as a private studio instructor, with an emphasis in addressing the needs of older learners. He has also been developing curricula, as well as researching music career preparation and educational policy issues.

Intonation Lessons Learned from Suzuki Pedagogy

Intonation Lessons Learned from Suzuki Pedagogy

Within the Suzuki method of violin pedagogy, there is a huge emphasis on the importance of listening in the acquisition of musicianship skills. A person might describe themselves as tone deaf, yet that same person will have no difficulty recognizing the voice of a friend on the telephone or identifying the melody of a video game soundtrack. In fact, that person is highly skilled in identifying tones. They just haven’t applied their skill to music.

Dr. Suzuki described his method of music instruction as The Mother Tongue Method. Just as children all over the world learn to speak their native language through listening and imitation, students learn to play music through repeated listening and imitation of music they are currently studying as well as pieces they will study in the future. Listening to recordings of pieces to be studied is a daily requirement. Attending and participating in regular recitals and concert enables students to listen to other students performing pieces they themselves have worked on or will study in the future. Having learned a piece themselves, the listener is only too well aware of what is involved to imitate perfect “in-tune-ation”.

Below are a few related ideas which you might try with your students. Please note that while my emphasis is on stringed instruments, many of these examples are applicable to any music students.

Finger Tapes

Finger tapes are often applied to the beginning student’s violin fingerboard. A finger tape for the placement of the first and third finger is most helpful. Over time, after numberless repetitions and imitations, the ear teaches the hand and finger muscles to place the 1st and 3rd finger exactly on the tapes for perfect intonation. The 2nd finger learns independence by sitting immediately next to finger # 1 or finger #3. Finger tapes for the 4th finger are sometimes used although matching the 4th finger with the next open string, or matching the sound of a perfect 5th (e.g., first 2 pitches in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) also works well and avoids using more tapes than is absolutely necessary. Too many tapes can be as confusing as no tapes at all.

Group Lesson Activities

Suzuki students enjoy regular group lessons in addition to private violin lessons. Some of these group lesson activities can be applied in other school settings and can be used as regular warmups. Naming the activity something like “5 Minute Musical Madness” promotes the attitude of fun and willingness to try without fear of failure.

  • Teach harmony parts to well-known melodies (Examples can include folk songs, “Happy Birthday,” “Hot Cross Buns,” etc.). Easy harmonies begin with tonic note drone or alternate I and V “bass lines.”
  • Sing rounds and cannons or partner songs (“Home on the Range” goes with “My Home’s in Montana”).
  • Divide class in half. Have one side maintain a steady beat while other students tap out the rhythm of a nursery rhyme or any other song the entire class knows.
  • Have your class “Do what I do”. Class taps a steady beat (tap knees or 2 fingers on the palm of other hand) for 4 beats while teacher claps a 4 beat rhythm pattern. As students clap the rhythm pattern back in response, the teacher taps the beat. Class goes back to the beat. Teacher claps out a new 4 beat pattern. It’s a game of tag using beat and rhythm. Begin with easy patterns, progressing to more challenging and longer rhythm patterns. Use patterns from music being studied. Once familiar and comfortable with the activity, ask for a student volunteer to be the leader.
  • Silent singing: Beginning at a slow tempo, sing a major scale up and down using note names or tonic solfege. Repeat, but omit one of the notes. THINK the mi, or sol for example. Over time this can be done at a faster tempo, “think singing” more than one of the notes up the entire scale.
  • Sing a short phrase from the piece you are working on. Sing the first note, THINK the remainder. Sing the first note again. How often to do remember the pitch correctly? Make it challenging but fun.

The important thing to remember in all of this is the philosophy behind the Suzuki Method of Instruction. We are developing good hearts and nothing breeds success like success. We teach our children to speak using lots of smiles, loving encouragement, gentle corrections and high praise for effort.

Suzuki applied those principles to the art of teaching the violin. We can too.

Arlene PattersonArlene Patterson immigrated to America from Glasgow, Scotland. With a background in elementary education, she studied music education at The University of Michigan and later earned a master’s in education from Lesley University, concentrating on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.  She studied Suzuki violin teacher training with Ellie Albers LeRoux and teaches Suzuki violin in her home studio in Longmont, Colorado.

A retired public school K-5 vocal music specialist, Arlene enjoys teaching students of all ages. Currently her students range from 3 years old to over 70.  Her daughter, now 21, plays violin and Scottish fiddle music with her mom.   

Suzuki Method Lessons on Keeping Music Students Engaged

Suzuki Method Lessons on Keeping Music Students Engaged

When we hear the term “kung fu,” Chinese martial arts usually come to mind. What most do not know, however, is that the original meaning of kung fu is “life study.” Any task that requires time, dedication, and extensive study in order to master is “kung fu.” Therefore, music is kung fu, a life study.

This concept of a life study is important to internalize when we live in a society that values instant results. WiFi connections must be instant. Packages are delivered in days rather than weeks. Students in school are expected to understand subjects in a very short space of time and then be tested on the material. In Western culture, very few activities place any sort of value on taking the time to thoroughly understand a subject.

