From Zero to Hero: Strategies for Building a String Program from Scratch

From Zero to Hero

Strategies for Building a String Program from Scratch

By Colleen Ferguson, Dr. Lucy Lewis, and Dr. Kira Omelchenko

What do you do when you have been asked to build a vibrant string program, and you only have a couple students, limited music in the library, instruments in disrepair, a budget line that is small to non-existent, and no prior presence in the community?  This scenario can easily feel a bit overwhelming, especially to those who are new teachers.  Additionally, this is a very likely scenario for a first job.   

Whether or not this is a teaching scenario that you have had to grapple with, chances are good that all of us will experience something like this at least once during the trajectory of our teaching career.   This reality formed the impetus for this project, and our goal is to present creative ideas for how to build a thriving string program from virtually nothing.   


We will address:

1) The importance of developing a vision for your program,
2) Recruitment strategies,
3) How to develop a cache of resources (instruments, funding, etc.) for one’s program, and
4) How to raise the visibility of your program through marketing and public relations, in addition to community engagement and educational outreach programs.   



The goal is to empower teachers who might be finding themselves in a similar situation, and to inspire those already in established programs with new ideas for growth.


Please note: We will be presenting our thoughts in their entirety at the 2015 NAfME National Conference in Nashville, TN this fall.   This blog represents the outline of what we plan to cover and will hopefully stimulate more creative thought.


Develop a Vision for Your Program


It may seem obvious, but even so, it is worth reminding ourselves that if we are going to achieve a certain outcome, we need to have a vision for what our “end game” is, and a road map for how we are going to accomplish the myriad “baby steps” that will be necessary along the way.   To this end, we have found it very useful to develop both long-term goals (i.e. a five-year plan), and short-term goals.   Before we develop goals however, it is important to assess the current status of the program, the environment, and the resources available.   Some key questions to ask might be:

  • What have the past goals been for the program before my tenure (if applicable)?
  • What are the immediate needs that I am seeing? Long-term needs?
  • What things might be coming to mind that could be classified as “desires” “needs”?
  • Where are there gaps in the current structure of this program?
  • How does this program currently fit with the mission of the governing entities (i.e. the department and college of a university)?

Once these questions have been answered, one can take a more informed and thoughtful approach to creating a vision and strategic plan for one’s program.   Such a plan for a string program might include the following considerations:

  • What kinds of ensemble and applied offerings do I want to cultivate?
  • What are the “numbers” (students and budgetary), that I would like to see in my program in one year, three years, and five years?
  • What strategies am I going to use for recruiting?
  • How am I going to publicize my program?
  • Who are my colleagues and resources in the area, and what is my plan for cultivating relationships with them?
  • How should I structure my time to achieve a balance between instructional time, planning time, and my personal life?


This list is by no means complete, but it does represent a good starting point for further creative brainstorming as you cultivate a vision and plan for your program.   We would encourage you to enjoy the planning stages of setting up a new program.   This is an exciting time and you will grow and tweak as you work to implement your plan, which is a normal and inevitable process.   Be patient and have fun with it!


Strategies for Recruitment


Recruiting is the “buzz word” for every music teacher and their program.   We are working to compile a fairly extensive list of recruiting strategies to share in our presentation this fall, but thought we would go ahead and share with you a list of a few “tried and true” strategies that have “risen to the top” for us as we have worked to build our own respective programs.


  • Develop recruiting materials (i.e. brochures, flyers, business cards, etc.), and have them on hand for all events.
  • Set up workshops, master classes, studio exchanges, camps, festivals, etc. that can serve as a recruitment tool for your program.
  • Be a presence in area schools, performing arts programs, concerts, and community events.
  • Form relationships with area colleagues and entities (i.e. music stores or luthiers).
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
  • Remember that students recruit students.


It’s important to figure out what recruiting strategies will work best for your area and the demographic you serve.   We hope that these suggestions will serve as a helpful starting point for you, and we wish you the best in your recruiting efforts!   


Recruiting takes a lot of energy, time, and commitment.   Be yourself and utilize your strengths.   Don’t give up.   Remember, recruiting is an ongoing process that will constantly develop and progress with time and experience.


