Confessions of an Orchestra Trainer

15 FEB 2018 / BY SCOTT RYAN

Elijah-henderson-194156

By Trevor Mee


Australia has a strong tradition of successful school bands. This is fantastic, but up until recently, it was much less common to see a school string orchestra, or even a small string ensemble, and strings are still a long way behind in terms of numbers and often quality of output. This is despite the fact that in terms of financial outlay for a school, to begin a string ensemble is far less than the expenditure for band.  I should note, that these are general observations and there have been pockets of substantial string output.

Some of the reason for the focus on band, particularly at the primary or prep level, is that it tends to take less time to get students to be able to display their success early in starting a band instrument. Programs in the United States have been fully developed and there is a wealth of knowledge resources and music for the Australian bandmaster to draw upon to create a successful band. At the start of my career, I looked with envy at these successful school band programs. I am happy to say that slowly, we are bridging the gap. In this article, I’ll outline some of the ways this is happening and maybe give some advice to the keen string player out there who wants to start an ensemble.

IT WON’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT, BUT IT WILL HAPPEN

Firstly, the string teacher needs to know that it will take time to build a successful string program. String players have extra demands in terms of aural perception and fine motor skill. Both hands on a string instrument have to work independently to produce the required timbre and pitch. In order for the average student to be successful with a string instrument they need to start young, build their aural capacity and be prepared to put up with some quite ordinary sounds before the beautiful ones emerge. Schinichi Suzuki proved this with his approach to string teaching. He said “Give me the child at 3 and I will not train them to read but to listen and play.”

Pitch is so important to string playing that the earlier a student starts the better. Of course we are talking about school programs here so it is not possible for the enthusiastic string teacher in a school to get hold of the students at 3 but if you think you can wait until upper primary, think again. If you want to start reading music at the same time as learning to play, I would advise starting students at the age of 6 or 7. The school I currently teach at has a compulsory year 2 program. This works well with the materials I have chosen to give them. The fact that it is compulsory means I get (at least for one year) a ready supply of new players. The trick is to keep them.

MAKE IT FUN AND ENSURE STUDENTS ARE SUCCESSFUL

Consider the reasons why you continued with an instrument. Most likely, you either had the experience that you were good at it and people told you so, or you had fun. Most probably both. Therefore look at the materials you are presenting the students. I have found the following resources are successful because students quickly pick up the skills to be successful and the pieces they are playing are great fun:-

Encore on Strings by Keith and Natalie Sharp (Especially book 1) starts with open strings. Even when the students have only been taught to hold the instrument and pluck the D string, they are going to be able successfully make music that they can be proud of. This book is full of music that students of this age are going to love. It has a backing CD for students to listen and play along to. Not only is the material fun, it is also extremely well-constructed pedagogically. 

Fiddle Time series by Kathy & David Blackwell Likewise, this series has music that children of this age will enjoy and will be easily able to have success with. The 14 pieces for mixed ensemble is excellent. It has differentiated parts for when the students start to advance at different rates.

Stepping Stones and Waggon Wheels by Katherine and Hugh Colledge are also very good books for a step-by-step approach to playing. These work really well in private lessons.

Also check out Witches Brew and Wizards Potion by Ben Attwood. These pieces are great fun!

It is useful also if you can write your own arrangements. You will find quickly with any group of students that the rate of progression varies. If you are able to look at the skills of the group that is in front of you and cater for that specific group of individuals, you have a distinct advantage. It also gives you the opportunity to play popular repertoire that has not been arranged for your level of ensemble yet.

Make sure students have an ensemble to join right from the beginning. The great thing about the resources I have just listed is that all of them give you the opportunity to have kids play together right from the start. For me, my parents always had a battle to get me to practice, there was always something on the television that I would rather be watching, but come Saturday morning, when it was time for youth orchestra, I would be telling mum it was time to go. Your string ensemble is the most powerful tool you have for keeping the kids playing.

JUDGE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT

Every school and has its own culture. If you are taking over a group or starting a group within a school, it is important to have your ‘antennae’ up and receiving information about where you fit within the school environment. Of course you are going to do everything you can to make your orchestra the most important and respected co-curricular activity in the school, but not being aware of school values can see you fail very quickly. You will need help in your venture. The best approach is to find something to praise about what you find in a school. Most schools will have a particular area where they excel, be it a particular sport or art, dance or a drum group. Invariably, this will be because of an enthusiastic teacher. Make it a mission to find out what is great at that school and learn from the person running it. This doesn’t mean you have to pester them, but watch how he or she is able to inspire the kids to put in the effort to make their group special. Be friendly and pay compliments, telling the band leader that you really enjoyed watching his rehearsal from the back of the room and telling him how impressed you were with how he was able to get a great sound from the group is probably going to find him willing to give you some help in getting your orchestra up and running.

CREATE THE STORY FOR YOUR ENSEMBLE

Students love to be involved in something that is going places and has momentum. They relish being involved in a quest.  Standing up in front of the school to perform is a great challenge. It has the potential to go horribly wrong on one hand but the potential to be a life-changing, positive experience on the other.

If you’re starting a group, you are in such a great position to let the students know how privileged they are to be members of the first-ever performance at their school. I was in the lucky position of starting my career in a school which already had a very well-established and successful band. I benefited from the fact that there was already a music culture within the school.  Also, as the group became stronger in both numbers and standard, we were constantly in the position of surprising the school community. I was able to point out developments in the group and motivate the orchestra with the thought that the next time they play the audience was going to be amazed. I think healthy competition can be a powerful way to motivate your ensemble, our string orchestra definitely felt like underdogs for a number of years and relished the opportunity to show the band that they needed to watch out because we were hot on their heels.

