Teaching Orchestra when coming from the Band or Choral Background


Many teachers are entering the orchestra teaching field from a band or choral background, either by choice or because they just needed a job and nothing was available in their primary field.  Good News – we need qualified orchestra teachers in Texas and across the nation.  Texas is creating more new positions each year than there are graduates in string education from all Texas Universities combined.  This does not even take into account the positions opened from retirements.  In addition, every year more districts are offering orchestra as part of the curriculum.  Any of you can be an orchestra teacher – as long as you develop your skills to be qualified and are passionate about learning this pedagogy.  Many outstanding orchestra directors have made the switch from band or choir, including several of the Texas Orchestra Director’s Director of the Year.  Step one wanting to learn, and if you are reading this you have already completed this step.  I am certified in Texas to teach All-level Music, but that does not make me a qualified general music teacher or choral director.  If you take the steps to learn the pedagogy, there are jobs for you.  More good news – orchestras don’t march or play outside very much!!

Many concepts of teaching are exactly the same from discipline to discipline, such as classroom management, musicality, balance, and phrasing.  However, there are some differences in teaching strings that may not be obvious to someone who has not played these instruments most of their lives that I would like to discuss.  This list was formed with the help of many teachers I supervise who come from band or choral backgrounds.  They shared with me the things that were the most surprising or different from their own pedagogical background.  Let’s explore the five most drastic changes that I feel will help you be successful as you transition to the orchestra class.  These are Modeling, Muscle Memory, Rhythm, The Bow and Intonation.


While modeling in all music classes is important, it is vital in the orchestra class.  Modeling is more efficient, accurate and descriptive than using words.  If I tried to explain to all of you how to move your bow arm how many words would that take?  How many kids would misinterpret what we said?  How many English language learners would we lose along the way?  The human mind is wired to mimic in learning.  We need to leverage this to our advantage.  This is most important in learning correct tone.  How do you describe good tone?  How does a student know they are playing with good tone?  How many of our students walk into our class having listened to hundreds of hours of quality orchestral playing and have a schema for good tone?  It will be up to us to teach the students what good tone sounds like (and of course how to produce it).  Trying to teach this without modeling will be impossible.  This is all also true of bowing, shifting, hand shapes, posture….

You will probably want to take at least a year of private lessons on a string instrument.  I’ll share my own experience.  I played bass from the time I was 11 years old, was a four-year All-State musician, took four classes in string pedagogy in my undergrad and realized 3 weeks into my first job that I needed more violin skills to teach my students.  I took a year of violin lessons that really helped me help my students.  If I came into the class without my strings background, I fear I would have been really lost!!  By the way, I do encourage all string teachers to have a violin.  This is the instrument that most of our students play and is the most mobile.  I find it much easier to teach with a violin in my hand than a bass or cello.  One way or the other, you will want to gain facility on all the instruments and some level of mastery on one of the instruments in order to help the students.


Muscle Memory

String instruments are unique in that the two hands are doing very different motions at the same time.  In order to accomplish this, we will spend hours working on exercises to build muscle memory.  At the beginning of class what we might call warm-up is not really “warm-up” but skill building.  I can play cold most of the time without an issue.  In a band class during the warm up we may be more concerned with just moving air instead of the best tone and accurate pitch.  The beginning of all my classes is devoted to skill building and muscle memory.  The key is patterns.  We need to practice patterns enough CORRECTLY that when they are encountered in the music our hands know what to do without trying to think through both hands. This can be finger pattern exercises, scales and/or arpeggios, bowings, and permutations of all of the previous.

It is important to remember: every time we play we are building muscle memory.  If we allow the students to play poorly or push them too fast in building their technique they will still build a muscle memory, it will just be WRONG.  Every day should be spent in building correct habits.  As we add skills we need to be sure that we are adding just one skill at a time.  If we add a new bowing and a new fingering at the same time count on a rough class.  Teach each in isolation then combine them.  When you hear a lot of problems after combining concepts you can be confident that one or more of the basic components were not mastered by the kids first.  Time to re-teach!