This is why music lessons can come as quite a shock to the system for many families. There is no timetable that must be kept and no checklist of requirements that must be filled other than learning how to play an instrument well. On top of all this, young students grow up. An obvious statement at first glance, but growing up presents one of the hardest challenges for both parents and teachers alike: what motivates a student to keep playing will change over the course of time.

So what does this mean?

It means that there is no quick fix or one size fits all answer for how to keep a student engaged in his musical studies over the course of many years. To be frank, if a conversation about quitting lessons has taken place, it is already too late. The drive to keep playing must be instilled from the very beginning of instruction and not at the end when frustration has taken hold.

Shinichi Suzuki

What really brought attention to Shinichi Suzuki’s approach was his ability to start students at a very young age and work those students up to an extremely high level of playing before they even hit adulthood. Before Suzuki, the musical world had never seen children that young playing with the exception of the odd prodigy. Suzuki created his approach after countless hours of researching and studying the mother tongue effect. He noted that all children learn their native language so there must be a reason as to why this occurs.

The “how” or “why” the method works is a subject for another time. What’s important to understand is that the Suzuki Method is rooted in the idea that environment is the best teacher. Environment has the power to shape a person’s life. If music is truly going to be a life study then it must become an integral part of day-to-day existence.

Auditory Training

The Suzuki Method addresses this need in several ways. A big one is having the student learn by ear to start. Sight-reading is, of course, taught later. But by emphasizing auditory training from the beginning it places value on the act of listening to music.

Every musician should be listening to music outside of practice. Listening develops artistry and an appreciation for what other artists have accomplished. For young musicians it gives a sense of scope outside of their limited home practice.

The Social Component of Music

Providing social outlets is another way the Suzuki Method helps students incorporate music into daily life. Group class is seen as a separate but equally important counterpart to the private lesson. Despite the enormous number of hours put into individual practice, it is rare for a musician to perform completely alone. Learning how to play with others is a critical skill.

Group class also provides powerful social motivation for children as they grow up. In school, classmates and teachers change every year. But in group class their classmates remain relatively unchanged, allowing for friendships to form over the course of many years. This becomes important once a child becomes a teenager and the need for peer approval is strong. In some cases it may be the one thing that helps a student pull through a practicing rut.

The Music Classroom

Band, Orchestra, and Choir classrooms can be a great way to provide students with musical social outlets and incorporate music into their daily life.  As with private teaching, the challenge in this type of setting is to get the student to take the music lesson outside of the classroom.

Encourage listening outside of the classroom, perhaps by offering extra credit for finding a YouTube (or other) recording of a current working piece and writing a short summary on how this performance differs from your recent rehearsal.  Or, have the student listen to three other pieces by the same composer.

Practice partners can be a great way to encourage social interaction.  If it is a school setting, pair more experienced players with those new to the ensemble.  This allows the new player to feel welcomed and it makes the experienced player better by having to help out with tricky passages.

Learning Another Language

Becoming fluent in any new language is difficult. It is generally agreed that the best way to learn a new language is immersion. Sitting in a classroom for an hour or two each day does not force a person to think in that new language. It is one thing to regurgitate phrases taught by a teacher, it is another thing entirely to have to ask for directions in a foreign country from someone who only speaks the new language.

It is no different when it comes to music; music is simply another language. The goal is still communication. If a student is going to be engaged in a lifetime of musical studies then steps must be taken to immerse a student in musical culture.

Danielle KravitzDanielle Kravitz is a faculty member with the San Diego Suzuki School of Music and teaches full time.

Her past writing work includes publications for the American Suzuki Journal, Strings Magazine and various e-books.

She successfully runs several blogs including her Suzuki education blog, Rethinking Genius.

Teaching Character – and Tolerance – Through Music

Character & Tolerance_blog

Dr. Suzuki envisioned a society in which learning an instrument was an important educational tool in character development. Encouraging ideal character traits in my students is a task that separates the Suzuki Method from others and one that excites me to continue to grow and be creative as a teacher.

This particular election process has had me thinking about tolerance and the attributes that accompany it: humility, respect, and empathy. Social media has created a platform in which everyone feels entitled to display their political, religious, and social beliefs – oftentimes to the disagreement of others. Instead of valuing these alternative viewpoints, I have witnessed the “unfriending” of one another and a greater separation of ideologies.

According to Pitiane Magazine, tolerance and the skills that accompany it are learned attributes and ones that I believe can be readily accessed through the act of musical collaboration.[i] By learning to work together as an ensemble, we can discover that we have more in common than not. The following action steps are meant to provide educators with additional activities that they can utilize in group classes to encourage better ensemble skills while providing the greater goal of encouraging tolerant attitudes within their Suzuki students.

