Making a Case for Orchestra Music in String Lessons

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When I began doctoral studies at The Ohio State University, I was an older student with a significant amount of professional experience.  It was a good perspective to write a DMA document (General Musicianship Versus Career-Specific Training in Violin Pedagogy) that explored a dichotomy between the traditional solo-based performance education and the primary performance career path of playing in an orchestra.  Elisabeth Adkins, Associate Concertmaster of the National Symphony at the time, relayed a story that illustrated the point.  A high school student of hers apologetically asked Elisabeth if she would hear the student’s All-State orchestra audition music at a lesson.  Elisabeth was eager to help the student, but it was mystifying how the student had assumed that such repertoire was unworthy of being included in a lesson.  Such is the power of the stereotype that private lessons are primarily concerned with solo repertory.

I have continued to be amazed and perplexed by this dichotomy since.  Consider this comparison.  A violin studio teacher will assign one solo to a student (a piece of 2-7 pages that is marked carefully with one’s approved bowings and fingerings), expecting to hear a modest amount of it at the next week’s lesson.  In orchestra, that same student will be handed a folder of 20-30 pages of music that may or may not have fingerings or bowings (or if they are marked, may be of dubious value), and will be asked to begin rehearsing the entirety of it on sight, or perhaps with a short period of time to begin learning it.  Students who have grown up playing in orchestras will know how to read and fake their way through it to various degrees as they learn the music, but I have had more students recently who have no orchestra experience (either home school students or international students) and are completely at a loss for how to manage this situation.  On one hand, the rookies bring something very positive, which is an expectation that they would play their orchestra music at a comparable level to their solo/lesson music; but it is an unrealistic notion, given the logistics of time and amount of music to be learned.  Meanwhile, the experienced students are more comfortable with the situation, but their expectations of their own level of performance tend to be pretty low and they are also susceptible to developing bad habits in their technique as they hack and slash through orchestral rehearsals.

One of the most common ways of giving students more attention on their orchestra parts is to schedule a sectional, but this can only address a relatively small number of the issues without the one-on-one attention that is so important when working at the highest level of musical training.  I propose that the most effective way to bring the student’s orchestral performance level in line with their solo expectations is to regularly include the orchestral repertoire in their lessons.  By this I am not talking about orchestral audition excerpts (although that is also valid lesson material that overlaps with what I am discussing), but about the music the student is learning in their school orchestra, youth orchestra and/or Honors orchestra.  This includes either marking the parts with functional fingerings or helping the student process their fingering choices in the lesson.  The goal, as with solo repertoire, is to develop highly precise technical proficiency, as well as knowledgeable and sensitive musical treatment.  Such work will help the student respect their work in orchestra much more, will decrease the likelihood of their developing bad technical habits in rehearsals and will help boost the performance level of the orchestra as a whole.

But all the benefits are offset by other concerns.  For one, the amount of lesson time taken up by thoroughly teaching through 20-30 pages of orchestra music is significant.  When my high school student from China brought in Scheherazade (her Youth Orchestra music), we spent four straight hour lessons working from beginning to end.  No scales, no etudes, no solo.  Not even a chance to go back and review previous sections to see how she had applied what we had previously covered.  We had worked at a fast pace, but I was only able to give her what she needed to know how to practice – not to see her all the way through to a level of polished performance (unless she did it herself in time for the orchestra concert).  It made me appreciate all the more how much is assumed of students when they are handed all that music for orchestra!

There are a number of issues worthy of discussion as this conundrum is considered:

An extremely valuable commodity would be well-edited versions of orchestra parts for student orchestras who are playing professional-level repertoire.  A best-case scenario would include multiple versions, for varying levels of ensembles.  In my studio of liberal arts college students (including a small percentage of music majors), I will “allow” a more intermediate level student to play a passage in first position if I know that is the most likely scenario for the student to contribute effectively to the orchestra’s success; but I will mark the same passage on a lower string/higher position for a more advanced student who should be expected to play with more refined subtlety.  However, even when I have performed the piece in question numerous times, it takes a significant amount of lesson time to remember and mark in fingerings for extensive passages, so a ready-made edition would be a great time saver. On a more philosophical level, I believe a discussion of the merits of repertoire types for lesson study is worthwhile.  What is the value of solo repertoire versus ensemble repertoire?  While there are many good reasons to play solo pieces, here are some counter arguments.  How many students will actually have the opportunity to play one concerto (not to mention several) with orchestra in a concert?  Relatively few.  How practical is it to teach virtuoso techniques (i.e. up-bow staccato, left hand pizzicato, double-stop harmonics) when those are used sparingly in a narrow band of repertoire?  There is little question that a student will actually perform orchestra pieces repeatedly throughout their life (whether as professional orchestra musicians or as a semi-pro or amateur), while giving public performances of solo repertoire is highly unlikely.  Also consider the orchestra audition – one need only have the exposition of one concerto in one’s repertoire, but the number of potential excerpts is more substantial.  Is there adequate technical and musical material to be learned from orchestral repertoire?  Let me say an emphatic yes!  The breadth of the orchestral literature is rich, varied and challenging.  Perhaps the biggest hurdle is simply the old argument that “we haven’t done it that way before.”  How would students be evaluated for college programs and competitions if not by their list of solo pieces and their performance of selections from that list?  It is a gross understatement to say it would not be an easy change to make. On the other side of the equation, it is a worthwhile question to ask what music (and amount of music) is appropriate for varying levels of student orchestras?  I know from experience that it is more fun to play the great standards of the repertoire and I always loved a challenge, but as a teacher, I have also seen young orchestras attempting to play repertoire that is well beyond their ability to understand and play effectively.  Sometimes a student comes to a lesson and tells me what they are playing in orchestra and I can’t help but blurt out, “you’re playing WHAT?!?”  While I don’t propose backing up to playing only student-level repertoire, I do think there is a healthier balance that can be aspired to.

The rich traditions of string pedagogy are not something to be discarded lightly, particularly in light of the incredible quality of string playing that we enjoy in the present era; yet examination and discussion about these underlying assumptions can help teachers to appreciate the old and also adapt to the challenges of the next generation.  I propose a conversation that encompasses both the repertoire covered in private lessons as well as repertoire selection and preparation in student orchestras.

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Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019

David R. Reimer

Dr. David Reimer is the professor of violin at Calvin College and a frequent performer in the West Michigan area.  Dr. Reimer received his Bachelors and Master Degrees in violin performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music and his DMA from the Ohio State University.

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