Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I want more!

I want more!

Who wouldn't want to hear this from their top students? After all we want our students to thirst for more. We want them to grab as much as they possibly can, to truly desire excellence, and to live, eat, and breathe their instrument.  That said, as instructors, we have to be ready to respond to that charge in an affirmative and realistic manner. We have to know ahead of time what we're going to give them when they ask for more.   Material must be realistic and appropriate.  Tasks must be authentic and lead to real-world performance techniques and skills.  And, for goodness sake, we never want to squelch that enthusiasm.

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that I encountered this very situation this week. Honestly, I'm not sure that I really responded in the best way. I encouraged the students to give it time and they would find the challenge and difficulty in passages of the repertoire that I had selected. I've been thinking about this for the past 24 hours or so, and I'm convinced I really didn't give their remarks justice at the time that they presented them to me. I've been thinking a great deal about what I can give these students to really challenge them in their pursuits water here at camp this summer and certainly want to meet any challenge that a student might present to me.

So, with that in mind, here are some thoughts for members of each section of a string orchestra and ideas for conductors to use in order to give their students that truly desire an extra challenge, or "more." I am sure that many of you will have additional ideas to add to this list. This is in no way comprehensive. And, I would love to hear your ideas as well. But, for now here is some of my thoughts after about 24 hours of reflection.

First violins

I feel like the biggest challenge with the first violin section is encouraging them to use upper positions on passages that don't necessarily require them to play high pitches. It always seems to be a trick with young musicians to get them to see what would be an open A as a second finger on the D string in third position, or some other finger, if the passage calls for 2nd or 4th position. I encourage them to seek the best opportunities for shifting, opportunities for playing a passage on a single string with shifts, and to look for possibilities of altered fingerings to encourage a sweeter vibrato on sustained notes.

Another great challenge for a first violinist is to hand them a cello part or a viola part and encourage them to learn to play those parts on their instrument. There is no downside to learning how to play bass or alto clef on the violin, transposing by the octave where necessary. And really, in that same vein, shouldn't the first violin section learn to play the second violin part as well as their own? That can only enhance their true understanding of the work and the musical ideas that the composer is trying to develop.

Second violins

So, the obvious challenge for a second violinist, is to learn the first violin part. There is no downside to this challenge for a student in the second violin section. Additionally, all of my previous thoughts on playing in upper positions are options for these students as well. This can be particularly meaningful, as so many of the second violin parts, particularly for student orchestras, are in the lower register of the instrument. It is a wonderful challenge, for a second violinist, to get off of those open strings and up into 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th position, particularly for sustained passages or repeated notes.

Additionally, I always challenge the 2nds to concentrate on richness of tone and the role of the inner harmony in the ensemble.  Training young ears to hear that role is a full time job and those that figure it out will go far!  I also always encourage my 2nd violins to listen for their opportunities to be in the spotlight.  When do the 2nds have a moving part while everyone else is sustaining a chord?  That is the time to "sit a little straighter" and play like a diva!!


When in doubt, TREBLE CLEF! I really feel like any violist that is ready for extra challenge must be encouraged to develop their skills in reading treble clef. Hand them a first violin part. Or, hand them a first and second violin part. Encourage them to learn them all. Again, this will only enhance their understanding of the composition, and make them a better player in the long run. It will prepare them for all kinds of performance situations where they will be required to read from treble clef. And, if they do a great job and learn those parts, find a way to feature them in a performance. Perhaps you could add a small repeat somewhere in the midst of a piece where violas could take over the first and second violin part as a feature passage.

All of my previous remarks about shifting also certainly apply to the viola section. I would encourage violist that desire an extra challenge to think about fingering in relation to the tonic and key of the work. Have them consider how their scale study relates to the passages they are performing. If they are doing scales that begin with first finger on the tonic, then finger passages accordingly. If they are working on scales with second finger on the tonic to begin, then encourage that philosophy in fingering passages in the orchestral repertoire. Drawing these connections between scale study, concepts in theory, and the repertoire is invaluable.

I also always encourage violists to be extraordinarily cognizant of musical line and direction. a fine violist must always find the direction of the phrase and work to enhance the understanding of that line for every other member of the orchestra.

Finally, obviously, the tonal implications of the viola section are huge. Violists that are looking for more, should be encouraged to be thinking about their vibrato, bow weight, bow distribution, balance, and tone production throughout every rehearsal and whenever they have their hands on  their instruments.  After all - that is the real-world role of the viola in the orchestra:  richness, inner harmony, color.  This is what the violist loves and our viola students need to learn to embrace that  challenge.


For cellists, I would reiterate many of the aforementioned concepts. However, one additional concept is to focus on fluid movements while playing and performing with an orchestra. I have noticed, over the years, a deep divide in musicianship between those cellists that move freely when playing versus those that are rigid in their posture.  The cellist (and all other musicians for that matter) that moves, typically produces a musical line that sings!


I had a wonderful conversation this evening with my dear friend and colleague, AaronTenney, bass instructor here at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, about this very subject. He suggested that young bassists that claim they need more must be reminded to concentrate on issues that truly define the essence of bass playing. These include: concentrating on a consistent vibrato, working to generate a "room-filling" tone, always performing with a classical pizzicato technique (as opposed to jazz - yes there is a difference), and considering tone, rhythm, and balance on every note of a work.  In a word, mindfulness is the challenge.  The essence of bass technique is the goal.

I hope that you find some of these suggestions to be helpful. I am certain that many of you will have additional ideas for challenging your top students. Please share them with me. I would love to hear from you and continue a dialogue.


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