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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"These are BEGINNERS???"

"These are BEGINNERS???"  I hear that phrase quite often when parents, teachers, administration, or music store reps come to visit my classroom. It makes me smile and I always tell my class about these compliments.  I'm not saying that there are never times when we sound like a horror movie soundtrack, because sometimes we do....sometimes.  People tend to assume that a beginning music class should sound bad, but that is a myth!  Students really can learn to sound good from the beginning.

I am always amused when I open beginner method books.  Each method book contains that first page with a picture or two, showing students how they should hold their instruments and bows.  Then, the music begins and students must focus all attention on the page to play with the class.  As soon as students are looking at a page of music, they are not looking at their position or bow hold.  I set out to elaborate the process of teaching bow hold and instrument position and I'm still amazed that it took 97 pages to teach what the method books teach in one page. (see

Every year that I teach, I spend more and more time allowing my beginners to become comfortable with the basics of playing, before cracking open the method book.  Last school year, I didn't even have students bring their books until we had been playing in class for a little over 2 weeks.  When we finally did start using the method, it was easy for the students.  They had the basics down, and the method book became a tool for reinforcement.  Students were able to progress very quickly through the first part of the book and they sounded good - right from the start!  The method book is not the lesson plan.  I use it for reinforcing.  Students learn skills first, THEN we open the book and they see what the skills look like on paper.

I like using method books and I always will use one in my class, but I do believe that beginners need more than just a method book.  I had a student transfer to my class from another town.  His mother called me to ask me about my class and about my practice requirements.  She told me that her son was not enjoying orchestra because the teacher was requiring the students to practice out of the method book for 30 minutes per day.  I told her that I do not grade on practicing, so her son decided to continue in orchestra and take my class.  This student now frequently tells me that orchestra is his favorie class.  I wonder if we sometimes squelch student's passion for music by forcing method book music all the time.  There are some fun tunes in method books, but the music is mostly exercises designed to develop specific techniques and skills.  Students will stay better motivated if they LOVE the music.  Since most of my students want to burn their method books at the end of the year, I don't get the impression that they love method book music as much as the other music we do in class.

My beginner classes tend to learn fast and I love our first concert in October, because parents are amazed that the students are beginners.  It's so fun to 'wow' an audience, and we do it every year. I believe we can do this because the method book has become our tool for reinforcing instead of becoming THE curriculum.  Students stay motivated by learning other supplemental pieces which have multi-level parts so that all students can progress and improve on their level.  The students who learn faster than others can be challenged by learning the more difficult melodies, and their talents take flight.  Once the rest of the class hears students playing a difficult melody, they want to learn it too and they practice.  This is why I don't have a practice requirement.  I do my best to motivate them, and they choose to practice.

For the supplemental music, I use mostly fiddle tunes that I have arranged with more than one part.  Students love music that has more than one part because it sounds more like 'real' music.  I included 3 of these pieces in my book;  "The True Beginning:  Before the Method Book."  I also use the "Basic Fiddlers Philharmonic" book by Andrew Dabzynski and "Strings Extraordinaire" by McAllister/Monday.

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