Orchestras have often been accused of not being as rhythmically accurate as bands, and there is some truth to this.  The reason is that all rhythms in orchestra are a different motion. While orchestra students should learn to count all rhythms in some sort of system (I like Eastman) they cannot stop there.  In band or choir if I can count a rhythm I can perform it, but in orchestra I have to adjust the bow.  This is especially true in asymmetrical bowings.  Let’s think about a few rhythms.  Think about how we would play four quarter notes.  This is usually the first rhythm in an orchestra class.  By the way, whole notes are much harder than quarter notes.  The older texts were based on band methods and started with long tones.  Newer texts have been adjusted to start with this rhythm as it has the fewest motions in the hand.  This uses symmetrical motions with an average bow speed.  I call it “long, long, long, long”.  If we have half notes we need to teach the students to move the bow more slowly on the half notes.  We could call that “slow-bow” (which takes 2 beats).  A dotted-quarter note followed by a quarter note is even more complex.  Instead of just thinking about counting to 3 for the dotted-quarter we need to think about moving the bow very slow for the dotted-quarter and 3 times as fast for the quarter note.  If we move the bow faster, however, we will get a louder note unless we release the weight from the bow when we move faster.  Very quickly this has become a complex motion.  As you add more rhythms you will need to spend time adding the muscle memory for every single rhythm.  Beginners often start with pizzicato to isolate the left hand.  This leads us to…



This is going to be the great mystery to those who have not spent their lives playing a string instrument.  There are so many permutations of what to adjust in the bow including bow speed, direction, weight, bow lane, placement, style, tilt, and angle.  A change in any of these is going to require a change in all of the others.  In addition, a change in range requires a change to all of these as well!!  A couple of generalizations:

  • You have to move the chairs further apart in the strings classroom in order to leave room for the bows to move. Bad news is that the rehearsal spaces for orchestras are often the smallest of the rehearsal spaces in the school.
  • Number one rule of the orchestra: If we look like we are together, we are together. The bows must move exactly at the same time, direction, speed, placement, etc. in order for the ensemble to sound uniform.  The good news is that they will sound uniform when they move this way (that is why the strings sit in a semi-circle, so they can see each other.)
  • Setting the bow hold is very important, but you need to know that it is not static. It should be able to flex and flow with the style, rhythm, dynamics, etc.  This will take a lot of time to teach to beginners and will be corrected forever.  Refinements to the bow hold will take place from the moment they pick up the bow all the way through graduate school if they keep going that long in their studies.  After the first year of study a large part of your technique building will be centered on bow use.
  • Most bow motion comes from the elbow and below, with limited motion in the shoulder. Bass is a little different in that the whole arm swings more.
  • While bow speed (length) is tied to strong tone it is not the only factor. Just like more air does not solve all brass problems (although it does solve some) more bow does not solve all string problems (although it sometimes is the solution).  The students need to be in contact with the string enough to produce the vibrations.
  • The lower the instrument, the less bow they will use. Basses often will use less than half of their bow, while violins often will use their entire bow.  The higher the note, the faster the bow speed as well.
  • Placement of the bow is very important to cleanliness of the music. Let’s look at a few examples.

Where to begin each bow stroke often has more to do with what follows than the first note.  Up bow does not mean start at the tip, and down bow does not mean start at the frog.  This rhythm begins with an up bow, but the motion will begin between the middle of the bow and the frog.

You need to know all the different bowing styles and when to apply them, including detache, martele, spiccato, loure, hooked up bows, sautille, col legno, sul tasto, and many more.  Review your conducting and methodology textbooks if you are not sure of all these.  They are rarely marked in the music; it is up to you as the teacher and conductor to know which applies in the historical and musical practice.


