Inspiring Works for Beginning and Mid-level String Orchestras

Mike Lawson • Repertoire • January 23, 2012

Share This:

Finding music that is educationally sound and inspires students to work hard and play well is a real challenge. Music that creates motivation in our students is an important factor in learning at any age, but it is a must for the young orchestra. Selecting pieces that students naturally love is essential to keep young orchestra students learning, practicing, enjoying orchestra, and inspired to play their instrument for years to come. Here are some works that students will love playing so much that they may not even notice they are learning!

Music for First-year strng students

After doing many unison songs and pieces in rounds and canons, it can be hard to select a successful first “real” orchestra piece for beginning students. Rhythmic unity can be difficult for young string players, not because they cannot keep time, but because there is so much that has to get put together with their posture, bow, and right hand for them to keep accurate poly-rhythms in the context of an ensemble. It is important to find works that will provide success in ensemble unity and tap into their natural sense of rhythm. The following pieces for this level are approachable and rewarding for a first orchestra experience, and all recommendations have excellent parts for each section.


1st Scale March

Mark Williams
Alfred Publishing
Grade 1
Duration 2:15

If you are looking for a piece that only uses the notes of a one-octave D scale, this is the one for you. The re-occurring ascending and descending scale is a good anchor for struggling students who are still developing note reading skills. The convenient and easy piano accompaniment helps with rehearsals and can be used for the concert. Developing bass players will appreciate that the scale in the song takes them to the A string rather than shifting to the G string. Students like the challenge of the harmonies, having different instrumental parts, going from arco to pizzicato, and the final surprise foot stomp.

Publisher link:–00-18288.aspx
Audio Link:


Burgundian Carol

Traditional French Carol, Attributed to Bernard de la Monnoye
Arr. Sandra Dackow
Alfred Publishing
Grade: 1
Duration 1:15

This is a short and rewarding challenge for first year students. Although a piece traditionally played at holiday time, it is fun and appropriate on any concert. There are optional percussion parts that your string players can cover; though not essential, adding any of the percussion parts greatly enhances the performance. The work is in D dorian, and students will have to be able to play on the G string and use an F natural. Be aware that the viola players have notes on the C string, but the cellos do not.

Publisher link:–00-31510.aspx
Audio Link:



Arr. Robert W. Smith
Belwin –Mills Publishing
Grade 1
Duration 1:45

This traditional Australian sheep shearer’s song is a lovely little piece. The memorable melody gets passed to all sections (including the bass) accompanied by lively knocking on the instruments. The second violin part is the same as the viola part which provides flexibility for your ensemble. Since all sections play basically the same part in different combinations, it is an easy one to keep all sections active in rehearsal and goes together with a small amount of rehearsal time.

Publisher link:–00-BSOM04004.aspx
Audio Link:


Eagle’s Pride

Susan H. Day
Highland/Etling Publishing
Grade: 1 1/2
Duration 3:15

This piece sounds much more difficult than it is, and students love playing it. It is somewhat long for a piece at this level, which makes it great for building stamina. There are also great opportunities to work on dynamics as well. Your students will enjoy working on this impressive sounding piece and feel great that they can play something that uses so many special techniques (tremolos, double stops and pizzicato). This one is a real keeper!

Publisher link:–00-29728.aspx
Audio Link:


Secret Agent 440

Carrie Lane Gruselle
Alfred Publishing
Grade 2
Duration 2:00

Slurs, B flat and F natural are featured in this rewarding piece that immediately gives the feeling of a spy movie. 440 refers to the A, which is the heartbeat of the piece. It is rated a Grade 2, but it is also suitable for first-year students at the end of the year. It has good dynamic opportunities and an excellent bass part as well. There are snaps and the occasional “shh”; guaranteed to please! You will not have to convince them to practice this one.

Publisher link:–00-22312.aspx
Audio Link:

Year 2-3 string students:

Here are some pieces that that my high school students have reported to be their favorites from middle school. In each piece, all sections get great parts and feature contagious melodies.


