Orchestral Strings Tips or “Bag of Tricks”

Some brief tips that I have learned in teaching orchestral strings classes. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it is a start. Please add your own comments and I will add them to the list. I will continue to add things as I remember them, and this list is as much for my own recollection as it is for your education, so feel free to use whatever you wish!

Update, 7/10/14: I am adding some things to this list that I learned in clinics given by Portia Bradby and Raine Allen.

Basic tips:

Avoid tension: everything should be natural and relaxed, not tense.

The skills of left hand, right hand, and music reading are all SEPARATE skills and should be taught as such. There should be sufficient time developed on each of these concepts independently of the others before putting all three together.

Classroom Tips:

Keep them involved and engaged! Everyone needs to be doing something all the time, even when you are focused on another section. Students can pizz while the ones you are focused on can bow, etc. Another way of keeping them involved is helping them envision the story told by the music they are learning.

Tuning: Try to keep everyone involved as much as possible. Train them to hear pitches, sing them, and to recognize intervals aurally as well as visually. You can use a drone for tuning, or a piano, but I would suggest not having them look at a tuner that tells them if they are in tune. They need to use their ears. Students should also be bowing WHILE turning the fine tuners or tuning pegs so that they can hear the change in the sound. Do not have the student hold on to the body of the instrument when tuning, as it changes the intonation of the instrument.
You can also make it a game of de-tuning a string and having students tell whether the person is sharp or flat.

Notes: Some people argue about the validity of using tapes to locate notes on string instruments. I think they are good at the start, especially for the larger instruments, but it has been the general consensus that the tapes need to start coming off about 8th grade. I think I am going to make a ceremony at the final concert about taking tapes off.


Left Hand:

A key to playing the violin or viola is being able to hold the violin with only your chin. To practice this, have the students look over their left shoulder and then put their chin on their shoulder. Place a piece of paper between their shoulder and chin and tell them to hold it tightly so you will not be able to pull it out. Then do the same thing with the instrument (be careful!). You can also line up the end button with the center of the student’s neck, because many students hold the instrument too far forward. Students should use shoulder rests (or a kitchen sponge) at all times. The shoulder rest lays across the collar bone.

To keep the violin and viola players’ wrists straight I have been told by students to act as if you are eating a hot dog (albeit backwards) instead of serving a pizza. Wrist must be straight, not touching the neck of the violin. The thumb should be opposite the middle finger, not wrapped around the neck. It is also possible to have these students put the instrument on their lap and hold it as though playing a cello (round hands) and practice the finger positions that way first, before moving to the shoulder.

Cello and bass (to an extent) must have round hands, as though holding a glass of water or a can of coke. The thumb must not be wrapped around the neck and should be opposite the second finger, rather than the first.

Vibrato: Keep space between left hand and instrument as though you could put a pool cue through it. Some have suggested removing the thumb from the neck to avoid tension. Another note I had written was to imagine the thumb like a stool, but I am not sure I entirely understand what the clinician meant by that.  The thumb must move WITH the hand, no matter what instrument you are doing vibrato on. Practice moving the whole hand up and down with one finger on a string (as though going from 1st position to say, 5th) and gradually make the distance smaller. This is the vibrato motion. You do not want to have primarily wrist motions as you will have a mosquito sound and students need to develop a fuller vibrato.

Right Hand

Bow Hold: For violin and viola: take your thumb and place it at the first joint of the middle finger, this is essentially where the bow will be. (Make sure your thumb is bent at the normal angle, and not bending the joint backward.) If your bow has a little circle on the frog, the fourth finger can drape there. The pinky should be free but resting on the tip at the end of the bow, able to balance but not holding the bow. Some exercises for increasing bow familiarity include “stirring the pot”: holding the bow upright and going around in a circular motion as though stirring. You can also do “the spider” and have students use their fingers and thumb (though not pinky) to climb up the bow, without letting the bow just slide down or wobble. Then you have to climb back down.

Note that there are sometimes different methods of bow hold, there is Russian, German, and French. I believe the standard method is German, but I may be wrong.


Have students hold their right hand out in front of them, palm down, and balance a pink eraser (or something similar) on top. Then have then move their hands slowly up and down, flexing their wrists so the eraser remains balanced and does not fall off. Remember that the left hand will respond to the right; if the student’s right hand is confident, their left hand will be as well.

“Shadow-bowing”: shoulder instruments place their bow on the inside of their left elbow, beneath the instrument with the wood down (do not let the bow hair touch the skin!) and bow the same way as if they were playing. This is a way to practice the bowing mechanism without sound, and helps to keep the bow straight. Cellos do the same, but put the wood of the bow on their lap. I am not sure how the basses accomplish this.

Triangles and squares: Imagine that the proper position of the arms when holding the violin (with the bow placed center on the bridge) causes the arms to make a square. When you go to the frog you have a small triangle, and when you go to the tip you have a big triangle.

Straws! Cut down two bendy straws and fit them together (short ends) then insert them into the round portion of the “f holes” closer to the scroll of a violin or viola so that a student can place their bow on the strings with the bridge on one side of the bow hair, and the straws on the other. This can be very useful in showing students how to keep their bows straight.

A similar idea is to place the bow in a toilet paper roll (bow down) and hold the roll with the left hand near the bridge of the violin, then move the arm and bow as if you were playing.

About Lady Fair

Lady is a musician with a bachelor's degree in music education. She plays multiple instruments and has participated in numerous musical ensembles, giving her a wide variety of experiences and knowledge to use in her teaching career. Of her ensemble participation, she has fifteen years of band experience, nine years choral, and four years in orchestra. Éowyn's primary instrument is clarinet, with voice and piano being close secondary instruments. Throughout her musical education career she studied voice and clarinet simultaneously. In addition to clarinet, piano, and voice, she has also studied violin and oboe at the college level, and also plays recorder, tin whistle, and other instruments in the woodwind family. If you ask her, she will say, "I chose to major in music education because I have a desire to use my knowledge and experience in music to share its beauty and foster a love of music in the hearts of my students. I hope to encourage my students to try their hardest, feel like they have accomplished something, and give them a life long passion for music." Lady currently teaches private lessons on clarinet, sax, flute, oboe, piano, and voice, and recently gained a position teaching orchestra and chorus at a local middle school. She is also a member of the Once Upon a Dream woodwind ensembles.
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