I am a huge fan of ensembles. The elementary school that I went to offered a strings class to 5th and 6th graders. I was excited to play the violin and then the cello. My favorite part of the entire class, though, was getting to work towards a common goal with my classmates. I love being around people. I’m an extrovert.
As I progressed in my musical studies, a lot of the repertoire that I was learning included Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites. This was not as much fun for me. Yes, I know that I learned valuable techniques and skills, however, it was lonely. No one to play off of or interact with because I was by myself. Hours in a practice room, by myself. Sitting on a stage during recitals…BY MYSELF! Still, I made it through the suites with my sanity in tact (my college roommates might debate this). The one thing I think that aided my study of Bach, was my involvement in musical ensembles large and small.
Like myself, being involved in a musical ensemble is “built-in” for many beginners. Many still start in a classroom setting through a school music program or teacher’s studio. It’s a great way to start. Not only does it fill any need for human connection and camaraderie, but it builds listening skills and intonation, as well as rhythm and playing together. For some, they are able to continue in a group setting in a middle or high school orchestra. Yet, how can a student be involved in an ensemble if there are no school programs?
Here are some options:
Duets and Trios (2 and 3 players)-There is a lot of music out there written for two or three, so practically any skill level, beginner to advanced, can participate. Playing a duet is a simple as asking a friend or family member to play together. Your young musician can even ask their teachers if they can play with another student in their studio. Often times, teachers are pleased to play with students too. *Free Participation*
Quartet (4 players)-The traditional string quartet consists of 2 violins, 1 viola, and 1 cello. Like Duets and Trios, there is a lot of music available but, this exact combination of musicians can be trickier to find. It can take some time to get everyone together. You may have to start playing as a duet or trio and add people as you meet them. *Free Participation*
Church/Synagogue Groups-These groups usually perform once a week and are usually open to any musician. Playing in this setting can yield combinations of instruments that you won’t find anywhere else and the live performances keep your “chops up.” If you aren’t “religious,” don’t worry, many groups don’t require that, they just want you to play. *Free Participation*
Community Orchestra-Community Orchestras are much larger that any of the other groups I’ve mentioned. They are often a full orchestra of strings, wind, brass, and percussion. They are great because they can provide the chance for a young musician to play with other musicians that are much more experienced. Plus, they have a will get play more challenging music in the modern orchestra repertoire. While most members will be adults, many community groups are open to proficient students although an audition may be required. Also, a lot of community groups hold “Young Artists” competitions for talented young musicians to perform a solo with a full orchestra. *Free Participation*
Youth Orchestras-Dot Rust posted a blog about this in February. It’s worth the read. She describes how they began in the U.S. and how your student can be involved. The only thing that is different from the previous groups is that there is tuition involved. Many groups offer tuition breaks or scholarships for any needy student. *Cost to Participate*
Jazz Band/Combo-We all know Bass players are in jazz bands, but violins, violas, and cellos? Say it with me: Yes we can! See Stephane Grapelli, Lucio Amanti, and Judith Insell for some great examples. Your student may want to learn jazz scales and basic improvisation techniques before jumping in, but it’s so worth it. Even if they don’t become the Dizzy Gillespie on the viola, playing jazz opens up a whole new world of tonality that will be helpful if they ever dive into some Bernstein or Ives. *Maybe Cost*
Bluegrass Band-Your young musician may want to trade their violin in for a fiddle. Side Note: violin=fiddle. Bluegrass bands are welcoming to all ages and levels and there are competitions in every region that can offer cash prizes to winners. Bluegrass bands often play by ear and by rote instead of reading of sheet music, so this is a great chance for your student to practice memorization. *Buy lots of Rosin*
Marching Band-Alright, I’ll admit. I don’t know of any marching string orchestras. I’m just putting up here hoping someone out there might actually do it. The technology exists now to make it happen (carbon fiber instruments + wireless pick-ups hooked up to a stadium sound system!)…but it would be expensive. Okay, for this one, your student would have the be the relative of an eccentric millionaire that is about to die. *Cost: Priceless*
Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to having your young musician participate in an ensemble. There are numerous possibilities and numerous benefits. Plus, many options are free of charge. Helpful hint: if you need to provide sheet music for the group your student is playing in, check out the International Music Library Score Project. They provide copies of free sheet music for ensembles of many sizes.