Selecting an Elementary Musical for December

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral & Classroom

There are many factors to consider when selecting a December musical or program: music, script, overall length, specific casting requirements, ensemble size, and—probably the most important—subject matter. As we see it, you have five options: Winter, Santa, Multicultural, Traditional, and Sacred.

Winter

To avoid all mention of the holidays, choose a musical about winter. The choice is especially appropriate for the month of December, when everyone is hoping for the first big snow fall (and snow day). An excellent example is Bring On the Snow!, a variety show of songs and sketches for a “snowlarious” winter. Skits include a pair of wisecracking reindeer, a snowflake ballet class, and a directionally-challenged family of geese. Songs include “Blizzard on the Way” and “Hot Chocolate!”

Santa

A Santa musical will appeal to almost every member of your audience by highlighting the secular aspects of the holiday that we all loved as children—Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the rest of the gang at the North Pole. Crazy Christmas is a series of nine Santa-themed songs that can be programmed individually or staged as a complete program using the optional script. Songs include “Santa’s Job Is a Snap” and “The Reindeer Rock.”

Multicultural

A multicultural musical in an inclusive and educational option for December. This choice allows you to acknowledge the “reason for the season” in a broad way with an overview of all of the holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. The plot of December Nights, December Lights centers on a group of young students who learn about the ways that people celebrate with their families in different cultures. Songs include “Light the Candles (For Eight Nights)” and “La Fiesta de la Posada.”

Traditional

If you teach in a conventional school district in a predominantly Christian community, consider programming a traditional musical that tells the Christmas story with an educational (rather than worshipful) approach. Our Annual Christmas Pageant is a classic story about the frantic final rehearsal and last minute auditions before the annual Christmas pageant. The score is comprised of traditional carols, such as “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings.”

Sacred

For Christian schools and churches, a truly sacred musical is appropriate. Funny yet touching, Miracle at the Christmas Café tells the Christmas story from the perspective of Polly Porkchop at the Christmas Café in Bethlehem. Songs include “Everlasting Light” and “The Hope of All the World.”

As you make your decision, remember that one of the reasons for producing a December musical is the feeling it will bring your students and audience members. What type of musical will leave a smile on their faces as they walk out into the snowy night after your performance? You know your own school or church community. Choose accordingly!

Building Community Support During the Holidays

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of
School Choral and Classroom Publications

Your room is organized, classes have started, and now you’re looking ahead to the first concert of the school year. For most teachers, that concert will be in December, a month of holidays, stress, performances, stress, and PR opportunities! Over the course of the month, you will encounter administrators, other teachers, new students, parents, and community members. Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase your program! Here are a few suggestions for building school and community support during the upcoming holiday season:

  • Invite a community ensemble to participate in your December concert. They could perform in the lobby beforehand, between school groups while the stage set-up is being adjusted, or even in a joint performance with your students.
  • Ask audience members to join in a sing-along at the end of your concert (a Christmas carol, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, or similar well-known work).
  • Visit a local nursing home to sing carols or perform selections from your upcoming concert.
  • Invite members of the community to speak to your choirs and classes about the holiday traditions of their culture and/or religion.
  • Plan an “impromptu” flash mob performance by your high school jazz, a cappella, or show choir in the hallway or cafeteria.
  • Organize a weekend caroling event (stay at a set location, such as a square or park, or go door-to-door if you’re feeling ambitious). Choose familiar carols in simple arrangements to avoid extra preparation time.
  • Take a few select students to perform at the local elementary school. Many elementary schools have a “morning program”—the perfect opportunity for a short performance of one or two holiday songs.
  • Invite senior citizens to attend your final dress rehearsal for free. Carry the event one step further by following the performance with coffee and cookies in the cafeteria.
  • Stop by a meeting of the booster club, PTO, or school board to wish the members a happy holiday season in song with your small ensemble.
  • Create a concert display or handout that explains the many ways in which a student can be involved in your school music program. Oftentimes, students are unaware of the opportunities available to inexperienced musicians. And even if they are in the know, they may fail to communicate those options to their parents.
  • Ask a student to write and submit an article to local newspapers and blogs about the upcoming December performances at your school.

