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Starting Your Own String Program

Introducing children to school music programs at an early age is beneficial for everyone and string instruments are the perfect place to start. But that wasn’t always the case. When schools had to adjust their budgets, many art programs were the first to go and that included string programs. Now, as districtssearch for ways to increase their music test scores, string instruments are starting to make a comeback because they’ve realizedthat the earlier students receive "hands-on" experience with instruments, the better they retain their music skills at test time. And since most string instruments are available in sizes suitable for elementary students, it makes them an optimum choice for schools to achieve this goal.

Beginning

Forming a string program that starts students playing early has many advantages. Studies show that learning music makes one smarter and helps develop the ability to think. Playing a string instrument improves hand-eye coordination and other necessary motor skills needed to be successful as a string player and the younger the student, the quicker they catch on. Third grade is the perfect starting point as they are mature and responsible enough to continue their practicing at home and can also participate effectively in a group setting.String group has its advantages too. Children learn how to work with others towards a common goal and that promotes positive self-esteem. It’s also a great way to spend quality time with friends and can be a valuable asset when applying for colleges as there are many string scholarships available.

Working with Everyone

The better and more variety of programs a school has to offer, the more appealing it is for businesses to start up in that community. Businesses consider quality of life issues an important factor in deciding where to locate.String programs can help with bothattracting businesses to their area and improving test scores in school districts. It’s a win-win. For everyone involved.

Keeping your administration informed of the academic advantages of music programs should always be top of mind. Send them articles, refer them to professional music journals, and by all means, brag about your test scores. Since most kids simply want to play an instrument if given the opportunity, make administrators aware of how many students want to participate since this seems to be the most convincing factor. Having student ensembles performing at a variety of events throughout the year creates a positive community environment and may encourage administrators to expand the program.

The first step tostarting a string program is to arrange with schools to perform a short presentation. Meeting with small groups of 50 or less is best and having at least one performer play upper strings and one playing lower is an ideal setup. Keep the presentation to about 20 minutes, playing short pieces in a variety of styles. It’s good to discuss the differences in instruments afterwards and show them how they work. Making fun sound effects like "creaky door" or a glissando that sounds like Wile E. Coyote falling off the cliff is always a huge hit.

After the kids get to see how fun and appealing string instruments are, ensure each child receives an information packet. This can include details like instrument explanations, a collection of short articles on music and intelligence, and a letter announcing a parents' meeting for the following week. Tracing the child’s hand on the front of their packetis also beneficial as you can then make instrument suggestionsthat will fit the child’s hand the best. This helps a child relate to a particular instrument. Of course, the final decision is always up to the child and parent but since most kids know only the violin, this also helps to diversify instrument choice.

Next is the meeting with the parents. Discuss the overall program and what concerts and contests the students will participate in. Be sure to have information on hand about instrument rental and you can measure the children for the correct size instrument at this time too. You might also want to take registrations if you have enough staff to handle it.

Acquiring Instruments

Renting instruments, rather than buying, is a good idea, especially for beginner students. Students will probably move through several sizes before arriving at a full size so coordinating with a local music store for rentalinstruments is ideal. If you find a dealer that allows the rental price to be applied towards a future purchase, as well astrading to a new size at any time at no additional charge, then that’s even better and much easier on the parents’ pocketbook. Ensure the store you choose carries instruments that meetMENC standards, as cheaper pieces often don’t have proper fitting in the pegs and use unseasoned woods so the instrument will sound raw and always be out of tune. And when choosing bows, a fiberglass one is the preferred choice as it won’t warp or break when dropped.

Class Schedules

To ensure core test time is not compromised and elementary kids are not missing the same academic classes over and over when attending string programs, a rotating system is highly recommended. Usually at the elementary level, students have a rotating schedule between art, music, physical education and library. Have string students come to string class 3 days per week instead of going to the other classes. Since the other classes rotate, they miss a different class each time.This way, students have no makeup work and still get to attend some of their favorite classes.

Method Options

Method choice is usually based on the band director’s personal preferences. Just make sure the sequence you choose is complete through advanced techniques as you might run into a problem if your class advances through the beginning levels faster than anticipated. Sequential methods with accompanying CD’s are always advantageous as they can be used to practice at home or school. A teacher's resource manual with lesson plans, quizzes and worksheets is also a plus.

Your goal for 3rd grade students should be to cover most of book one in the first year. Then students are prepared to learn a new finger pattern in the fall which allows them to play the notes F and C natural. You should also strive to have them play a duet or trio of about 24 measures in length to perform for Solo and Ensemble. Of course, this can be adjusted according to the age and skill level of each class. Method books usually have the curriculum clearly laid outand include sections on relevant history and theory, as well as prompts for appropriate places to add extra pieces.

Once Classes Have Started…

On the first day, it’s important to talk about the care and handling of the instruments. Teaching the parts of the instruments is vital too. That way, when the instruments arrive, students are prepared. You can start by having the children pluck the strings in guitar position while standing as they play along to an upbeat CD. And since students are going to play with the bow whether you show them how to use it or not, you shoulddemonstrate how to use the bow on open strings as soon as possible so it’s being done the proper way right from the beginning.

Violin and viola students might have difficulty holding these instruments under the chin at the start so it’s a good idea to switch back and forth for a while to make the transition gradual. Try to move forward at a pace that encourages practice but doesn't frustrate the students. With an objective of having beginners know a variety of 1 or 2-line songs by Christmas, studentswillfeel successful with each new challenge.

Grading Methods

There are a variety of strategies you can use to grade your students. Quizzes in your method book can be used as playing tests for beginners. Your teacher resource book usually has a corresponding form that lists the specific skills students need to master in order to successfully play the test. You can decide what percentage to assign these quizzes and then the rest of the grade can be compiled from class participation, working as hard as possible to learn to play their instrumentand remembering to bring their instrument, book and other necessary equipment to each class.Holding a pizza party at the end of each semester is a big hit and great motivator with students. You can create practice cards and have the child return them weekly to receive a sticker, and every student who collects 10 stickers gets invited.

The First Concert

Scheduling the first concert right before the Christmas holiday break is ideal. This gives beginner students time to learn some songs and allows returning players to get back into their stride. Having all levels from novice to high school perform allows the families and students to hear the progress that’s being made from year to year. With this many students performing, logistics can sometimes be a challenge but there are a couple of ways that have proven to be successful. If you have a large performance area, seat everyone in groups beforehand. For smaller spaces, students can come on and off the stage in sequence and sit together while they listen in the audience.

Since the first concert is a highly anticipated event by students and parents alike, it’s essential that it be a positive experience. Try to have at least one or more rehearsals where all the students involved can play together. This allows the students to see and hear what the concert will be like and helps ease any fears the kids might have. It’s also a good idea to perform songs they know well and feel confident playing. And last but not least, you need to stay calm and make the students feel secure in their abilities.

Explaining to the parents what skills their children have acquired to be able to play each selection for this performance is always appreciated. Since the concert is a first for parents as well, this allows them to see what their child has accomplished. You might want to organize a potluck for after the performance. That way, you can mingle with the families and learn more about the students while they get to learn more about you outside of a teaching environment. It’s also a wonderful way to reward students for all their hard work.

Final Thoughts

As you begin to incorporate your string program into your school’s music program, it’s important to always remember what your ultimate goal is: to develop lovers of music. Band directors can sometimes get lost in the details or try to fix everything, but if music remains the focus of every class, you will succeed in creating a love of music and a successful string program.

Author

Nancy Steffa

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