The Importance of Functioning as an Ensemble

The most important aspect of any musical ensemble is teamwork. Richard Young, violist of the Vermeer Quartet once stated that the best chamber musician is one that is able to listen to others in the group more than him/herself while still playing his/her best. This statement reveals the balance between personal achievement and contributions to the success of the group. The greatest chamber experiences are filled with moments of humility, empathy, arguments, and collaboration; all aspects which inevitably contribute to a tolerant attitude. Valuing the technical, social, and musical skills needed to function as an ensemble is essential in cultivating tolerance.

Action Step #1: Teamwork Building Activities

Because many of our students spend a great deal of time working privately (with teachers or parents), I view group classes as having the ultimate goal of learning to work well within an ensemble. So much of my teaching is spent instilling the value of teamwork within my students either through explicit ‘team-building’ activities or more abstractly through simply learning to play well together.

Teamwork can be introduced by starting simple with engaging and fun passing games. These not only clarify the importance of teamwork in our group sessions but also allow everyone a chance to feel comfortable with one another:

  • Pass the Cup: The goal is to maintain perfect bow holds while passing a cup between students’ bow tips. Students stand in a circle and attempt to beat their “best time.”[ii]
  • Passing Rhythms: This may be done first with clapping or speaking before using violins. Students sit in a circle and pass Suzuki Variations from one person to the next while maintaining a steady pulse.[iii]
  • Telephone: The goal is that students play the pitch that was performed by the student previous to them. If a student plays an open A, the next student’s goal is to play the same pitch; if a student plays a different pitch, the next student must match what was heard. The goal is to end with the same pitch as was started.

Action Step #2: Learning the Technicalities of Ensemble Skills

Early on in the group-class process, a teacher’s role may be to provide technical strategies that help musicians play together. Working on these skills singularly often leads to greater awareness in students which eventually allows for student-led practices and respectful collaboration among students – an essential skill in understanding tolerance.

Initially, these include emphasis on beginning and ending together, bow direction, bow amount, articulation, and group pulse.

  • Leading Questions: questions are typically used in the beginning to make students aware of ensemble skills; did we end together, where our bows moving in the same direction, etc. help to maintain focus on these aspects of ensemble technique.
  • Hawks: Asking students to find success in their peers helps to focus attention on ensemble skills. Ask one student to be the “hawk” and fly around the room identifying students who demonstrate a specific ensemble skill. This may include looking at others, moving to the pulse, using the same amount of bow as a leader, etc. The hawk may tap them on the shoulder to signify a job well done.[iv]
  • Live and Breathe: Students must follow a leader as best they can; if the leader speeds up, slows down, plays loudly, etc. the students must follow. This may be used to brainstorm technical ensemble skills or solidify previously practiced ones.[v]
  • Silent Sing: This activity reinforces the importance of group pulse. The teacher begins playing a piece and asks the students to silently sing along in their heads. After a few measures the teacher stops playing altogether and asks the students to raise their hands when the song has finished. The goal is to do it at the same time.[vi]
  • Partners: Have students work in more autonomous smaller groups of 2 – 3 in order to allow these skills to develop and social collaboration to thrive.

Action Step #3: Unifying Musical Characters

Being on the same page musically not only creates a stronger group sound, but the process of deciding on musical characters consolidates the collaborative technicalities of ensemble skills with social aspects including empathy and respectfulness.

These engaging activities promote self-expression while valuing each other’s’ varying viewpoints.

Learning about emotionally-charged music: Introduce various pieces throughout the year that have emotional significance. Pieces such as Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The goal is to allow students an opportunity to understand the personal and empathetic potential of music.[vii]

  • Musical/Character Charades: This activity encourages student’s sensitivity to emotion through music. Students must draw a character/emotion word and perform a piece with the goal of getting others to guess their chosen trait.
  • Musical Self-Portraits: Have the students create their own piece that they believe represents them. You may wish to have them explain the piece for greater depth of understanding. This allows the students to value each other’s unique personalities.[viii]
  • Value all Opinions: Ask the students for their musical interpretations and without judgement perform each one as a group. Discuss if necessary.

Group classes serve as an ideal environment for encouraging tolerance. Learning to create a strong ensemble has the potential for creating more empathetic, respectful, and socially aware students. This list is by no means comprehensive but meant merely to encourage educators to start thinking purposefully about how we can continue Dr. Suzuki’s goal of teaching character through music.

Laura Elise EakmanLaura Eakman currently serves as Strings Teaching Artist with El Sistema Colorado in addition to maintaining a private studio in Boulder, Colorado. She has served as a chamber music coach for numerous institutions including the Summer Music Academy at the University of Colorado and Luzerne Music Center.

An avid chamber musician, Laura has collaborated with members of the New York Philharmonic and regularly performs with new music ensembles in Colorado.

Dr. Eakman received both her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from Northern Illinois University. In 2016, Laura earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder.