Have another idea? Share it below in the comments section!

Planning a Concert with Your Audience in Mind

By Jan Farrar-Royce

Jan Farrar-RoyceWhen my ensembles play at a concert, I want to hear a band parent say they enjoyed listening to the orchestra’s performance! I think that when we are choosing pieces for our presentations, we should consider not only the educational aspect of the program but the entertaining aspect as well.

Familiar pieces, especially those with lyrics, allow every listener to become invested in the performance. If you decide on a familiar piece for a concert, you might even include the lyrics on an insert in the printed program. Maybe members of your audience will want you to play that piece a second time so that they can sing along!

You can also monitor your students’ research of pieces and composers to create program notes for the printed program or, better still, have different students speak to the audience before each piece. Talking to the audience puts a friendly and accessible face on your performance, and you may discover that one of the players from the back of a section may be a wonderful researcher and/or speaker!

Another way to encourage your audience members to be active listeners is to tell them an interesting musical or historical fact about each piece or something the musicians learned by playing this piece. John Feierabend of The Hartt School calls this approach to performing an “informance.” Pointing out something in the music that the audience might listen for can be a lot of fun. Plus, it is good education for everyone, great PR for your string program, and a more fun approach to performing!

Piece of the Week: A Very Respectable Hobbit

Jack Bullock

Jack Bullock

Blog provided by:
www.smartmusic.com/blog

From Academy Award winner Howard Shore’s score for the 2012 movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this piece will delight students and audiences alike. The first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey introduces audiences to the characters and themes of the fantastical world of Middle Earth, a setting already familiar from the beloved Lord of the Rings franchise. This arrangement features the Hobbit’s main theme, a folk-like tune that depicts the pastoral life of Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits of the Shire, and hints at the adventures and conflicts to come. This easy and fun piece is available in both a concert band and string orchestra arrangement.

Audio Sample:

Audio provided by Alfred Music.

Composer Biography:

Howard Shore is among today’s most respected, honored, and active composers and music conductors. His work with Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as his most towering achievement to date, earning him three Academy Awards. He has also been honored with four Grammy and three Golden Globe awards. Shore was one of the original creators of Saturday Night Live. He served as the music director on the show from 1975 to 1980. At the same time, he began collaborating with David Cronenberg and has scored 14 of the director’s films, including 2012’s Cosmopolis, The Fly, Crash, and Naked Lunch. His original scores to A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promisesand Dead Ringers were each honoured with a Genie Award and Cosmopolis was awarded for score and song “Long to Live” with Canadian Screen Awards. Shore continues to distinguish himself with a wide range of projects, from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Departed, The Aviator and Gangs of New York to Ed Wood, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Shore’s music has been performed in concerts throughout the world. In 2003, Shore conducted the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings Symphony in Wellington. Since then, the Symphony and The Lord of the Rings – Live to Projection concerts have had over 285 performances by the world’s most prestigious orchestras.

In 2008, Howard Shore’s opera The Fly premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and at Los Angeles Opera. Other recent works include the piano concerto Ruin and Memory for Lang Lang premiered with the China Philharmonic Orchestra on October 11, 2010, the cello concerto Mythic Gardens for Sophie Shao premiered with the American Symphony Orchestra on April 27, 2012 and Fanfare for the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia. He is currently working on his second opera.

Shore received the Career Achievement for Music Composition Award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, New York Chapter’s Recording Academy Honors, ASCAP’s Henry Mancini Award, the Frederick Loewe Award and the Max Steiner Award from the city of Vienna. He holds honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and York University, he is an Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la France and the recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in Canada.

Howard Shore’s biography courtesy of http://www.howardshore.com/biography/

Arranger Biography:

Jack Bullock holds undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in the field of Music Education. As a performer, he studied trumpet with Harry Glantz, James Ode and Craig McHenry, and performed with the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra and the Miami Opera Company. He also performed statewide with New York show and territory bands, and nationally with traveling dance bands. A prolific composer and arranger, Dr. Bullock has written more than 600 publications for a diverse group of ensembles, including concert band, orchestra, jazz ensemble and marching band. He is the co-author of the Belwin 21st Century Band Method, and was a contributing arranger for the recordings of Music Expressions, the innovative school music curriculum published by Alfred Music.

