The strings are the stars of the symphony orchestra. They give the orchestra its lush, rich sound and often carry the melody. The most common string instruments are the violin, viola, cello, double bass (sometimes called the contrabass), and harp. String instruments can be very challenging to learn, and often students start at a very young age, but it’s never too late to pick one up.
Example Lesson Progression
Beginning string lessons start with an introduction to the parts of the instrument. The violin, viola, cello, and double bass all consist of a body, a curved, hollow section made of wood where the sound resonates, and a neck, a straight piece that extends from the body with four strings stretched along it, attached to tuning pegs at the end. A student will need to learn proper stance or sitting position, and how to hold the instrument and bow. Next the student will practice drawing the bow across an open string to produce a note. An MTN teacher will check for correct bow hold, the right amount of pressure being applied, and that the bow is moving in a straight line and at an even speed. The student will then learn how to modify pitch by pressing the fingers of the left hand down on the string. The fingers are labeled one through four starting with the index fingers. A simple A-major scale up and down might be introduced at this point, as well as tunes that use primarily the A and E strings (the top two strings) and the first through the third fingers. As the student advances, more scales can be introduced, and they will begin using the fourth finger, then shifting the left hand from one position to another along the neck of the violin. The teacher will also introduce different kinds of bow strokes, such as legato (long and smooth) and staccato (short and sharp), and double stops (playing more than one string at a time). At first a student might learn by ear, but for most styles they will need to learn at least basic note reading. The teacher will introduce concepts in music theory as they go along.
The harp is played differently than the other string instruments. There is no bow; instead, the fingers alone pluck each note. Lessons begin with learning the parts of the harp and how to tune it, the correct sitting position for playing, how to hold the instrument and where to place the hands. Next, the student will learn the names of the notes and how to identify them on the harp. The harp is played with only the thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers and ring fingers, and these are numbered one through four starting with the thumb. Once the student is comfortable with plucking technique, they are ready to start learning chords and arpeggios. A student may learn by ear and by imitation at first, but they will need to learn to read music as well. From the beginning, the student will be learning basic melodies, which will grow more complex as they advance. Music theory, muffling techniques, and foot pedal technique will also be introduced as the student progresses.
Once the student has reached an advanced beginner or intermediate stage, the next steps will depend on the style of music they want to play. Bluegrass, country and folk music involve less formal technique, some improvisation, and distinctive bowing patterns. Jazz involves a lot of improvisation, and lessons will focus on understanding chords and how to improvise within a chord progression. Classical music also requires a fair amount of theory, and probably involves the most rigorous technique. No matter the style, an MTN teacher will encourage the student to listen, listen, and listen! Listening to great recordings and attending live performance enhances every part of learning an instrument.
String instruments can be very challenging at first, but time and practice will pay off. How quickly a student advances will depend on age, previous musical experience, and how much time they can dedicate to practicing. Very young children sometimes progress more slowly at first, because the coordination and fine motor skills required are still developing. For an older child or adult, it takes up to two or three years to reach an intermediate stage and several more to become advanced. The repertoire for string instruments is vast, and no matter how long one plays there is always something new to discover!