Strings vs. Band - what's the same and what's not?
How do string instruments differ from band instruments (the big, not so obvious differences)?
String instruments are visual instruments, meaning you can see everything that is happening, good and bad. Band instruments require knowledge of what is going on behind the lips, with the diaphram, etc...they are simply two different knowledge databases.
With string playing, every teacher and player has their own unique way to do things – there is no single correct method for hand position, shifting, etc…
Where in band most instrumentalist have their own stand and are seated in a curved line, in a string orchestra (or section) seating is by 2’s for all except the basses, who maintain a single stand per instrument. Also, there is a half-circuel design to a typical string orchestra or string section. Envision going out from the podium, instead of how many in the first row, second row, etc…
How are strings and band instruments similar?
NYSSMA Manual has good pieces – this is a good place to start. String literature isn’t nearly as multiple as band or choral literature, but it is growing.
There are composers and publishers to know. For strings: Del Borgo, Atwell, Dackow, Frost, Stephan, Newbold, Balmages, etc…
Posture – this is a musician “thing” – good posture helps good performance. Period.
Band and Orchestra students still expect their teacher to be the resident expert (as do parents). Be confident with what you know, but also,
Be honest with students and parents. If you don’t know something, tell them, and then find the answer for them.
Ask for help whenever you need it (and sometimes just to make sure you were right).
Methods for applying rosin:
Bass rosin is softer and must be applied in a single direction – otherwise it will melt and congeal on the bow itself.
All other rosin may be applied in both directions, making sure to cover the entire length of the bow.
New rosin should be scored, so that it is more abrasive and will cling easier to the bowhair. Worn in rosin doesn't need to be scored.
*Make sure to not touch the hair of the bow - the oils ruin the hair.
Things to watch for:
Slightly bent left wrist, but not back a tremendous amount (no waiters!) - the back of the hand and arm should form a straight line
Students not using chin rest - this typically leads to several issues, including issues tuning correctly and the need to hold the instrument with the left hand.
Bassists who stand straight - this limits the ability to shift accurately, as well as to maintain a consistent tone (it pulls the right arm up too high)
Inflexible right wrists - this prevents the bow from bowing at the proper angle (perpendicular) to the strin
Bow should usually stay on the string – don’t lift it off. This helps maintain a consistent tone, as well as limit bouncing of the bow.
Basic string notation things to know:
Slurs mean with the same bow – don’t change bow direction.
More bow in orchestra = more air in band
‘ mark = Breath in band, lift in orchestra
Types of bowings you may see: tremelo (at the tip), pizzicato (plucking the string), spiccato (bouncing bow), loure (connected bows – same direction)
Downbow (frog to tip) and upbow (tip to frog)
Violin and Viola
Very similar in (almost) all ways, and the techniques for teaching them at all but a very high level are almost identical
Tuning by double stops is by far the most common method of tuning.
Shoulder rests are critical! Often students will try to not use one, but this creates issues with holding the instrument, tuning the instrument, balance, and left hand position. They vary in cost and quality, so do some experimenting to find out what works best for your students. I typically prefer students to use a Kun-style shoulder rest.
Use of fine tuners. Highly recommend! When done properly, this is the easiest way to tune the instrument, and for most younger students (prior to late middle school) the only thing they should use. Tuning with them should still occur with the bow playing the string, the instrument held on the shoulder, and the left hand crossing under the right arm.
High vs. low fingers. Students and teachers tend to refer to left hand fingers as low or high. "Regular" or "Normal" doesn't exist. Each of the fingers on the left hand (not including the thumb) can be low or high, and the difference between any low or high note is a half step. (Example - on the A string in 1st position, a low 2nd finger is a C natural, while a high 2nd finger is a C#)
String height over fingerboard (action). There are multiple schools of thought regarding what the height of the action should be, but when it comes down to it, it really depends on what is comfortable for the player of the instrument. However, typically the action should be as low as possible (to allow for easier shifting), but not so low as to create buzzing (in this case, caused by the string vibrating against the fingerboard).