Getting Started With SmartMusic and Sound Innovations for Guitar

Bill_PurseBy Bill Purse

Author / Chair, Guitar and Music Technology, Duquesne University

Introduction

SmartMusic provides a solid guide for the beginning guitarist to personalize computer-assisted guitar instruction with practical materials they will use for a lifetime.  All of the exercises, examples, and approaches in Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations for Guitar provide real world music skills for guitarists no matter their level. Let me share some thoughts on getting started as a guitarist with SmartMusic and tips for maximizing the educational impact it can provide. After this brief tutorial, you should be well on your way to enjoying and playing all of the music in Sound Innovations for Guitar.

Download

Download the program from the MakeMusic site following this web address: http://www.smartmusic.com/support/downloads/.

Once you download the program, you will be guided through the installation process for your computer or for the recently released iPad version.

One of the great features of SmartMusic is its interactivity and assessment of your Sound Innovations for Guitar lesson performances.  You will attach a clip-on microphone to your collar to input a take, in which the computer records and accesses your performance.  Keep in mind that you can practice and review multiple lesson takes and keep your best take.

Input

My guitar input recommendation is to use either an acoustic guitar with a built-in pickup or an electric guitar and USB to instrument cable. Note: these will require a USB port on your PC or Mac. Know that they are not expensive and work quite well.  Examples: Ion IUB3 USB Guitar Cable for $29.92 | ClearClick Guitar to USB Cable $9.95. Or one of the new electric guitars that have USB output. Examples: USB Fender Squire Strat | Behringer iAXE393 USB Guitar | Epiphone Ultra-339Guitar with USB Output.

If you only have an acoustic guitar, a mic is required. SmartMusic offers an instrumental mic with a 10-foot cable for $29.95.

Once you select the proper input for SmartMusic as prompted by the application, select the appropriate input, such as the mic or USB Audio Device. Then close this window with the Close button at the bottom of the screen.

SmartMusic Input Image

Launching SmartMusic   

Smartmusic iconWhen you launch SmartMusic, after registering as a student, you can go to My Library > Method Books > Sound Innovations for Guitar. When you select this option, you will see all of the available lessons and tutorials available to guide you through your guitar journey.

Each part for the Sound Innovations for Guitar studies/songs has an individual selection.  You will need to play the selected Guitar part (Gtr. 1, Gtr. 2 or Gtr. 3). SmartMusic will perform any the other parts. Be careful that you play the appropriate selected Guitar Part or you will not get an accurate assessment.

My Library

Tuner

Once you areTuner Button getting a good signal on the Adjust Input Level meter, you will be ready to tune your instrument. Select the Tuner button  in the upper right hand corner of the screen, make sure it is set to Guitar in the upper left hand corner, and tune away with SmartMusic’s sophisticated tuner. Click the Done button when finished to launch into the SI Guitar Method.

View

Use the View menu at the top of the screen to go into full screen, or press command f. If the music is smaller than you wish, you can simply use the power keys command + or command – to modify the size of the music to one you can easily read.

SmartMusic Controls

SmartMusic Window

  • The Start Take button gives you a count off and then allows you to play the example or song. The green bar will travel across the music to show you where you should play the notes or chords.
  • The Tempo numerical field and blue tempo slider directly below it allow you to set the speed of the playback. Highlight the tempo field; then simply type in the desired tempo or use the slider to change the playback’s tempo. Tempo alterations will change the speed of the playback but not the pitch. You can select a tempo at which you can play the music accurately and then slowly increase the tempo as your guitar playing improves.
  • The Pause button stops SmartMusic’s playback when you press it, freezing the music until you hit the space bar. This resumes playback from where the music was paused.
  • All of the square boxes in SmartMusic’s main menu have a yellow light to the left of the button illustrating that its option is on. These boxes are black when the option is turned off.
  • The location fields allow you to select where the music will start after a count off. The house icon can be set to move the cursor to the beginning or end of the example. The following numericals select the start and stop points in bars and beats within the score.  The loop button keeps the score playing over and over until the stop take button is selected.