CHOOSE GOOD REPERTOIRE AND THINK OF THE WHOLE GROUP

Some repertoire just works, - it has an inbuilt energy that your ensemble will immediately sense. There has been an excellent article written for ABODA on this already by Jason Isaac. I usually look for three types of piece for my groups.

  • A serious challenging piece to push the ensemble to the next level. It is important to cater for the upper end of your ensemble. The better players need you to give them something to get their teeth into. Some of the back desks may struggle to be able to play this but the journey to get there will advance them.

  • Something that all players will be able to play. Having challenged those back desks, I think you need to be aware to make sure that their confidence stays high. Balancing this need while not having the better players think this repertoire is beneath them can be tricky. Some composers who have written some very stimulating repertoire for the student ensemble are Keith Sharp, Richard Meyer and Brian Balmages.

  • Something fun or popular. I think it’s important to remember that they’re kids, a good novelty piece keeps the fun in your ensemble.

EVERY REHEARSAL IS AN EVENT IN ITSELF

It’s not just about the concert. Plan every rehearsal as an exciting event. Here is a few beliefs I have about rehearsals:-

  • Start the rehearsal with something you know they’ll be successful with. You want the group to settle into a rehearsal.  Beginning by giving them something they are going to find difficult will not start the ball rolling well for your rehearsal. If there is a tricky skill or section of a piece you know you need to get onto quickly, it’s a good idea to break it down to easier skills and build up to it, rather than launch straight into it.

  • The energy they leave with is the energy they come in with next week. For this reason, make sure the last few minutes of your rehearsal is full of energy and success. You want them to walk out of your rehearsal thinking that String Orchestra is the most enjoyable hour they spend each week.

  • Obviously, these two points means you will do most of the nitty-gritty work in the middle of the rehearsal.

Above all, as a conductor, you are a people manager. Standing in front of any group of musicians to lead is a lot about interpersonal relationships.  The better you relate to the students in your ensemble, the more likely you are to have them giving their best effort each rehearsal. Remember to be positive. Noticing good things and praising them is likely to have good things continue, or spread to the whole group. Work on your skills as a conductor, work on your musical knowledge, learn to self-analyse, ask others to watch you, but above all, work on your skills with people. Ultimately, you benefit from every effort made by the students. You need them on your side.

CARE AND ENTHUSIASM MAKES THE DIFFERENCE

Australia is a lucky country in so many ways. One aspect that is not spoken of often enough in my opinion is that our education system is populated with dynamic, caring and inspiring teachers. As I mentioned earlier, you will find in almost any school you walk into, something that is extraordinarily good, a group of students that are excelling or providing that school community an extra to the regular curriculum. Invariably this will be led by a special individual who is able to inspire, challenge and nurture students. From my experience, there is no one particular personality type that is required to be this person. I have seen this person as the zany, crazy sanguine personality; the quiet, gentle and calm personality; the commanding, strict authoritative type. All can have remarkable success. Ultimately your school string ensemble is a reflection of you.

If I was to pinpoint any required traits, it would sinmply be care and enthusiasm. I recently witnessed an individual lesson where the student went through 30 minutes of some of the most intense concentration I have seen. This boy was with a teacher who made him play the same excerpt of his AMEB piece innumerable times. Each time the teacher corrected something and cajoled the boy into making the next attempt better. This teacher never seemed happy enough with the outcome. You would think that this would be disheartening for the student, and it certainly could have been. However, I found this lesson to be one of the most inspiring things I have seen in years. The reason? This teacher demonstrated through every inflection in her voice, every attentive moment that she cared deeply about the music and the boy that was making it. I watched this boy put his very heart into improving the passage to please this teacher. 

The care you take in developing yourself is also noticed. I recently learned a great deal from watching a colleague put himself through professional development by having visiting experts watch his rehearsals with his band and give feedback in front of the band. At first I was worried that this might diminish him in front of the group, but rather it created the opposite environment where you could sense that the band members appreciated the fact that they had a band conductor who cared enough that he was looking to constantly improve. No one has all the answers when it comes to making music.

Be enthused. Students gravitate toward enthusiasm. It speaks a language that is universal. Your enthusiasm is on display on a daily basis. It’s demonstrated by the music you pick for the ensemble, by the fact that you’re the first person at rehearsal, and the last to leave. By the fact that you demonstrate that you have studied the score you are working on in that rehearsal. That you understand the background of the piece you are playing and its composer. In so many ways, your ensemble notices the culture you set. If you want a group that is even luke-warm, you will quickly discover that you need to be white hot.

THE CONFESSION BIT

Building a school string ensemble is no easy task. It’s hard work over a long period. You will encounter a myriad of issues and personalities. You’ll do more work than you’ll ever get paid for. But you will love it! 

Performing is a great challenge. Guiding young people to perform is an epic enterprise. Performance contains risk, but also carries the potential reward of experiencing the spontaneous roar of an audience that has been progressively thrilled throughout a piece, or the warmth expressed in the moment of silence before an audience bursts into applause, aware that they have just been moved at their very core by something no words could express. Getting to watch young people experience that for the first time is such a privilege. Knowing that you may have just had an effect on a young life because they just felt chills go up and down their spine and the hair on the back of their neck raise through playing a great piece of music. I’d probably do it for free. Just don’t tell my boss please.


By Trevor Mee