String Section: What is the Future for String Players?

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 15, 2013

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These days, the only viable professional outlet for most classical string players is the symphony orchestra.

Why is that? Why, after years or even decades of musical training, are classical string students afforded basically one job option aside from teaching?

Granted, the job market is challenging in most sectors, but the field of orchestral strings is perhaps one of the most competitive out there. There are way too many qualified string players relative to the number of available symphony orchestra spots. Case in point: The Chicago Lyric Opera recently held auditions for its principal viola position. More than 150 world-class violists (not violinists – violists) were granted the opportunity to audition. None of them was selected. The Opera instead promoted a current member of the orchestra to the principal seat. So, where do those 150 violists go? What option do they have other than simply changing careers? I know far too many wonderfully talented players facing this very problem.

It goes without saying that the symphony orchestra isn’t exactly thriving these days. As school, regional, and major orchestras continue to struggle or disappear across the country, professional opportunities for classical string players continue to dwindle. Considering the evocative power and stylistic versatility of stringed instruments, the course we are on is simply irresponsible. It’s a disservice to music.

The system is broken, and it will take some creative thinking – and some creative string training – to fix it.

Determining the fix requires figuring out the root of the problem. As I have long argued, I believe the trouble lies in the lack of creativity in the musical training most classical string players receive. I’ve met tens of thousands of classical string students over the past few decades, and few of them write or arrange music, improvise, or lead a band or ensemble. Collectively, they are the least creative musicians I’ve ever encountered.

What makes this frustrating is that this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, string players used to be among the most well-trained and knowledgeable of all musicians. I’ll focus on the violin for the purpose of illustration here. It is no coincidence that the title “concertmaster” was given to a violinist. The concertmaster used to be a musician qualified, creative, and talented enough to lead the orchestra when no conductor was present. The person in this role could address problems in any section of the orchestra, write out additional parts, and even compose new music if any gaps needed to be filled. Moreover, many superstar violin virtuosi, including Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Joachim, Maude Powell, Pablo de Sarasate, and Jean Sibelius, often performed pieces they wrote themselves. And it is worth mentioning that some of the most creative musicians in history – Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Dvorák, among others – received early training on the violin.

The dramatic decline of creativity in classical string pedagogy has largely taken place during the last couple generations. As the Suzuki Method of classical string instruction took hold and became the de facto approach to learning stringed instruments, teachers concentrated far more on exact repetition and rote memorization. Students spent no time learning how to accompany other players, create their own variations of pieces, write material, or improvise. It’s no coincidence that, since WWII, the guitar and piano have replaced the violin, specifically, as the most important instrument in pop culture. What was once the most sought-after instrument in Europe and America is now relatively obscure to those who aren’t familiar with classical music (a sizeable majority of people), and even in one of the settings in which the violin has historically held up pretty well – schools and universities – the concert band has become more important. Nowadays, many schools are simply getting rid of their orchestra programs.

Until recently, there has been little effort to institute a change in momentum, leaving the field of classical string playing in a precarious position. It frightens me to think that there is almost no classical violin piece written in the last half-century that Itzhak Perlman would play at Carnegie Hall (unless you include my Caprices – but I will save that for another article!). On the other hand, there are plenty of new percussion concertos – in fact, there are more percussion concertos being written and performed these days than cello concertos. I don’t have anything against percussion, but you can’t be surprised that I’m shaking my head even as I write this. Just 50 years ago, the cello had to compete with the violin for that coveted concerto spot. Now, the cello has to compete with the timpani!

Today, the ultimate goal for classical string students who want to go pro is a position in an orchestra, but because this goal seems unattainable for most students (rightfully so), classical string training in many ways loses its potency for them. I’ve witnessed countless, once-extremely-motivated students of all ages quit their instruments and never look back.

The way to change this is to reinvigorate the classical string world with some creativity. String players themselves must be able to aid in replenishing string repertoire. They must learn how to play a variety of styles. They must come up with compelling artistic ideas and spearhead projects outside the scope of the orchestra.

But how do we institute this change? I set out to answer this question several years ago when I began developing my method [O’Connor Method] for classical string playing. In addition to teaching students how to acquire the necessary technique for playing in orchestra, it teaches students how to conceptualize music and helps them become artistically versatile. Reinvigorating the classical string world will take time – perhaps one generation to learn how to do it and another generation to translate this reinvigoration to audiences – but it all starts with educating students properly, making them want to play, and opening up new professional outlets for them so that they can find meaning in their endeavors outside of simple satisfaction.

I’ll close with a note about the prevalence of Baroque music in most violin studios. Consider this: If you were a violinist living during the Baroque era and you couldn’t write, arrange, improvise, or lead an ensemble, you wouldn’t have found employment anywhere. The current widespread approach to teaching violin by way of Baroque music wouldn’t have helped you back then. That’s a fact. I have presided over two more string camps this summer that have hosted about 400 students, and there is no question that opposition to the standard approach (rote memorization and repetition) is growing among them. We have to convince schools that this is a good development. I think it is highly likely that this development will continue and that we are witnessing a sea change in the field of classical string pedagogy. It is very exciting!

Mark O’Connor is a multiple Grammy Award-winning composer and violinist who teaches at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and directs an internationally renowned Summer String Program at the Berklee College of Music. O’Connor has authored the O’Connor Method for violin, viola, cello, and string orchestra. In addition to promoting standard technical acquisition, the O’Connor Method incorporates American music and styles into a holistic approach to musical creativity, improvisation, music history, and cultural diversity. More information on the New American School of String Playing, teacher-training seminars, O’Connor Method Camps, and O’Connor’s residencies can be found online.

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