Fitting Fiddling into Your Orchestra

“Fiddling is a style of bowed string playing often associated with folk musicians in the Western world,” says Karen Townsend Gordy. By including fiddling in the orchestra, teachers and their students can explore Standard 3 of the National Standards for Music Education, “Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.”

“Some strictly classical players may not want to mix genres,” Gordy admits. “But remember that most of your students may not plan to be classical performing artists. Many music educators advocate training students to be informed audience members as well as performers.”

Here are some of Gordy’s ideas for introducing fiddling and improv to your students:

  • Invite a professional fiddler to perform for your orchestra and talk about his or her playing. Have students ask questions and compare what the fiddler does to what they do in their rehearsals.
  • Have your students play “Happy Birthday” by ear (no printed music). Play your own variation of the song and encourage students to create one themselves.
  • Have the string class play a C-major scale, then select eight students to stand in front of the class with each student being given one note to play. Have the students stand so EF and BC are close together. Assign these eight students numbers as shown:

1     2      34      5      6      78
C     D      EF      G     A      BC

Tell students that 1, 3, and 5 form a I chord, along with 8, the upper-octave C.

When you request this chord, tell these four students to step forward and play so students can visualize the note.

Do the same with the IV chord (C-F-A) and the V chord (D-G-B). Test to see if the class really understands the chords by secretly signing a chord to the scale line of students, and seeing if the class can sing or play it correctly and identify it by name.

Check out My Music Class® to access lesson plans for students at various levels on topics such as improvisation, jazz techniques, fiddling skills, and creating variations on traditional tunes. (Member log-in required using your MENC ID number.)

This article was adapted from “Fitting in Fiddling” by Karen Townsend Gordy, published in the October 2005 Teaching Music, pp. 54–58. At the time the article was written, Gordy, an MENC member, taught strings at Leesville Music Center in Leesville, Louisiana, and fiddled in the Back Porch Band based in Nachitoches.

–Ella Wilcox, April 13, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (