Violin Pedagogy: How Did They Learn?

School Instrumental Music in the United States

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

Public interest in instrumental music was heightened through touring European orchestras, and the aforementioned conservatory classes, commercial violin schools and traveling itinerant music teachers. School music teachers began to form school orchestras in communities such as Wichita, Kansas (1896); Richmond, Indiana (1889); Hartford, Connecticut (1899); and Los Angeles (1904). Edward Birge, the author of History of Public School Music in the United States described these early orchestras:

These early organizations were all extraneous activities, with no settled place in the school program, and were forced to hold their rehearsals after school hours. Their membership was made up of pupils of private teachers. Instrumentation at best was limited to that of the ordinary theatre orchestra, namely, first and second violins, an occasional bass and cello, cornets, trombones, clarinets, flutes, drums and piano. . . .The purpose of the supervisors who organized these first orchestras did not include teaching instrumental technique, nor even less of starting an orchestra of beginners. They chose boys and girls who already possessed creditable playing ability, and welded them into as perfect an ensemble as the varying capacities of the players permitted.[72]

Albert Wassell, music educator and author of a series of articles on the history of class string instruction in America, noted that music students in these early public school orchestras generally had private instruction. Wassell stated:

It must here be emphasized that instruction in these instrumental beginnings was almost entirely private, even though some of it came from the school music director himself. Some instrumental instruction was offered by part time teachers; this gradually paved the was for the full time teacher. It is this background of the early days of vocal and instrumental music that led to what may be called in a mild sense-mass production-or as it was called, class instrumental instruction. Class instrumental instruction was to be the method for the development of successful orchestras and bands of larger proportions. [73]

Numerous music education historians regard the British Maidstone Movement as a significant event in the history of school instrumental music in the United States.[74]

American music educators were made aware of the Maidstone Movement and MSOA classes through the conference reports of individuals who had observed MSOA classes in person such as Charles Farnsworth (1908), Albert G. Mitchell (1920), Paul Stoeving (1914) and Percy Scholes (1914). One individual in particular was influential in disseminating the MSOA concept of group string classes: Albert G. Mitchell, one of the pioneers in American public school instrumental classes. Mitchell spent a year in England studying the methodology used by MSOA classes, and upon his return, patterned his 1911 Boston public school violin classes directly after MSOA classes. Mitchell's violin classes were soon included in the regular school curriculum, and by 1920, Mitchell expanded the music program to include group instructional classes for the cornet, trombone, clarinet, drum and flute.[75]

Wassell described the status of class instrumental instruction in the United States prior to Mitchell's efforts:

School orchestras and bands had been in existence in scattered communities before this time, but no formal classes in the teaching of instruments in groups seem to have existed. Dr. Albert Mitchell's violin classes . . . .appear to be the beginnings of class instrumental teaching. His classes attracted wide attention and gave impetus to similar classes in many parts of the country. Before long there were classes on other instruments as well.[77]

Wassell described how other American music teachers became aware of Mitchell's efforts:

Dr. Mitchell's classes in Boston were visited by many interested teachers from all over the country. After retirement from the Boston schools he took a position at the New York University School of Education during the summers of the 20s teaching his class methods.Because he made the first serious study of class instrumental teaching, because he taught such classes successfully here with children and adults alike, because he wrote a successful method book for the American child and finally because of his inventions to improve the child's studying-because of all of these, he should today be acknowledged as the "Father of Class Instrumental Teaching in America.[78]

Although the Maidstone Movement may have served as a catalyst for the widespread emergence of group instrumental classes in public schools in the United States, it is impossible to definitively ascertain the extent of this influence. Many music educators experimented with a variety of instructional methods to meet the needs of their students. For example, a group discussion at the 1917 MSNC convention illustrated both the wide variety of instructional methods used by music teachers present from Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Indiana, and California, as well as indicated their eagerness to pool their experiences in order to create their own individualized group instrumental instructional programs.[79] Many esteemed instrumental class programs emerged during this time period, and one researcher documented the publication of approximately 63 string class methods between 1912-1929.[80]

