The Strad – 5 ways to inspire teenage string students to learn and perform a piece of music

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I completed a postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music in 2021 before starting to perform with the Bath Festival Orchestra (BFO) and take part in their education programme. Elsewhere, a large majority of my time teaching violin and viola has been in group lessons: I taught at the Renaissance Arts Academy, a nonprofit performing arts charter school in Los Angeles, where all subjects are taught in a way that emphasizes and celebrates the whole. learning.

In my experience, here are 5 ways to engage adolescent string students in learning about music and musical performance:

1. Group classes when and where possible

I couldn’t encourage teachers enough to find ways to do group lessons. In my experience with group classes, I have found that students are much more comfortable being themselves when they are with their peers than they are in individual classes. We have a weekly string ensemble at Bobby Moore Academy, and through this students have been able to build relationships, improve their ensemble skills, and it has been important for their personal growth.

Group lessons provide an opportunity to cultivate a culture of empathy, openness and friendship similar to that of a tight-knit soccer or football team. As an example, my top viola class was frustrated that the same people sat front and back for most of their orchestral rehearsals, and so they offered to do their own rotation of seats to ensure everyone can experience directing and playing. from the rear of the section as well. It was a brilliant idea that ultimately made the section stronger, provided perspective on the different roles in a section, and ultimately inspired other sections to follow suit.

2. Ensemble music with the same instrument

One of the flaws of individual lessons is playing music with other people. Although technically my whole class playing the Courante from Bach’s Cello Suite in G Major together was playing them together, that leaves no room for the wonderful spontaneity and dialogue that accompanies chamber music. I am constantly looking for pieces composed or arranged for several violas. A friend introduced me to a very accessible book of tricks and cannons by William Starr, which includes some very nice arrangements that less experienced classes can play in harmony together, and others that advanced classes can use to work on the phrasing and intonation.

When we work on pieces as part of the “Orchestra” educational program, students create their own arrangements inspired by the BFO’s repertoire. Instrumental groups split up to explore their instrument together and generate musical material that is inspired but independent of the piece they are studying. These ideas are recorded and transcribed into orchestral arrangements where students celebrate the fruits of their creative labor.

For my advanced viola class, I found an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor that they absolutely loved, as well as a very nice piece for solo viola and four violas by John Cage. They rearranged this to divide the solo viola part more evenly between the parts and eventually memorized it to perform alongside the contemporary dance choreography while walking around the performance space. These pieces were great because the students were able to play great music with each other and we were still able to focus on particular aspects of viola technique that would not be useful to explore. in their after-school ensemble rehearsals with other instruments.

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3. Encourage students to keep a practice journal

One of the things I wish I had more confidence in asking questions about in my lessons growing up was just knowing how to practice. I spent so many hours banging my head on the same passage, repeating bars that didn’t need work only to crash and burn in the same spot that needed TLC. I never thought to share my frustrations with my teachers, who would easily have identified my mistake of practicing material that needed no work while concentrating on songs that were way too long.

Older and a little wiser, I insist that my students keep honest practice journals where they record exactly what worked, what seemed to work, and what they still struggled with, especially if they didn’t. have missed a particularly difficult passage – be it the infamous octave of arpeggios in the opening of Stamitz’s Viola Concerto, or tricky technical challenges in String Quartet no. 2. As a bonus, their logbooks end up becoming a historical documentation of their progress and a very useful positive reinforcement whenever someone is feeling particularly down about their game. Just take a look at their logbook to remind them of the progress they’ve actually made, even if, at the time, they feel like they’re leveling off.

4. Be yourself

Another key aspect of my teaching training was being authentic with students. Teenagers are inexplicably able to see through the counterfeit persona some teachers don. BFO musicians foster the musical development of students at Bobby Moore Academy – students primarily from communities with limited accessibility so they can feel that music is something they have the opportunity to do.

The same energetic, singsong voice that can (sometimes) captivate younger students will bore 16-year-olds. Teachers who lack the confidence to be themselves in front of students will struggle to build the connection and trust necessary for students to accept the constructive criticism that will inevitably be required. I learned very quickly that I couldn’t fake a cool teacher vibe, and instead possessed my inner nervousness for music and the viola. Students have watched me become genuinely excited teaching the viola part in the variations of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, and get comically carried away demonstrating the accents in the third study of Mazas op. 36.

I demonstrated that the studio was a safe place to be myself, and in turn a safe place for them to be vulnerable with each other in a way that made musical creation and instrumental study quite fantastic. All the students who were a little too cool ended up seeing how much fun we were all having and ended up not wanting to miss the bus. A student from the Orchestra listened to a piece by Tchaikovsky and said, “Wow. People my age who don’t like classical music just haven’t had a chance to explore it. I feel bad for them. This is amazing.’

5. Don’t try to anticipate what they will learn or ‘get’

Finally, and this is important, never ask leading questions. Questions such as “Are these two bars the same?” or ‘Do you think you were a little lively there?’ or ‘Do you see a sudden accelerando in this notorious passage?’ immediately deprive students of opportunities for independent discovery. Instead, opt for a more open-ended inquiry such as, “Can you compare these two bars?” or ‘What did you think of your intonation there?’ and ‘I noticed you were speeding up here, was that intentional?’ In all three reviews, you give the student more room to use their own analytical tools, and their answers will in turn give you much more information.

For example, if they say they weren’t aware of any intonation issues when you clearly heard them, that could be a sign that some intonation work would help them, or that you might have need to be more direct and help them identify when they are too sharp or flat.

Consistent, gentle, and direct communication is key to building trust with students so they are more open to asking questions without fear of judgment. After performing a side-by-side gig with a BFO oboist, a violin student at the school has now decided she wants to become a professional musician and attend conservatory when she’s older.

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