[i] The Importance of Tolerance as a Social Value (2016).
[ii] Group Class Ideas (SAA Blog).
[iii] Kreitman, Edward.!kreitman/c1z7l – observed during a private lesson.
[iv] McCall, Carolyn (1993). Group Lessons for Suzuki Violin and Viola, Alfred Publishing.
[v] An idea taken from Erika Eckert, viola professor, University of Colorado, Boulder.
[vi] Maurer, James and Jacqueline (rev. 2003). String Book; Suzuki Teaching Reference: Instructions, Notes, and Guidelines.
[vii] Teaching Tolerance.
[viii] Wigram, Tony (2004). Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators, and Students, Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

SmartMusic Repertoire Update: May 2016

SmartMusic May Repertoire Release

This week we added 24 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library.  This is in addition to the six Frank Ticheli titles announced last week. Included are new pieces for concert band, jazz ensemble, and string orchestra:

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
Adrenaline Rush Foster, Robert E. LudwigMasters Concert Band VE
Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella French Carol; Adamson, Eric TRN Music Publisher Inc. Concert Band VE
Captain Courageous Romeyn, Rob Barnhouse Concert Band E
Carolina’s Majesty Shaffer, David Barnhouse Concert Band ME
Great Plains Saga Compello, Joseph Carl Fischer Concert Band B
ISON Mixon, Kevin Carl Fischer Concert Band B
Leopards on the Prowl Bradley, Douglas A. LudwigMasters Concert Band E
On a Russian Rowing Chanty (Variations on “Song of the Volga Boatmen”) Wilds, Jack; Russian Folk Song FJH Music Company Concert Band E
Swing Till the Walls Come Down (Based on “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”) Bobrowitz, David Grand Mesa Concert Band VE
Sword of Fire Romeyn, Rob Barnhouse Concert Band VE
Bossa Nueva Jarvis, Jeff Kendor Jazz Ensemble ME
Adagio and Canzona from Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day Purcell, Henry; Lipton, Bob FJH Music Company String Orchestra M
Allegro Molto from Symphony No. 40 Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus FJH Music Company String Orchestra MA
Bogdan’s Castle Sieving, Robert Kjos String Orchestra MA
Canon Power Lipton, Bob FJH Music Company String Orchestra VE
Chester Calhoun, Bill Carl Fischer String Orchestra VE
Generations Zook Cunalata, Janelle Grand Mesa String Orchestra E
Hurricane Heroes Monday, Deborah Baker Kjos String Orchestra ME
Mexican Hat Dance Traditional Mexican Folk Song, ; Law, J. Cameron Grand Mesa String Orchestra ME
Minuetto Bolzoni, Giovanni; Dietrich, Johannes FJH Music Company String Orchestra M
Pavane and Lesquercarde Delibes, Léo; McCashin, Robert D. FJH Music Company String Orchestra ME
Streets of Shilin Owens, William FJH Music Company String Orchestra E
Supernova Clark, Larry Carl Fischer String Orchestra B
Walk of the Silent Zombies Phillips, Bob Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra VE

You can request a piece for a future SmartMusic release here.

Avoid This Mistake with Your Beginning Oboe Students

Avoid This Mistake with Your Beginning Oboe Students

I was honored this year to present a talk at both the Midwest Clinic and the IMEA (Indiana Music Education Association) conference entitled “Foundations for Successful Oboe Students.” I decided to propose this title because of my experience teaching beginning oboe students, and my understanding of the challenges they face in the first few years of playing the “ill wind that no one blows good.” (I disagree with this quote, of course!) In addition, many band directors and music education majors have asked for help, sometimes in confidence (“the oboe scares me” is not an uncommon sentiment).

Avoid this Common (and Serious) Mistake

I believe many directors make a huge mistake with middle school-aged oboists in their first years of playing; they ask these beginning oboe students to “play quietly.” While other wind/brass instruments are encouraged to play out in order to achieve full sounds, the oboe section of a beginning band, most often in the front row, is given “the hand” and told to play softer, lest their beginning tone quality completely dominate the band! This is understandable, as a loud beginning oboist has what even kind people might call a “strident” tone. However, by shushing a young oboist, the director is inadvertently causing multiple bad habits, horrendous intonation, and poor articulation/response that will be difficult to undo in future years.

Why Beginning Oboists Can Sound Like Angry Ducks

The reasons for this are simple to understand if you play the oboe at a professional level, but many directors are not oboists. A dark, warm, pleasing oboe sound comes from resistance of the reed, first and foremost. An “easy” reed (or beginning/student/soft reed) is almost always scraped too thin, making the vibrations easier to achieve without much air support. The result is a loud, quacky oboe reed that is unstable and can easily be overblown. Give this reed to beginners and ask everyone to use a strong stream of air, and you have a gaggle of young oboe-ducks who can be heard for miles and miles.

The answer to this dilemma is not as simple as putting a beginner on a professional strength reed. Beginning students do not have the embouchure/air combination to play on a reed that a professional would use. Neither is the answer found in giving a beginning student a too-easy reed with no resistance built in. They will never learn the proper air support/embouchure combination needed to eventually develop a mature sound.

