Non-String Specialists Teaching Strings – Lessons from Reggie and Sam

Karin S. Hendricks • October 2022UpClose • October 13, 2022

Reggie Benson was one of the most dynamic and passionate band directors I have ever known. We shared an office in a small, rural middle school, where I could observe him teaching through the window in the door. I delighted in hearing his ensembles respond loudly and proudly to his suggestions for improvement. In all the time I spent just feet away from him, year after year, I never once saw him lose his zest for teaching. Although Reggie was visibly exhausted at times, somehow, he knew the magic approach for surfing the dynamic waves of student energy to make every moment an uplifting adventure. 

In retrospect, I recognize one of the resources for Reggie’s endless energy: He also had an insatiable desire to keep learning. Reggie was a trombonist, yet he could play every instrument in the band and would routinely model for the students—not because of some innate or unexplained talent on his part, but because he took the time to learn the techniques, the fingerings, and the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, and then kept up on those skills while continually challenging himself to learn new things.

With his never-ending passion for learning and for sharing what he learned with students, Reggie was a perfect candidate to pilot a strings program the year before I arrived. The rural community had a dozen highly influential parents who wanted their children to have an orchestra at school. Most district administrators did not share the parents’ interest in funding the program, so the parents took it upon themselves to work out the details for hiring an itinerant string teacher who would teach at seven schools per week. 

Before the orchestra parents could hire a full-time teacher, they had to pilot the program to convince the administrators that the strings program and teacher would be worth the investment. Luckily for them, Reggie was interested in helping—and he took it upon himself to learn what he needed to know to teach beginning strings to 6th graders at his school. After Reggie’s pilot year, I inherited a class of second-year, 7th grade students who, because of Reggie’s influence, shared his passion for learning, love of music, and an interest to know even more about string playing.

2022 ASTA

After working with Reggie for five years I moved to a different state to become director of a vibrant and thriving string program that had been large and strong for over 50 years. In this program I found myself—as a cellist—teaching violinists whose skill levels far surpassed mine. It was intimidating at first, until I became acquainted with Sam Tsugawa. Sam’s example taught me I could teach anything with the right mindset, the right resources, and the right community to help me learn.

Sam was a school orchestra teacher in a neighboring town whose students not only played exceptionally well, but who himself possessed the same kind of passion for learning I had seen years earlier in Reggie and his students. Like Reggie, Sam was trained as a trombonist. And like Reggie, Sam went out of his way to learn new things, to try new things, and to share what he learned with his students. Sam was not afraid to model on a violin, even when students had more advanced skills than he did, because he knew any efforts he made would be helpful to them. His students loved music, adored him, and signed up for after school ensembles so they could have even more time to play in what they called “Sam’s Club.”

Although I had more training in string performance than either Reggie or Sam, they taught me countless things about string teaching. They taught me the art of teaching could be mastered with the art of loving-to-learn. They taught me students would appreciate and grow from any effort teachers make to teach and to model. They taught me it is possible to be successful if one reaches out and creates a community to support them. Finally, they taught me how contagious a love of learning can be. So much of the teacher I have become was inspired by these two non-string specialists who were masters in teaching strings.

Getting the Support and Education We Need for Success
Sam and Reggie not only possessed a love of learning, but they knew how to find the support and knowledge they needed to be successful. Both teachers were constantly reaching out to other colleagues for information and ideas. They loved learning more than they feared judgment from other teachers and students, so they took the steps to make learning happen, both for themselves as well as their students. 

All of us as music teachers, no matter our primary area of expertise, need community to support and strengthen us. But those teaching outside our primary area are likely in even greater need of support to develop related teaching strategies and skills. Research has found non-string specialists are relatively less prepared to teach techniques such as vibrato, shifting, and bowing styles, whereas development in string-specific knowledge and skills can lead to better-prepared and more confident students. Said differently: Knowing more about how and what to teach not only makes a teacher’s job easier, but it also translates into more student success and enjoyment. 

The American String Teachers Association
The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) is a valuable and remarkably hospitable community for non-string specialists who teach strings. Never have I seen a group of people more invested in helping one another to be successful, no matter the background or area of expertise. One of the unique traits of the ASTA membership is our spirit of sharing—our genuine desire to learn from, and support, one another. The “ASTA way” is to work together with generosity and creativity, with a common goal of inspiring students with a love of music-making. All are truly welcome here, and all who join ASTA become both givers and receivers of the best in each of us. In fact, at least three of our former national ASTA presidents played wind instruments as their primary instruments!

