School orchestra vs. private lessons

Recently I’ve worked with a number of older children and teenagers who are or will be participating in their school orchestras. Some of them, or really their parents, wonder why they should bother with the extra commitment of private lessons when they could be taught to play the violin, viola, or cello in the school orchestra instead.

I am, of course, primarily a private teacher and therefore biased. However, the point is not whether one is better or worse but that these are different types of experiences: different environments with different expectations. Large group instruction is of course the most efficient way to reach many children, some of whom might not otherwise be exposed to or get a chance to play a musical instrument. Class time is contained within the school day and may even be multiple times per week. There are the usual teamwork-based benefits such as learning to follow a leader or be a leader and to work together (to create art). A school orchestra may also have certain curriculum goals (what techniques are taught to students) and performance goals (the end of year concert), which generally means reading music.

School orchestras are useful for their purpose, and I greatly admire, respect, and commend the orchestra directors on that challenge (and especially the ones who were stuck with me when I was in 5th grade to 12th grade).

Unfortunately, school orchestra instruction alone does leave gaps in aspects of technique and musicianship. These are the top two:

1. Physical skills

Most often, it’s physical skills that can’t be covered in much depth because there is simply no time:

  • Whole-body balance, comfort, and ease of movement
  • Strength and flexibility in both hands (fingers, wrist, arm, joints) to maneuver the bow (RH) and control pitches of notes (LH)
  • Optimal placement of the instrument in relation to the body – for violinists this includes the fit of the chin rest and shoulder rest

For a beginner newly learning how to handle the instrument, it’s not enough to say “keep the violin up”, “keep the bow straight”, “play this note in tune”, and so on. A private teacher can explain or demonstrate how to physically accomplish such a movement as well as check for any “faults” that might be preventing moving the body or limbs in the desired manner. If it takes a student more than one reminder (or two, or three…), a private teacher can monitor and follow up.

2. Memory

Second is the topic of playing from sheet music vs. playing from memory. With my beginner students, I emphasize physical skills and playing from memory, and reading music is a gap that we gradually fill eventually. Music reading is taught early on for school orchestra students, but since solo playing is not a focus, there is little need for memorization. The image of “memorizing” is really of taking in facts, knowledge, and instructions (music notation being a set of instructions) whereas my reverse perspective is that the music is in you and then comes out. Consider why stage actors don’t read their lines in live performance: they can’t connect as easily – to their characters, to fellow cast members, to the audience – if they constantly need to check on what to say next.

Reading music is a worthy and useful skill, but if there is no other plan for developing the memory skill, this deficiency will limit the quality of the student’s playing.

“This takes too much effort/time/money…our child is just having some fun”

Fun and hard work are not mutually exclusive; a thing isn’t fun if you don’t know how to do it, are frustrated, the novelty wears off, the tool you have is not suitable to the task, etc.! You may even enjoy it more if you persist and are then able to do it with a higher skill level.

Knowing what a school orchestra is for, and what it isn’t for, I urge parents to consider if the benefits of outside lessons are something they or their children desire for their overall music experience.