10 Ways to Stay Challenged in Orchestra

There is a great article by Laurie Niles on Violinist.com that goes through a lot of the reasons I think kids should sign up for beginner orchestra, even if they’re not a beginner. This article is for something different.

Let’s say your child comes to the kitchen to complain about being bored. Do you say, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Maybe I can find a game for you. Maybe we can talk about some things that you can do to not be bored!” If you would say this, this article is NOT for you. This article is for the parents who, like my husband, say, “Oh, you’re bored?! Perfect! I have some things for you to do! Let’s start with raking leaves.”

So, okay. You’re THAT kind of parent. And now you’ve made your kid sign up for beginning orchestra even if he’s not a beginner. It was a good choice. I totally support you. But now you have to have some bags of tricks in your back pocket when your kid comes home complaining about how orchestra is terminally boring. And, to be quite honest, he is probably right. You have to realize that, to him, it’s like being in a beginning typing class when he can already chat with his friends at 90 words per minute.

Give these challenges to your student one at a time. These are for cellists, but you can change them around for any instrument. As you dole each of these things out, make him repeat the Golden Rule: “If I, (insert name), distract the teacher or another student, then I’m doing it wrong. Or too loudly.”

1. Memorize the music.
What better way to exercise your child’s brain! And then once memorized, this frees his mind to do other things. Like…

2. Play everything with 1st finger. Or 2nd finger. Or 3rd. Or 4th. Or thumb.
This will give your child the chance to really understand intervals: half steps, whole steps, minor thirds, major sixths. He might not know what to call them all the time, but he’ll be able to measure distances in ways he couldn’t before.

3. Play everything on one string.
Your child now gets to explore the nether-regions of his fingerboard. He’ll be able to shift up to seventh position (what is that?) in a slippery search of the right note.

4. Play the 2nd violin part.
Often times, the 2nd violin part in a 1st or 2nd year orchestra doesn’t venture on the E string much. This means that your virtuoso cellist can practice thumb position and reading treble clef in the comfort of orchestra. Usually, a teacher would allow a kid like yours to do this for part, or even all, of his time in orchestra.

5. Multi-task with words.
— Play the cello part while making up a story using people and items in the room.
— Play the cello part while quietly saying the alphabet.
— Play the cello part while quietly saying the alphabet backwards.
What better way to exercise your child’s creativity. What better way to see if he knows the alphabet! My friends and I joke that this is practice for an entirely other situation that I won’t mention here.

6. Multi-task with sounds.
— Play the cello part while silently saying, “Boo choo choo choo” if the music is in 4/4 time, or “Boo choo choo” if it’s in 3/4 time.
— Play the cello part while quietly singing the alphabet.
— Play the cello part while quietly humming the 1st violin part. Or, even harder, try the 2nd violin or viola part.
— Play the cello part while quietly singing the cello part one half step sharp of the cello part. This one is really hard. And fun.

7. Multi-task with motion.
— Tap both feet on every downbeat. Or alternate feet on every other measure.
— Tap feet on beat 1, cluck tongue on beat 2, tighten abs on beat 3, click teeth on beat 4.
— Find any combination of undetectable motions to fill any combination of beats or subdivision of beats.
Your child will gain awareness of his body while he plays.

8. Leave out every E. Or any other single note. Just fake it.
No one will really notice that your child isn’t playing that one note. It will teach him to control his bow in the air, to organize his bowings, and to read ahead. And it feels like breaking the rules. Well, it kind of is breaking the rules.

9. Vibrate only on E. Or every note except E. Or any other note. 
Your child will have to think ahead again. And then he might even practice, by accident, how to balance his hand for vibrato.

10. Mess around with the beat.
— Count beats out loud. In 4/4 time, say, “1 2 3 4.” Or, harder, accent when saying “2” and “4.” If your kid ever plays jazz, he’ll be prepared to emphasize beats 2 and 4 with ease!
— Count beats, but start saying “1” on beat 2. So, in 4/4/ time, say “4 1 2 3.” When saying “1” and “3,” give a little accent.
— Breathe in on beat 1, out on beat 3.
— Breathe in on beat 2, out on beat 4. 

There’s no excuse for boredom!

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Where things stand

It’s funny how the issues facing a new string program in Kenya are extremely similar to the issues music educators are facing in the States:
– Pull-out classes (where students are pulled out of class to attend music lessons) are, of course, unpopular with academic teachers.
– The support of administrators makes all the difference.
– Music teachers are far busier than most of the other teachers at school.
– Music teachers have to make sure that they draw boundaries for themselves or they get mangled in the crazy scheduling.