Transforming Ducks into Swans

My solution lies in between. There are modified reeds, made by professionals, which are stable yet manageable for younger students. Also, harder strength reeds can be adjusted to have a smaller opening for beginning oboists, especially if there is a professional oboist who is available for working on reeds, during lessons or for the band. The most important thing a band director can do to encourage good habits in young oboists, though, is to tell them to play “loud and proud.” Move them into the second or third row of your band, if necessary.

Understand that the mechanics of playing softly on the oboe are different from other wind instruments – playing softly on the oboe requires air to be held back, or filtered, in the throat, mouth, or lips, and sometimes all three. This makes playing softly feel like MORE work than playing loudly, due to increasing the already high amount of back pressure that is inherent to a good oboe sound. Until proper diaphragmatic support is established, there is no way to play quietly in the correct way. Instead, the “shushed” young oboist will bite the (too easy) reed, which will make the pitch soar and close the opening of the reed, which greatly reduces their ability to articulate notes. A year or two of this type of playing can take MANY YEARS to undo – well into high school or college, if at all, and only with the patient help of a professional oboist.

High school directors – do your oboe students play incredibly sharp, especially while playing quietly? Are you afraid of clean attacks? Do you program music that does not prominently feature the oboe? If so, you are not alone! In many cases, you can trace these problems to the beginning years, bad reeds, discouraging proper air support, and general queasiness over the beginning oboe sound. Trust me – establish good habits in the first few years with smaller yet resistant reeds, full support, and confidence, and (instead of ducks) you will have a wonderful gaggle of oboe swans for your advanced ensembles.

Pamela AjangoProfessor Pamela Ajango (French) teaches at Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, and is a freelance oboist in Indianapolis. She performs as a member of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s quintet, with visiting Broadway shows, and as a recording artist for FJH, Alfred Publishing, and others. From 1996-2002, Ms. Ajango was a freelancer in NYC, playing with top orchestras, in recording studios, and on Broadway. She studied with Malcolm Smith, Ralph Gomberg, Joseph Robinson, and Stephen Taylor. She received degrees from Boston University and the Manhattan School of Music. Active at the International Double Reed Society’s conferences, Ajango has lectured on creating/sustaining a music career, presented a recital of new quintet arrangements, and recently commissioned a work for oboe, bassoon, and piano, Variations, by Matthew Bridgham. In 2011 Pamela premiered the solo oboe piece The Empty Sky, which was written for her by Frank Felice.

Announcing the Make Music Day Bumblebee Challenge

Bumblebee Challenge

Make Music Day (June 21, 2016) is worldwide celebration and a great opportunity to advocate locally on behalf of music and music education. Every kind of musician is encouraged to participate.

To add to the day’s fun, SmartMusic has joined forces with the Make Music Alliance to create the Bumblebee Challenge, a music performance competition. To win, qualifying semi-finalists will perform “Flight of the Bumblebee,” live on stage, at their city’s Make Music Day festival to compete for the national title.

To AUDITION, musicians are invited to download SmartMusic from using a free trial code MAKEMUSICDAY16 and to join their city’s SmartMusic classroom. Participants may practice the piece as much or as little as they like: SmartMusic automatically records every practice take.

Performers must then choose and submit their best SmartMusic recording before 11:59 PM PST on June 10, 2016. Once the entry (or “assignment”) is submitted, it may not be resubmitted.

The participants with the top three scores in woodwind, brass and string for their city will advance to the Semifinals. Semifinalists will be alerted by June 13th.

SEMIFINALISTS will perform at the live City Semifinals on June 21st during the Make Music celebration. These musicians will compete live on stage to claim the title of City Winner in their respective categories (woodwind, brass, and strings). Each participant will perform only one take, playing with SmartMusic. Finalists will be chosen on the spot based on their SmartMusic assessment scores.

Scores for each city’s three winners will be submitted for the FINALS round. The performers with the top scores in Woodwinds, Brass and Strings will be crowned the National Winners and win untold fame and glory. Winners will be announced June 22.

To learn more or get started visit:

Using Suzuki Insights to Teach Note Reading

Using Suzuki Insights to Teach Note Reading

Note reading is a skill that is introduced and reinforced in a variety of ways in a music classroom. I follow a progression adapted from various methods and experiences, but the introduction to reading music and playing as an ensemble varies with the group of students. .

Developing Students’ Ears for Their Own Playing

The Suzuki approach to note reading is so effective because it makes the learning process more closely resemble how we learn language; first you hear and reproduce the new sounds, THEN you learn how they look on the page.
As students catch on to the different notes they play on their instrument, it is important for the music teacher to introduce the note names right away. This strengthens students’ familiarity with naming their notes and paves the way for showing them on the staff. Once there is a solid basis for the note names, a simple visual representation of the notes can be introduced.

