Perhaps you’re a long-time band director asked to start a string program at your school. Or you’re a first-year teacher looking at limited job options that may include any combination of band, chorus, or strings.
However you find yourself in this situation, the lack of a string playing background shouldn’t deter you from taking on the position of orchestra director. Being prepared and willing to learn can lead to an extremely rewarding teaching experience. Here are a few tips and resources to get you started:
1. Make string player friends.
Meet with other orchestra teachers in nearby districts for technique, pacing, and repertoire advice. Locate a list of qualified local private teachers, both for you and your students. Take lessons and learn along with your classes. Being able to model great posture and bow technique to your beginners is essential to their success. Even if directing more advanced ensembles, grasping the fundamentals of sound production will allow you to more clearly express the specific effect or style you want from players. Be sure to get a crash course in tuning, changing strings, tightening chin rests, and replacing fallen bridges while you’re at it!
2. Connect with a trusted luthier or string repair shop.
You will need their help with repairs, rentals, and maintenance throughout the year. Research good instrument brands to make appropriate recommendations to parents. Cheap VSOs (violin-shaped objects) proliferate the internet in bright, tantalizing colors, but they can cost you precious minutes in class attempting to tune or repair. Be aware that students should be measured for fractional-sized instruments. It is not common for elementary students to play a full-size string instrument.
3. Plan your teaching curriculum.
All your music training translates to strings. You know more than you think you do! All expectations for tone, rhythm, intonation, and musicality are the same between ensembles. Only the method of achieving them varies. Breath control in the voice or the clarinet equates to bow control on a cello. Shaping a phrase with fast or slow air is the same as changing the bow speed and weight to achieve volume and intensity. Daily warm-ups and repetition are needed in every music ensemble. A good method book can set the pace for the first year of learning, and many include frequent reminders and checklists to students about posture, finger placement, and bow hold.
4. Choose appropriate repertoire.
A first concert after a few months of playing may be all unison, pizzicato pieces. And that’s okay! Establishing good posture, relaxed and balanced hand shape, correct finger patterns, and reading skills are more important than looking like Lindsey Stirling that first year. Err on the easy side with literature so students can feel successful and achieve good tone and intonation. Unlike band, orchestra begins in sharps. Prepare to spend the first few years in the keys of D, G, A, and C major.
5. Work on the left and right hand separately.
Practice new finger patterns and correct left-hand shape with pizzicato tunes and scales. The right bow hand in particular is crucial to producing a good tone and is the most prone to tension if not set up properly. Start young players on a pencil to alleviate the awkward feeling of bow weight that frequently leads to squeezing. More experienced students can warm up with a variety of bow techniques – legato, staccato, spiccato, tenuto, etc. – on open strings. Allow students to focus on one element at a time. Playing a string instrument involves the whole body, and it is easier to coordinate movements that have been practiced separately.
6. Fast before slow.
A common misconception is that long note values are easy for strings, as whole notes are for winds and brass. The opposite is true. At the very start, short rhythm patterns, like the standard “pepperoni pizza” pattern, allow students to concentrate on a relaxed bow hold while maintaining the correct contact point and angle on the string. Longer bow strokes follow later, as the arm is extended in one balanced, fluid motion with even weight. To practice this, attach cardboard paper tubes to strings with a rubber band for “silent” practice on the instrument, focusing on movement over sound at first. Natural and relaxed are key words in shaping and moving the hands, arms, and fingers.
7. Establish an organized environment that encourages responsibility.
Many mishaps of broken strings, bows, and instruments occur during setup for class or transporting afterward. Teach students how to properly handle their fragile instruments. Make sure they know not to touch the bow hair or overtighten pegs. Have assigned storage spaces and a daily routine of uncasing carefully only when directed to. Perhaps dismiss one section at a time to avoid chaos and accidents after class. Instruments should only ever be two places: in the students’ hands or in their cases! Clearly label bins for rosin, shoulder sponges and rests, endpin stops, fingerboard tapes, and extra strings in various lengths. Stock up on these supplies and accessories that you will need all year long.
8. Read, watch, listen, and learn.
Attend concerts or watch videos of professional orchestras and study their physical posture and movement when playing various tempos and styles. The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) offers a wealth of orchestra articles and resources, including a valuable annual conference featuring clinics led by string pedagogues. Both ASTA and your local MEA can provide information about summer workshops or boot camps for non-string players. There are also numerous helpful books and methods addressing everything from approaches to vibrato and shifting to simple instrument repairs.
Regardless of your level of experience, your positive and encouraging attitude means far more to students than your perfect vibrato. And while string instruments have a reputation for being temperamental, they are just one of many ways students can participate in the life-enriching activity of music-making. Let your passion for teaching and love of music shine through, and you will have a dynamic orchestra program filled with inspired young musicians.