Music is a social art. As children make music together, they experience how their voices or instruments blend with those around them as well as how individual voices and instruments have different sounds or parts to contribute to the group. Learning to match another’s pitch, tone quality or bow stroke requires awareness of the other. Knowing when to play loud or soft, when one’s own part is more or less important, is analogous to many social interactions. The ability to listen is in and of itself an important social skill, one that is developed through making music with others.
While the string ensemble program formally begins in the third grade, the musical experiences the children have had since kindergarten serve to lay a strong foundation.
Beginning in first grade, the children receive formal instruction on the pentatonic flute with their class teacher as well as continuing to sing throughout the day. This continues in second grade. By the time students enter third grade, they have developed acute listening skills and are able to sing and play a large repertoire of seasonal and curriculum-related songs. Introducing the string curriculum is a joyful experience. In the fall, third graders begin learning rhythms and songs they will later play and pre-instrument skills through a variety of games and activities. Muscles are strengthened and, through an ongoing story, appreciation and enthusiasm are built. They hear repeated demonstrations of the violin, viola and cello by adults and older students so that they can make an informed, heartfelt decision about which instrument they want to learn. In November the children begin bringing their instruments, which the parents have rented or purchased. Things move slowly at first as the students are taught the correct way to hold and play their instruments. In January they begin to learn songs by ear and visual imitation, always trying to emphasize good playing position and rehearsal habits. The third-grade string ensemble experience is focused on the class setting. Home practice is requested, making a great difference in how well the children are able to participate in class.
Beginning in fourth grade, students are expected to take private lessons on their stringed instrument outside of school. This enables them to make individual progress at their own pace and to utilize their growing skill at school as they make music with their classmates. Fourth-grade ensemble focuses on learning to read music. Becoming familiar and comfortable with rhythmic and pitch notation is the primary goal. Learning to play by ear and visual imitation, as introduced in third grade, is further developed as well, this being an important and rewarding skill for musicians at all levels of ability.
Fifth- and sixth-grade students play in a combined ensemble, as do seventh and eighth graders. Upper grade students work further on music reading, now honing their sight-reading skills. Emphasis is placed on creating musical expression through dynamic contrasts, tempo changes and bow articulation. They work on a variety of music including folk, baroque, classical and modern compositions. The upper grades ensemble performs regularly at weekly assemblies and on special occasions such as festivals and the spring concert.