How to Develop a Cache of Resources


Cultivating resources can be a challenge, but knowing where to look is half the battle.   An important starting point would be the administration that hired you (if you are not self-employed).   Find out what kind of budget you are being given, and be sure to ask what, if any, restrictions or guidelines there are for how the funds are to be used.   If you are employed by a university, another important person to become acquainted with right away would be the director of development.   This person coordinates working with donors and would be the person to facilitate setting up an account for your program so that you can accept charitable gifts and be able to offer tax-deductible receipts.   


Another valuable entity to develop a relationship with would be the office on campus that handles grants for faculty and faculty/student research projects.   There is typically quite a bit of money available to faculty and students to support their research and creative, and all that is frequently required is a thoughtful, well-put-together proposal.   



Thus far, we have discussed key people and entities to cultivate relationships with those who can assist you with funding for your program. However, what about actual strategies for raising money or procuring other items, such as instruments or string supplies?   And what if you are actually self-employed or are employed by someone else, bu t given no budget?   


Here are some practical suggestions for how you can cultivate a steady stream of support for your program:


  • Apply for grants.
  • Develop private VIP events (i.e. a soirée concert), for affluent folk in the community who could potentially become a donor base for your program.
  • Develop relationships with area shops and luthiers; they are frequently willing to offer “perks (i.e. free folders for orchestra students, discounts on rentals or repairs, etc.), in exchange for referring business to them.
  • Partner with local businesses to arrange fundraising events that funnel a portion of the proceeds to your program.
  • Include donation information in concert programs.
  • Have students talk to the audience, write letters to the community about donating to the program, explaining how the funds will be utilized.
  • If you are self-employed, pursue online funding websites such as or
  • Develop a very specific wish list that you can use as a talking point with donors; folks like to know where their money is going, and they are frequently interested in being able to choose a particular need of the program to support.


This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is comprised of methods that we have found to be effective in our own efforts to raise funds and other resources for our respective string programs.   We welcome your thoughts as well regarding strategies that you have found to be effective!


Raise the Visibility of Your Program


There are so many options for marketing your program in this day and age of social media, and we recommend that you take advantage of as many of the various mediums available, according to what is feasible for you and most effective for the demographic you are hoping to reach.   Here are a few ideas for ways that you can market your program:

  • Create advertisements for your program that you can distribute to local newspapers and radio stations, national magazines in your discipline, etc.
  • Have an attractive, organized, and easy-to-use website that has up-to-date information.
  • Develop print advertisement/recruiting materials for your program.
  • Create an email list (i.e. “Friends of the Orchestra”), where you can keep in touch with your program supporters to let them know of upcoming events.
  • If employed by a university, find out when staff writers send press releases, and see if you can submit information when you have a concert or other special event.


Community engagement and educational outreach programs have the dual benefit of being an opportunity to get your program out in the community, but more importantly, to give students and faculty an opportunity to use their talents to serve the community.   There are a wide variety of venues that can be used as a forum to connect with folk in the community, and the following are some examples:

  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Churches
  • At-risk youth and student centers
  • Homeless shelters
  • Food banks
  • Museums
  • Shopping malls
  • Airports
  • Fairs
  • Theme parks
  • Conferences and other professional events, etc.


mladensky/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock
mladensky/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

There are also different “types” of community and educational engagement activities that educators can consider pursuing; these would depend primarily on what the goal was for connecting with others (i.e. recruitment, education, advocacy, fundraising, etc.).   Following are some ideas to get creative juices flowing:


  • Tour/concertize with student soloists and ensembles.
  • Take students with you when you go into schools to conduct educational programs or recruit.
  • Give pre-concert talks and have post-concert “meet and greets.”
  • Plan social events, such as spaghetti dinners or an ice cream social to give families a chance to interact and connect with each other
  • Partner with local entities to fundraise for a particular cause


These thoughts are just a taste of what can be done.   The most important point is simply to be proactive about having a presence in your community that adds value to and connects people with   your program.


We’ve enjoyed sharing a few of our thoughts with you.   Our goal is to empower teachers who might be finding themselves in a similar situation, and to inspire those already in established programs with new ideas for growth. Feel free to contact us with any thoughts that you may have on this topic.   We’d enjoy hearing from you and are looking forward to connecting with many of you in Nashville this fall!


