Including alternative styles in middle school or high school orchestra programs can lead
to a variety of benefits for the student and teacher. Alternative strings can develop flexibility
and expressiveness and can encourage independent playing. These benefits can lead to a string player who is more knowledgeable about his or her instrument and more likely to continue playing into adulthood.
“Alternative Strings” is a relatively new term used by members in the string community,
especially American Strings Teachers Association, for styles outside of the typical,
primarily classical orchestra repertoire. It includes jazz, blues, fiddle, Calypso, Cajun, tango, folk, rock, pop and many other styles.
Some teachers do not think these styles belong in the music classroom. Most orchestras play strictly Western and European orchestra literature or “the classics” by “the masters.” They feel that it is a time-honored tradition to play these pieces and that proper musicianship and technique can only be learned through incorporating classical literature.
Why change? Also, most teachers and classical musicians have little to no experience or training in alternative styles. They may even be scared about approaching alternative music and improvisation. Can improvisation be taught without proper training? Can you teach the blues? Teaching improvisation is now one of our nine National Standards for Music Education: improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
Teaching improvisation is a national standard, but
we do poorly in terms of preparing our future teachers to teach improvisation.
College music students need to roll up their sleeves and actually do it-then
they will have more tools when they begin teaching. If national standards
dictate that improvisation be taught, then universities should provide adequate
instruction in improvisation. (Turner, 2007)
Music students grow up in a musical environment influenced by parents, friends and their surroundings. It is typically a diverse mix of music. Alternative styles are
everywhere, and many of these styles, such as jazz, blues, and old-time fiddle,
developed in America. Many styles include improvisation, embellishments and ornamentations. Examples can be found in Baroque through Romantic music. The cadenza was often an improvised or ornamental passage in a concerto.
Improvisation is a part of world music, including non-written or aural
traditions such as gypsy music or the interplay between the sitar and tablas in
Indian music. Improvisation offers an opportunity to expose students to world music.
Classical musicians and teachers may be afraid of looking away from black dots on the
page, but it truly is natural and could be a great source of inspiration,
motivation and creativeness for everyone.
“I think it’s vitally important that we study the
music of our own country, and jazz certainly is America’s classical music,”
says Lesa Terry, founder of the Uptown String Quartet, studio teacher and
faculty member at California State University at Los Angeles. ”Stereotypical
perspectives of being ‘that music over there, that music that is not legit’ get
tossed to the wayside when we refer to jazz simply as American music. String
players should know American music, they should study it, and they should
”Improvisers on any instrument end up playing
music for longer periods of time in their life,” says pianist, guitarist,
arranger, and composer Bert Ligon, who is director of jazz and the jazz string
band at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. ”If a high school kid
leaves high school and he’s just played the second clarinet part in the band,
he probably puts away the instrument and never sees it again. But if he improvises,
he’s more apt to end up playing the rest of his life. We all know that there is
a great deal of art to re-creating music, but creating something of their own,
either composing or improvising, gives students the opportunity to identify
personally with music.”
Indeed, jazz as a genre is distinguished by a
performer’s ability to create his or her own individual sound, or voice. ”We
often speak of playing jazz music as having an ability to tell a story,” Terry
says. ”As classical musicians we aren’t as encouraged to do that as we are in
jazz. The study of jazz technique gives you all the necessary tools to discover
what you have to say, then tell that story in a really interesting way, in an
individual way.” (Bratt, 2002)
Not only can immersing students in alternative styles and improvisation
give them an individual outlook and voice on their instrument, but it can also
push them to be more active on their instrument in school and after they
graduate. ”Improvising opens up a whole new world of future professional and economic opportunities too,” says violinist, author, and twenty-five year teaching veteran, Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry. (Bratt 2002)
Improvization and alternative styles give students
a completely different experience with their instrument. They learn to work or connect with it differently, learn more chordal and harmonic ways to look at the fingerboard, and often experience different techniques that are appropriate within the unique style.
Paula Zeitlin, violinist, studio teacher, and a jazz string teacher at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says,
jazz is one way that string musicians in particular get an inner map of their
instrument, a harmonic map. On a keyboard you can see the chords and visualize
them. I think a lot of string players who start playing jazz are at a
disadvantage because we haven’t been trained to have this kind of inner map. It
isn’t something you read; you play and then you learn it.
”Articulation and time are enhanced by studying improvisation,” Zeitlin
continues. ”Most people really get good time by playing jazz. You have a
different sense of time and you have a different sense of where the pulse and
the beat start and end as well as the smaller subdivisions of time. Intonation
problems are solved, and the students learn harmonic information and also the
range of possibilities on the instrument which include slides, double-stops,
particular types of effects that you might or might not get in a classical
piece.” (Bratt, 2002)
Alternative Strings can be an educational experience in many ways. The curriculum
can involve a cultural and historical exploration of a style, it can include
listening to a variety of recordings by performers of the style, students can
analyze and recognize similarities and variations within a style and can then
relate it to what they can personally do on their instrument to imitate,
respect and explore the style.
Many music publishing companies now put out alternative strings materials. Alfred
Publishing Co. has a lot of titles in their “Alternative Strings Series”. JWPepper.com is a great resource for pop,fiddle, and alternative style sheet music.
Teachers could also arrange pop tunes or even tango music for string
orchestra. Fiddle tunes can be taught by ear. Stringscentral.com has a list of
alternative strings clinicians who could visit the school and discuss how they
became involved or introduced to their particular style or could give a
workshop on improvisation.
What I have done with a class is arrange a simple
exercise to try improvisation for the first time. I either have the class learn the G Blues scale or just use a one octave G scale. I
assist the bass player with a simple chord progression using I IV V
chords. Once the bass is going, everyone
else can be instructed to do a little rhythmic accompaninment based on the root
of each chord. Once the groove is going,
the teacher can improvise on the G scale or G Blues scale over the
accompaniment, every student gets a chance to try it out. Students are shy at first and may find it difficult, but even if they just stay on an open G and play around with the rhythm they are at least giving it a chance.
As different styles or chord progressions based on the same scale are
introduced, and as students explore the fingerboard and improvisation, they
will become more comfortable. This method gives some structure with a chord progression and scale. Students may be surprised that jazz and
improvisation do have structure and rules.
Another way to improvise may be saying something like, “what does red
sound like,” or “play something sad.” Suggesting moods and colors can be an interesting way of getting
students to be more personal and inventive with their improvisation.
Music is interactive, individual, personal, and creative. Students should be able to
experience a variety of literature, methods, and styles. I think it is important for string players to recognize the diversity of their instrument and its wealth of
possibilities. Stringed instruments have a rich history all over the world and an alternative strings curriculum will open teachers and students to a world of opportunites.
Bratt, Renata. Jazz Improvisation for Strings? Why Bother?
American String Teacher 52:4 (November
2002) p. 54-56, 58-59
Turner, Matt. Improvisation
in the Classroom: Watering the Seeds
American String Teacher 57:3 (August 2007) p.
Lieberman, Julie Lyonn. 2004. Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum. Cambridge: Amadeus Press, LLC
Alternative Strings Websites:
http://www.lightbubble.com/bowed/ Electric violin resources