Beginners or Bust!

Tips and tricks we are using to help our beginning string players

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On July 10th my orchestra team embarked on our annual beginning orchestra summer classes. I want to call it a summer camp, but it’s never been called that here. When I say orchestra camp, I get SUPER confused looks. Summer Orchestra, Beginning Orchestra, Orchestra Camp…it’s all the same if it’s provided by your school.

Now that I have that out, I have to say that our beginners are super awesome this year. I may end up saying that every year, but this year’s beginning class is filled with self sufficient, exploratory learners who listen well, and practice. (My sarcastic/realistic brain is asking me, “how long will that last?”) Most beginners have this desire to learn that is so so great, and the excitement of opening your case for the first time, and getting your bows. It’s like a 5-year-old on Christmas.

Here are some of our tricks

  • We actually take the bows out of their cases on the first day. The students will earn them back as soon as their bow holds are solid.
  • use the “Shaka” hand sign to help measure your cello end pin height. (Thumb to pinky from the base of your end pin towards the tip of the end pin. Other words, two pinky to thumb lengths.)IMG_1976
  • “tattoos” for bow placement in the fingersIMG_1984
  • Smoothie straw bow holds!
    • a smoothie straw has about the same diameter as a bow.
    • they are easy to smush, but if you have a good bow hold, you won’t smush your straw. Watch out for tension
  • Bow-robics
    • “aerobics” routine for your bow hold.
  • Reading music process
    • point and say rhythm (Point to learn how to keep your eyes tracking the music. Rhythm first because you can play every note in tune, but if it isn’t at the right time because of rhythmic issues, it will always be wrong.)
    • point and say notes (I always sing them and the kids follow suit. Ear training…it’s always important)
    • pizz. notes
    • say/ air bow the bow directions (super helpful connection step, especially for new players and dyslexic students)
    • bow piece (if it’s meant to be bowed)
  • Rhythm reading ASAP
    • with a metronome or funky backbeat
    • pulse eighth notes/quavers with your voice. 1, 2, 3, 4 sounds wo-uhn, two-oo, three-ee, fo-ur (please use whichever counting system makes your heart happy, just keep it consistent from start through 12th grade so they have a firm grasp)
    • rests are just as important as pitches. (rests have feelings too you know)
    • rhythm. rhythm. rhythm. (kids don’t always have that…)
  • Zip Zap Zoom for Violins and Violas (This came from my assistant director, and I loved it!)
    • Start on the shoulder Day 1
    • Zip is the “Statue of Liberty stance”
    • Zap is the table top/ upward motion which allows you to bring the instrument down on the right spot on your shoulder.
    • Zoom is the motion bringing your violin/viola down to your shoulder. The word “Zoom” can be slowed down so we aren’t just plopping our instruments on our shoulders. The “mmm” sounds also help us keep our mouths closed when we play. We don’t want tension, but we don’t want our mouths wide open either.
  • Listen
    • give kids listening in class, or as they walk in. Let them hear Classical music, pop covers, fiddle music, free improv! (Expose them to everything)
    • YOU. Listen to them, and play for them too. (In college, they preached Model, Model, Model. Yes, show your kids what to do, but take a step back too! You need to hear their progress or challenges in order to diagnose problems.)
  • Bass Demo first
    • If you are not a bass player, it is easy to forget that their instruments are INSANELY DIFFERENT! I try to demonstrate, or accommodate basses before cellos, in a low strings class so that I don’t forget them. We have 2 basses and 12 cellos. I’m a cellist.
  •  Accompaniment
    • Steady tempi are coming from accompaniment right now. ESPECIALLY when we pizz pieces.

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