Aspects of the Beginning Orchestra, Part 2

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Watching, listening, and unity – Students must learn to watch and listen to each other. In other words, they must be aware. Teaching students to blend their individual sounds by matching each other’s bow strokes can be facilitated through a simple tuning routine. The instructor chooses a students leader and instructs that student to play with a specific bow stroke. For example, martele using the upper half of the bow. The teacher then tunes that student’s A string. The process continues as individual students attempt to match the leaders bow stroke one at a time while the teachers continues to tune. Eventually, the entire orchestra should be playing with martele bow strokes at the upper half. This exercise can be kept fresh and interesting by varying the student leader and bowing pattern for each open string. As different bow strokes are mastered in the string class, they can be incorporated into the routine.

Following the conductor  –  Many orchestra teachers make the mistake of assuming young students instinctively recognize and understand the ictus. A simple exercise may be useful in teaching the concept of the ictus. The teacher tosses a palm-sized rubber ball into the air and asks the students to bow an open D string the instant the ball lands in her hand, alternating down and up bow strokes. This is repeated at various tempos until the students become precise at placing their bow strokes with the landing of the ball. The students then play a D major scale, sounding each pitch with a new bow stroke when the ball lands in the teacher’s hand. In other words, the teacher uses the ball to conduct the students. After students have become proficient at playing in time with the ball, the teacher demonstrates down beat gestures with an obvious ictus, likening it to the moment the ball lands in the hand. When the students can play precisely when the ictus occurs, they are ready to learn the various beat patterns.

First year string students are undoubtedly enthusiastic about playing in the orchestra. Helping them to experience success as a group may be the key to keeping them motivated. Creative teachers can develop exercises to stimulate active listening and watching. These two essential ensemble skills will lead to many years of satisfying years in the orchestra.

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 include 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

— Nicole Springer. May 27, 2009. © National Association for Music Education.