3 Ways Alt Styles Can Revive Your String Program

Feel like you’re in a rut in the classroom? Break out with these three strategies
Sometimes teachers rely on the same old techniques to get string- orchestra students ready for concerts. But sticking to the same process year after year saps student enthusiasm and can be, frankly, a little tedious for you.

Here are some fresh ideas from teachers around the country that can help you reinvigorate your classroom teaching and bring new music into your program.

1)  ‘Pull in musicians from your area to teach a specific tune from their specialty.’

—Karen Cramer
string orchestra conductor
Kenmore Junior High School
Kenmore, Washington

You will be the educational facilitator. Help your musical artist teach at your students’ level. He or she may be prepared with music to hand out, or may teach in his or her style without written notes.

Bob Phillips, past president of the American String Teachers Association, points out that you can often hire a musician who is doing a concert nearby, or even bring in a guest artist or educator from out of town.

There are many ways to raise funding for your guest artist: your parent boosters can help you; you can have your student groups play a couple tunes at a concert with the artist whom you are bringing in.

A featured role in a public performance can sell a lot of tickets, which will help pay for the artist and your workshop. Also, for clinics with traveling bluegrass-style musicians, the Foundation for Bluegrass gives out $200 for workshops. Visit bluegrassfoundation.org/grants for more information.

Developing good relationships with musicians who play in a variety of styles in your community will help students see professionals making a living in music in a variety of ways. One of those styles may very well be the key to sparking and retaining a student’s lifelong interest in playing.

2)  ‘Play games.’


—Mary Wagner


elementary school orchestra teacher

Fairfax, Virginia

Wagner suggests these two creativity games. Both use only open strings or first position to begin. The games can become progressively more demanding technically.

Echoes:The students play back a rhythm or simple phrase that the teacher plays. This is also known as call-and-response.

Telephone:Play a simple one-measure rhythm and have the kids “call” back. Then those students “call” their neighbor with another phrase or set of rhythms.

You can use the echo technique when rehearsing a challenging section of an orchestra arrangement. Take a rhythmic fragment of a piece you are working on in orchestra—say dotted quarter to an eighth note, then two quarter notes.

Have the orchestra play the fragment . . .

1) on an open string.

2) as a scale going up.


3) as a scale going down.

4) up as high as possible.

5) down as low as possible.

I do this frequently as it really helps students learn what a printed rhythm sounds like.

3) ‘Teach a singing fiddle tune by ear.’

—Beth Fortune

orchestra director


Washington Middle School

Seattle, Washington

Students who learn to sing in tune are much more likely to play in tune. Matching pitches from the voice to the instrument results in markedly improved intonation.

First, listen to an example of a fiddle tune. Then have the class sing the tune with words. You can begin with easier tunes like “Old Joe Clark” or “Sourwood Mountain.” You can find written music for these with CD reference fromBasic Fiddlers Philharmonic: Old Time Tunes. Be sure to start with the melody and words.

After the students have learned to sing at least one verse and the chorus of the tune, have students play the tune on their instruments. If the tune is in a difficult or unfamiliar key, you can transpose it using one of the wonderful apps available such as “The Amazing Slow Downer” (which also comes in a “lite” version), the “Slow Down Music Player,” or “Anytune.”

You can also teach a non-singing fiddle tune by ear. Teach the tune phrase by phrase.

Teach the chords for the song in a similar way. Use just the root notes of the chords or imitate what the bass is doing in your reference recording. Oway to help move the class from chord to chord is to indicate the type of chord by holding up the matching number of fingers. Hold up one finger for the I chord, four fingers for the IV chord, five fingers for the V chord, and so on.