Starting Strong at Every Level: Setting Up String Students for Success

Staff Sergeants Erica Schwartz and Patrick Lin • FeaturesOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

Each school year is an opportunity for a fresh start after summer break. Staff Sergeants Patrick Lin and Erica Schwartz of The U.S. Army Strings are excited to share some tips and suggestions on how to jump back in after some time off. 

For younger students in elementary school, or who may be in their first few years of playing, it is important to make sure parents and teachers obtain the proper equipment. Beginners will need a small enough instrument to fit their size, and it is important to make sure instrument size is re-evaluated based on any growth they may have experienced over the summer and monitored throughout the year. It is never too early to experiment with accessories such as shoulder rests or sponges to fit the student’s size and body shape. Schwartz notes, “it is important the student is comfortable and maintains proper posture early on. Making sure to work with the individual student to choose accessories such as a proper shoulder rest, rather than taking a one size fits all approach, will set the student up for success as they progress.” Once the correct instrument and accessories are in the student’s hand, it is important to prioritize proper posture and setup. Schwartz believes the bow hold, which is a player’s right hand technique, is often overlooked when beginning to teach our youngest students. It can be easier to emphasize music reading and left-hand technique in a classroom or group setting, but sound production comes from the bow and must be prioritized equally. She suggests group lessons and class begin with a warm-up of bowing on the open strings, where the instructor can spend time monitoring and correcting students’ individual right-hand technique.

For intermediate students who may be in late elementary or middle school, it is important to seek private instruction when looking to improve at a faster rate. Group instruction is a great introduction to string technique and ensemble playing, but private instruction can help with smaller details and meeting individual goals, such as participating in solo and ensemble competitions, all-state orchestras, and other extracurricular musical activities. The beginning of the year is a great time to find teachers or mentors for blossoming string players. For students with a more casual interest, it may be appropriate to connect them with an older student as a mentor. This could be an advanced high schooler, or early college student. More serious and dedicated students may work better with a professional musician in the area. Many orchestral players or private teachers are glad to take on motivated private students of a variety of playing levels. We recommend teachers keep an updated list of trusted private instructors who are interested in taking on new students. 

Students in high school will need to start considering an important decision: do they wish to pursue a professional music career, or will they keep music in their lives in another way? While there’s no wrong choice, those who are preparing for the next step toward a career in music will need to plan ahead. Students interested in college music programs should compile a list of audition requirements at prospective schools and start preparing the repertoire well in advance. Lin recommends an organized method to keep track of application, prescreening, and live audition deadlines, as well as all application requirements. If possible, they should visit campuses and take trial lessons with multiple prospective teachers. It’s important to find a school that is a good fit, but it is even more important to find a professor whose teaching style fits the student’s learning style. The private lesson teacher will be the student’s closest mentor and guide over the course of the degree, and it is critical there is a high level of trust and a healthy partnership. The skills learned through studying music will be valuable assets in any career, no matter what your students decide to do. In the most difficult moments, remember your students will enter the world with great work ethic, exceptional problem-solving skills, and an acute attention to detail. Their creativity, confidence, and leadership skills will take them far in life, and they will have their music teachers to thank for that.

Staff Sgt. Erica Schwartz holds degrees in viola performance from New England Conservatory of Music (B.M.) and Rice University (M.M.), and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tufts University. She has been a member of The U.S. Army Strings since 2020. Staff Sgt. Patrick Lin holds degrees in violin performance from Florida State University (B.M.) and Cleveland Institute of Music (M.M.). He has been a member of The U.S. Army Strings since 2019.

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