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Helping Students Succeed in Strings Orchestra

By Lisamary Guiliany-Zambrano
Helping Students Succeed in Strings Orchestra

I started to learn the cello when I was nearly 18 years old. I was not and still do not consider myself a fast-paced learner. I did not understand so many aspects that were easily caught on by my younger peers. Then, I came across my theory teacher from whom I was, somehow, able to quickly grasp the explanations. I decided I wanted to become a teacher like her. Some years ago, a violin master recruited me to create an orchestra like the Venezuelan El Sistema in India in a violin school that emulated the Suzuki Method. At that point, I became interested in Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy and after reading about the method, finally made it to teacher training courses. For years, I wondered how I could succeed in music in a way that would help others succeed. Although I did have a connection with that music teacher, I wouldn’t be able to reach students like her if I was not prepared. How could I become the best teacher that I could to help my strings students succeed? Ceate the environment to succeed! 

Have an organized space.

There are different types of teachers just as there are different types of people; the most recognizable are: the organized and meticulous teacher who knows where every rosin (gum-like substance applied to the bow in order to generate friction between the strings and the bow) is in the classroom and the one who does not. I have found that being the organized one helps to economize time with materials ready to grab and will also sets a routine for the students. 

Set your classroom ready for a rehearsal.

Beginner students have a better experience in a row setting rather than a semicircle. This will allow you to move around to provide prompt feedback with students getting used to it. For violin and violas, place the stands toward their left side instead of in front of their knees. You may also like to create a schedule with your classes map setting, so that you know what setting you need for every group according to their needs. Asking your students to help you organize the chairs and stands for your next class not only saves you time and energy but helps them create a sense of belonging in the string class.

Have a sequenced repertoire.

Did you ever feel frustrated because a certain passage did not come through? Did you ever wonder if it was beyond your level instead of not being capable to play it as promptly as you thought? Dr. Suzuki held the idea of learning a piece a week; check for materials written for young learners in orderly complexity. You may choose pieces that are two levels below their soloist capacity. So, if they are in Grade 5 choose pieces in Grade 3. We want to create ensembles in the orchestra rather than just challenge them with a repertoire that they might not be able to play in a timely manner.  

Experiment with new and more pieces.

Students may try a variety of repertoire from past and current composers. Certainly, orchestral repertoire was Euro-centered; nonetheless, globalization is bringing us closer to pieces from across the globe.

Have clear expectations.  

Students must be clear on what the piece is, how it sounds, and what they need to make it sound the correct way. Checklists and peer assessments are powerful tools to help students understand what they should be looking for when they practice. It is not only helpful, but it also carries the power of joy and fun. Students will socialize, create camaraderie, identity, and a sense of belonging. 

Make them hear the music!

Try playing a recording while they are getting ready for the class; a student once asked another one how she managed to learn the passage. She simply said, “I heard it here and it stuck to my ear. Miss played it every time prior class.”

Be prepared.

Whether you teach a beginner or advanced orchestra, you learn how to play every part of every instrument. If you feel not skilled enough in your secondary instrument, get the help of a soloist in that chosen instrument to finger the score.

Create prep materials.

Support your broken-down steps with simple but effective preparatory exercises for a difficult passage. Students working on Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slava arrangement can improve intonation working on open escalators exercises to help with intonation. Make them say and play the name of the notes in the workable measure. Prep materials that are inclusive for all types of learners. This will not harm but help the whole section.

Breakdown the instruction in many steps as needed.

Learning a string instrument can be extremely complex. There are many technical steps happening simultaneously which require impeccable training. Break down a hidden shifting using a staccato bow, play first finger then third finger to hear how each note sounds. Lift the first finger and move it across the string by touching the string. Reach the note. Press and play with a staccato bow. We want to challenge and motivate our students, but the challenge may come with a connection- introducing new concepts and reviewing what they already know, step by step. You can use their known Twinkle Theme in the Suzuki book to introduce strings crossing variations. 

Provide prompt feedback.

How many times have you written an essay and waited a month or more to receive feedback for something that you already forgot? Similarly, string learners should get comments on their playing as soon as they submit their videos and/or play in class. Learning will be more effective if feedback is right on the spot. 

Always provide positive feedback.

Who does not want to feel appreciated and motivated for their hard work and successful performance? You will be not only praising your student’s assertive playing but engaging them and retaining them for your strings orchestra. We want students to achieve their maximum potential beyond our class. To know that wherever they go, they can play and sight read in their community or university orchestra. Even if they pursue another career, they can still live the joy of playing well.

Prioritize your health.

Finally, but not the least, how many hours of videos did you get this weekend to give feedback on or summative assessment? You can avoid a whole weekend grading if in class you set your students in groups and provide feedback on the spot. If your school requires you to assign homework every week, tackle a specific point that you wish to check, so that you have short videos to watch. Taking care of your own wellbeing is important to the wellbeing of your students and that includes balancing work and home life. 

There are many ways to create a classroom where all students can learn and thrive. Hopefully, these tips will help a strings orchestra classroom nurture students and create the environment to succeed! 


Lisamary Guiliany-Zambrano teaches strings ensemble, music technology, and Spanish emergent at the American School of Guangzhou, China. 

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