True or false – young orchestras can play in tune?  It is definitely true, but it is difficult and you as the teacher must be diligent in helping the kids play that way.  Why is it so hard to play in tune?  First, there are no valves, buttons, keys, etc. to let the player know where the note exists in the instrument.  Putting a finger down on the string can find any note (and all tones between the notes) over a two octave spread.  If I put the right keys down on a flute and blow correctly I usually will be within a quarter tone of the right note.  The second reason is that the hands are doing two different things. I am going to ask you to visualize something for me.  Imagine writing your signature with your dominant hand.  Now imaging writing that signature while dribbling a basketball with the other hand.  While it is not quite that extreme, the students are doing two things at the same time. Even just in your mind did you “feel” your signature become sloppy? If the students are struggling to move the bow well or in rhythm, then they will also struggle to concentrate on placing the fingers in exactly the right spot (and it must be exactly the right spot).

Proper hand shape is necessary for good intonation!!  Holding a string instrument is not intuitive, natural, or even always comfortable.  The kids will find many ways to hold the instrument that are not correct.  In the early years of development, you will be constantly correcting and adjusting their hand shapes.  This is especially true since they are continuing to grow and might be transitioning through different sizes of instruments. (you all do know that there are fractional sizes of all the instruments?)

The students must be able to hear the pitch before they play. I have found that spending a little bit of time on audiation before playing notes makes a large difference.  Having kids sing their notes makes a huge difference in their ability to know when to correct the notes.  If they think of the notes as distinct pitches that are part of a whole than they will self-correct much better than if they think of the notes as first finger, then second finger, then third.

You have to teach the students to listen.  This has always been true, but today’s youth spends less time interacting with the world in real time than ever before.  They will need help in being aware of the others while they are also aware of themselves.  Add this on top of usual adolescence challenges.  They can do it, as long as we help them.  They do not walk into class with an a-priori knowledge of what “in tune” is.  Electronic tuners can help them learn this but cannot replace training their ears and mind.

You cannot fix tuning on a single note.  If a note is out of tune it is due to how it was approached.  There are often 12 different ways to play most notes on the string instrument.  The decision of how to play the note is decided based on where you are coming from and where you are going.  They need to practice the approach to a note in order to learn to land on that note correctly.  For the band folks, think about teaching a marching show.  You can teach the kids to stand on their marks for each set, but the real work is helping them learn how to move between those sets to hit their mark exactly the same each time.

Finger tapes lie!  Placing tapes on the student’s fingerboard can help them get close, but it will not be correct.  Every time the weather changes (and it can change a lot here in Texas where I teach) the instrument changes size and all the tapes become wrong.  If the bridge is knocked out of place just a little all the tapes will be wrong as well.  While I do give beginners tapes, when they fall off around December I celebrate them “graduating” to no tapes and if I have done my job correctly they will no longer need them.

Odds and Ends

You will want to learn how to make small repairs, change strings, etc. to save yourself money and headaches.  Most repairs must be done by a trained technician, but we can adjust bridges, replace fine tuners, etc.  Changing strings should be done once a year or more and young students should not be doing these themselves.

Score preparation is vital.  As mentioned above, bow placement is very important.  You should decide before the music goes out to the students exactly how you want the work bowed.  Mark your score and the student parts to save time and give clarity. Don’t just mark up and down but mark what part of the bow they should use.  The learning happens when they place their bow correctly and make the right sound, not in learning how to write an up bow where you tell them to write that on their page.

Use your eyes as much as your ears.  All string playing is a motion.  It is more like teaching percussion than winds or choir.  The great thing is I can see who is off beat, who is playing the wrong note, who is playing with the wrong poor tone.  Looking at a horn section I have a hard time seeing who is playing on the wrong partial.  It is powerful to be able to make corrections quickly and accurately based on what we see and hear.

Keep Learning

Continue to learn this wonderful pedagogy.  Attend your state MEA, the ASTA (American String Teachers Association) convention, Midwest Clinic and Concert, workshops presented by Universities (or the String Pedagogy Institute).  String teachers are always happy to share their knowledge so don’t be afraid to ask questions.  I have always felt I learned as much in the hallways of conventions talking to my peers as I learned in the wonderful presentations.

One last thought, in my 30 years of teaching orchestra in public schools I have assisted many teachers transition from band or choral teaching to orchestra.  To this date not a single teacher has gone back to teaching their primary field.  Once you start teaching orchestra you will fall in love with the field and will never look back!



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