Ashley Salinas introduces the teaching of String Methods Class

IMG_2267Greetings fellow violists!

In my undergraduate studies at Sam Houston State University, Dr. Matthew McInturf (Director of Bands and the Center for Music Education) once asked the class, “Performance majors, raise your hands. Guess what? You will be teaching someday in addition to your performing engagements. Education majors, raise your hands. Guess what? You will still have to perform in addition to your teaching responsibilities.” His message was clear: just because you are majoring in one subject field does not mean your future work will be limited to only that subject. Several of my non-string-playing classmates from SHSU have indeed ended up in front of an orchestra class.

Although my major field of study shifted from music education to performance when I started at UNT, I believe that the ability to effectively teach greatly impacts my own approach to problem solving in the practice room. So here I am, two performance degrees later and teaching a strings class (MUAG 1121) for music education majors. Dr. McInturf was right!

Functional knowledge of all instruments is an important factor in the success of any instrumental music teacher; an understanding of the basic principles of string playing will greatly enhance the effectiveness as a music educator, conductor, or composer/arranger. My central goal of this class is to prepare music education students for teaching basic string instrumental techniques in the individual and heterogeneous class settings.

By the end of the semester students will demonstrate basic performance skills on one string instrument, understand terminology unique to string performance, demonstrate an understanding of fingerboard geography (in the first position) and the relationship of pitches across strings. Additionally, my students will have experience teaching each other and be able to diagnose and remediate common technical problems in string playing. Each student is required to compile a final notebook that will serve as a professional resource.

IMG_2264Strings class is offered to a variety of undergraduate students– mostly music education students (all instrumental and vocal areas), a few miscellaneous jazz, composition, and theory majors, and, on occasion, a non-music student who wishes to learn a string instrument for elective credit. Many students are excited to open the case and begin to make their first sounds! Some students catch on quite quickly, while others struggle to find comfort holding this foreign object– it depends on the level of physical awareness and similarity they have through their own major instruments.

Since many of my students are picking up a string instrument for the first time, I begin the first few weeks of the semester simulating a beginner string orchestra class through a combination of Essential Elements for Strings (Robert Gillespie, Michael Allen, and Pamela Tellejohn Hayes), Mastery for Strings: A Longitudinal Sequence of Instruction for School Orchestras, Studio Lessons, and College Method Courses (William Dick and Laurie Scott), and Strategies for Teaching Strings: Building a Successful String and Orchestra Program (Donald L. Hamann and Robert Gillespie).

Being a violist gives me a great advantage in teaching other instruments. We, as violists, spend so many hours critically analyzing sound production across the wide tessitura of the viola (bridging the gap between cello and violin) and, as an active performer, I have found myself analyzing how my string playing colleagues achieve tone. Since viola is so similar to violin (which I began my own musical studies on), this is physically the easiest part of teaching the course; the similarities between viola and cello are helpful (i.e. I only have to modify fingerings); bass, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame and requires my attention more than the other instruments. In contrast, I feel that being able to play basic patterns on each instrument benefits my own physical awareness and flexibility in producing sound on the viola.

As a viola performance major, I have had to better manage my practice time in order to maintain my bass and cello playing chops. I also have to keep in mind that not too long ago I was in my student’s shoes (balancing multiple ensemble commitments, heavy academic course loads, professional performances and private teaching opportunities, and personal practice time) while maintaining reasonable, yet rigorous, standards for what each student needs to know when they finish with this course.

I absolutely love teaching this class! Observing student’s progress through the semester is gratifying, especially when a student who has been struggling finally understands the technique being presented. I enjoy watching my students interact, observe, and teach each other. I also love the possibility of engaging students who are eager to learn and aren’t afraid to ask questions. On a personal note, my greatest success so far while teaching this course has been balancing classroom teaching and my own viola practice, even if it means arriving on campus before 8AM!


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