Visuals and Songs

With the introduction of the notes on the staff comes many tricks used by thousands of music teachers around the world. From cute songs (such as the “Ants Song” to help remember the strings on the cello and where they are on the staff) to memorable sayings (such as “Eskimos are darn good berry eaters” for the strings of the guitar), music teachers should feel free to make use of any tool they have to help students remember the names of the note on the staff in their clef. Any song or saying that involves movement (whether it is a motion that represents the note, the solfège hand symbol, or pointing to the note on the staff) will access the kinesthetic learning style musicians make great use of when learning their craft.

Just like learning the note names, it is important that these tools of reading the notes are introduced early on in the playing process and are reinforced each time the class meets in various ways. Because reading music involves the development of literacy skills and the ability to identify patterns, students will not always make the connection that the same notes the teacher is pointing to on the staff are the same ones they are learning in their pieces or exercises. These connections can be made quickly but will make a long-lasting difference in students’ learning.

Note-Reading Exercises and Priming

This brings us to note-reading exercises! There are many fantastic books dedicated to note reading that include some beautiful melodies or popular music that students will enjoy playing.

Once the foundation has been built for reading notes on the staff, it is important to incorporate a note-reading exercise into every lesson. For example, some of my colleagues in Alaska write a “Word of the Day” on the board that is written using only notes on the staff, and students may figure it out on their own as they walk into class. Also, I embrace the process of sight reading. I give my students familiar songs or pieces to play so they already hear the notes in their head and can focus on discovering how those notes translate on the page. I eventually progress to melodies they do not recognize. Whenever a student gets stuck with reading notes during this process, I always have them go back to the basics: which notes do you already know? Is the line going up or down? Are there steps or leaps? All of these relationships are introduced from the beginning and are a good review when a student is stuck.

Singing the Music

When focusing on the development of the ears, I make use of humans’ ability to sing. Students are more successful with hearing their music when they are able to sing it away from their instruments. Granted, my high school string players do not particularly like singing their parts at eight in the morning, but it produces  excellent results when we take the music back to their instruments. I incorporate singing into most of my lessons, regardless of the age or ensemble, so students get used to performing with their voice and are able to vocalize their part before playing it on their instrument. Singing could include numerous activities, including having the class sing their individual parts for a section of the piece or building a chord and focusing on blending and intonation.

Listening Across the Ensemble to Find Your Fit

After students develop an ear for their own instrument and how it sounds, they are ready to focus on how their playing fits in with the rest of the ensemble. This is how a group goes from a random assortment of musicians to a collaborative ensemble. When students understand how their melody and rhythm fit with others, they can lock into their role in the music making. To develop this ear for the ensemble, I use various rehearsal techniques, such as isolating certain sections that have the melody or the accompaniment while everyone else listens, or building a chord from the root to the fifth.

It is imperative to focus on intonation and rhythmic cohesion when developing students’ ears for ensemble. For intonation, I sometimes have my students listen to a chord that is out of tune and then play it in tune for them to show them the difference. Metronomes and drones are also great tools for the ensemble-shaping process.


Learning a new musical instrument is hard enough, and yet students must also learn the written language of it to continue their studies of classical music. It is important to introduce note reading early on with patience and optimism, first focusing on developing students’ ears for their individual playing and then branching out to listening to one another in the ensemble. The teacher toolbox for reading music should be utilized frequently, as should singing. The goal is to nurture an ensemble that takes ownership of their own parts so that they can listen to one another and support one another in the beautiful process of making music.

Ruth HogleAfter graduating from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Cello Performance, Ruth Hogle moved to Juneau, Alaska, to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching Music, K-12 degree while working with JAMM (Juneau, Alaska Music Matters), an El Sistema-inspired program.

Ruth is currently student teaching at an elementary and high school in Juneau, teaching general music and Spanish, and conducting her own orchestras.

After school, she teaches cello, bass, songwriting, improvisation, and chamber music with JAMM. She is a strong believer in the power of music, which she has witnessed as a teacher in Chicago, Peru, and Alaska.

Frank Ticheli Music Now in SmartMusic

Frank Ticheli Music Now in SmartMusic

Back in February MakeMusic announced a new partnership with Manhattan Beach Music, publishers of the music of Timothy Broege, Bob Margolis, Michael Markowski, Steve Rouse, Frank Ticheli, and many other fine concert band composers and arrangers.

Today we’re excited to announce that the first batch of Manhattan Beach titles is now available in SmartMusic. Specifically, we’ve released Six pieces by Frank Ticheli, all of which appear on numerous state contest lists:

Abracadabra – written in honor of Ticheli’s “wonderfully playful, sometimes mischievous young son.”

Amazing Grace this powerful take on the reformed slave ship captain’s song of redemption is a grade 3 piece – very accessible for young bands – that also introduces some more advanced musical concepts.

An American Elegy – composed in memory of those who lost their lives at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and to honor the survivors.

Joy – written alongside “Joy Revisited” (to be released later). Both use the same general melodic and harmonic ideas. “Joy” is a little more straightforward and geared towards younger players, whereas “Joy Revisited” expands on melodic ideas and has more complex harmonies and is geared towards advanced players. Ticheli refers to them as “un-identical twins, two sides of the same coin.”

