HH Elementary Strings

November 12, 2017
by hh

The Basics of Orchestra, for everybody..

A Really Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

1. Why do we call it an orchestra?

The word “orchestra” comes from a Greek word (“orcheisthai”) that means “to dance.” When the ancient Greeks built their theaters, they would leave a place in front of the stage for dancers and the chorus to appear in the performances. This area in front of the stage was called “the orchestra,” which (more or less) meant “the place in front of the stage where the dancers dance.”

As musicians were added to spice up the shows in theaters, the musicians were put– where else– in “the orchestra” (that is, the space right in front of the stage). And bit by bit the location of the musicians became known as what the musicians were. (Sometimes when you go to a concert or a theater you can buy “orchestra seats,” which doesn’t mean seats in the orchestra, it means the seats that are below the level of the stage.)

2. What is the difference between a “Symphony Orchestra” and a “Philharmonic Orchestra”?

Answer: not much! Many orchestras have different names (mostly to make themselves look different from other orchestras!) but most of them have the same instruments.

In case you’re interested, the word “philharmonic” comes from two words:
“phil,” which means “to love,” and
“harmonia,” which means “harmony.”
When you put them together into the word “phil-harmonic,” it means “love of harmony.”

The word “symphony” is from a Greek word meaning “concordance of sound.”

Of course, even though they call themselves one or the other, they still play contemporary music once in a while.

There are other types of orchestras that really are different. For example, you can have a “string orchestra” which is just strings (violins, violas, cellos, and basses), with no woodwinds, brass, or percussion.

An Orchestra with fewer string players (something like 8 violins, 4 violas, 2 cellos, and one bass) can call itself a “chamber orchestra”;

But if there are no violins, violas, or cellos, you call it a band, even if there are string instruments like guitars, pianos, or string basses. Does that make sense? not really. oh well. . .

An Orchestra is made up of lots of different musical instruments. It makes it easier if you divide them up into “families” of instruments. These are:



brass, and


Technically speaking, pianos and harps are string instruments, but no one really thinks of them that way. They’re sort of off by themselves.

The members of each family of instruments have certain things in common in terms of how they produce their sound. The members of each family are different because they play notes in a different “range”– that is, some of them play low notes and some play high notes.

There are some Italian words that are useful to know when dealing with music and instruments, because you will hear them all the time. First of all, low notes are called bass notes, middle range notes are either tenor and (higher) alto, and the highest is often called the soprano. Some examples include: alto flute, tenor saxophone, and bass trombone. Of course, in choirs that is how you name the voices of people (soprano, alto, tenor, bass).

Why do we use italian words? Hmmm. Well, orchestras and instruments have been around for a long time, and so you may find a lot of odd little traditions surrounding them. Very often there is not much logic to why an orchestra does things this way or that way– “It’s tradition.” Which is a fancy way of saying “that’s how we’ve always done it, so why change?” Many of the traditions we have with orchestras began in Italy, somewhere around the year 1500 A.D. And we’ve just kept those Italian ways of doing things all this time.

3. What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

Again, string instruments are a “family” of instruments, and violins play the highest notes, violas play notes a little lower, cellos play lower still, and string basses, the biggest string instrument, play the lowest notes. Violas are bigger than violins and are tuned a fifth lower (that is, five of the white keys of a piano lower). The technique of playing them is very similar and because of that many people who play one also play the other.

String basses are often called “bass fiddles” and “bass violins,” but this is not really “correct.” A string bass is not a big violin. It belongs to another family of instruments known as “viols.” (Pronounced “VI – oles.”) Like all viols, the sides of a “bass viol” are sloped away from the neck, it usually has a flat back (violins have curved backs), and it’s tuned in fourths, not fifths.

Just for fun: notice that all the violins move their bows in the same direction all the time. . . or at least, they’re supposed to! But remember there are two “teams” of violins (the first and second violins). Try to see if you can tell them apart– this will probably be hard to do! (Hint: see if some violins have their bows going in different directions)

4. What does the conductor do?

There are lots of things the musicians all have to agree on when they play, like how fast and how loud. . . and of course, everyone has an opinion on the subject! It’s the conductor’s job to decide all that stuff. This is called “interpreting” the music. By waving his arms around in special ways, the conductor tells the musicians how fast to play, how loud, and just generally encourages everyone to do their best.

Just for fun: when you watch the conductor, see if you can see the “pattern” of the movements he/she makes. Hint: Music is divided into “bars,” usually with 2, 3, or 4 beats in each bar. If there are 4 beats in a bar, the conductor will go: down on 1, left on 2, right on 3, and up on 4 (this last motion is called the “upbeat”; have you ever heard of being “more upbeat?” that’s where that word comes from). Practice this at home to your favorite music! (But don’t do it at the concert, some of the musicians might follow you instead of the conductor, and you’ll get what musicians call “a train wreck.”)

