Help! My Principal Wants Me to Teach Strings!!!

Tips and Ideas For Starting a String Orchestra/ Beginner String Class

When I entered into teaching 15 years ago, one of the first teaching job presented to me would have been teaching beginner band. As a string player who was hoping to teach strings, the thought of teaching beginner band started giving me palpitations. Luckily, I met with a veteran teacher who gave me tips on how to start a beginner band before I went in for the interview. I didn’t have to worry about teaching beginner band but I still remember that feeling of “where do I begin?” So here are a few tips/suggestions/advice that I have given to a few colleagues over the years who have asked me “How do I start a string program?”


Get a few lessons for yourself, even if you have to barter!

I attended a string educators conference that was held in Villanova University over ten years ago. My take- aways from that conference was the string repair course and the bass class. I never really learned how to play bass in my lower string methods class so getting the opportunity to play and gain tips for starting my students was immensely valuable. I know it may be tricky to ask for help or to find a string teacher/player willing to give up free time in exchange for dinner to help you out but you never know! It doesn’t hurt to ask. My suggestion would be to start playing violin to get the ball rolling.


Equipment

Assess what you already have. The Blueprint has a section devoted to what is needed in various music classrooms. Plan out a budget and present it to your principal. Beginner band programs can be just as expensive to start as beginner string programs. Student model violins/violas can start at $250 while cellos can start around $800 and basses start at over $1000-2000. If your principal wants you to start a program, then he/she should be prepared to spend some money for equipment.

I have acquired many instruments over the years through donations and grants. Donations have come from schools as well as adults. In my 2nd/3rd year of teaching, I received about 30 violins and violas through a grant that the school had pplied for. DonorsChoose is a great way to start. I have always managed to get my projects funded quickly and that is probably because I start with small projects and build up. Start with bows or shoulder rests or 5 violins. Look for the grants!


Take a string repair course!

The University of the Arts offers various string and band repair courses at Villanova University. Within the span of a week, I learned about basic and slightly more advanced repair techniques that I still use today, earned 3 credits and repaired about 10-12 instruments. I was also able to write it off on my taxes! Taking the course helped me learn how to assess the damages and justify fixing instruments instead of buying new ones. When I received the estimate from David Gage (an NYCDOE vendor and great to work with), I convinced my assistant principal with numbers. For the cost of one new bass and a new cello, I was having 3 cellos and 2 basses fixed.


Week 1...

Some teachers think this may be impossible but I have been doing this for quite some time now and it definitely helps with choosing instruments. During the first week of class, we are trying to fill up our classes so I will have about 20-40 kids following me to my room to see if this is where they want to be for 3 years! During this week, I will rotate from violin to viola to cello and then the bass. Since they aren’t registered in my class yet, I use this as an “experiment” period. I show the students how to set up and balance the instrument and pluck a few strings. The cello and bass take longer since I do not have as many of those instruments to share with every student.

This process allows for me to assess who really wants to be in my class for 3 years. If they can follow directions and not fool around, there is a good chance they will stay. This also gives the students a chance to see what they would signing up for since I allow them to write down their first and second choice of instrument for the class. I advise the students of certain parameters that must be met for balance purposes in the orchestra and I also advise upon joining the class/picking an instrument because they want to study it and not because of peer pressure. A majority of the time, students receive their first choice. I also tell them how viola was not my first choice but it somehow worked out for me!

I also start or end each class with a video of someone playing on that particular instrument. I mix it up but I try to show a range of ages and styles. Some musicians I have used are Kevin Olusola, Chargaux, Black Violin, 2 Cellos, Sheku Kanneh-Mason (and the siblings) and others. This is how I start with my middle school students but starting with elementary or high school students could have a different approach.


Music Selection!

Many educators will tell you that repertoire is key to retention in any group since at the end of the day, the students should be enjoying the music and motivated to play. However, we often feel pressure to simply do pop tunes and call it a day! When it comes to picking music for middle school groups, one has to remember that slow movements or slow music of any kind will not motivate a student to practice and may be a struggle to play completely in tune with students just starting out. They are full of energy and like fast music. I usually pick a mix of music that ranges from classical to pop but I look for arrangements that are going to give everyone an important part of the song or the melody at some point. All I remember from my middle school orchestra is a lot of oom-pah-pah’s. It’s going to be really hard to keep any student when they cannot find the joy in the music they are preparing for a concert.

Some great arrangers are Sandra Dackow, Richard Meyer, John Caponegro, Merle Isaac and Vernon Leidig. Unfortunately, there are a lot of decent arrangements out of print so if you find music by the latter of the three arrangers listed, grab it! Soon Hee Newbold has been great for original compositions for beginner string orchestra. I have also created some of my own arrangements of songs when there is nothing decent out there or used IMSLP for any composers that are not even available by any publishing company. I printed out parts on IMSLP last year of a symphony written by Chevalier de St. George (aka the “Black Mozart”) because none of his music was available for print. Just remember that this part involves some research and conversations with colleagues who might have additional suggestions to the names listed above.


Final Thoughts

Getting a music program started is no easy feat but it is possible. Starting a string orchestra program can be as overwhelming as starting a band program but it is possible. String orchestra programs have been disappearing since I started teaching and there are many different theories behind the reasons why. Many of those reasons are the same reasons and theories that have been written about in music education publications dating back to the 1960’s. Regardless of those reasons, music educators should not be afraid to start a string orchestra program. Speak with string specialists about what strategies they use. Educate yourself and keep yourself one step ahead of the students. Look for solutions. Teaching in NYC can be tough but what doesn’t kill you will just make you stronger.


Carmen Elias has been teaching in the NYC public school system since November 2003. Carmen holds a B.A. in Music from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and a M.A. in Music Education from Brooklyn College. She currently teaches at William A. Morris Intermediate School 61 in Staten Island, NY, where she teaches/conducts string orchestra, general music. beginner guitar and pit orchestra. During her 15 years with the NYC Department of Education, Carmen has led professional development workshops, assisted with the All- City High School Orchestra and conducted the Salute to Music Staten Island Borough Wide Orchestra.