Bow grip. There are also many school sof thought regarding how this should be taught, and there are a few teaching aides available for purchase to help achieve a good bowgrip. I typically teach bowgrip the same way for all four instruments, simply adding a gentle curve at the end of the process for violin and viola. The primary points are consistent:
The wrist needs to remain flexible
The pinky should not lift off the bow
The bow should move parallel (roughly) to the bridge. In order for this to occur, the top of the hand typically faces the student.
Where should the bow arm move from – which joints? In order of the most movement to the least, think about the order of movement from the bow to the body - (1) Fingers, (2) Wrist, (3) Elbow, (4) Shoulder
When should you change sizes? This is dictated by the student's physical size usually, and there are some charts that can be found that are helpful in the determination. Your local music store is usually quite good at helping to figure out this need. Typically, full size by high school is recommended for tone issues if nothing else.
'Cello (technically Violoncello)
Height of the instrument – this is primarily determined by the endpin height. Basically, the instrument should be comfortable, positioned between the legs (ladies typically wear very long, flowing dresses or pants), with the right arm able to move freely across each string. The left hand is usually in first position when it is next to the left shoulder.
Endpin strap, rockstop, etc…Endpin anchors of some sort are necessary to prevent sliding of the instrument while playing - similar to a drumset. Personal choice usually dictates what a player uses, from a rubber tip on the end of the cello endpin, to a strap, to something hand-made. In a pinch, a men's belt may be used. Since the endpin is usually quite sharp, is can be stuck into a wooden floor or carpet, but this is often met with destruction of the floor and slipping of the instrument.
Extension of the first finger vs. rest of hand. On the cello, each finger is a half step from the one previous, except when the player is extending, in which case the first finger is a whole step from the second finger. Either way, the thumb should support the second finger. This hand position is the same, whether a forward extension (the first finger remains in place while the other three extend forward a half step) or a backward extension (the upper three fingers remain in place, while the first finger goes backward a half step).
Tuning with harmonics as well as double stops. Depending on who you speak to, tuning the cello is typically done via one of these two methods. I've placed a link to a videobelow that demonstrates hot to tune with harmonics. Tuning by double-stops is simply a matter of playing both strings at the same time and tuning the fifth.
String height over fingerboard (action). The height of the action is a personal preference, although most players prefer it rather low (close to the fingerboard), but not low enough that the string vibrates against the fingerboard when played. Issues with the action occur often during the change of seasons on all instruments, but are most problematic for cello players. Expect to change the bridge (or have it changed) in the fall and spring. Keep the one you take off - you'll put it back on in six months.
Bow grip. This is critical to controlled playing. Like band instruments, too much tension creates issues. The bow should be held with the minimal amount of tension required to keep it from falling - the string should provide sufficient friction to keep the bow from falling. when adding more weight (typically volume), this should not come from bowgrip tension, but rather the back muscles.
How should bow arm move? Which joints should be the focus of the movement? Unlike the violin and viola, the cello (and bass) bow should be controlled with motion from the elbow first, and then the shoulder. The muscle group that controls the motion should be the back, not the arm.
When do you change sizes? As with the violin and viola, this is dictated by the student's physical size usually, and there are some charts that can be found that are helpful in the determination. Your local music store is usually quite good at helping to figure out this need. Typically, full size by high school is recommended for tone issues if nothing else.
Bass (A.K.A. Double Bass, Upright Bass)
¾ size IS full size
Stool (seated) or standing? There are arguements for and against both. Regardless of which you (or your district) choose(s), consistency is always best from grade 3 (or whenever a student begins) up through 12
Endpin height and height of the instrument. The endpin should always be adjusted, at least to the first notch. Typically, the proper height places the left earlobe with the E tuning peg.
Endpin stop (or rest) – what types work (strap, hockey puck), and how do you use them? This is a matter of personal preference, although most players prefer to avoid the "hockey puck" style as they tend to slip rather easily. Straps work well if your player uses a stool, but without the leg of the stool to hold onto the other end of the strap, this is not a useful endpin stop. I have found the best success with a simple rubber crutch end stuck onto the endpin.
French or German bow? German has been gaining it popularity, and many colleges are training students with this bowgrip. However, French is very common, and essentially identical to the cello bowgrip.