About the Authors:


Colleen Ferguson has been playing and teaching violin nearly all of her life. After earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in music from UT Austin, where she was also a faculty member of the UT Austin String Project, Miss Ferguson taught general music and orchestra in the EI Paso, TX public schools and also played professionally as a member of several orchestras in the EI Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM area. An enthusiastic teacher of students of all ages, she has completed numerous teacher-training courses with the Suzuki Association of the Americas and has given a number of presentations at the annual American String Teachers Association National Conferences across the United States as well as presenting at the Biennial Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference in Minneapolis, MN. Additionally, Miss Ferguson has earned a MM in Violin Performance from the University of Iowa and is an avid researcher; among her most recent works is a publishing project involving the chamber music of Sir Charles Stanford. She has been an active participant at several international music festivals throughout Europe including festivals in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia. Her current performance activities include participation in orchestras and chamber ensembles in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area, and she has appeared as a guest artist in recital at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Miss Ferguson is currently a doctoral candidate in viol in performance at the University of Iowa and maintains a robust and diverse studio of violin and viola students at the West Music Conservatory, Coralville.


Dr. Lucy Lewis enjoys an active career as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral performer, conductor, and teaching clinician, and has appeared in these roles throughout the United States and Internationally.  As an orchestral musician, Dr. Lewis has performed with orchestras in the U.S., Argentina, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy; additionally, Dr. Lewis has conducted orchestras in Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, and Maine.  At California State University San Bernardino, Dr. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Orchestral Music Education, and oversees the instruction of applied violin and viola, conducting the orchestral studies program, coaching string chamber music, and teaching st ring methods and pedagogy.  Previously, Dr. Lewis has been on the faculties of the Preucil School of Music, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory Preparatory Department, Southwestern and Lake Michigan Colleges, the Citadel Dance & Music Center, and the Fischoff Chamber Music Association’s Mentor Program, and has been a guest clinician and performer at several music festivals.

Dr. Lewis has presented sessions at national and regional conferences that include a co-presentation with Ruth Marie Ballance entitled “Setting Up Your Studio for Success: Strategies for Young Teachers” at the 2012 Suzuki Association of the Americas National Conference in Minneapolis, MN, and the 2013 American String Teachers Association National Conference in Providence, RI.  Dr. Lewis also presented two sessions entitled “The ABC’s of Chamber Music” and “A Model for Integrating Pedagogy Into Our Performance Curriculum” at the 2013 Iowa Music Educators Association Conference in Ames, Iowa, and co-presented a session entitled “Reimagining the Chamber Music Residency” with Elizabeth Oakes, Annie Fullard, and Felix Umansky, at the 2014 Chamber Music of America National Conference in New York City.  Most recently, Dr. Lewis co-presented a session entitled “Metamorphosis from Student into Artist Teacher” with Carrie Beisler, Colleen Ferguson, Samantha Hiller, and Emily Rolka at the 2014 Suzuki Association of the Americas National Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

© 2014 Jessica Leigh Photography
© 2014 Jessica Leigh Photography

Dr. Kira Omelchenko is assistant professor of music and the director of Orchestra and String Areas at Florida Southern College. Prior to Florida Southern College, she served as the director of Orchestra and Strings Studies at the University of Tampa. She is a recent American Music prize winner in Opera Conducting.  A recent recipient of the ASTA String grant and numerous other research and project grants, Dr. Omelchenko has lectured and presented at conferences like NSEE, NAfME, and FMEA. She has conducted at several All-County Orchestra Festivals, as well as worked with Middle School and High School students at Orchestra Summer Music Camps at the University of Tampa and the University of Iowa. She is an active guest conductor, lecturer, clinician, and adjudicator.

Dr. Omelchenko has served as the music director of St. Ambrose University Community Symphony Orchestra in Davenport.  She was the assistant conductor to the University of Iowa’s opera productions as well as the International Opera Lyric Academy in Viterbo, Italy. Dr. Omelchenko has also been a conducting fellow with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony and was the recipient of the 2012 Sigma Alpha Iota Conducting Scholarship.

International conducting fellowships include studies in Vienna, Rotterdam and Amsterdam conservatories in the Netherlands. As guest conductor, she has conducted at the Seasons Music Festival Orchestra in Yakima, Washington, the Bulgarian State Opera in Burgas; and at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Her critical edition of G.F. Bristow’s Overture to Rip Van Winkle will be recorded and released by the Royal Northern Sinfonia (England) and New World Records in 2015.  A native of Kansas, Dr. Omelchenko holds a doctoral degree in music from the University of Iowa and degrees from the University of New Mexico and Knox College.

Colleen, Lucy, and Kira presented on this topic at the 2015 NAfME National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, August 4, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (