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Teaching Strings

Mike Lawson • Archives • February 14, 2013

By Victor Vallo Jr.

Years ago when I interviewed for my first public school music teaching job to be a high school and middle school band director, one of the first questions I was asked was, “Can you teach a section of Beginning/Intermediate Strings?” I already had a working knowledge of strings from my Strings Methods course at the university where I received my bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Consequently, my answer was a confident, “Yes.” If I had said, “No,” I most probably would not have been offered the job. But then again, how much does one String Methods course, with or without private lessons, prepare someone for teaching strings at the elementary, middle school, and/or high school levels?

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years as both a secondary school and college-level music teacher is that teaching strings is similar to teaching any other music course. It requires first a passion for music, a passion to teach, and subject matter knowledge – in this case, a functional knowledge of the violin, viola, cello, and bass. The Strings Methods course did provide some good and usable basic information about all the orchestral string instruments. I also decided later on to learn more about these instruments on my own through private viola and cello lessons, while also keeping my major instrument, trumpet, going. From these experiences I have learned many lessons, suggestions, and tips on teaching strings and program building which hopefully will help school band directors and elementary music teachers feel a little more comfortable teaching strings to elementary, middle, and high school students.

The Basics

First of all, music teachers who are primarily band directors, choral directors, and elementary music teachers can teach strings. What this means is that as a music teacher, you must remember that you are there to teach “music,” and the use of string instruments is the means to do so. With this frame of mind, think of string instruments as the tools of your trade. What this also means is that one should refresh oneself, if needed, on the basics of string instrument playing and pedagogy which we all learned in college. Yes, you took the String Methods course some time ago as a Music Education major in college. That being said, you should already know what a good string sound is and how to produce it, as well as what the correct holding positions for the bow and the instrument are.

Tuning the instrument in perfect 5ths (violin, viola, cello) and perfect 4ths (bass) is also something we learned, especially since we know what P5s and P4s should sound like. When tuning, moving the pegs is similar in concept to moving the mouthpieces on woodwind instruments and tuning slides on brass instruments. Think of the acronym SOFI: Sharp Out, Flat In. If the peg is sticking, always loosen the peg (out) first before tightening (in) to avoid popping a string. This little trick can save some time and money in replacing broken strings. Tune sharp at first so that as you tighten the lower strings, the upper tunings will descend in pitch making it easier now to simply using the fine tuners on the tailpiece to make those final and safe tuning adjustments.

Once the basics of good tuning, holding position, and instrument care are taught and learned by your students, this would be about the time when two sequential components of teaching strings should be taught separately and then combined: right-hand skills (bowing) followed by left-hand skills (finger placement on the strings).

Right-Hand Skills (Bowing)

Just like each family of brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments has the same basic concept of sound production within each family, so it is with strings. The bow, like the mouthpiece and the mallet, is used to vibrate the string and start the sound. Again, make sure that your students have a good concept of – and can demonstrate – correct bow hold and bow movement. It would be a good idea to first teach your students how to first hold the bow at the balance point (right above the winding and bow grip) so that their fingers and thumb can be relaxed while holding the bow. When they become comfortable with this, move their bow hold to the frog part of the bow. Do this by demonstrating to the students the correct way to hold the bow in the right hand, keeping the fingers on the bow grip and frog at all times and, of course, a bent thumb at the joint. Don’t forget to show your students how to properly tighten and loosen the bow hairs before and after all practices and rehearsals.

Once the bow hold is demonstrably correct and comfortable in the hands of the students, there are various ways to make sure that the sound has good tone quality. Some basics of playing using the bow are:

  1. Use even weight of the full bow on each string.
  2. Use index finger to transfer weight on bow as it moves toward tip.
  3. Use index finger to diminish weight on the bow as it moves toward the frog.
  4. Use full and even bow strokes, keeping a steady bow speed.
  5. Keep the bow perpendicular to the string at all times.
  6. Tilt hair of bow toward the bridge for evenness of sound.
  7. Breathe in before starting phrases that begin with down-bow strokes.

While there are more details about right-hand skills (bowing), these fundamental bowing concepts should be the thread that helps form the basis for advanced string bowing.

Left-Hand Skills

Once students are comfortable with holding and using the bow, it would be good to start the second part of this learning sequence, which is teaching the left-hand skills of finger placement on the strings. In this way, the concept and sequence of learning one thing at a time can be used to reinforce each skill before they are combined together.

In general, strive for teaching familiarity with the strings by first learning to pluck or pizzicato each open string. Most methods books usually start with this approach, which also serves in helping students reinforce the names of the strings as they cross over to other strings. Eventually scales and such tunes as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” can and should be introduced to incorporate both open strings and very doable first-position finger positions, initially marking this first position with a piece of sticky tape or a dot on the fingerboard. The goal for the teacher is to build both skill and confidence in the students, who, after development of these basics, should be ready, willing, and able to move on to developing more technical skills. It should be added that at some point, you as the band, choral, or elementary music teacher should encourage your string students to study privately with a music teacher whose primary instrument is violin, viola, cello, or bass. In this way, your students can continue their development with string specialists who can take them to the next level.