When watching the conductor, remember that it’s not so important what he does when the musicians play a note. What’s important is what he does just before the musicians play a note. Good conductors let the musicians know a beat ahead of time how they want a note played.

5. How do the musicians know what notes to play?

Each musician has a music stand in front of them, with their “part” on the stand, which has all of their notes on it. Notice that each string “section” (for example, all the violas) plays the same notes at the same time, but their notes are different from the notes of the other string “sections” (the first violin section, the second violin section, the cello section, and the bass section) and the wind and percussion instruments. Instruments like the violins and woodwinds have the “tune” most of the time; see if you can hear the instruments that AREN’T playing the tune. Sometimes, musicians “rest” for a long time. Try to find some musicians that AREN’T playing!

6. Where do the notes come from?

The notes were all made up beforehand by the “composer.” The composer thinks of a tune and decides which instrument will play it. Then he writes other notes that “accompany” the tune, and writes those down as well. Do you know any famous composers?

Some people who write music don’t make up a tune– they use someone else’s tune but assign the notes to someone else, say, to the violins instead of the flute. This is called “arranging.” Maybe you’ve heard a melody you know in an elevator. This is an “arrangement” of that melody. Melodies can be “arranged” for orchestra, band, or piano, or singers.

7. What is “tuning”?

Before the concert, the musicians all “tune” to the oboe. The oboe plays the note “A”; Then all the other instruments make sure that the “A” on their instrument is the same as the oboe, then they tune their whole instrument to that “A.” For example, the violins will all tune their “A” string to the oboe’s “A,” then they will make sure their other strings are in tune with their “A” string. If the orchestra didn’t tune, it would sound funny and a little sour. Musicians have to tune constantly, because slight changes in temperature and humidity can make their instruments go out of tune.

8. Why do they tune to the oboe?

Well, again, it’s mostly tradition, but it’s also because the oboe is the least adjustable instrument inthe orchestra (next to the piano of course). Once a oboe player carves up a reed, that’s it. It’s easier for everyone else to adjust to the oboe. At least, that’s how it used to be, and now it’s a tradition.

9. How much practicing goes into a concert?

Well, first of, all, “practicing” is one musician figuring things out alone, and a “rehearsal” is a bunch of musicians working things out together.

Before the musicians in an orchestra get together, each musician spends a lot of time practicing and taking lessons to learn how to play his/her instrument. In professional orchestras, the musicians are usually so good they don’t need very much rehearsing at all! In the rehearsals, the conductor tells the musicians what tempos (that is, how fast or slow) he/she will take the music, and they all make sure everyone knows which piece comes first, and other little changes in the music. The conductor then has to discuss things like balance (for example, you have to make sure the brass don’t play so loud that you can’t hear anything else). The amount of rehearsing varies with each orchestra.

10. How am I supposed to act at a concert?

Well, when in doubt, try to keep quiet. This is hard to do sometimes. Clap at the beginning when the conductor comes out, and clap at the end (don’t clap in the middle unless everyone else does first). If you really liked the show, you can clap a long time! If the musicians get tired of your clapping they’ll just walk out. Generally speaking, at a classical music concert people don’t clap DURING the music. Don’t pester your neighbors, and don’t chew gum! If you get to see the instruments, don’t touch them without permission (your hands have oil in them and shouldn’t touch things like the bow hair of the violins); some violins cost as much as $200,000!

Welcome Back!

September 7, 2017 by hh | 0 comments

Welcome back to the Hatboro-Horsham String Program!  Please register in order to receive all the pertinent information regarding lessons, rehearsals and orchestra concerts, as well as confirm your child’s emergency contact information.

If you do not have a computer at home, please let me know and I will make sure you receive a hard copy of the registration material.


Six of the best… viola players

April 28, 2017 by hh | 0 comments

Reposted from www.classical-music.com/feature/world-music/six-best-viola-players

25 June 2009

Heard the one about the good viola player? No? Hardly surprising. This Cinderella of the string family is the butt of most instrumentalists’ jokes. But unfairly so, as Rebecca Franks finds out

According to spotlight-hungry violinists, violas are only good for filling in a bit of middle-part harmony and should never be trusted with a good tune. And really, argue the cellists, seeing as the viola has the same strings as the cello, just an octave higher, what’s the point?

And that’s before you even get people onto the viola players themselves. ‘Viola players were always taken from among the refuse of violinists,’ wrote Berlioz well over a century ago, a sentiment often still wheeled out today.

Well, it’s time to think again about the unfairly maligned viola, and to help here’s a round-up of the six best violists past and present. Yes, they really do exist.

