The string teaching world is a mess right now. There are a few bright lights out there, but in general, it’s a mess. Kids take up strings, are generally uninspired by the all-classical mentality, and quit. School systems see shrinking participation and drop string programs. Then local private teachers lose students. The whole community suffers because a few people within that community can’t see past the same old stuff they learned. Classical is great, but it’s one tiny genre of music. I hear from teachers all the time that kids “just want to be like Lindsey Stirling.” So? Is that a problem? You’re a teacher. They have something that inspires them. Latch on to that. Inspire kids to play strings. As the old saying goes, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. There is no shortage of amazing string music out there, from jazz to old-time to mutant free-chamber quartets. There’s no excuse for an all-classical repertoire.
Private teachers? Don’t get me started. Most are so classical in their background, they really can’t do anything other than teach classical technique, and classical repertoire. Classical repertoire is largely brilliant stuff, but it’s not all there is to teaching music. The techniques learned to play the classical repertoire are also great tools to have. There’s no denying that the bigger your toolbox, the more you can make. The more skilled you are with those tools, the better the stuff you make is. But if all you teach is classical, how does that change some kid’s life? All you have a kid who knows a few classical pieces and can use a nice vibrato, maybe some cool left-hand pizzicato. Maybe they made regionals. Unfortunately, they’ll probably quit, (something like 95% do) never to play again. So, outside of making an income as a teacher, what exactly did they achieve? How about “nothing”. That’s it, nothing.
Now, I get the fact that parents can be a real pain in the … Many think that another notch on the resume gets their kid into a better college. Teachers don’t have the courage to dispute this as it could mean loss of students and income. But as a parent, I think the single most important thing any parent wants for their kids is to not let fear rule their decisions or choices. Comedian and actor Jim Carrey, of all people, gave one of the greatest graduation speeches of all time when he said that all the decisions people make are based on love or fear. Love is obvious; you love to do this or that, love this person or that, would love to live here or there. Fear is more difficult, as it often goes under the name of being practical. He tells of his father, who he thought was one of the great standup comedians of all time, yet he chose to be safe, and became an accountant. After 11 years, his father was laid off and the family struggled. So, as Jim Carrey said, “If you can fail at something you don’t love, why not chose to fail at attempting something you do.”
As an example of what can be done is our fiddle club, the Skunk Misery Ramblers. Make no mistake, there are a lot of ways to skin this cat, so I hardly believe this to be the best or only way, it’s just one possible way. You could easily do the same with a New Orleans parade string band, or perhaps a jazz string band. The list of great jazz fiddlers is long. It’s best when the music as written was intended for strings, as opposed to taking some recent pop tune and transcribing it. The educational element of learning about all the different music intended for strings is important as well.
Back to the Skunks: it’s an all-ages, all-abilities music club, with just about any instrument that wants to play. We are more fiddle-centric, as the bulk of the repertoire is old-time music from up and down the east Coast. This also includes a lot of Irish, Scots, and French-Canadian derived music, as the U.S. was quite the musical melting pot. We learn tunes and create set lists that will get played on village greens, farm festivals, and parades. Honestly, we’re just looking for a good time. But, we do take the practice seriously, and we do want the kids to make sure they take their formal lessons seriously. Going back to the toolbox thing, cool tools matter. Old-time and Celtic music have their own set of tools as well, so we incorporate those.
So, what’s the problem?
We get a lot of resistance from “formal” string teachers to recommend our fiddle club to their students, and some even actively discourage it. Hmm. Let’s see, we have sight reading, we have ear training (which they don’t), we have improvisational training (they don’t), and we offer the chance to play with a group on a weekly basis (they don’t). We give the participants a chance to create their own harmonies and parts within a group setting, which enhances creativity, theory, and timing. We encourage the kids to play with forming chords either solo or with 2-3 others, seeing what works, then trying to figure out why. We have regular performances in front of real live audiences that aren’t their family. We also don’t charge anything (they DO do that, for sure). Workshops are a given.
Our most important lesson, though, is that we teach fearlessness. We don’t care if you make a mistake. The only wrong note is no note. We want them all to solo, almost to the point of forcing them to, but of course, we don’t go quite that far. We want them to experiment. Fail. Succeed. Fail again. Succeed even more. Get used to standing up in front of people and being brave. Learn to be a little nervous with a smile on your face. Take chances. It’s ok. These are the skills they’ll need to succeed in the world outside of school when thy get their first job, when they get married, when they have their first children, when they move up in their career.
In the end, it seems the teachers are more fearful than the students. Anyone in the music business knows full well that the percentage of musicians making a living and being able to actually own a home and raise a family is miniscule. Pointlessly small. So sure, go ahead and teach technique, as it’s the building block for being able to play all sorts of music. But if you’re not teaching the art of fearlessness, then stay the heck out of our way and let us do the job right.