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School Orchestra and Private Instruction Working Together (and Avoiding Conflict)

Mike Lawson • String Section • October 4, 2017

There are good reasons guiding a fairly uncontested rule of ethics amongst teachers who provide individual instruction to students in most disciplines; it is not wise for a student to have more than one regular teacher at a time.

Of course, this does not refer to or include the occasional or planned use of substitutes, summer programs, or special circumstances.

One very good cause for this generally accepted policy is because over time, it tends to have negative effects on the student. In many ways, he/she begins to feel much like a child torn between two parents when they disagree. There are so many approaches and individually successful ways in which a teacher can get positive results from a lesson and student. It is one of the things I love about the job.

However, it is not hard to imagine a student feeling conflict when taking regular string lessons under the guidance of multiple teachers.

Obviously, no one wants this to burden a student lucky enough to have a private instructor and an orchestra director. Lately, I have found the need to be careful in how I handle my reactions with students as certain things come up in lessons with my students who are in the more beginning stages of both their ensemble and lesson experience. Most students who are actively engaged in both tend to be very conscientious and are sensitive to those reactions. I do not wish to contribute to tension or make a student feel any.

I think most orchestra teachers and private instructors respect each other, so this month in SBO I want to deliver a general list of things to be aware of on both sides in order to reduce the frustrations.

Musicians are part of a community which, sometimes, only plays by the rules most appropriate for what we do. It is easy to forget that parents must be told (with tact, for sure) that, in reality, it is the other way around when it comes to orchestra and lessons. A strange phenomenon has visited my teaching studio; now more than twice, so perhaps it is not as strange as it first seemed to be. When I follow the logic of a parent enrolling their son or daughter into a school strings program, I can see how it could possibly seem redundant to continue private lessons.

In an environment where orchestra is just one part of an educational experience, one class of many who must share what resources are to be had, I assume that there are some consistent and constant obstacles to maneuver. Depending on the size of your program, I assume none of those regarding a balance of students’ playing backgrounds and current abilities are easy or possible to anticipate or control.

And yet such things as a uniformity of skill level within a strings class is crucial; it determines what is required of the director to manage. I imagine the issues are not easy to dictate by policy. There are so many individual and situational variables – none of them easy.

The students most often affected by the dynamics which arise when two teachers are not in agreement or contact, are the ones which are new or nontraditional with regard to school enrollment timing, or in sync with when the other class members were integrated into a strings’ program, or began some kind of instruction and practice on their instrument.

Often these kids really want to be in orchestra class for one reason or another, but they have just started lessons and will not be ready (yet) to participate adequately and enjoyably. It is hard to say no. Sometimes a compromise is made where it is agreed that the student can sit in and watch the class. This can be a good idea. It is hard to implement for very long before the student wants to play.

And just like that, often the private teacher’s job has to swing into one of damage control.

I was trained privately as a child, before going to university where I received my degree in violin performance. Due to my complete lack of experience physically participating in school strings program as a student or as a teacher, the majority of what I know about their operation(s) comes from students.

Much of what I hear happening in them is great. Some things, however, not so much. The following are acknowledged from a variety of sources, some firsthand, some not. Most refer to violins and viola.

Students playing “guitar-style” for several weeks (or more!)

Result: Student fingers notes using the full hand before they are taught how to properly set the instrument OR hold the bow. For the private teacher, this changes the progression and natural pace the lesson takes as well as encouraging technique beyond what is healthy for those students who wish to seriously pursue orchestral playing beyond the in-school environment.

Tuning

Tuning the strings should be one of the first skills learned; the students’ technical growth will be most prominently displayed during the tuning process and can be used as a vehicle for all manner of useful teaching opportunities, (especially when the group is still settling down and an individual can be approached with quick advice). It is primarily for this reason that I encourage tuning with the bow in increased requests of length and control. I am quite picky with my students and require them to be actively bowing while they adjust the fine tuners so they can hear (or see) when to stop turning. Most students need assistance developing a comfort with how fast or slow to both turn their tuners and move their bow.

The general tendency of most beginners is to turn the tuner too slowly and to use choppy bow strokes. They usually use a digital feedback-type of tuner (Korg or Snark brands are the most common tuners I see student’s use. I advocate for either Korg tuners, or one of the newer brands which clip to the body, as opposed to the pegs.

I try to introduce pitch matching either from the keyboard or on my violin/viola. As they progress, I make an effort to add the skill of tuning the strings to each other after pitch matching of a given “A” as orchestra tuning requires.

Pizzicato tuning is useful for a general idea of the degree to which the strings will need adjusting. I hope this in some way makes the student proficient tuners in orchestra.

Scales

I am fairly sure most school ensembles place heavy priority here. In a school environment, I imagine that finding objective educational measurements (while maintaining a creative atmosphere) can be challenging. So, it is no mystery that scales become a graded skill requiring some method of performance-based adjudication.

Result: There are very few (three) scales to fit the abilities of a student not yet ready to begin position work. Private lesson instructors have different levels or criteria which influence or indicate the introduction of vibrato and shifting. Both of these more advanced techniques require a strong and functional left hand “frame” as a constant in their playing. Without that, a student developed compounding technical compensations that are not usually able to handle the needs of more advanced music.

I was interested in the product advertised in SBO which addresses some of the common ways a student misuses their set up of left hand/wrist/arm (the Wrist Wrangler). A major difference one sees in students getting regular and individual instruction can be seen in the way they use their left wrist (or don’t) to handle the awkwardness of playing the “E” or (on viola) “A” string. This determines the entire shape in which the left hand starts to operate.

That said, it is difficult for students in “fix-it” mode to concentrate on their technical “fix it” while playing publicly (for instance, orchestra class). So, unless the student also practices independently every day they play in orchestra, for roughly the same frame (or longer), what they do in orchestra is what they will retain.

How Private Lesson Teachers Can Make the Job Easier for Orchestra Teachers

1. Assist in the learning of correct tuning and set up of instrument; remind students how to care for their instruments in all matters (not only loosening the bow hair before putting it away, but helping them figure out how loose and how tense they should make their bows – finding what best suits their playing and environmental needs.

2. Try to assist with the music the student is responsible for, especially come concert time.

3. Play duets and incorporate sight reading skills into the lessons as time allows. Take some time to address the unique differences of playing when seated vs. standing.

Jennifer 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 properly study the viola. Currently, Jennifer 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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