Listen/MP3

SmartMusic lets you listen to your performance and even save it as an MP3 file to share with your teacher or friends. You can select the takes button to see all of the takes you have created for each exercise or song. In addition, the keep button inside and to the right of this pull-down menu gives you the option of keeping the takes you want to preserve.

Conclusion

I am an enthusiastic witness to SmartMusic’s brilliant realization of Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations for Guitar method.  It is a wonderful educational tool where you will experience an interactive guitar course that uses our music, recordings, and concepts.  Aaron Stang and I want to encourage you to enjoy working with this innovative software, whether at home or in the classroom.

SmartMusic is a wonderful way to grow at your own pace as a guitarist, and it provides many options for you to develop solid musicianship skills. Good luck with SmartMusic, and have fun exploring many of the other works and improvisational opportunities SmartMusic provides.

Holiday Celebrations for All: Creating a Balanced Concert Program

Sally K. AlbrechtBy Sally K. Albrecht
Composer, Conductor, Clinician

With holiday concerts just around the corner, many choral directors just like you are making their final selections. As you review your choices, make sure you have covered many different styles, emotions, and types of celebrations. Know who makes up your audience and tailor your selections accordingly.

Do you travel with your choirs or small ensembles to sing at local retirement homes or hospitals? If so, consider including a familiar holiday song, carol, and/or sing-along. Try to alternate: a familiar with an original, a Christmas carol with a winter song, a spiritual with a novelty or multicultural number, etc.

Consider planning “sets” of music lasting around 15-20 minutes each, comprised of five to six contrasting chorals in a variety of styles and keys. Here are a few suggestions:

SATB
41815 – Sing We Now of Christmas – French Carol/arr. Mark Hayes
41670 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41721 – Winter Sings Her Song – David Waggoner
41892 – The Little Drummer Boy – arr. Philip Kern (a cappella)
41689 – A Wreath of Carols – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41665 – The Little Cradle Rocked – Spiritual/arr. Jay Althouse

3-PART MIXED/SAB
41677 – Tell Me, Tell Me! (A Christmas Spiritual) – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41639 – Carol of the Snow – Ukrainian Folk Song/arr. Ruth Morris Gray
41684 – Merry Christmas Madrigal – Mary Ryan, Donald Moore (a cappella)
41686 – A Hanukkah Wish (with “Maoz Tzur”) – Andy Beck
40056 – Ding Dong! Merrily on High – French Carol/arr. Gary E. Parks
41740 – Jolly Old Saint Nick! – Traditional Carol/arr. Alan Billingsley

2-PART
41778 – Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! – Mary Donnelly, George L. O. Strid
41579 – Hear the Bells – Dave Perry, Jean Perry
41662 – Angels in the Snow – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41768 – Cartoon Christmas – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41736 – A Still, Silent Night – Austrian Carols/arr. Sally K. Albrecht
41660 – Shoulda Been a North Pole Elf – Andy Beck, Brian Fisher

WOMEN
40060 – Star Carol – Cathryn Parks, Gary Parks
41857 – Christmas Star (from Home Alone 2) – arr. Tom Fettke, Thomas Grassi
41672 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41775 – Sending You a Little Christmas – arr. Jay Althouse
41764 – Carols from the British Isles – Medley/arr. Douglas E. Wagner
41658 – Light a Candle – Andy Beck (opt. VideoTrax)

MEN
41797 – At Christmas Time – Clara B. Heath, Greg Gilpin
39875 – A Doo-Wop Christmas (With You) – Kirby Shaw (a cappella)
39802 – Carol of the Star – Donald Moore
41783 – Grown-Up Christmas List – arr. Mark Hayes
41647 – Bethlehem Spiritual – Donald Moore (a cappella)
41664 – Jingle Bells (Sort Of) – James Pierpont/arr. Jay Althouse

(Please note that many of these selections are available in multiple voicings.)