Continue Reading →

February 15, 2017
by hh

Stage fright: How to help kids with performance anxiety

from Today’s Parent by Kate Winn

Does your child get butterflies before ballet recitals, school concerts or class presentations? Performance anxiety is common in kids. We asked experts how to cope.

Tears, tantrums and tummy aches: all of these symptoms can accompany the common childhood experience of performance anxiety, a familiar topic for Bobcaygeon, Ont., mom Michelle Garrett.* When her son Jesse* was assigned his first class speech in grade three, it created a lot of tension in their home.

“When he has to do something in front of others, he shuts down. He cried and refused to do the work until his teacher prompted him at school,” Garrett says. Jesse was last to present on speech day, and as soon as he made it to the front of the class, he froze and began to cry. I know, because I was his teacher.

Often called “stage fright,” performance anxiety can rear its head in a variety of locations other than formal recitals or concerts, including the sports field and the classroom.

This anxiety can appear at an early age, as Toronto mom Shelley Anderson* knows. Though her three-year-old daughter loves to dance, Anderson struggles each week to get her to participate in ballet class. “She’ll beg us to pick her up, or fall to the ground and have a tantrum rather than join in,” says Anderson. Anxiety can paralyze older children as well—when my dad was a high school hockey coach, he had a player who threw up before every single game—and can last well into adulthood.

Continue Reading →

D.C. elementary school students perform with Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell

February 9, 2017 by hh | 0 comments

from Washington Post, Feb 8, 2017 by Alejandra Matos

The orchestra students at Bunker Hill Elementary School plucked and bowed their violins, violas and cellos one afternoon this week as they performed Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” for classmates at an assembly.

But this was no ordinary concert. Two special guests joined in: violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The world-famous musicians spent Tuesday afternoon swaying to the rhythmic sounds of first-graders beating sangba drums. They watched students act out stories. And the orchestra students learned how Bell and Ma get rid of nerves during performances: Ma pretends it’s his birthday party. Bell imagines everyone in the audience sitting on toilets.

“You played so well,” Ma told about 20 orchestra students during rehearsal for the assembly. “I love the energy. It was great.”

Ma and Bell visited the Northeast D.C. school through a program known as Turnaround Arts, which aims to give underperforming schools more resources for arts and music.

Violinist Joshua Bell, left, and DC Youth Orchestra’s Philip Espe, right, before they play a song together at Bunker Hill Elementary School. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

When faced with financial pressures, schools often cut arts and music funding to focus resources on math and reading. But Turnaround Arts, in about 70 schools around the country, was founded on the idea that every student, not just those in wealthy neighborhoods, should have access to the arts. Experts say the arts are essential for a well-rounded education and can help students succeed in other academic areas.

Continue Reading →

October 5, 2016
by hh

Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument (and How Parents Can Prevent It)

Reposted from http://www.musicparentsguide.com/2015/02/17/students-really-quit-musical-instrument-parents-can-prevent/#comment-5774 by Toni Mazzocchi

Every year almost 100% of public school students begin an instrument through their school’s music program (if a program exists).  One or two years later, more than 50% of students quit; unable to enjoy all that music education has to offer for the rest of their K-12 schooling, if not beyond.

During my time as an educator and administrator, parents and students have shared with me several reasons why the child quit their musical instrument, including:

  • The student is not musically talented (or at least thought they weren’t).
  • The student is too busy with other activities.
  • The student hates practicing (or the parents grow weary of begging the child to practice).
  • The student doesn’t like their teacher.

…and there’s more…

Continue Reading →

Welcome Back!

September 7, 2016 by hh | 0 comments

String Schedule for 2016-2017:

Monday: Blair Mill

Tuesday:  Pennypack

Wednesday: Simmons – 5th Grade

Thursday: Simmons – 4th Grade

Friday: Hallowell and Crooked Billet

Beginners Meeting for Parents and Students – TUESDAY SEPT. 13, 2016 @ 7pm AT SIMMONS

Demonstrations of all the string Instruments will take place in each school this week.

May 3, 2016
by hh

Today’s string players forget they are telling a story, says cellist Raphael Wallfisch

Pauline Harding investigates why singers and instrumentalists can benefit hugely from listening to and working with each other

February 23, 2016

Raphael Wallfisch London 20 March 2013

Raphael Wallfisch
London 20 March 2013

The following is an extract from The Strad’s feature on strings and the voice, published in the March 2016 issue – download on desktop computer or through The Strad App.

‘The biggest problem with today’s playing is that people want to sound smooth and nice; everything is ironed out flat,’ says cellist Raphael Wallfisch. ‘Because instrumentalists make sounds without words, we often forget about telling a story. We get so bogged down with technical aspects of playing that we forget to give that big, open, direct message, which a singer does much more naturally.

Continue Reading →