Back to School: An Olympic Event!

Mike Lawson • String Section • August 2, 2019

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Tips for Integrating and Initiating New Orchestra Members into the Classroom

We all know that orchestra classes are not one teacher giving lessons to a whole bunch of students at one time.

There is no plausible way to imitate the private lesson experience. If we set the class objectives up in a way that maximizes the ensemble and the potential of success, learning, and enjoyment for the individual, while also building a community, then we have the ideal orchestral program on solid footing for years to come.

Getting started is the Olympic event, both within a school system, within a semester, and within a season. There are always aspects of “first time” discomfort in this kind of a class and endeavor (personally for both teacher and student). I am not experienced in the orchestral classroom – instead, my group lesson teaching experience lies within coaching of sectionals and performance assessment guest prep, as well as the ensembles I belong to. A serious part of my life is found in chamber music and ensemble standards. If not working with others in musical contexts, or without a full spectrum there, I feel unfulfilled, musically frustrated, and dissatisfied.

With significant experience of teaching in every age group and population by this point, I intuit what will hold the attention of students and what will lack the necessary momentum to continue. Most useful, I think, is that I have a great many students who leave the studio for vacations (etc.) and when they return, we must address the narrative that occurs as a result. As such, this article will be a hodgepodge collection of tips, suggestions, observations, all intended to provide ideas as you come across those issues that mark a new school year beginning.

Prepare Students to Excel at Coaching and Practice

A somewhat daunting yet useful objective in a classroom environment of any level (wide ranges of skill, resources, and experience) is to help them coach themselves and practice effectively. This can be a game-changer for students lacking circumstances, to study with a private instructor, especially for those individuals jumping into a new school and meeting new people. Often high levels of anxiety and insecurity accompany the transition between middle school and high school.

An orchestra can potentially help students in periods of transition or unrest by providing an environment of security and comfort. For those exhibiting need for structured and individually relevant parameters in their musical experiences (social, educational or personal) we want to allow and guide to a place one can play as self-sufficient and strong musicians. The musician must function as a coach and student. Burton Kaplan’s book Practicing for Artistic Success presents an amazingly accurate and practical solution to so many of the issues musicians stumble through in order to become proficient.

From “Chapter 1: The New Frontier”

“The creation of artistic musical expression is an intuitively governed process; coaching is a conscious, rationally informed process. It is rare to find practicers who are equally capable in both areas. In my experience, most practicers stay with music for the intuitive and artistic experience though they know little about how to coach themselves to focus their intuition for maximum effect.…[modern available knowledge of the world of the mind] can help create super musicians by enabling practicers to plumb their potential as they toil daily in their practice rooms. But it must be organized for the use of the practice.”

We must continue to refine and adapt the way we approach string(s) students in the school orchestra. Often these musicians shoulder a responsibility for finding their own methods of balance (to coach their own practice in the absence of the private lesson). This can ultimately be an advantage (if well met), for they will have an internal private teacher giving them daily lessons as opposed to the traditional “once weekly” private instruction observed by most teaching studios.

Making the Instrument Fit the Student: Setup

This is a uniquely challenging task for both the student and the teacher. On one hand, it is the basis every function of the instrument and musicianship and healthy playing is built upon. On the other hand, there is very little for the student to do at the outset of lessons; they can merely do tasks like putting on the shoulder rest consistently and correctly, and finding “the box.”

None of these are fun; there is limited play on the instrument and all must be done with attention to specific recognition of the way the body is being used. The primary job is finding what functional action feels most “at ease.” These basic postures and shapes will later define success or stress. For the most part, the student will be unaware of accuracy or dysfunction on their own; there is a good chance they will do some of both.

I understand the impatience with set up efforts. As a teacher, I find the experience acutely exhausting. It requires a lot of effort to connect with a student before you know how to read them; to expect them to find what you are trying to give them without any context, frame of reference, or experience with what is normal or not regarding their instrument and all the things that go wrong.

To this, I implore of those who have a say in such things:

Please provide all students with good instruments with properly fitted pegs, decent strings, a shoulder rest that is not a cheap sponge (some sponges out there are used by professionals and are cheap, like Komfort Plus models – I suggest the traditional standard KUN rests, they are the most likely to be usable by any student when adjusted and tweaked to fit the size and build of the student).

Regarding rosin: I would lean towards not giving them any and having a high-quality cake in the room for use when the bow begins to lose grip on the string. So many issues can be avoided with instrument hygiene, and the cheap boxed rosin(s) that come with most instruments are not ideal. Make sure their bow loosens and tightens as it should. Make sure they know how to safely get the instrument out and put it up (zippers shut until case is safely on the floor!).

Too many students drop out or discontinue study due to frustrating chronic problems of inadequate instruments. Individually addressed set-ups for each student provide help to properly hold and play their instrument with minimal discomfort, and provide noticeable improvement in sound production (tone).

For violin and viola, the playing posture takes some getting used to and a degree of compromise. The teacher should responsibly help find that line between what is part of the craft and what is unhealthy. Some students report this as pain. Check their hold and accessories and how they put them on very carefully.

There should be no digging into their jaw from a chin rest too cupped or tall. If this is the case, swapping out the chin rest is not difficult and in most cases of rental instruments-not charged. Some students (often violists) require a center mount chin rest to have a healthy line from their nose to their scroll down the center of the instrument. Other chin rest solutions include adding a cushy chin rest cover with or without the foam pad.

I use these on both instruments; it secures my shoulder rest with the rubber band across the back, it protects the skin of my neck from developing a rash from the metal chin rest posts, and protects the instrument by soaking up excessive moisture (some of us sweat profusely and can also develop additional skin issues).

Using Media to Motivate Musicianship

Often when students begin, they harbor self-doubt, and they struggle to find personal acceptance with where they are in their journey to make the kind of music that drew them to the instrument. It is a long process. It requires a lot of patience and repeatedly finding it in them to get back up and dust themselves off to go at it again when they fail and fall.

Many of my adult students have trouble judging their progress and will come right out and ask me whether they are learning at an acceptable pace or not. Time and time again I observe students in private lessons floundering or feeling lost as to whether they are doing well. They can’t tell if they are still learning. They are constantly fretting over whether they are ever going to reach a level of proficiency to justify all that they are investing (cost, time, focus, energy, sacrifices in other areas etc.). I do believe we carry that tendency with us for the whole of our career or lives; as long as it is of priority, it will carry concern.

Modern smartphone video functions are largely easy to manage, accessible, and inherently useful; the tools at hand have developed quite recently. These tools were not available to us a few decades ago – we had cassette tapes.

Advising: Using the Cell Phone as an Educational Tool, and Learning How You and Your Sound Behaves

Here are some things to keep in mind or avoid when using a cell phone:

• Note how to position the recording device for optimal viewing feedback

• How to set the phone camera: knowing the best camera and how to use internal and external microphones for best visuals and sound.

• Note what does the room does to the sound, as well as how distance from the phone affects sound

• Learn to save to videos to YouTube and Google Drive

• Learn file formats, as well as privacy and permissions

• Take what you get with a grain of salt: depending on the quality of your equipment, you must know how much honesty is useful and how much the sound is dependent on your gear. Use this as a guide, and not an absolute.

• Take notes while you watch yourself play

• Use screen capture for still frames

• Explore the sound quality playing standing up versus playing in a chair

• Play on your own and play with a stand partner (body positioning and stand height and angles make or break your ability to reach your full potential as an orchestral musician)

Jennifer Steinfeldt Warren began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to study the viola. Currently, Warren performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet, the Tulsianni Ensemble.


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