Portrait of a Clown – often praised for not relying heavily on having low brass and low woodwinds, this score is great for young band programs that might not have enough players on those instruments.

Shenandoah – Frank’s beautiful setting of the popular folk song.

“I am very pleased that my music is coming to SmartMusic,” said Frank Ticheli. “So many more musicians will get to see, learn, and experience my music on a deeper, more profound level. SmartMusic is an essential part of music education at so many schools. I am happy to report that we are working together to release virtually all titles of my concert band repertoire on SmartMusic.”

As Frank points out, this is just the beginning of our partnership; we have many more titles coming soon.

We hope you check out this music in SmartMusic today. Please let us know what you think on  Facebook or Twitter.

Celebrating “May the Fourth” with Alexander Iles

Celebrating “May the Fourth” with Alexander Iles

In celebration of “May the Fourth,” we spoke with LA studio trombonist Alexander Iles, who landed what many would regard a dream gig: playing on the sessions for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

What is your first memory of the Star Wars soundtrack?

My first memory of Star Wars was the preview trailer that played in theaters a few months before its release. As I recall, it seemed kind of lame, like a Buck Rogers rip-off.  As is so often the case, the music used in the trailer was not from the soundtrack, and was more representative of the state music scoring in 1977; pretty sparse, orchestrally-speaking:

Later that year, one of my summer school classmates came to school raving one about this movie called “Star Wars” he had just seen – twice.  He invited a bunch of us to go see it with him. That movie instantly became the equivalent of the Beatles for many of us younger baby boomers. Most of my buddies saw the movie 5, 7, 10 times before it left the theaters. Bringing someone who had not seen it yet became a favorite activity; in fact the whole summer of ’77 was all about Star Wars.

Of course all of us high school band and orchestra geeks all fell in love with the music. That was a huge part of what made the movie unique and worth repeated viewings. It was a full-on swashbuckling score, more like an older movie from the 40’s, but accompanying a science fiction fantasy.

Another classmate, who was already knowledgeable in classical music repertoire, bought the soundtrack on vinyl and gave me a copy for my birthday. He was the first person to suggest that key moments in the soundtrack were influenced by specific classical composers. Through these conversations he introduced me to the music of Mahler, Brahms, Prokofiev, Holst, Vaughn Williams, Copeland, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. We’d compare sections of Star Wars to Holst’s “The Planets,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Brahms Symphonies, Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” etc. What a wonderful introduction to music appreciation!

I owe that classmate, Alan Reinecke, a great deal of gratitude for having introduced me to the fascinating world of classical music in general (and of film music specifically) for which I’ve developed a lifelong love and connection.

When did you play a piece from the Star Wars soundtrack for the first time?

That’s hard to say. I remember figuring out a few pieces by ear while listening to the soundtrack. We may have played some of the themes in high school, but do recall playing some of the music in college on a few “orchestra pops” type concerts.

The first time I played the music professionally was in the Star Wars Orchestral Suite with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra back in the early 90’s. I also subbed a few times with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl on Star Wars Night with John Williams conducting. We played music from all the movies. It was a thrill hearing them all together. He has such a gift for film composition. He doesn’t just come up with a good melody for a character’s “theme,” he creates a thumbnail portrait of that character in sound. How can you not hear Darth Vader’s theme when you see him, whether it’s on-screen, or in a poster, comic book or advertisement?

Williams even wrote an amazing theme for the Force itself which is a theme for something that has no material existence at all. Yet every time that music is used, even subtly, it works its magic on the audience just as the Force does on the characters in the film.

You got the live the dream! What was it like performing on the Force Awakens sessions?

I have been so fortunate to have been able to check off many things on my musical “bucket list.” Playing on a Star Wars film soundtrack with John Williams was so unlikely that it wasn’t even ON my bucket list.

It never even occurred to me to dream about it, because all the Star Wars soundtracks were masterfully performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. That orchestra always plays John’s music with incredible passion and virtuosity AND produces such an amazing sound in their primary recording space, the legendary Abbey Road Studio One.

A few years ago rumors began circulating that John Williams was considering recording in Los Angeles. The exhausting traveling back and forth between LA and London was becoming less attractive to him and he has also always loved recording with his Los Angeles orchestra as well.

When the news came out that he would be recording the next Star Wars sound track in LA I was so thrilled (even before I received “the call” myself). This was going to be a huge event for our whole music community. As it turned out, I did receive the call. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to get to play on The Force Awakens with one the biggest musical influences of my generation (or any generation).

Speaking on behalf of the member of the 100+ piece orchestra, we each felt so honored to be there to record this score. I must say John was able to draw an amazing sound from the amazing orchestra assembled specifically for this movie. I think each of us saw this as a dream-come-true moment. There was a unique energy present every session that was palpable.

