By Jan Farrar-Royce
We all know that choosing a balanced program for our ensembles includes searching for pieces that contrast in tempo, mode, styles, and eras. We also want to choose programs that are entertaining and include some musical and/or technical challenges. Finally, we want to find music that our musicians will be excited to play, and even practice, especially since we will spending so much time working on them!
Particularly for teaching students in the first three years, using pieces that everyone will recognize, notably ones with lyrics, can help students and their families enjoy their lesson and ensemble pieces more. These tunes can include well known songs for children, folk tunes, some popular songs, and some of the tunes used in the General Music classes. Building on this common repertoire encourages students to use their ear to help them become more skilled at playing more complex rhythms and better in tune.
Your students may even recommend songs that you wouldn’t have considered. If some of these pieces are a little beyond their current technical level, feeling like they have some input into what they play may further motivate students to be more invested in their practice, and encourage them to learn new notes and techniques.
You (or a parent) can help monitor internet research so that your students can earn extra credit by learning about “the story behind” the tunes they’re learning and playing, or about the composers who wrote the music. This kind of investigating can be especially satisfying with living composers who will sometimes write back to students who ask them questions through their website or on social media! Use this research to create program notes that can be included in the printed program or read to the audience by a student before playing a piece.
Using familiar tunes and empowering your students to choose some of your ensemble materials may help them to be more invested in their practice, leading to better intonation and rhythmic capability, and more willingness to learn new techniques so that they can play the tunes that they have personally chosen.
For over 35 years Janet Farrar-Royce has been a professional classical violist, fiddler and string teacher. She has coordinated, adjudicated and conducted several youth symphonies, festival orchestras, and was the founder of Wallingford Festival Strings, Wallingford Summer Arts Camp, and the Cheshire Community Music School. She also helped create the Meriden Symphony Scholarship Fund and CT-ASTA’s String Fling Camp.