What Band Directors Need to Know about Teaching Orchestra

Randy Runyan Feature

It is increasingly common for a “band person” to be teaching strings in today’s public schools. For those who find themselves in this situation for the first time, or for those who are looking for a refresher, I’ve listed a few tricks and tips that I have picked up in eight years of teaching strings.

Instruments

If your school provides instruments for students, it’s a good idea to check them for some common problems that will need attention:

  • Open seams- Using a bent knuckle, lightly rap around the entire perimeter of the top and back of the instrument. If you hear a ‘slap’ sound, there is an open seam that will get worse if not repaired right away. Do not repair this on your own; special type of glue is required. An open seam is usually an inexpensive fix at a reputable repair shop.
  • Cracks- Visually inspect the top, back, sides and neck for any cracks. Like open seams, these will get worse if not repaired.
  • Sound post- Peer inside the right F-hole, and make sure the sound post is present and standing. If not, a repair shop will set it for you, often free of charge. You can purchase a tool and learn to set a sound post yourself, by watching videos on YouTube, from an experienced repair tech, or an experienced teacher.
  • Bridge height- the strings should not be difficult to hold against the fingerboard. If they are, the bridge may be incorrectly fit to the instrument. A repair shop should correct this.

Poor quality, inexpensive instruments are even more common in the string world than in the band world. It’s a good idea to direct parents to a reputable local music store, or online retailers that specialize in strings, such as Shar Music or Southwest Strings.

Similar to reeds on a woodwind instrument, a good quality string will make a significant impact on sound quality. While steel core strings are less expensive, they have a more shrill sound, especially on upper string instruments. The most cost-effective way to upgrade the sound of your school-owned instruments is to change to synthetic core strings.

Another note on strings: when changing a string, make sure the length of the string matches the size of the instrument. The package will indicate the string length. If you are unsure of the size of the instrument, you can measure it to find out. A quick Google search will direct you to a number of websites with measurements.

Holding the instrument

Upper Strings

The instrument should be roughly parallel to the floor, and 30°-45° off-center to the left. The left elbow should be bent comfortably at a right angle or slightly more. If it is too straight, the student may need a smaller instrument. Students frequently allow their left wrist to collapse, especially if they are using their left hand to support the weight of the instrument. Encourage them to keep their wrists straight and to support the instrument with their jaw in the chin rest and shoulder, ideally with a shoulder rest.

Regarding shoulder rests – they should be considered required equipment for proper instrument positioning. Shaped sponges are inexpensive and are held to the instrument with rubber bands, but are not as effective as plastic ones with rubber feet that clip on the body of the instrument. There are relatively inexpensive versions of these that can be adjusted to fit different sizes of instruments and can be adjusted to varying heights. Some experimentation is needed to get the proper fit and angle for each student. This is time well spent; students will play better with properly held instruments.

Cello

To determine the proper endpin length, the top of the scroll should be eye-level when the student is standing. When sitting, have the student hold the cello by the neck, upright at arms length, and then bring the instrument toward them, placing the scroll to the left of the head. The A-string tuning peg should be about the same height as the left ear. A rock stop or cello strap will keep the endpin from sliding out.

Bass

To determine the proper endpin length, the nut (base of the scroll) should be near the top of the student’s forehead when the student is standing. Proper bass position requires a slight rotation so that the right edge of the back of the instrument contacts the player’s left stomach and groin. The instrument should balance without the student’s hands.

Holding the bow

The bow hold is perhaps the most important skill to teach to young string players. Practice with pencils to reduce weight and unnecessary tension. Most bow hold problems start in the thumb, which should curl inward toward the palm. It should rest along the side of the stick, where the stick meets the frog.  Some teachers have beginners place the thumb on the bottom of the frog at the metal ferrule, then move the thumb up to the stick once students have learned the proper hand shape. The stick should cross the fingers near the second knuckle joint.

For upper strings, the hand and wrist should pronate (rotate inward, like turning a door knob counterclockwise), placing the little finger on top of the stick near the screw. For cello and bass bows, no wrist pronation is needed. For German bass bows, the thumb and forefinger make a circle and meet on top of the stick, while the screw extends through the saddle created by the thumb and forefinger. The little finger rests under the frog for support. For all bows, natural finger curve and no unnecessary tension are the keys to a proper bow hold. Example pictures can be found in the introductory pages of method books.

Other Bow Notes

  • Like strings, bow quality has a significant impact on sound. Cheap wooden bows will warp and break easily. Many teachers use fiberglass for beginners. Carbon fiber is much more expensive and will aid the more advanced student in producing a quality tone.
  • Students should avoid touching the hair with their fingers; the oils in the hand will cause the hair to deteriorate quickly.
  • Bows should be loosened when put away. Hair will stretch and wooden bows will warp if stowed under tension.
  • Ensure that students are bowing parallel to the bridge.  Students must keep their wrists flexible in order to produce the correct bow angle.
  • Bowing technique is a monumental subject. Check the resources section below for places to look for more information.

Additional Resources

  • American String Teachers Association – the ASTA website and publications contain a wealth of knowledge. ASTA also publishes a curriculum document with Alfred Publications that will aid teachers in creating a scope and sequence.
  • School Orchestra and String Teachers Facebook group – a great place to ask questions and find other resources. There are currently over 5600 members. It is a closed group, but any music teacher is welcome.
  • Strategies for Teaching Strings, by Donald L. Hamann and Robert Gillespie – intended as a college methods textbook, this concise volume is my go-to guidebook when I need an idea for teaching any skill or technique. Great illustrations and charts, too.
  • The SmartMusic blog – articles include an instrument rental guide, video resources for parents, and tips on sizing string instruments.

Good luck with your string students this fall!

Randy Runyan 2Randy Runyan teaches orchestra, piano, guitar, and vocal music at Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences in Denver, Colorado. He has degrees from the University of Denver and the University of Northern Colorado.

Though primarily a trumpeter, he has taught strings classes in public schools every year since 2007. When he’s not teaching or performing, he can be found playing with an adorable corgi named Rosie.

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