The sessions were spread out over several months. We would usually record for two full days, then come back a few weeks later. The process was very deliberate and very musically intense. Unlike most film composers today, John conducts the vast majority of his own music. He is such a clear, diplomatic, efficient, energetic and musical conductor. We would rehearse a few short musical segments (or “cues”), each about 2-4 minutes long. This gave him an opportunity to make small adjustments to his composition and the group’s balance and intonation. It also gave the engineer a chance to hear the piece and adjust the recording levels.

By the time the red “recording” light came on, every aspect had typically been sorted out. We would usually record 3-5 takes of each cue. Afterwards music editors went through those takes, made notes, and assembled the best performance. For the most part, the average person would hear very little difference between the takes. Sometimes Williams might change the dynamics – or a certain part of the piece – to provide director J.J. Abrams with options. The difference might be more or less energy, a slightly different texture, or a change in the emphasis placed on what was happening on-screen.

Everyone involved signed non-disclosure agreements with Disney and Lucasfilm so we were not at liberty to say much or post anything about the sessions in social media or in the press. Furthermore, they didn’t even play the film in the studio as we performed (as is usually done for most of the movies we record). The whole experience really had a certain “Manhattan Project” feel to it.

One of the things that consistently impresses me about John is that he is constantly experimenting with new sounds, instrumental combinations, and textures. He is always asking players questions about how he has written things and is willing to change what he has written to allow a player to sound his/her best. His music is always challenging and inspiring to play but never beyond the best textbook orchestration.

The brass parts on this movie were a complete dream come true. The first time we played Kylo Ren’s theme, I was just overcome with excitement.  It hit me again the first time I heard the theme when he emerged from his command shuttle.

Playing for Gustavo Dudamel must have been a huge highlight. Was there anything he did as a conductor that really helped that you could share?

It was a huge unannounced surprise. John and Gustavo are friends. It was fun when he “sat in” and recorded the end credits with us. He was very much as in awe of the whole spectacle as we were. You could see his childlike enthusiasm as he ripped into the music while John was stood off to the side, smiling like a proud parent.

I would also like to mention that John had an amazing “back up” conductor, Bill Ross, in the wings each day. Bill would sometimes cover the conducting while John sat listening from the editor’s table in front of the orchestra. Standing at the podium for long periods can become pretty tiring for anyone.  At 83, John is amazingly energetic and spry, but even he needed a little break once in a while to focus on just listening to the orchestra play and to concentrate on certain subtleties of his score. Bill, himself a world class composer/arranger and conductor himself, was all smiles each time got a time to “pinch hit” for the maestro.

School ensembles all over the world perform Star Wars arrangements at concerts every year. What tips do you have for directors and students (especially in the low brass) who want to sound as great as you guys did on the record?

John really does show the influences of all the great music he has studied and played himself. I would suggest that students check out some of that music I mentioned earlier for the overall sense of how/why John might have drawn on any particular influence to compose his music.

Film music is three-dimensional music. There is the music and the performance just like concert music, but it also has the third dimension: the film and the story the film is telling. The music and the performance serve the story. This is a great thing to open yourself up to when you listen to many kinds of music. What kind of story is the music telling you? Great film composers know what musical sounds, themes, instrumental combinations, and gestures will bring the audience closer to the story the director/film maker is trying to tell.

So when the low brass play Darth Vader’s theme, they all have to make a sound that says, “Darth Vader in da house!” When you play beautifully balanced chords accompanying the Force theme, or sing out the triumphant sounds of The Throne Room, groups to over play much of the brass music from Star Wars. It is easy to do because it’s so fun to lay into it. But I have found that greater strength is found in a full, robust and centered sound that is never too forced. Loud music can be exciting for about 6 seconds, but music that changes dynamics never gets dull. Coming from soft to loud and back again makes you sound “louder” than you are really playing and produces an emotional response that is much more exciting.

Strive for your section to carry the power together, without any one player sticking out. Make sure you maintain your connection to the other low brass and the rest of the brass. Some of the melodic or moving eighth note and sixteenth note lines need to be crisp, clear and most of all, IN TIME. Don’t drag when you get to play something with some movement. Go for more light and fluid orchestral approach than an overbearing and heavy-handed one.

Each player should make their best sound and be listening (and working) to keep their sounds balanced at ALL times.

I’d like to thank Alex for sharing this incredible experience with us. Since talking with him we discovered this footage from the sessions, captured by 60 Minutes (look for the Finale-prepared parts). Happy May the Fourth, everyone!

Alex IlesAlex Iles is principal trombonist of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He has also toured as lead and solo jazz trombonist with Maynard Ferguson and the Woody Herman Orchestra and performs in many of the top LA-based big bands and jazz groups including Bob Florence’s Limited Edition, The Seth McFarlane Orchestra and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.

Alex frequently performs in the pit orchestras of numerous LA productions of Broadway shows and on hundreds of television and motion picture soundtracks. He has recorded with artists such as Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Paul McCartney, and Prince. Alex has been a faculty trombone and jazz instructor at the California Institute of the Arts, Azusa Pacific College and California State University, Northridge, and has appeared twice as a featured soloist at the International Trombone Workshop. Want to learn more? Check out this interview.