Building A String Program

How does one build a string program? Assuming that a string program already exists in your school thanks to you and/or your predecessors, there are various ways to grow and develop that program. One sure way is to invite guest artists who may be college and/or professional level string players to your school. These artists may be members of a local college, civic, or professional symphony orchestra and/or string quartet. What is important is for your string students to actually hear in person other string players who can demonstrate professional quality sound while interacting with your students in a positive and encouraging way. The benefits of hearing first-hand the beautiful tone quality and music-making that experienced string players can create on their instruments can last a lifetime. Another perk would be for your string students to have a private lesson or group master class with these professionals. Again, this hands-on approach is a recipe for success and one that your students will enjoy, appreciate, and remember.

If you are teaching strings at the elementary or middle school levels, you may also want to consider inviting string players from a local high school string program to come and play for your elementary or middle school students, both for demonstration and hands-on exploratory sessions on the various string instruments. Invite the high school orchestra or string quartet to also come and give private or public concerts for your students. I sure was sold when a high school student came to my elementary many years ago school and gave a private concert to my general music class. It had such a positive effect that I knew that I wanted to go into music!

Dos and Don’ts

As music educators, we all know from experience that there are dos and don’ts in teaching music, be it band, chorus, general music, or, in this case, orchestra students. Below are just a few suggestions:

DO

  • Be patient! Effective string teaching takes time. It took all of us many years to learn what we know and do. Take the time to qualitatively share your knowledge with your students.
  • Continually reinforce the fundamentals of good string playing in your teaching to your students at all grade levels.
  • Present quality performances to and with your students, ensuring sufficient preparation and rehearsal time.
  • Motivate your students by your example to practice daily, remembering the learning strategy that frequent shorter practice sessions are better than infrequent longer practice sessions.
  • Start teaching your students early on the what, how, and why of learning to tune their own instruments.
  • Always keep extra string supplies handy (strings, rosin, music, et cetera) to avoid loss of instructional time by/with your students.
  • Demonstrate as much as possible the skills and techniques you wish them to learn and follow up with them demonstrating it back.
  • Play quality recordings of solo and ensemble string music so that your students can hear what excellent string playing is.

Don’t

  • Don’t give your students any more than two new techniques to learn at a time. Better to focus on quality and not quantity.
  • Don’t get discouraged if students progress slower than you expect. Progress takes time and each student progresses at his or her own rate. Recognize their rate and learning styles.
  • Don’t forget that strings can be learned by any and all age groups. Suzuki proved this in 1958 with his famous innovative method.

Additional Tips & Suggestions

Teaching strings, like any other music subject, is an acquired skill for band directors, choral directors, elementary music teachers and, I dare say, orchestra directors. It is one thing to be able to sing or play a musical instrument, but it’s quite another thing to be able to teach it. Among my final tips will be a number of suggestions – psychological ones, too – that hopefully will offer ways to think about the pedagogical skill and art of teaching strings:

  • Be as technically and psychologically prepared as possible to teach strings. Maybe take private lessons on any of the four stringed instruments so that you will better able and more confident to teach and conduct strings in class and ensembles.
  • Know your students and understand their individual learning styles. From this, you will be better able to adjust and tailor your string teaching to each student’s learning style/capability.
  • Get to know the professional string players and teachers in the area. Invite them to visit with you and your students and offer their knowledge and experience in how to teach these instruments.
  • Do your best in having your students play on quality instruments. The better the quality of instrument, the less difficulty your students will have in producing a good sound and technique.
  • Have the better students in your string class help those who need some extra help. You’ll build leadership and trust among your students. Sometimes student peers can say what you want to say in a more understandable manner to each other.
  • Try to have a goal (for example, a concert) in mind when teaching strings. Not only do you want to have your students learn a new set of skills, but you want to offer them a chance to show off their new skills. A mini-concert at a PTA meeting is a perfect venue for proud parents to hear the progress their children have made.
  • Keep in mind that string teaching is an art as well as a pedagogical skill that can be nurtured through personal practice both in playing and teaching these instruments.
  • Recommended website for further pedagogical information: www.stringtechniques.com.

Finally, always remember to enthusiastically enjoy making music, both as a teacher and a performer. Even if a violin, viola, cello, or bass is not your primary instrument, your students will not only sense your enthusiasm for teaching strings, but will be anxious to learn from you. Isn’t that what music teaching music is all about?

Recommended String Methods Books

In the course of teaching strings, these string methods books represent the more popular and widely-used books for group string instruction:

  • Essential Elements for Strings (Hal Leonard)
  • All For Strings (Neil A. Kjos Music)
  • Strictly Strings (Highland/Etling-Alfred)
  • Spotlight on Strings (Neil A. Kjos Music)
  • Etling String Class Method (Highland-Etling)
  • Action With Strings (Southern Music)
  • Learn to Play a Stringed Instrument (Alfred Music)
  • Müller-Rusch String Method(Neil A. Kjos)
  • Learning Unlimited String Method (Hal Leonard)
  • Young Strings in Action (Boosey & Hawkes)

Dr. Victor Vallo Jr. is a professor of Music and the chair of the Department of Music at Georgia College & State University (GCSU). Dr. Vallo has been conductor and guest conductor for a number of orchestras and bands around the country, including the Immaculata Wind Symphony, Anderson Symphony Orchestra (SC), Arkansas Festival Orchestra, Alabama All-State Orchestra, and South Carolina All-State Orchestra. Currently, Dr. Vallo is the music director/conductor of the Oconee Regional Symphony Orchestra.

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