Robert W. Smith
Robert D. McCashin String Editor
Belwin-Mills Publishing
Grade 2 1-2
Duration 2:00

Middle school string students love to play music that is fast and in a minor key. Danza is in A minor with some easy solos for violin and cello. The viola parts are superb – violists will not be disappointed! There is some 3rd position for the 1st violins and a bit of shifting for the cellos. There are great opportunities for working on accidentals, and it has expressive elements as well as exciting fast parts.

Publisher link:–00-BSO9814.aspx
Audio Link:



Doug Spata
Grade 2
Duration 2:45

Again, fast and minor! For some of my students, this is their all-time favorite. It is in D minor and starts with a driving and ominous pulse in the cello and bass sections. The viola part starts off with the melody and their part is independent and rewarding. The sneaky thing about this piece is that although it is mostly fast there is a lyrical section with interesting harmonies and suspensions that can be used to work on vibrato and playing with feeling. Playing this piece is an excellent way to motivate students to play F naturals… in tune!

Publisher link:–00-18853.aspx
Audio Link:


Japanese Lullaby

Keiko Yamad
Carl Fischer
Grade 2

Here is a sweet, lyrical piece that will inspire all students. It requires strong cello players and two violins, a 1st violin section duet, as well as short violin and cello solos. This is an artful and satisfying composition that is as enjoyable to listen to as well as play. All sections get the melody except the bass. It can be played with or without piano and if you have a harp player the piano part is adaptable for them. A challenging cello part and independence from all sections makes this work on the more difficult side of Grade 2.

Publisher link:
Audio Link:


Dance Scenario

Elliot Del Borgo
Kendor Music Inc
Grade 2
Duration 3:40

Here is one of those great oldies that I keep using. Published in 1989, the lively unison opening in D dorian offers a dramatic start to this dynamic piece. The lyrical section in D minor provides a wonderful contrast to the youthful power of the opening and ending. This is a good “rite of passage” piece for developing orchestras. I love the way the rhythms interlock. Violins get to do rolled chords while the cellos, and violas and basses get the melody. It is compositionally exciting and the harmonies are as interesting as the main melody. The tricky runs for violins and violas and challenging shifting for basses are short and provide a great opportunity for “mini” playing quizzes. Good mixture of playable and challenging sections.

Publisher link:


Adagio Cantabile

L.V. Beethoven
Arr. Carrie Lane Gruselle
Grade 3
Duration: 3:00

This arrangement of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata maintains the integrity of the original work while providing an excellent pedagogical tool. Students enjoy playing it because they can show off how beautiful they can sound. There is an optional cello solo (doubled by the viola section) shifting into fifth position in the third measure, which makes it a nice cello feature. The first violins also get a brief section in third position. This is a lovely work that is satisfying for students when they use sustained bows and vibrato. The fingerings listed in the parts are consistent with the Essential Elements fingering method.

Publisher link:–00-16837.aspx
Audio Link:


Modus a 4

Shirl Jae Atwell
Neil A Kjos Music Company
Duration: 2:20
Grade 3

Four melodies are woven into this creative work published in 1997. All sections get some upper position parts except the second violin part. It is refreshing to find a piece where you can work on shifting in almost every section. Each melody is memorable and the way Atwell combines them is fun and interesting. What makes this piece a Grade 3 is not only the brief shifting in the violin part but the rhythmic and melodic independence of each part. It is a short piece, but it packs in a lot of learning. The parts that are in upper positions are structured well to facilitate getting up and down. The given bowing and fingerings in the parts are done very well. The four melodies are all masterly written and memorable.

Publisher link: 

Soma Pierce-Smit is in her tenth year of teaching 6-12th-grade orchestra students in the Eau Claire School District. A violinist, she currently performs with the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra and the Chippewa Valley Symphony. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!