3rd finger doesn’t exist until you get higher (thumb position). This is a common issue with bass players. The bass player should use 1 (pointer), 2 (middle), and 3 and 4 together (ring and pinky). This allows the pinky to be supported with the ring finger, and is a relatively natural spacing for the hand.
Tuning by harmonics – not the same as cello!!! If you are going to tune the bass using harmonics (which I highly recommend), it's a higher partial that needs to be used than on the cello, due to the strings being tuned in 4ths and not 5ths. I have provided a video reference below.
String height over fingerboard (action). This is, in my humble opinion, far more important on bass than on the other instruments (and it's pretty important on all of them). Because the strings are so thick and heavy, they more easily dig into the fingers; the higher they are, the more pressure must be applied to press the string down, the more effort is exerted by the player, and the more painful and fatiguing playing becomes.
Adjustable bridges – how do you use them? Adjustable bridges are a wonderful things for those of us who aren't professional bass players. They are the ones that have the metal adjusters on each leg. These turn, allowing the bridge to raise or lower its overall height. In order to adjust the height (which impacts the action of the strings, and will likely need to be done in the spring and in the fall), make sure you first loosen those strings! Uf you try to adjust the bridge without loosening the strings, it's rather dangerous given the tension, plus quite difficult. Keep enough tension on the string to keep the bridge in place, which also allows you to see how high or low the strings are. Then tune up and you're good to go!
When do you change sizes? This is a bit different than for other instruments. Like all instruments, you want to be using a full size (3/4) by high school. Beyond that, an average middle school student (height-wise) should switch as soon as possible, given the student height allows the bass to be used properly.
How do you carry it? Assuming you do not have a bass transport wheel - while standing, aim the strings on the bass toward the center of the body, place your arm over the bass, grabbing the edge of the upper bout. Balancing the bass on your leg, you can walk with it.Go up stairs backwards (and carefully!) Transport it? In most cars, place it on it's back in the passenger seat with the back fully reclined. I've included pictures below.
Positions / Shifting
Positions (shifting) in order they are typically learned (in my experience), taught, and incorporated into literature:
First position – this is the “home” position, where the first finger (pointer) is 1 whole step above the open string. This is the same for all strings on all the instruments, and tends to be the position most method books begin with.
Violin and Viola – 3rd position (first finger replaces the 3rd finger)
Followed by 5th position, then 2nd, then 4th
Cello – 4th position (first finger on the E on the A string), half position, then 2nd
Bass – 3rd position (first finger on C on the G string), then half, then 2nd and 5½, etc…
Literature and Purchasing
Sharp keys work better in younger students. While in band the instruments are primarily pitched in flat fundamental keys, which is why we teach in flat keys first, string instruments are pitched in sharp keys (implied through all of the strings being at a natural pitch). Because of this, sharp keps are taught first in orchestra classes.
Rely on your musicianship! Expect your string players to have parallel musicianship to band students. Please note, however, that string instruments have a larger range, and faster rhythms occur sooner.
Level 3 and up – expect your first violins to need to be able to shift into 3rd position, cellos may need 4th.
Level 4 and up – first violins may need 5th at times, cellos will need 4th and 2nd, violas may need treble clef and 3rd position. Bass parts begin to require consistent use of higher positions on top 3 strings.
Level 5 and 6 – Expect 7th + position in violin parts (especially 1st), cello parts in tenor clef, violas will need a working knowledge of treble clef (a thorough knowledge is required for some pieces), you may need extensions for your bass players for some literature, etc…
Lesson Materials are a very specific choice that a department and/or teacher music make for themselves. Here is what I have found success with:
Popular methods include: Strictly Strings, Essential Elements (older version and 2000, which includes CD and DVD), All for Strings; there are a lot more, and all have different strengths and weaknesses. What does your school already use?
In Averill Park, we use E.E. 2000 for grades 5-8, and I use Strictly Strings 3 for all 9th grade students. Focus on shifting and various keys in a methodical manner. Also incorporates various bow techniques, and allows for mixed instrument groups.
