Teaching string instruments can be daunting if you are not a string player yourself. Below, I’ve highlighted four areas of focus you can use if you find yourself teaching a string class with little to no experience. I’ve also included ways MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) can aid you in your journey into the string world.
Tuning Open Strings
Tuning can be a challenge for someone not accustomed to string instruments. I recommend that all my students have instruments with fine tuners–the small screws on the tailpiece that allow you to make small adjustments to the strings. Fine tuners are easier to use and train the students to tune the instrument themselves.
For the occasions when you must tackle tuning with the peg, make sure that you loosen the peg slightly before tightening, and either pluck or bow constantly to keep track of the pitch. You always want to come from under the pitch. As you tighten the peg, making the pitch of the string go higher, push the peg into the peg box. This will allow it to “stick” and hold the string’s pitch. I typically do the peg tuning for my students until they are advanced enough to try it on their own.
How can MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) help with tuning? I like to use the in-app tuner when using both the fine tuners and the pegs. I teach the students which way to turn their fine tuner if their string is reading flat or sharp by telling them to “turn their fine tuner in the direction you want the pitch to go.” When tuning with the pegs, using the “Reference Pitch” is most helpful. After slightly loosening the peg, tune up to the reference pitch without going past it.
Tone production on a string instrument is created with the bow. I spend a lot of time with my beginners making sure they understand how to use the bow properly and to create the best sound on their instrument.
Bow hold is paramount for a string player. The proper bow hold will ensure their thumb and fingers are flexible when pulling the bow back and forth on the string, enabling the player to utilize the many different bow strokes required in string literature. Violins and violas should have a bent thumb with the tip of the thumb sitting on the underside of the bow stick up next to the frog. Their pinky should be curved on top of the stick while their hand pronates slightly into the side of the index finger that sits on the stick. The cello and French bass bow hold are similar to the violin and viola bow hold, but their pinky rests over the stick instead of on top of it.
Once your students have a good bow hold, they should move on to bowing on open strings. I tell my students to aim for the dots in their f-holes, but I have heard other teachers refer to it as “Lane 3” or the “Middle Lane.” Students should be keeping their contact point consistent and bow halfway between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard for the best sound. Moving towards the bridge will create a bigger sound, and a smaller sound will occur when the bow is too close to the fingerboard. Students should not deviate too far from their original contact point and should always strive to create a “T” with their bow and string, not an “X”.
How can MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) help with tone production? Bowing is best practiced on open strings so the student can focus 100% of their attention on maintaining their technique. You use Compose to create open-string exercises that can be assigned or downloaded as PDFs. I often create open string exercises for new bowing techniques that come up in our repertoire as the year goes on using this tool.
Intonation: Left-Hand Technique
Assuming your strings are in tune, intonation is determined by the left hand. Ensuring your students are using their left hands correctly will greatly improve their pitch and allow them to master more challenging music.
Violins and violas should not rely on the left hand to hold up their instrument or squeeze the neck of the instrument. The thumb should only act as a counterweight by pushing it against the neck when they are putting fingers down on the fingerboard. Using the tip of the finger to push down the string and keeping the wrist straight are things you should be looking for in your upper strings.
Cellos and basses need to use the pads of their fingers, and sometimes the side, to push down the string. Their thumb should roughly mirror the middle finger and hide behind the neck. Their left elbow should not rest on the instrument, and the height of the elbow will vary depending on what string they are playing.
Once students have mastered the left-hand position, MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) can help with the ear training part of intonation in a few different capacities. The tuner’s “Reference Pitch” feature can be used as a drone for students when playing scales. When using the Practice and Assessment tools, out of tune notes will be highlighted in red to show them what pitches they should listen more closely to and which direction they need to move their finger. Gradually changing the assessment tolerance from easy to more strict is another way to challenge students to really listen to pitch and continue to improve their intonation.
They’re all set up…Now What?
The MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) Music Catalog has a great selection of scales, method books, and repertoire for string orchestra. The method books I use most often are Essential Elements and Suzuki books. I like Essential Elements for everyday lessons in the music classroom. The Sound Innovations series is also a great choice to use in the classroom to help students build important musical and technical skills on their instruments. The Suzuki books are primarily used as solo repertoire or supplements for students who want something beyond their concert music to practice at home.
To prepare for contest season, I use Sight Reading Builder in addition to the Music Catalog. When selecting contest repertoire, it is helpful to compare the MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) library with your state lists. Selecting pieces that are on both will allow you to assign excerpts from your contest music to your students and track their progress. Use Sight Reading Builder to create exercises with specific parameters for your students to prepare for the sight reading portions of the contests. You can increase the difficulty of the exercises as they become more familiar and comfortable with sight reading.
I applaud teachers who move out of their comfort zone to teach an area of music that is not their original discipline. I hope this information helps you feel confident in your ability to address string-specific techniques and allows you to move more quickly into the best part of a music teacher’s job…making music with kids!