For many of us, our first years of teaching were filled with a mixture of both excitement and a sense of being overwhelmed. As a string specialist, even though I’d played in band and sung in choir, I still felt inadequate as a beginning teacher in my abilities to deal with essential pedagogical issues on instruments that weren’t in my major field.
I’m fortunate to have benefited from excellent instruction in my collegiate studies, which included extensive training on secondary instruments. I felt confident in my knowledge of fingering charts, basic instrument position, tone production, and embouchure issues. Where I lacked confidence was in my ability to demonstrate effectively the level of nuance that I wanted to hear from my students, and also detect those small (but crucial) problems that interfered with my student’s ability to play well – things that only experienced players and teachers would know about.
Perhaps you’ve encountered the same thing when faced with the prospect of teaching strings. That overpowering sense of inadequacy and lack of direct experience that may have sent you back scrambling for your string tech class notebooks or searching the web for any video that could be helpful.
Today we are fortunate that information about string pedagogy – including conferences, workshops, and publications – has become readily accessible. Resources about technique, skills, and performance issues are available from expert authors. In addition, there is an increasing emphasis on providing materials that can easily be used in ensemble settings to help develop and refine fundamental skill and performance issues on string instruments.
First, Some Words of Encouragement
As a music educator, you already know how to appropriately sequence and teach music in an ensemble setting. The ability to analyze a musical score – from the point of view of what a particular work teaches – can easily be transferred from a choral or band setting to a string setting. Certain issues and ideas are universal to all areas, such as rhythmic problems, playing correct notes with good intonation, articulation issues, balance, blend, dynamics, stylistic elements, and musical interpretation. The underlying cause of problems in each of these areas is often centered around aural skills and listening issues.
Further, the characteristics of outstanding instructional delivery are universal to all musical areas. This includes elements such as control of pacing, effective time management, engineering the flow of the rehearsal to limit student downtime and increase student engagement, providing appropriate and timely feedback and remediation, and helping students to develop critical listening and problem-solving skills.
So, if you’re a band or choral director facing your first orchestra class what’s left?
Essentially, it’s an understanding of the right- and left-hand technical skills needed to perform well on a string instrument that are different. However, even with those issues, there are topics that relate universally across all areas. The following information provides a short overview of those issues, which I also address extensively in Yes, You Can! Survival Guide for Teaching Strings (Carl Fischer).
Posture and Position
First, emphasis should be placed on students playing with correct posture and instrument position. In strings, this means providing good chairs (or bass stools), ensuring that students have the appropriate size of instrument for their body size and shape, and that the appropriate chinrest and shoulder rest have been fitted to the instrument for each student.
Problems in posture and position will dramatically affect the student’s ability to produce a characteristic tone, which is the next priority. For wind players and singers, this means appropriate breath support and control of air speed, volume, and focus. For string players, the breath correlates directly with the right hand, the bow.
In the same way, string players need to control the weight of the bow (how much pressure is applied from the bow to the string while playing), the speed of the bow (how fast the bow hair is pulled across the string), the placement of the bow (which includes which part of the bow to use and where on the string the bow is placed), and finally the angle of the bow (i.e., the bow should be perpendicular to the strings and also the bow stick should be slightly tilted towards the fingerboard).
Rhythm and Articulation
For wind players, articulation includes tonguing and fingering issues. For string players, rhythm and articulation occur in both the right and left hands. The bow is used to control volume, tone color, length of note (e.g., staccato vs. legato), and slurring/rhythmic issues.
For the wind player, there are times when fingers may move while notes are not specifically tongued. For the string player, there are likewise times when the notes change (by the left hand), but the bow continues moving in the same direction. These elements are part of a concept called “bowing choreography,” which is a primary focus of Sound Innovations: Creative Warm-ups, Exercises for Intonation, Rhythm, Bowing, and Creativity.
Like their colleagues in the wind and choral areas, successful string teachers include technical development as part of their regular rehearsal routines, whether as part of the warm-up sequence or as a specific focus for a given piece within a rehearsal. In addition to the book mentioned above, there are two more volumes for intermediate and advanced orchestras that focus even more specifically on developing tone production. These include Sound Innovations: Sound Development, Warm-up Exercises for Tone and Technique (Intermediate String Orchestra) and Sound Innovations: Sound Development, Warm-up Exercises for Tone and Technique (Advanced String Orchestra).
These three volumes are also linked directly to SmartMusic and have additional online video demonstrations, which solves the issue for the non-string playing teacher about how to demonstrate tone production and technical elements.
In addition to the ability to deliver instruction effectively, a successful music educator needs to be an outstanding musician, with excellent personal musicianship skills. The best educators I know continue to work on those skills on a regular basis, and it is evident in their teaching, especially by the high standards that they set for their students and by the high levels of musicianship that they are able to elicit from their ensembles.
In my travels across the US and in several other countries, I can safely say that some of the best string ensembles that I’ve observed have been taught by wind and choral conductors who are themselves superb musicians. For these individuals, acquiring the ability to work with strings complemented what they already know about wind and choral conducting.
What about the curriculum?
For an overall look at a comprehensive string curriculum, I strongly recommend the ASTA String Curriculum: Standards, Goals, and Learning Sequences for Essential Skills and Knowledge in K–12 String Programs (published by the American String Teachers Association). This resource includes more than 200 specific lesson plans and teaching techniques for addressing fundamental playing issues at all levels. The ideas in this text are easily incorporated into an overall rehearsal plan, or can be used to develop a specific skill in conjunction with the warm-up materials listed above.
So, if you are one of those faced with teaching strings for the first time this fall, rest confident in the skills you already have as a music educator. Then use the resources above to help you as you develop the knowledge you need in the area of string teaching. These tools can be a great assist for you and your students, especially when it comes to guiding at-home practice using SmartMusic and providing sequential warm-ups and technical development during your rehearsal time.