Hand out mittens and scarves or even small strings of jingle bells to your audience members to wear or use on a sing-along. If you need to extend your performance time, ask several students to prepare solo/duets or feature small ensembles on well-known holiday favorites. I’ve made use of Joy! A Carol Collection (arr. Jay Althouse) at several holiday events. It includes bright and fresh a cappella arrangements of 20 different carols. Singing along certainly gets everyone in the holiday spirit!

Piano Teaching Tips from Carol Matz

Carol MatzAs piano teachers, we’re always looking for ways to keep today’s piano students engaged and interested. It seems that today’s piano students are busier than ever—not only with increasing scholastic demands, sports, and other extracurricular activities—but now we find ourselves competing for our students’ time and attention against so many new distractions, such as the internet, text messaging, video games, etc!  One of the most important things we can do as teachers is to be sure that our students keep studying music, and that they stay interested in their piano studies.

Famous & Fun Deluxe Collection, Book 3

Famous & Fun Deluxe Collection, Book 3

My Famous & Fun Deluxe Collections helps us teachers do just that, by providing arrangements of pieces that students know, love, and are motivated to practice. Each book in this series contains a mixture of well-loved selections drawn from Famous & Fun: Pop, Classics, Favorites, Rock, and Duets. When creating the Famous & Fun books, my main goal was to use a very careful leveling of concepts within each book, so that we teachers can successfully and easily use the materials. Below is a handy leveling chart that outlines the concepts within each of the five levels of the series (Early Elementary through Intermediate):

Famous 7 Fun Leveling Chart

Whether I’m teaching a pop arrangement, classical piece, or duet, I have an activity that I like to use with my students to familiarize them with their new piece. I create a short “Composition Outline” that students can use to explore different concepts in the piece they’re learning. This outline can be a list of activities such as: mapping-out the form of the piece, putting a checkmark over measures with recurring rhythms, circling dynamic changes, identifying intervals and triads, etc. Doing this activity will help “demystify” any new piece before the student even plays the first note. This will lead to better sight-reading and more efficient practice. Click the image below to see how I might ask a student to mark-up the piece “Spring (from the Four Seasons).” (From Famous & Fun Deluxe Collection, Book 3)

Spring

Below are several sample pages from the Famous & Fun Deluxe Collections, Books 1–5. As you can see, there is a fun mix of pop, classics, favorites, and rock, which I hope both you and your students enjoy!

Sincerely,
Carol Matz
Arranger, Composer, Editor—Alfred Music

“Over the Rainbow”
Book 1, Page 8

"America the Beautiful" Book 2, Page 30

“America the Beautiful”
Book 2, Page 30

"Blue Moon" Book 3, Page 36

“Blue Moon”
Book 3, Page 36

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music)"  Book 4, Page 20

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music)”
Book 4, Page 20

"Beauty & the Beast" Book 5, Page 8

“Beauty & the Beast”
Book 5, Page 8

 

You Want Me to Teach What? Transitioning to the Elementary Music Classroom

By Mari Schay and Michael TolonSchay

You’re a secondary instrumental or choral specialist, newly assigned to the general music classroom. What now? First, take a breath, calm down, and then read this book. Two experienced teachers who conquered this challenge offer practical advice with great care and wit. Chapters of the book address attitude, school environment, classroom management, curriculum and assessment, and student performance. Read on for an excerpt from the opening chapter.

Director/Conductor vs. Teacher

Many middle and high school music educators refer to themselves as “director” or “conductor” as in, “I’m a high school band director” or “I am a middle school choral conductor.” When you move to elementary school, though, you become a teacher. The key difference between a director/conductor and a teacher is that a director is refining existing skills and working toward beautiful performances, while a teacher is developing new skills so a director can eventually take over.

Elementary music is not just pre-band, pre-orchestra, or pre-choir training. Your primary job is to instill a love of music, as well as to develop musical skills, in kids who may walk in the door with no musical experience whatsoever. Singing a simple song may be a completely new experience. Keeping a steady beat may take time. This can feel overwhelmingly slow to a teacher used to conducting nuanced ensemble literature; however, if you plan well and deliver lessons with joy and enthusiasm, the kids will love music … and, as their music teacher, you will begin to see the necessity of a great teacher in the early years.