Boniface is learning all of this, but unfortunately for him, he has no colleagues with whom he can commiserate. He doesn’t know what is normal and when he should fight for his own needs. Fortunately for him, Boniface is a talented musician and a natural teacher – the road ahead is well-lit and holds great possibilities.

In my time here, there has been a fair share of seriously frustrating events. But there have also been really great ones. I’ll cherry-pick a list of the highlights:
– Boniface now feels as though he can teach through nearly all of Suzuki violin Book 1, rather than just one or two Twinkles.
– Boniface now has a music room at the primary school, where he can teach kids and store instruments. Shelving will come from the old library shelves that are stored at the secondary school.
– The primary school principal and curriculum leader have both agreed to allow Boniface to have hour-long classes, and to arrange the students in any configuration Boniface sees fit.
– The primary school and high school principals seem to be on the same page regarding Boniface’s duties.
– The band placed 2nd at nationals.
– The band marched in a sports parade this past weekend, to great local acclaim.
– The band has teamed up with a local Boy Scout troop, which has given the band not only moral but also financial support for trips and events (such as nationals and the parade).

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Thank you…

There are so many people here who have made my stay memorable, but I want to particularly thank the staff of the Thiiri Centre. Without them, my stay would have taken on an entirely different path. They were always there for not only companionship, but also for advice. When I found out Alicia and Andrew’s accident had occurred, it was the staff here who asked me occasionally how they were doing – someone even played an mp3 of a moving sermon about grief to help me through it. When I missed my friends the most, I always felt there were people who would listen and understand what I was saying. Through my silly phases, they were right there with me to throw in a joke.

The Bishop, Marilyn and Ruth have put together an exceptional staff. Thank you for that!

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To Nairobi

Tomorrow, I am off to Nairobi, and then to Amsterdam and Prague. It is time to go home. I think I have either stayed 5 weeks too long, or 5 months too short. I miss my friends the most, but I also miss being able to walk down the street without someone shouting, “Ching Chong!” or “Mzungu!” (white person). I miss not being asked for money or even the shoes off of my feet. I miss people being less than 3 hours late, and I miss knowing that someone won’t hike the price up 500% because of the color of my skin.

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Wrapping up

This afternoon, I saw the Bishop and Marilyn having a quiet lunch together, so I decided to ask if they wouldn’t mind some extra company. I was planning on having a light-hearted chat with the two of them when the topic of conversation turned to my take of the music program.

I was surprised. I wasn’t even sure that the music program was on the radar of the Bishop, with his traveling around East and South Africa to have religious and political meetings. It is incomprehensible to me what this man has seen in his life, so I figured that he wouldn’t care what little ‘ole me was doing musically at the primary school that is named after him.

Little did I know. The Bishop told me that he formed the Thiiri Centre with the MAIN goal of having a music program for the community. The pool, the accommodations, the kitchen, the festivals – they are all secondary to the main goal of developing a music center. How did I not know this? It was obviously not apparent from how the Thiiri Centre is run – it seemed that the Centre was supposed to be a center for activity, but not necessarily musical activity in the area.

The Bishop summarized the situation as the result of his not properly pursuing his passion and his dream for the Thiiri Centre: music. During my time here, I have often felt alone, having no direction from above. I thought that maybe this was a result of the Kenyan culture, but after my conversation with the Bishop today, I came to realize that this was a result of his decision to be hands-off about the music program. He and Marilyn had decided to let the music volunteers from America do what they thought was best. On my trip, this meant that I have often been left to make political, curricular, and pedagogical decisions on my own.

I was relieved to hear the Bishop take from his conversation with me that there needs to be a great deal more oversight for the music program. Without this oversight, I can easily see the string program (not the band) slipping through the cracks, moving through a slow and drawn out demise.

A little bit of attention from the Bishop will go a long way; now that he is ready to take an active role in the direction of the music program, I feel as though now there will be a clearer direction for what is expected and how to execute the music program. Who knows if this oversight will really happen – I know better than to count on it. But I do know that now, I feel much better about leaving this Friday. Before my talk with the Bishop and Marilyn, I was ready to leave with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I felt as if I had volunteered my summer only to have the program wilt after I left from a lack of attention from the powers that be.

I’m leaving Kenya on Friday. While my journey here has been rough at times, it is impossible to deny that this program and Boniface both have heaps of potential. I’m just seeing the beginning of it. I wish I could go forward in time to see where it ends up in a few years!

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