For any band-trained folks teaching strings who might be wondering what ASTA can offer, let me provide just a few highlights:

Conferences and workshops geared toward teaching string techniques;

Webinars on string-specific topics

Journal articles with a wealth of information about string pedagogy, including articles specifically emphasizing quick tips for non-string specialists teaching strings.

Community support at national, state, and local levels. In addition to the national association, ASTA has thriving state chapters with community-specific programming and collaborations.

Membership in ASTA Connect, an online community vetted by string experts for quality and content.

A community dedicated to active string playing. One of the highlights of ASTA events—whether national or local—is just how musical they are, with people jamming with one another no matter their skill level or background. National conferences have multiple opportunities to attend world-class performances, while national and local events include jam sessions (both formal and pop-up), repertoire reading sessions, and learning sessions with active involvement. 

Reading sessions dedicated to trying out new string repertoire from beginning to advanced school levels, with specific opportunities to try out music of historically underrepresented composers.

State and national advocacy support customized for your program. In addition to generalized information and suggestions, the ASTA organization has made efforts to provide research and other information geared toward specific communities and contexts.

Resources related to e-learning and COVID-19. Since March 2020 ASTA has been on the cusp of providing leadership and support for the “new normal” of pandemic and post-pandemic string teaching.

The National Orchestra Festival—an event like no other—where school and youth orchestras (string and symphonic, high school as well as middle school) come together to receive adjudication, clinics, and the option to compete with other groups.

A historic and ever-growing emphasis on string musician health and wellness. For decades, ASTA members have been pioneers in musician health—discussing and addressing several health-related concerns (including physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing) long before it was popular to do so. 

An impressive variety of musical styles and approaches. ASTA prides itself in having robust and thriving eclectic styles programs and opportunities that extend far beyond classical repertoire to include fiddling, folk, rock, groove, jazz, and more genres than I have space to mention. You name it, you can find it at ASTA!

 Get a Taste of ASTA at Midwest Clinic
If you want a small taste of what the American String Teachers Association is all about, you might consider attending ASTA’s December 2022 Midwest Clinic Pre-Conference session, “Supercharge Your String Teaching: Strings for the Non-String Specialist,” which is specifically geared toward band-trained folks who are teaching strings. 

At this 4-hour immersive session, renowned clinicians John Clinton, David Eccles, Rebecca MacLeod, and David Pope will offer foundational, simple, yet game-changing tricks that will work across the orchestra, no matter the instrument. They will provide overviews of instrument position, tone production, bow techniques, fingering guides, and articulation tricks that can raise the performance quality of a string orchestra, in some cases making noticeable improvements in mere seconds.

Returning to Reggie and Sam
It is impossible to quantify the influence of Reggie’s and Sam’s careers on countless musicians, including me. Reggie has now retired after a long and successful career. Although I have lost touch with him since his retirement, his influence remains a daily part of my teaching and my continued desire to keep learning from others. Sam is now a music education professor, where he continues to make a tremendous impact on future generations of instrumentalists. I asked Sam to share with School Band and Orchestra + readers what ASTA has meant to him:

The American String Teachers Association has, first and foremost, been about its people. ASTA is about teachers, students, colleagues, and friends. As an accidental string teacher, real life occurred as I made other plans (my destiny was to be a high school band director). I found mentors and friends through ASTA. I patterned my teaching after our profession’s foundational pedagogues and teachers like Shinichi Suzuki, Paul Rolland, and Merle Isaac. As my “secret” past became common knowledge, ASTA provided me the mentors, role models, and an inclusive place that made me feel like I belonged in the profession. ASTA allowed me the time and space to help me develop an additional identity and superpower, string teacher, that defines who I am as a music teacher educator. To me, ASTA has always gone beyond the journals and conferences because without its people, the outward symbols of a professional organization alone do not make people feel like they belong. Mentors and friends do.  -Sam Tsugawa

Along with Sam and many other band-trained folks teaching strings, I invite you to join our circle of mentors and friends in ASTA. We look forward to sharing ideas with you, and we look forward to learning from your musical and pedagogical expertise as well. We hope to see you at our pre-conference session at Midwest, and we hope you’ll consider joining us at the ASTA National Conference in Orlando in March, where we can collaborate and share ideas for creating even more vibrant and flourishing school orchestra programs everywhere.

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