10th through 12th students – Suzuki 3 (if no private lessons), 4 and 5, and chamber music. Cello students in 10th grade I use Position Pieces by Rick Mooney.
I highly recommend purchasing from your local vendor, whwnever it is possible. This will serve you well throughout your career, especially if there is service directly to your school.
If you must purchase online, here are some suggestions to start with. I have purchased items from each of these online stores:
Shar Music. All string and related items. Free shipping on string only orders.
Southwest Strings. All string and related items. Free shipping on string only orders.
Violins and violas: Helicore strings for my upper level students – nice blend throughout the ensemble, not too bright. Prelude strings for other students – less expensive, nice rounded tone, very responsive, and blend well.
Cellos: I prefer Prim strings for the C and G – they make even our cheap cellos sound good. Jargar D and A. I also like Larsen strings.
Bass: We have Helicores on our basses.
Built my own cello endpin rests from wood.
Kun-style shoulder rests are recommended to my students.
Manual of Orchestral Bowing – Charles Gigante - no longer in print
Manual of Orchestral Bowing – Elizabeth Green
Basic String Maintenance: A Teacher’s Guide – Harold Turbyfill (ASTA)
Stretching for Strings – Jack Weinberg, Merle Salus (ASTA)
Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra (Volumes 1 through 3) – various (GIA)
An Introduction to Double Bass Playing – Peter Tambroni (available from author)
Problem Solving (make sure you know the cause of the issue!)
*Please only attempt repairs you are comfortable with. In addition, be cautious regarding even attempting a simple repair on a student instrument.*
Watch out for:
Peg pushed into pegbox too far
Pull out peg (like a screw) as you loosen the string
Don’t force too much - you may break peg or pegbox
Peg has swollen
Clean peg and hole
Difficult to put on an old string
Chalk or rosin dust on peg
String end between peg and pegbox
Be careful not to split peg. Always drill at 90 degrees from previous hole. Start with small bit. Use angled shim to make peg flat.
Stuck Fine Tuners
Take screw out all the way, wipe it clean, put on a drop of oil (any will do – worse case, use valve oil) and replace screw.
Make sure you only remove screw, not the nut holding the fine-tuner in place
Tailpiece too close to body of instrument
Examine height of bridge - possibly replace. Send for repair.
Buzzing when playing
Action is too low
Use taller bridge (see below)
Careful soundpost doesn’t fall. Make sure strings are loose first.
Examine neck to body connection
Should only be repaired by professional
Should only be repaired by professional
Action too low
Bridge too low
Loosen string, place small piece of paper (folded usually) or cork under nut and/or bridge to raise the height
Loose chin rest
Metal clips loose
Make sure the corks are there and not slipping. Using a thick paper clip, take on end and insert it into the hole on the side of the two clips that go from top to bottom on the violin, and turn until snug. Repeat for opposite side.
There are tools sold for this purpose. I have found a thick paper-clip works just as well for much less. The paper clip will bend when chinrest is snug.
Bridge was leaning prior to collapse (common with multiple tuning and not checking it)
Loosen all strings, make sure soundpost is still up. Stand up bridge, make sure feel are centered with fingerboard and located with the markings in F holes. Slowly tighten strings gradually, making sure bridge doesn’t tilt.
If soundpost has collapsed, this must be replaced prior to replacing the bridge.
Feet of bridge not fitted to instrument top (adjustable feet work fine)
Sand feet to fit top of instrument
Bow slides across strings
Need to rosin bow
Temporary fix – clean hair with rubbing alcohol, let dry, re-rosin. This will drastically reduce the life of the hair
Reset soundpost if you have the tool, time, and patience.
Pierce soundpost with end of tool, feed through middle of F hole, set up via tension close to in place, use clover end to make adjustments
Bow too tight and won’t loosen
Student isn’t remembering to loosed bow when done playing
Remind student (politely) to loosen hair when done playing
Humidity changes have shrunk hair
Loosen hair and wait and hope
Screw is dirty, bent, or mis-thread
Remove screw, clean, retry.
Things you definitely need a repairperson to fix:
Collapsed bridge (if it happens a lot or consistently)