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Fiddling with the Orchestra Curriculum by Julie Lyonn Lieberman
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 Jim Palmer.
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 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.

  • 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.

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
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 musical taste.

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 other parts.

  • 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?

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