The importance of professional development cannot be stressed enough. I will admit that as a high school band director, I did not seek out colleagues or attend my state music conference often enough. I learned the hard way that by skipping professional development opportunities, my effectiveness as a teacher was lessened. Not only did my skills suffer, my standing with my fellow directors was hurt. My sense of isolation was of my own doing.

The ability to attend a conference, find professional development opportunities, or simply sit and share with another colleague will become vitally important in helping you gain new skills, sharpen old ones, and meet fellow music teachers. Ah! Yes, young grasshopper, you are not alone in the universe. Inspiration will come in many, many forms.

Helping Drum Teachers Teach Special Needs Students

Pat Gesualdo

Pat Gesualdo

As drum teachers, we all know that teaching learning disabled students can be quite a challenge, even for the most experienced teachers. My pioneering techniques of drum therapy are used on a global basis to help the special needs population. All teachers, especially drum teachers, will have a special needs student at some point in time. Some teachers push these students aside, while others try to face the challenge of helping these students straight on.

Teaching special needs students is not for everyone, which I totally understand. It is extremely difficult.

Some teachers might think that their student is “just being difficult,” as opposed to understanding that the student really has a problem. Disabilities can appear in many ways, and can affect the student’s attitude, coordination, and retention. If you have a student with one, or many issues, you need to know that there are certain ways to deal with each specific disability. Drum therapists are highly skilled, and trained to deal with all of these issues.

Special needs students can be very high functioning, or extremely low functioning, depending upon the severity of the disability. Sometimes it is very difficult to help these students, as they can have several kinds of disabilities at the same time. It takes time to work with students who have numerous disabilities, because as the drum therapy intervention starts to help fight one disability, there is another disability which is right behind the first one, then possibly one or more behind that. It can take an extended amount of time to help students with numerous disabilities.

Drum instructors should use specific lesson plans and outlines in their drum lessons. Although the mainstream drum instruction, and drum therapy intervention outlines are completely different, they are still related in some way, because they help students reach even the most basic drumming and cognitive milestones at the same time.

Drum instructors and the drum therapists should always remember the following when teaching special needs students:

  1. Extreme patience at all times.
  2. Start all lessons slowly.
  3. Increase the speed of exercises, rhythms, and patterns slowly.
  4. Repeat exercises and patterns slowly and often, at the end of each lesson.
  5. Make sure the student knows the material before they leave the lesson.

These strategies will definitely assist you in helping your special needs students to develop physical and cognitive functioning.

About The Author:

Celebrated drum virtuoso Pat Gesualdo made drumming, medical, and education history with his pioneering techniques of Drum Therapy, and his non-profit organization D.A.D. (Drums and Disabilities). Senators and Congressman throughout the United States call on Gesualdo to help them write disability legislation. Gesualdo’s most recent Legislation was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie. Gesualdo was invited to the White House to meet the President, in an effort to help wounded troops with his D.A.D. program. The U.S. Department of State brought him to the West Bank region of Israel, to help disabled Israeli and Palestinian children with the D.A.D. Program.

Gesualdo’s solo project Iceland, recently debuted #9 on the U.S. Radio charts, and features Iconic rock guitarist Michael Romeo of SymphonyX, eminent guitarist Metal Mike Chlasciak, from Rob Halford’s band Halford, among others.

Various celebrities, sports stars, community leaders, and law enforcement agencies join with him to help special needs children and adults fight disabilities throughout the world. He is the author of the groundbreaking drum instruction book Drum Therapy (Alfred Music). Gesualdo is a contributing writer to Modern Drummer Magazine, and is an artist/clinician for Pro-Mark Drumsticks, Evans Drumheads, ProLogix Percussion, and Zildjian Cymbals.

Official Pat Gesualdo websites:
www.patgesualdo.com
www.dadprogram.org
www.icelandnj.com
www.facebook.com/patgesualdo
www.promark.com
www.zildjian.com
www.prologix.com
www.moderndrummer.com
www.alfred.com

Groovin’ with Your Strings Class: Thoughts on Using the Mandolin as a Teaching Tool

bradphillipsphotoBy Brad Phillips

Artistic Director of The Saline Fiddlers
Music Producer for Jeff Daniels

One fine day in the mid ’90s, I was a young fiddle nerd in the 6th grade orchestra in Saline, MI when my director Bob Phillips came to class with a peculiar-looking instrument case. It was the size of a violin case, but was shaped like a distorted mini-banjo. As he began our daily tuning routine, he opened the case and revealed an instrument I had never seen before. It was a tiny, fancy, eight-stringed instrument with a black and white paint job that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.