The concept of string classes as a successful introduction to school instrumental music became immensely popular, and by 1923, Will Earhart, another early proponent of instrumental class teaching, said violin classes had spread so rapidly that participation outran statistical inquiry. Earhart reported that towns with a population of ten to twenty thousand people frequently had 100-200 pupils receiving violin class instruction, and that larger communities had even more such as one community with 3,100 students enrolled in violin classes.[81] Wassell commented on the impact instrumental classes had upon the development of school orchestras:

The immediate success of class instruction was due to its low cost to the pupil. .Some 35,000 orchestras were reported in existence in the public schools in 1930, largely the result of instrumental classes.[82]

The varied and innovative ways music educators conducted their instrumental classes ranged from the single instrument class approach, illustrated by such methods Mitchell's The Class Method for the Violin (Mitchell later published different versions of this class method book for other instruments such as the cello, clarinet, trumpet etc.); homogeneous instrumental classes where groups of similar instruments were taught in one class and the heterogeneous class approach where several instruments were taught in one class. An example of the heterogeneous approach was Joseph E. Maddy and Thadeus P. Giddings's 1922 Universal Teacher. All instruments were treated with equal importance in this method, and instruments which normally played only simple accompaniment parts such as the cello or bass, were enabled to share prominent melodic lines with the violins. Maddy described the philosophy behind this method: "It was revolutionary in that it was based on the singing approach, used only familiar tunes, and used all positions at once, also transposition."[83]

In 1932, Maddy continued his innovative approaches towards string classes when he taught thousands of string students by radio. Unfortunately, the American Federation of Musicians put a stop to these radio lessons. In 1948, Maddy resumed radio violin instruction on FM educational radio. He called his program "Symphonic String Course," and directed his violin lessons towards students who lived in rural areas and didn't have access to string instruction. Maddy supplemented his radio classes with long playing phonograph records, including a string quartet accompaniment for home practice. Maddy described his radio string classes:

I again went on the air with string lessons (14 lessons) in which the children (in 8 rural schools) learned 30 tunes in five positions and were able to play in an orchestra broadcast the final lesson. This experiment was carried out with the county schools and receivers were furnished by the university. One hundred and eighty students started the lessons and 195 finished. Not one dropped out. Ages ranged from 6 to 14. Those who had long playing players (attachments) at home learned much faster than the others, though each school had a record and machine for playing back. . . .The weakness of radio string instruction is that that the teacher cannot show the pupils how to hold their instruments-so I do it with pictures, numbered 1 to 6, each picture illustrating a certain item of position. Strangely enough this works better than showing them, as they must do it themselves. The private teacher places the pupils fingers but the pupil does not remember and goes home and does it wrong-always. So the picture method works especially if the parent or other person is sufficiently interested to check the pupils-which was the case with my radio lessons for I furnished a violin for every teacher so she would learn with the children and help them with their position. . . . The records are the greatest help possible, for the pupils love to practice when playing with a good string ensemble-and more important-the parents like to hear them practice that way.[84]

In recent years, traditional string class methods have been supplemented with non-traditional approaches. Although classical music is still very much a part of string education, new trends include:

  1. Improvisational styles such as jazz and contemporary music.
  2. Fiddle music, including folk fiddle styles throughout the world.
  3. Strolling strings.
  4. Multicultural music such as Mariachi and string music from other cultures such as Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Greek et al.
  5. Early Music - including historically correct performances of Renaissance and Early Baroque music.
  6. The use of technology, including software and online programs to enable students to compose, practice and learn at a distance.

Sociological trends include more programs that reach at-risk children (e.g. efforts to provide programs for inner-city children such as "El Sistema," and string instruction for adult learners. The following selected chronological lists of string class method books, music and articles illustrate changes and trends in string instruction.