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Cuing for Young String Players

By Nancy J. Campbell

Ready...set...play...together!

Early on in my teaching, I found that my young string students were getting really good at following conducting patterns and cues. As time passed, I discovered that they were responsive to my gestures, but they were not independent enough to stay together without a conductor. Help students gain some independence by trying strategies that develop their leadership and ensemble skills.

Have you ever watched a dance team practice? The leader counts off "5, 6, 7, 8" and the dancers seem to pick up the tempo readily (even when not actually in 8). Help your students find the physicality of the beat apart from their instruments. Get them up from their chairs and move to the tempo and meter your set.

  • Use a variety of tempi and meters.
  • Give less preparation information and challenge them to follow.
  • If you know the steps to a dance movement you are rehearsing, teach it to them. (French Baroque dance movements are a great place to start.)

To emphasize the importance of visual cues, have your students play a game of catch with a sponge ball. Students sit in a circle and try to make eye contact with the receiver before tossing the ball – no talking allowed. After this, ask them to try the exercise with their eyes closed. They quickly figure out that they cannot send or receive the ball without the visual cue, just as they cannot give or receive a musical cue if they are staring into their music stands.

  • Practice miming visual cues, such as the downbeat of a piece, without instruments.
  • Students should try to make eye contact and use large gestures.
  • Students may sing or speak their parts to see if they are truly together.

Another way to improve visual communication is to allow each student to lead a memorized scale or warm up. The entire class follows the bow of the leader, attempting to use the identical bow direction and speed.

  • Be sure the leader gives adequate gestures. Some students feel embarrassed to exaggerate. Usually they get over the embarrassment once they see the positive effect of a larger gesture.
  • Challenge the followers to mimic the exact bow changes.

All of these exercises not only increase students' awareness of the importance of physical and visual cues, but they also give them the opportunity to build confidence in leadership skills.