Mr. Phillips (no relation) proceeded to lead us through class that day playing this mysterious little instrument. Without changing instrument, he could seamlessly move back and forth from picking out melodic lines and accompanying us as we played our Twinkle variations and fiddles tunes like “Cripple Creek” and “Old Joe Clark.” I was completely captivated by the sound, energy, and versatility of what this small wonder was capable of. At the end of class, I fought my way through the chaos of kids ferociously packing up their things to find out more about this new fixation of mine.

“It’s a mandolin,” said Mr. P. “It is tuned the same way as your fiddle!” Armed with this new knowledge, I was allowed to borrow a mandolin from Mr. Phillips that night, and I never looked back.

All these years later, the double-stringed (GG-DD-AA-EE) mandolin is an integral part of my musical life. I am a violinist first and foremost, but the mandolin is an extremely close 2nd, as I have maintained my involvement with it since that day in 1996. Today, I use the mandolin both as a performer and as a music educator. In terms of the mandolin as a tool for string education, it serves a number of helpful purposes. I have found that the characteristics of the mandolin add up to a combination violin-piano-metronome, all in one. Having all of these elements in one instrument saves time switching between instruments and helps keep the flow going.

In addition to being much more compact than a piano or a guitar, the mandolin is fun to play and is fascinating to young kids. I have found the mandolin to be useful in both large ensemble rehearsals and private lesson settings. The sound of the mandolin is bright and percussive. This percussive nature makes for a unique metronome of sorts that helps drive any group of young players. The contrasting sound of the pick shooting across the high-tension strings, (or the characteristic “chop”) has a way of capturing the attention of students and is heard clearly above the soft edges of a string ensemble. This “chop” combined with chords provides an energetic, driving accompaniment. In my experience leading the Saline Fiddlers and other groups like them, the mandolin often saves the day in a frustrating rehearsal when the robotic metronome just won’t do the job. It is as if the mandolin creates the perception of jamming or playing in a band.

Learning to play basic mandolin is fairly easy to do, especially if you already play an instrument tuned in fifths. All the notes are where you would expect, and violin fingerings tend to transfer in most cases. Learning half a dozen chords would be a good first step. Once you’ve learned your basic chords, consider challenging yourself to learning the diatonic chords in a few common keys. The more you play, the more your calluses will develop to handle the double steel strings. (Fair warning: Violin calluses aren’t enough. It does hurt at first. You’ll need to develop your thicker skin.)

In my experience, aside from the throbbing fingertips, the most challenging part of doubling on the mandolin from a strictly bowed-strings background is learning to control the pick. Not unlike learning to use a bow, creating a rich, full tone with a pick is a challenge at first. You’ll want to use a thicker pick (around 1 to 2 mm) with rounded edges. Anything too thin or pointy is just noisy. When holding the pick, being loose is key. Fit the pick between your thumb and first knuckle on your index finger in the most natural way possible. Apply only enough pressure to the pick to keep it from falling out of your hand. Anything more is a waste of energy and will hinder technical development with the right hand should you decide to try and further your skills past the basics. Tension is the enemy! Stay loose.

I highly recommend taking up the mandolin and using it as a tool for teaching music. Its unique characteristics can enrich the environment of any strings classroom. It is tremendously useful rhythmically and as a way of implementing harmonic support while captivating your students’ interest. It truly is like a musical multi-tool, combining aspects of the violin, piano, and metronome all in one small, snazzy little instrument. And who knows…maybe you’ll inspire a career mandolin player the first day you take it to class!

Great mandolin players to check out: Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Adam Steffey, David Grisman, and Joshua Pinkham.

For more information or Skype Lessons, contact Brad Phillips at: bradphillipsmusic@gmail.com.