Aspects of the Beginning Orchestra, Part 1

Beginner string students are usually bursting with enthusiasm during the initial week of lessons on their chosen instruments. They eagerly absorb each new idea and await the next that will lead them towards becoming musicians. Despite such fervor, the moment they have been waiting for has yet to arrive – the day they become members of the orchestra. Social benefits aside, ensemble experiences are an essential component of instrumental music education.

It has been argued at which point students should join an orchestra. Putting first year students in an orchestra comprised of more advanced musicians will make them feel pressured to keep up and making them wait too long to join an orchestra may cause frustration and boredom. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create a situation where success in the orchestra is guaranteed. For this reason, an ensemble should be formed specifically for beginning level players. Here are some tips:

Piano accompaniment – Playing with accurate intonation is a continuous challenge for the beginner string student. Studies indicate that the use of piano accompaniment during string class instruction is effective in improving individual intonation.

Intonation – Tuning, both individually and within a group, is problematic for the beginner string student. Studies show that students who learn to reproduce pitches accurately through singing will find it easier to play in tune on their instruments. Routines should revolve around the pianist establishing the pitches, students singing the same pitches, and playing those pitches on their instruments. Students must learn that agreement within the group about the center of the pitch is essential.

Selecting Music – The focus of the beginning orchestra should be on teaching the essentials of good ensemble playing while reinforcing the techniques learned in the string class through the chosen method book. Starting in unison pieces is beneficial and as students progress in their ensemble technique, rounds can be incorporated into the scheme. In addition, two-part pieces can be created from the folk song repertoire. While two sections of the orchestra play the melody, the other two sections serve as accompaniment.

Next week: More on watching, listening, unity and following the conductor in Aspects of Beginning Orchestra, Part 2.

This article was adapted from an article of the same name, which first appeared in Glaesel String Notes, by MENC member Lisa Sharer. Her teaching experience includes positions as orchestra director in the Carlisle Area School District in Carlisle, PA, and the Wilson School District in West Lawn, PA. She currently directs the Reading Music Academy in Reading, PA. Sharer can be reached at

— Nicole Springer. May 20, 2009 © National Association for Music Education.