Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts on Vibrato

For a few years, I have experimented with various strategies and techniques to introduce and develop students' vibrato. On the whole, I feel vibrato is taught too late in string sequencing. The one element that most interferes with students' success is a sub-par shoulder rest. When the shoulder rest is not adequate, the left hand/arm becomes a kickstand more than a functional mechanism for musicality. My students with foam shoulder rests (for example) are least effective in both learning and executing a quality vibrato. Consequently, the mobility necessary for vibrato is locked. Walking around one day helping a student who said, "I just cannot get this!" I slightly elevated their scroll so it was disengaged from the left hand. Suddenly this student was miraculously able to do a fantastic vibrato motion. Illustrating for students the importance of a quality shoulder rest is vital! 

We teach students block hand shape to develop muscle memory and fingerboard geography; however, this develops two habits that can be difficult to reverse. The first is the adhesion of the index finger to the neck of the instrument (particularly for violin and viola) that makes vibrato next to impossible. The second is the difficulty associated with keeping multiple fingers down during a vibrato-ed pitch. Most frequently, the index finger is disengaged from the neck and elevated like one is pointing toward the sky. It would seem most effective to codify the mental map of the fingerboard (through the Ionian pentacle on each string) during the first year and teach chromatic alterations and the use of single-fingers during the second year. Disengage the index finger! 

Variable speed within the vibrato motion is important, to meet the demands of the music. The standard practice using a metronome to assist in "metering" the motion and increasing speed is a great tool; however, it feels sooooooooooo dull. Throw some Richard Simmons on YouTube for a more entertaining tempo reference - the kids love it. True Story: I have had an entire class of well-respecting students clear the stands and chairs to join in the motions for at least 5 minutes. It was a proud moment in my teaching career. 

Another idea is to increase vibrato speed through a crescendo. This trains the hand (and brain) that long notes are not "dying" notes but "thriving" notes. Playing long tones (whole notes) at 60BPM provides a chance to develop "vibrato gears" to shift between. From this you can develop a common language for students to assign vibrato intensity to (1) each piece, (2) sections throughout the piece, and (3) individual notes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Standards: Sure! But Which Ones?!

My colleague and I are working to overhaul the 6-12 Course of Study for the orchestra department. With revisions to Ohio's State Standards (2012) and National Core Arts Standards (2014) an update is critical. The existing Course of Study, developed 12-15 years ago is not current, and best-practices have changed with regard to standards and assessment. Additionally, there was no (1) teacher, (2) student, (3) parent, nor (4) administrator friendly version that could be used "in the trenches."

We find ourselves overwhelmed with Standards. Particularly in their perceived incompatibility with each other. Do we use the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) Curriculum? Do we use the 2012 Ohio Department of Education Music Standards? Do we use the NEW National Core Arts Standards? Do we combine them all? How do we do that?! Do we model our curriculum after another model district? ... or do we become the model district? 

After attending a professional development conference, we decided to ditch them all - for the time being anyway. Why?

1. We found the ASTA curriculum, while excellent, to be very cumbersome. 
2. We found the ODE Music Standards to be off the mark, and lacking specificity for orchestra.
3. We found the National Core Arts Standards to also lack necessary specificity, though this was intentional for the breadth of ensembles under the umbrella category of "Traditional and Emerging." 

As a result, we are developing a composition- and skills-based curriculum. The rationale is that by using this approach we establish the (1) process-orientation of the National Core Arts Standards, (2) the specificity aimed by the ODE standards, while making the means through which we achieve our desired end a (3) string-specific curriculum. 

Stay tuned for more!