How You Make A Difference: Orchestral Educators Focusing on the Individual

Mike Lawson • String Section • June 8, 2018

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Education, whether of an institutional nature or otherwise, can take many forms.

Elements necessary for success in education are provisions of motivation and instruction in equal measure. It is paramount that a student has either strong internal motivation or is provided adequate stimulation. Inspiration needs to be both ongoing and individualized to suit the students’ existing contextual reality.

By this I mean the difference seen when a teacher or mentor makes time to integrate considerations of circumstance into a student’s education. Some of these considerations include resources, environment, a student’s nature for specific activity, ability to focus, how they most are able to use their learning potential, instinctive musical intuition, stylistic tastes, social skills, and degree of support likely from family.

This is a lot, and not likely possible to do for every student within the larger classes. In the large classes, it falls to the orchestra teacher and any assisting personnel to determine which students both need and will benefit from efforts made on behalf of their present and future musical experience.

There are always those skilled students with a big personality who also play “big.” These students can overshadow the personalities of equally gifted students with quieter natures. Both need attention, but in different ways. Additionally, some students are naturally very self-motivated. It is the less obvious and more overlooked students who need to be given some attention and external reason to put in the work and continue when they move out of your sphere of influence.

Stringed instruments are so difficult to play well; one must have a keen desire to both learn and then practice what has been taught and continue to do so. Playing these instruments is not like riding a bike – skills disappear without consistent effort and use. Obviously, the task of finding the needs and working within a student’s reality is more possible with individual instruction, but I think most orchestra directors have superb abilities for judging the needs of those in their care. Sometimes it is easier than others.

The “Orchestral Experience”

I am going to diverge from the originally intended topic a bit, due to my fortunate recent experience with a symphony orchestra concert (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, which premiered nine days before his death – you can hear it in the writing and feel it whilst playing).

I found, while attempting to communicate this experience with a non-orchestral musician, that I could likely consume an entire article just attempting to explain. Additionally, I found that it is something I really wish to write about and have been thinking of a lot. I assume that the readers of this magazine are familiar with the euphoric or supercharged orchestral music-making to which I refer.

Certainly, it makes me examine the awesome responsibility taken on by orchestra directors. Surely these orchestral experiences are what prompted most career orchestral musicians to the field in the first place – or are at least partially responsible.

To some degree, it is a reflection of the individual’s emotional and physical investment (the ability to tap in to whatever it is that makes for those euphoric concerts), but it also takes an ensemble with ability. I imagine that providing such an environment is difficult to do when dealing with intermediate or beginner students. It takes skill and proficiency to be able to play music composed with the degree of emotional depth, and (often) complexity which provides a rich musical environment. It also takes enough skill within the ensemble to reach a level which is not too frustrated for those players involved who possess a higher level of playing ability than the ensemble in general.

How to Get There

There is no magic formula or curriculum to provide a universal answer or guide to follow that fits every ensemble or orchestra. However, there are some things to work on specifically with an ensemble to help it be more sensitive and musical and enjoyable for the players when done well. I am assuming that most orchestra directors play (or have played) a stringed instrument. For those who don’t, I strongly suggest having professionals from the community come in to assist as able with the following list of technical specifics.

Dynamics: One of the most useful things you can do for your orchestra student is teach them the ways in which the bow can be used for dynamics. It isn’t intuitive. Most students will assume that do play more quietly is to use less bow

Bow Distribution: bow speed/where in the bow/how much bow/heaviness or lightness of stroke

Note Beginnings: How to execute the proper articulation: One might demonstrate by using audio clips and examples in both solo and orchestral context: to determine what the sound is and the nature of the sound, then show (visually demonstrate in exaggerated motion and then actual motion) the manner of execution. Getting that particular sound in regard to bow use will vary from one instrument to another to some extent.

The space between notes: very often style is determined by the nature of the space between the notes.

Intonation: Practice sliding the fingers slowly (can start with no bow) – not shift-sliding but note tuning sliding for matching pitch.

