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!