Commentary: Electric Strings

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 16, 2013

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Getting Your Feet Wet with Electric Instruments

As repertoires of orchestras and educational ensembles have kept up with the times, so have string instruments. Electronic strings can be intimidating, since wires and amplification are required, but there are many reasons to adopt these newfangled violins, violas, cellos, and basses, and making them sound great is not as difficult as it seems.

Electrifying your ensemble introduces new sounds and approaches to any genre of music and presents opportunities to discover innovative ways to teach traditional and contemporary curricula. For one thing, using bowed Solid Body Electric (SBE) string instruments is logistically easier and musically more effective than using a microphone to amplify acoustic instruments. They are also impervious to humidity and maintain their tuning and intonation in all types of weather. Other benefits include the ability to play silently through headphones, a helpful feature for beginners and students who are too shy to practice or solo in front of others or who live in close quarters.

Music classes have always had to compete with other elective areas, and solid body strings give students an incentive to join and continue in orchestra by illustrating that they can be adaptable. In addition, solid body strings let directors take advantage of resources and opportunities not traditionally available for orchestras, including technology funds and performances in non-traditional venues. The implementation of electric instruments also helps expand your program when you recruit guitarists, drummers, and other instrumentalists not traditionally included in the orchestra setting.

The sound of electronic strings is continuously improving while the cost keeps decreasing and most instrumental catalogues have wide selections of electric violins, viola, celli, and electric basses. But despite the growing popularity of solid body strings, many educators continue to express concerns over what to use them for and how they work.

Initial Considerations

Ease of transitioning between acoustic and SBE strings, along with the cost and long-term instrument care, are among the most important considerations in selecting electric instruments. Consider the weight of the instrument, the size of the upper bouts for shifting, the ease of tuning, and whether students can fit their own shoulder rests onto any SBE. Electric violas are usually 16 inches, so you may want to consider restringing a violin or including a five-string violin in your collection. To ensure proper posture, cellos and basses should have lower bouts that students are comfortable with. It is better to let each student use his or her own bow on your SBEs. Each instrument should have a volume control and reverberation control. The former saves ear drums and the latter makes the electric instruments sound more like fiddles. Finally, find out if the instrument comes with a quality gig bag or fits into a standard case, which you may have to purchase separately.

Sound Amplification

While traveling across the country introducing electric instruments to orchestra directors, we often hear from concerned teachers about the sound placement and timbre of SBEs. The resonating chambers of these instruments are connected to your students’ bodies so, at first, your SBEs will not seem to respond or sound like the instruments that your students are accustomed to; but they will quickly get used to this new dynamic.

There are two ways to amplify the sound of your electrics. The first is to plug one or two instruments into separate, compact amplifiers. The other is to plug all of the instruments into a mixing board. Many bands, choruses, school auditoriums, and PTAs own mixing boards, and the quality of amps has gone up while the prices have come down. To avoid damaging amplification equipment (and students’ ears), keep the amp volumes below the halfway mark, especially in confined rehearsal areas. If you choose to amplify each instrument, be sure to buy the right kind of amp. For violins and violas, amps designed specifically for vocals or for acoustic guitar will work well. Since the violin has such a large range, a keyboard amp is another alternative. For cello and bass, a bass amp will work better.

Our advice is to take the instruments to a local music store and try different options. Bring the specs of the instrument with you and a knowledgeable salesperson will gladly help you, especially since this will most likely be new and exciting territory for them. Pro tip: securing your amps to luggage carts is an excellent way to move them around.

If you choose to use a mixer, the feed has to be sent to speakers. For a small ensemble, many manufacturers make all-in-one, easy-to-use PA systems, which include a small mixer and speakers for affordable prices. These systems come in varying sizes and are generally easy to transport. Some of them also include built-in storage for cables. For larger mixing situations, there are three ways to go: combine a powered mixer with passive speakers, use a passive mixer with powered speakers, or run a passive mixer and speakers through a powered amplifier. Once you get used to using mixing boards, the setup is easy.

Each instrument will need at least one high-quality cable to connect it to the amp or mixer. Don’t skimp. Many manufacturers offer lifetime warranties, so if a cable goes bad (and they do), they will replace them at no cost. Be sure to purchase a cable that is long enough so that students can easily move without feeling tethered to one spot. The cable will need to make it over, under, and around chairs. You will also want to purchase electrical tape in several different colors. Place a different color on both ends of each cable so you can easily tell which cable is for which instrument. Wireless systems are also available.

Pedals like wah-wah, chorus, delay, distortion, and echo are especially effective on SBEs and make them sound interesting, but if you want to run a pedal between the instrument and the amp you will need a second cable.

To encourage students toward more creative exploration with each individual pedal, we generally shy away from combining pedals on one instrument or using pedal boards. Multiple pedals on one instrument can also be overwhelming. You might allow the students to experiment with pedals outside of class by letting them take a pedal home with an instrument over the weekend to nurture creativity. Like many of the cables and amps we use, our pedals are mostly gifts from students with rock and folk musicians in their family.

What to Play

There are essentially two ways in which SBEs can be used. The first is an electric ensemble separate from the traditional classical ensemble. The second is to integrate them as a part of (and in contrast to) the traditional ensemble by playing along, soloing, or doing a solo ensemble part with the orchestra. SBEs give ensembles the opportunity to be creative, but make sure you have the right sound mix by ensuring that the electronic instruments blend in with the other strings and instruments.

Here’s the rule for including SBEs in your ensemble: Just play anything! There are wonderful reading sessions at ASTA and state MEA conferences that provide plenty of new and exciting music selections for your ensembles. Some major publishers now offer repertoire expressly for solo electric strings with acoustic ensembles. Interesting pieces of music are being written every day, introducing players to the new musical terms and techniques, rhythms, and bowings that are becoming common use in all genres of contemporary compositions.

SBEs can be used as an inspiration to learn how to transcribe melodies and riffs of popular tunes to create cover versions or to use as the foundation for improvising on acoustic or electric instruments. It is amazing how many times students can enjoy repeating rock-type riffs while other ensemble members take a turn at playing a single or multiple-pitch solo of four beats to 12 measures.

If you have not yet played alternative music styles yourself, what could be a greater experience for your students than to have you model life-long learning and explore this music and these instruments with them? They may even be able to teach you something.

Electric stringed instruments are here to stay and in addition to increasing repertoire and the applications of standard technique, they also provide the opportunity to teach improvisation and generate interest in your string program. These tips should give you the confidence to take the plunge into a new world of fun and learning for your students – and yourself!

Janet Farrar-Royce has been a professional performer, teacher, and conductor for over 30 years. She has served on the ASTA National Alternative Styles committee and is highlighted in their new Teaching Alternative Styles in the Classroom DVD. Her articles and reviews frequently appear in music magazines and professional journals and she is in demand as a presenter of teaching fiddling as a part of meeting the ‘National Standards of Music Education’ for state conferences, graduate programs and school in-services. A Yamaha Certified String Educator, Janet has three books on the market about teaching fiddling, the most recent of which is Fiddling Fingers, published by Carl Fischer, LLC.

Kenny Baker is the orchestra director at McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada. He is a Yamaha Certified String Educator, Nevada ASTA president-elect, NMEA Executive Board member and a National Board Certified Teacher. He received his B.Mus at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his M.Ed in Administration from the University of Nevada-Reno.

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