What is a String Ensemble? – Building our Music Learning Communities

Right at the start, let me say that this post is not just about string ensembles. It is about how we create collaborative learning communities and how we learn together, students learning to make great music together, supporting each other in their learning and leadership teams, teachers and parents sharing in that learning.

Recently, I have been meeting with leadership teams in schools and speaking to our team of teachers about starting up string ensembles across our schools. I should explain that I lead a strings program across 14 Catholic Primary Schools (Click here to read the blog post “Captivate Strings – the How What & Why”) in Western Sydney, implemented in the classroom, in small group tuition and in school based and combined ensembles.

Also, in conversations with parents in our schools, as well as leadership teams, I have found that many people simply do not understand what a string ensemble is. This is not a criticism of parents or school principals – quite the opposite. This post is to support and inform. In our modern learning culture, I believe we are forgetting the reasons that we come together to learn about and make music.

I have said before in previous blog posts that people like myself of the ‘baby boomer’ generation were not necessarily given the opportunities of learning music and playing music in ensembles because society viewed ‘talent’ as: “You’ve either got it, or you haven’t” and music programs and performing arts programs were often based on a selective process on that basis.

A revelation occurred to me last week when we started up the string ensemble for the very first rehearsal in one of our Blacktown area schools. The teacher leading the rehearsal was a very capable and enthusiastic young graduate teacher. We had 29 students (Learning violin, cello and double bass in the small groups) turn up – some very nervous about whether or not they would succeed. My own revelation was that where students and parents do not understand that ensemble playing involves ‘working together’ towards a common goal and that experiencing success in a music ensemble can lead to a ‘love of learning’ and a celebration of learning across the curriculum, then we need to make the collaborative learning more explicit and guarantee success for every student.

First of all, we played this video of the New World Symphony 2nd Movement performed by the Dublin Symphony and conducted by Derek Gleeson and then we all played the open strings part to New World Symphony from our String Things Book 1  Then, some students said that they could already play the simple melody part, so when we played it again, those that felt confident, played the melody whilst everyone else played the open strings part.

Next lesson, we will consolidate the D major scale and move onto this simple arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon.  If you have a student that can play the simple piano part or guitar chords, then that is a way to be able to include them in the ensemble.

When parents came to drop their children off for this first rehearsal after school, they asked what time they should return. We had laid chairs out for parents and said to them: “Don’t come back later, come and have a seat and join us.” They were hesitant at first and when they pointed out that they had younger children, we invited those children to come and sit on the floor.

You might think that this was disruptive to the rehearsal but when we showed the video of the Dublin Symphony performing the New World Symphony and then we played our simple open string version and then added the simple melody, the parents really understood the aim of learning and playing music together and we celebrated the learning. This school community is very multicultural and consists of a number of new arrival families. The love and appreciation of learning is apparent and I believe every subsequent rehearsal in this school will show a learning community coming together in support and celebration of the learning.

By next term, we will progress these students onto Level 2 of our String Things Level 2 books for violin, viola, cello and double bass and then we will perform the higher level arrangement of Largo from the New World Symphony.

We also need to spell out across all of our schools what it is we are trying to achieve with the establishment of ensembles – not as an exclusive club for just those with ‘talent’ but a place where we can discover and grow our music potential in collaboration. To this end, I now include these points in the letters to parents and also in school newsletters:

  • What is a string ensemble? A string ensemble can range in size from 6 to 40 players (Sometimes more) and consists of violins, violas, cellos and double basses playing different parts of the one piece of music that works together to make a pleasing musical arrangement.
  • What sort of music does a string ensemble perform? A string ensemble mostly plays classical or baroque repertoire but can also play modern pieces such as film & TV music. These days, many pop and rock singers are actually accompanied by professional string ensembles.
  • Why play in a string ensemble? These days, you will hear many catch phrases and terms in education such as ‘The Flipped Classroom’ and ‘Collaborative Learning’. Learning to play music in an ensemble with other people involves collaborative and connected learning. Students feel a great sense of achievement by learning to play music as a part of an ensemble and there are many social and emotional benefits of making music together as well.
  • What music will we play? Initially, we will start with music that we have learned already in our group lessons with our specialist teachers. There will be a part for everyone to play and everyone will be able to learn their part. We will play Classical and Baroque Pieces from Book 1 such as The Pachelbel Canon and Autumn from the Four Seasons, but we will also move to more advanced pieces in Book 2 such as New World Symphony and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and also more modern pieces and music from film and TV such as Pirates of the Caribbean or The Lion King.
  • How much practise do I need to do? Because we integrate our learning with the classroom program and group lessons through the use of String Things Level 1 & Level 2, you will only need to do a small amount of additional practice for the string ensemble. Your teacher will help you learn your part but you need to practise your instrument for about 30 minutes a day to be able to progress each week both in the lesson and in the ensemble. Playing in an ensemble makes our practice at home much more meaningful – like training for a soccer team, we all need to learn our part for it to work and each week we want to improve to sound better and to support our ‘musical team’.
  • Where will we perform? Our school string ensemble can perform for important school events such as awards assemblies and liturgies. Outside of the school, we will be able to perform at combined Captivate events. Performing music for other people is very satisfying, but can also really bless others. We would like to also perform at community events and perhaps for concerts at Nursing Homes etc.

 Captivate Screen Shot

The Strings Things Teaching Program including original music,
musical arrangements and media are authored, composed,arranged
& produced by Phil Rooke and published by
Catholic Education, Diocese of Parramatta © 2009 All rights reserved

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About captivatestrings

Phil Rooke is a Teacher Educator, specializing in Music Education for the Catholic Education Office - Diocese of Parramatta, authoring & implementing teaching programs and leading music learning across a system of 78 schools in Western Sydney. "I am on a learning journey to find and invent better ways to motivate students and teachers in music making."
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2 Responses to What is a String Ensemble? – Building our Music Learning Communities

  1. mgeerligs says:

    St Canice’s are very keen to start as soon as possible. The excitement generated because we started stings this year will continue when we offer this program as well.

    Great work Phil

  2. Thanks Mark, I am already very excited about the music learning at St Canice’s. I believe that the ensemble at St Canice’s will be an example of inspirational music learning and an extension of the great learning already occuring. We can now honestly say that from ‘Katoomba to Kellyville’ we are making great music together.

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