During the world’s second Alternative String Festival March 11 -13, world class
alternative string players presented clinics representing at least 10 of the roughly 30
folk, world, jazz, and popular styles that feature strings. A brainchild of the American
String Teachers Association, both the 2003 and 2004 Alternative String Festivals
have drawn enthusiastic participation by string teachers, performers, and orchestra
directors from throughout the United States.
My role on the 2003 planning committee and as chair for 2004 inspired me to
develop a new book and clinic that could provide an overview of this burgeoning
fi eld. During the 2004 clinic, titled “Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum,”
Bob Phillips (author and “father” of over 800 fi ddle clubs in schools throughout
America), Andy Dabczynski (co-author of Fiddlers Philharmonic), Renata Bratt
(cellist and President of the Jazz String Caucus), Randy Sabien (jazz violinist and
co-author of “Jazz Philharmonic”), and Daryl Silberman (Yamaha product specialist,
orchestral strings) joined me. The session was kicked off with a performance by the
Chattahoochee Fiddlers, a high school fi ddle club from Georgia, directed by
During this highly interactive session, clinicians and participants alike shared
illustrations of how the inclusion of non-classical string styles provides students
with enjoyable new ways to build technique and musicianship, satisfi es the National
Standards, and provides a stylistically non-hierarchical approach to music education.
The clinicians responded to important questions regarding how to get started, why
it’s important to be inclusive, the challenges and rewards inherent in adding other
styles to one’s teaching curriculum, and the resources available to assist educators.
Many participants spoke about how the old stereotype – sports hero versus string
geek – has changed: high school fi ddle clubs and string rock or jazz bands have
popularized string students (thereby raising self-esteem), increased practice time,
and swelled the size of the corresponding schools’ orchestras. Many proponents of
an inclusive approach have found that the study of other styles can help integrate
the music program with activities in school, such as history. For instance, the fi ddle
club can play “Bonaparte’s Retreat” for the history class when studying Napoleon,
or the jazz club could perform a blues tune during the study of slavery. Opening a
school sports game with a pop tune will get the school coaches’ invitation a lot
faster than a piece by Mozart!
Introducing New Styles and Techniques
We all agreed that even with a busy rehearsal schedule, it is possible to
expose students to new styles by playing a CD as they enter the classroom or by
including a brief warm-up on a tune at the beginning of rehearsal. Another strategy
is to include an alternative string piece in the orchestra concert; any time spent
developing it can be justifi ed in light of a busy schedule since it’s on the program
(see StringsCentral.com for a database on alternative string charts).
Dr. Peter Lemonds, an educator and director from Duluth, Ga., described the fi ddle
club he’s started at Duluth High School as well as the commissioning project he
and I worked on (and subsequent performance at the GMEA with his orchestra)
that included a new approach to rehearsal as well as improvisation. These practice
techniques enable students to familiarize themselves with one another’s parts and
help them to hear the tonal, rhythmic and melodic themes in order to create an
ears-fi rst hierarchy before burying themselves into the sheet music.
The rehearsal process I designed for Lemonds’ students can be applied to any
classical or alternative string piece. While some students will resist trying to
improvise, you can get around this by inviting them to lead two- or three- note
“call and response” exercises in the key. This can lead to a discussion about the
- Warm up in the key on a scale as a group (in unison);
- Extract the rhythmic motifs from all of the parts and teach them to the orchestra
on the tonic;
- Extract the melodic motifs from all of the parts and teach them by ear or notate
them in all three clefs;
- Invite each student to choose one rhythmic motif and play it on a chord tone (if
the piece is in G, then: G, B, or D) as volunteers make up short melodies over the
accompaniment. Even fi ve-note improvisations student-by-student can help
foster an appreciation for the compositional process.
difference between the creation of handfuls of notes versus a melodic phrase.
You can invite shy students to play a game with this by starting with one note
and inviting each student to add one note on, until, as a group, they’ve created
a complete melodic phrase. Take that same phrase and challenge them to apply
various rhythmic ideas to it.
The following three units are excerpts from Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s new book,
“Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum.” Permission for the use of these excerpts
granted by Amadeus Press.
Why Integrate Other Styles into the Curriculum?
Those of us already teaching alternative styles have had the wonderful opportunity
to see students come alive with interest, become more deeply involved in
rehearsals, and practice with greater stimulation at home. Fiddling clubs have
sprung up across America, thanks to the efforts of educators such as Bob Phillips,
founder of Fiddlers Philharmonic.
Projects including the Lakewood Project, where rock violinist Mark Wood worked
with Beth Hankins’s students to create a string rock show, keep students involved.
In high school and college residencies across the country, I always ask students
what style of music they listen to most at home. Almost without exception, they
say rock or pop. Out of a group of 50, maybe one student has listened to blues
or jazz (unless they are part of a jazz program) and a few to fi ddling if their music
teachers have exposed them.
The schism between what we are teaching teenagers and their primary musical
interests may be costing us a whole new generation of string players and
audiences. While it is our job to enable our students to appreciate classical music
through exposure and its resulting familiarity – as well as, I maintain, to expose
them to a wider musical panorama of styles – it is also important to keep them
active on their instruments by showing interest in and respect for their
Through listening to, discussing, and playing many different styles, your students
will develop an appreciation for the individual gifts offered by each genre. When
you send out the message that differences enrich us as musicians and as people,
and that neither homogenization nor hierarchy is the goal, you help your students
recognize that we can live together with mutual respect for our differences. This, in
turn, can make your students feel more recognized as individuals. After all, there is
no such thing as homogenous in America – or anywhere in the world at this point
in history – even where appearances indicate a shared racial background.
Why Create a Fiddling Club?
Fiddling provides a highly rhythmic, group-oriented activity. The sheer act of
creating music in unison with other musicians provides a sense of belonging,
mutuality, and safety. Young people, as well as adult beginners, are often able to
have a taste of success more quickly on a fi ddle tune than on a classical piece of
music. This is the case for several reasons:
- The melody of a fi ddle tune is short and repeated again and again, whereas that
of a classical piece tends to be lengthy and is performed only once.
- The memorization of a fi ddle tune is reinforced through the group learning
process, whereas a classical piece is played solo or within a section against
- Violin, viola, and cello all play the same melody in unison on a fi ddle tune, which
reinforces improvements in intonation more quickly than learning to adjust one’s
pitch alone or against harmonized orchestral parts.
- Finally, in contrast with classical music, fi ddle tunes tend to stay in fi rst position.
They are also highly rhythmic, generating a great deal of energy, which keeps
students engaged and interested.
Why Add Blues and Jazz to Your Curriculum?
Blues and jazz are America’s classical music. Originally a product of the African-
American experience in America, they have evolved to become a national and
international expression, Strings in Blues and Jazz simultaneously infl uencing
and being infl uenced by the music of the entire world. Jazz pianist and educator
Billy Taylor aptly describes jazz as “a musical language that articulates authentic
American feelings and thoughts.”
Just as Bach built his compositions from playful improvisations, jazz continuously
generates informal improvisations that become crystallized into repeatable forms,
thereby renewing itself and evolving. It is a living art, and one that your students
should be exposed to. After all, if we lived in France and were teaching the culinary
arts, would we ignore the use of French spices and sauces? Would we serve only
pizza because one group of people decided that it was the only food worth eating?