Intervals: Make it a natural part of practice for students to sing their pitches and then play the same pitch (for intervals and accidentals). Possibly use a keyboard instrument to give the pitch, then have them sing, then play.

Note Endings: I generally find that it is difficult to focus on both the note beginning and the note end of an individual note. It tends to cramp and tense the bowing apparatus. However, it is very important that a student be able to successfully taper their phrases and endings of notes where the music requires. Chopped note endings are to be avoided.

“Playing the Ink:” This a favorite phrase used by one of the conductors I play under. It is pretty straight-forward. If it is published in your part, then do it! Attention to detail can be overwhelming to a student, but the result of that attention is substantial.

Convincing the Beginner (and Family)

One of the first things I ask a beginner student during their initial lesson is: “What makes you want to play the Violin [viola etc.]?”

The stronger their response, the stronger the likelihood that they will continue with their lessons when the going gets tough…or when they realize that it will take longer to “sound good” than expected.

In this article, I want to make it clear that the orchestra directors in the schools and communities lucky enough to have them are effective; they can inspire and can make a difference, and what they give their students is a very important part of their lives and the life of Symphonic Organizations at all levels. It is often up to this group of educators to convince students, parents, and the community of the value found in playing a stringed instrument.

This is especially difficult, given that it takes so long for beginners to achieve a level of playing on the instrument that is comparable to that of their peers playing other instruments found in school bands. It should be noted that once one is beyond the scope of school sponsored band programs, the majority of large ensembles with performance capacity are going to be symphony orchestras and not symphonic bands.

It is important that we are providing enough string players of high caliber to fill seats in the established and emerging orchestras.

As difficult as competition within a career can be, it is something desirable within the field. With competition comes choice and motivational goals that make us better. The hardest question to answer at the beginning of a student’s time in lessons is how long until they will sound good. It can compound the distress a student feels when a parent comes to the lesson or class in order to ask if maybe their child is not suited for the violin (etc.)- should they switch to another instrument? Why is the progress so slow? Or some variation of “what is wrong” that their child sounds so awful or is still on open strings.

It is a delicate situation to handle. As all strings educators (and players!) know, to get a good sounding ensemble is bordering on the miraculous given it is so hard to get individuals to produce a good tone that is in tune and as intended. We also know what it seems like when a school concert features both band and orchestra groups in the same performance. It is difficult to properly assess the two within the same context. It just takes longer for us.

And the learning curve for the violin/viola/cello is so personal and diverse…so weird. I sent the following statement to a handful of colleagues who have extensive teaching experience in diverse environments to see if they were in agreement with it: “one can make the general statement that it will take at least a year before family members can do away with the ear plugs and the student feels the thrill of their own musicianship.”

Based on the conversations that ensued and the replies I received, I am going to stand by that comment with the added clause “if the student practices regularly.” The level of discipline within the act of practicing will also weigh in on the student’s speed of agility with the instrument. There will always be the local orchestras that, despite all efforts, cannot retain the trained string players they require; everyone kind of accepts that the strings won’t have that full and sweet sound found in recordings. Even in an increasingly mobile society, the availability of quality orchestral string playing will be very regional. Some parts of the country have established programs.

Many do not. The ones trying to jumpstart programs with strings have a rough and extensive job. They are to be admired (and, when possible, assisted by those who are trained and local).

Even though quality attracts quality, no one can sit on their laurels. It is not so hard for the sound of string sections to lose a few players and become substandard.

Some Signs a Student Needs Individual Attention in Class

• Anxiety and panic attacks

• The practice factors

• Lacking sense of individual responsibility (discuss different types of responsibility)

• Problems adjusting to new school

• Inability to cope with the change from middle school to high school

• Difficult home environment

• Social reluctance or awkwardness [in many instances, an otherwise socially awkward student will discover a place they fit and friends who accept and encourage natural behavioral growth; there is often a kind of solidarity, allowing for a comfortable social home. However, in light of beginner groups and the sometimes brutal way children treat one another, I don’t know if this carries over to the school orchestra. In any case, it is always important to consider social repercussions of positive and thwarting nature when determining the chair placement of string players in addition to skill]

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