Sunday, June 26, 2011

NS Design’s Instruments Electrify the Classroom

Hi all -
The following article appeared on the NS Design Blog recently. I thought I would share it with you today.

Music educators across the country are discovering that electric stringed instruments offer a new, powerful way to engage young musicians. As the string education community has begun to embrace what it terms “alternative styles”—including jazz, rock, and many kinds of fiddling and world music—electric string instruments are attracting attention for their ability to play amplified without feedback, and their ability to incorporate electronic effects.

Teachers at the forefront of electric string education are quick to point out that the advantages of the instruments extend beyond performance settings. Amplification gives some students a new sense of empowerment, and for many, it clarifies the challenges they face with their playing technique. The process of creating and refining sound electronically requires students to think about aspects of music they would not need to consider with an acoustic instrument—a valuable means of engaging a generation already steeped in technology.

NS Design recently interviewed four different players, including educators who use electric instruments in their classrooms, as well as performers who use electrics to attract new audiences to the possibilities of stringed instruments in general. We are proud to work with these musicians, and we hope that sharing their perspectives will inspire other teachers and students to new musical endeavors.

New possibilities

For Scott Laird, who is Instructor of Music at the North Carolina School for Science and Math in Durham, NC, technology serves both as a pedagogical tool and as a focus of instruction, and NS Design’s instruments are a centerpiece of the classroom. Laird’s performance career has revolved around the electric violin and the technology associated with it. As an educator, he champions a “blended curriculum” of classroom instruction reinforced by online resources, such as D’Addario’s Web site The Lesson Room, to which he has contributed several videos. In his classroom, Laird says, electric instruments serve the dual purpose of facilitating performances that would not be possible with their acoustic counterparts, and engaging students in a more complex understanding of music.

Laird says that overcoming the amplification barrier is the biggest practical advantage to incorporating electric strings in an educational setting. In so doing, educators can remove the restrictions that often keep string students from trying jazz, rock, and other amplified genres.

“From a performance standpoint, it completely opens up what you can do with a bowed instrument because volume is no longer a limiting factor,” Laird said recently in an interview. “The great violinist in your school can play with the jazz ensemble.” In addition, NS instruments’ precise tone and volume controls of offer practical advantages in orchestrating student performances. “We use the NXT Bass to accompany the wind ensemble,” he said. “It lets us get just the right amount of volume and a really warm tone.”

But besides expanding performance options, Laird explains that electric instruments make students think about music in new ways. The precise control NS instruments offer over their output signal—and their ability to use electronic effects—requires students to plan and analyze the sounds they wish to create.

“Electric instruments ask students to think about tone quality as it relates to an adjustment knob, a reverb tail, a delay. These are questions that traditional string students normally don’t have to answer,” Laird said. “One of the main things teachers are called upon to do is encourage students to step out of their comfort zones.”

Scott Laird also sees an improvement in his students’ musicianship as a result of electric instruments’ tonality and interface abilities. “When you’re amplified, your mistakes do not get covered up,” he said. “Your inconsistencies from a technique standpoint are obvious. Kids can plug an electric violin straight into a laptop and record themselves playing a Bach Partita, and hear the subtle inconsistencies in their bow technique and intonation.”

Yvette Devereaux, a Los Angeles-based violinist, conductor, composer and educator, who performs on an NS CR-5, attributes a similar advantage to the electric violin. But she says that, in addition to offering students a clearer technical picture of their playing, electric violins empower students on an emotional level. As a teacher of younger students, Devereaux has a first-hand view of how playing amplified can help students overcome their insecurities.

“When a student tries an electric violin plugged into an amp, you get instant gratification,” she said. “Students hear all these undertones and overtones that they can’t get right away on an acoustic violin. The violin becomes not just a violin anymore.” Playing amplified also allows some students to understand their playing in a wider musical context. “Right away they feel like they’re part of a current situation,” she said. “They say, ‘oh wow, I can play this anywhere!’”

Inspiring from the Stage

Outside the classroom, a number of performers and organizations have used NS instruments to reach out to young audiences in performance settings. One such group, the Los Angeles-based Elevation Orchestra, is an ensemble that includes 17 string players (including several NS players) as well as a rhythm section of bass, drums, and keyboards. Targeting underserved urban audiences, the group strives to expand its listeners’ musical palates by applying classical string instrumentation to contemporary, pop-inspired compositions.

“The elevation orchestra was created to let everybody know that string instruments are not just for classical music, but are actually behind a lot of the big groups in pop music that you hear today,” said Ryan Cross, the group’s founder. “NS instruments help us kick that goal.”

The group has commissioned work from arrangers who have written for Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys, Earth Wind and Fire, and Stevie Wonder, among others. Cross and members Chris and Adrienne Woods performed at NS Design’s exhibit at the 2011 Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, California—one of three annual international trade shows for music products, and the largest of its kind in the U.S.

NS Design has also worked with motivated performers to make instruments available for special events with significant educational impact. In 2010, the company loaned a quartet of instruments to the Colorado Symphony for a performance of George Crumb’s piece “Black Angels” at the Denver School of the Arts. Violinist Erik Peterson organized the performance and, with help from NS endorser Dr. Gregory T. S. Walker, arranged to let students try the instruments hands-on. Peterson said that the experience revealed the value of pursuing approaches to string education that might have seemed radical even in the recent past.

“To have that exposure was very good for them,” he said. “They were excited to hear the piece and excited to try the instruments. We can’t just approach string instruments in the way they were approached a hundred years ago. There are musicians and audiences for all different types of music.”

Catch the WAV

As part of an initiative to encourage the adoption of electric stringed instruments, NS Design has launched a pilot program, called “Catch the WAV”, to make its four-string WAV Series electric violin available through participating retailers at a special pricing to schools and educators. Educators who are interested in taking advantage of this program should contact their local NS Design dealer for assistance in finding a dealer contact. (To find a participating dealer, contact .)

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