Eight years ago I took the plunge. I climbed out of the school band pool and dove straight into the waters of a school orchestra! As an experienced string bass performer, I felt at the time that my string bass knowledge and successful band teaching were all that I needed to succeed as a string teacher. Well, no. Having been a successful band director did not necessarily transfer to being a successful orchestra director. Not immediately, anyway.
Some of you may be in discussions about beginning a string orchestra program in your district or school. Others may be looking to move into teaching school orchestra full time. Here are a few important items to keep in mind as you take those steps.
Three Hurdles to the Orchestral Leap
The first hurdle was the fact that the string bass is an anomaly in the string section; other string instruments in the orchestra are tuned in 5ths and not 4ths like the string bass. Throw in the fact that the viola is in some strange looking [alto] clef, and things were starting to get more complicated for me. Finally, even though I knew how to play with a bow, I didn’t know the technique of teaching the bow.
I conquered the first hurdle, the string tuning, by actually sitting down and playing these instruments. I took each instrument and played it for a few months before moving on to practice the next one. If you have the luxury of having private teachers around that perform on the violin, viola, and cello, I recommend that you take lessons. Or you might let your more advanced students help you. I learned a lot from my concertmasters and principal players those first few years.
The Key to Alto Clef
The second hurdle was learning the shortcuts to alto clef reading. Alto clef is best read by viewing it as treble clef and transposing up a whole step, or by reading bass clef and transposing down a whole step. The key was to learn by doing. I sat and practiced playing piano while reading viola parts.
Take a Bow
The final hurdle took the most time. There are so many different bowing techniques that are used in string performance, and good method books are vital in order to be successful at teaching them. You have to make bowing exercises as important as playing scales, and just like scales, you have to make them part of your daily routine. In fact, pairing bowing exercises with scale patterns is a great way to both teach and learn both of those foundational skills.
In conclusion, I think that the most important thing for me was that I needed to practice as much as, if not more, than I expected my students to practice. It also helped get the students to practice if they saw me practicing and struggling as they came into the room. It still is a struggle for me to try to play violin! That is what the concertmaster is for.