Working with a beginner orchestra can be both a demanding and rewarding experience. We’ve heard from a bunch of teachers over the years that they have scored their first general primary/elementary music teaching job to find that the job description includes the remit: ‘the successful candidate must lead our beginner orchestra’.
So, excitedly, they have taken the job thinking, it’s all good, how hard can it be to run a beginner orchestra, only to realise that it’s a little bit of a bigger deal than they first thought!
Regardless of your training background in music education, working with an orchestra doesn’t have to be that difficult! There are so many overlaps between what you do in a general music classroom and what you can do with an orchestra.
So, here are 10 tried and tested ideas to ensure you work towards creating successful beginner orchestra rehearsals:
Make sure you have excellent routines in place by asking yourself these questions:
2. Have clear expectations for your beginner rehearsals.
Ensure that you have expectations for students such as the following example:
When another section is playing or the director is giving instructions, students should not be playing their instrument, but they can practice fingerings on their instrument. I remember one orchestra director saying that the only sound they should hear from ‘resting’ sections is the light tapping of fingers on finger boards or on the keys of wind instruments. No bows or embouchure should be engaged.
3. Choose beginner-specific repertoire.
Search for pieces specifically written for beginners. One of the hardest things to do is find music that is appropriate for a beginner ensemble. There is lots of music written for school orchestras, but not a lot for beginners. Beginner Orchestra is all about music for beginners, with lots of extra parts and a focus on differentiation for various levels of your beginners.
Check out our full orchestra (strings/winds/percussion) or string orchestra pieces!
4. Plan plan plan!
Just like you would prepare for your general music class thoroughly, ensure that you spend ample time preparing scores, organising folders and planning activities to ensure engagement is high during your orchestra sessions. Always have a variety of activities for each session including warm ups, listening activities, scales and pieces.
5. Connect with colleagues and local musicians.
Connecting with various groups on social media and in your local area can really help to provide you with amazing support! Ask for help, support and guidance from the people around you. Most of the time you will find that many people have the same questions as you - so why not ask?
6. Get individuals and/or sections to show off their progress to the orchestra.
Beginners love showing when they have learnt a new technique or section of music. If a supportive environment is created, students will be excited to play for each other and this can be inspiring for their peers! It will also help with the point below.
7. Be aware of stamina!
Beginner orchestra players will run out of steam much quicker than more experienced players. Make sure you plan breaks into your rehearsal. Stopping full ensemble rehearsals to work with small sections can give students a much needed rest (as long as your ‘resting’ musicians know the expectations while they are waiting - see Idea #2).
8. Arrange your music to suit your group.
There’s nothing better than arranging pieces to suit the instruments in your group. Buying pieces is a great start, but always look to build your arranging skills so that you can create parts to help your group succeed.
If you’d like some ideas for arranging pieces, check out this article!
9. Students must be having lessons on their instrument.
For those who are not orchestra specialists and/or are not running a beginner string/band program at school: depending on the setup at your school, the only prerequisite that we would recommend for students joining an open beginner orchestra is that they MUST be having individual lessons as well. That way, students are learning the necessary beginner skills with a tutor and then can focus on learning pieces and ensemble techniques with you. Our general suggestion is to ensure students have had at least one term of lessons before joining the orchestra.
At the time of writing (during COVID-19 imposed restrictions), it is VERY difficult to create opportunities for your orchestra to perform 🙁
But, if times are a little more ‘normal’, it is so so so important to ensure that your beginner orchestra has a number of performances throughout the year. Planned performances will give your beginner orchestra a goal to work towards and will help to ensure each student has a practice target. Even if the first performance is a ‘learning showcase’ of one simple piece and some exercises, that is a perfect starting point. Start your performance planning early with your leadership team to ensure that your beginners have a place in the calendar!
So, what have you got to lose! Get in there and make that orchestra awesome like this guy: