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Starting a String Orchestra from Scratch

Justin Antos | June 2013

    When I went through school, I had a great band experience, but that was it. I did not realize there was chamber music or centuries of phenomenal orchestral music. I wanted to introduce my students to a wider variety of music and give them an opportunity to participate in string ensembles, but my string background was limited to a college string methods class.
    Our orchestra began as a string quartet three years ago. When I asked who was interested in playing in a string quartet the following year, I expected a few volunteers but did not anticipate having 20 hands go up. We started small because we did not have the funds or the instruments. Through fundraising, I bought two violins, a viola, and a cello.
    The first year I gave precedence to upperclassmen, so that first quartet had three seniors and one junior. They all planned to pursue music in college; the seniors all majored in music. The quartet met after school for an hour a week, and they learned the basics of string playing while working through a method book. At the end of the year, they performed excerpts from the back of the method book, including a fiddle tune and Pomp and Circumstance.
    After the first year, I asked whether anyone wanted to play in an orchestra that met after school. Again there were about 20 interested students. The junior from the quartet became a leader in the second-year orchestra. With the group meeting after school, there were some conflicts, and we eventually narrowed the ensemble down to nine students. I wanted to let any student who had an instrument participate, so I told students to bring in what they could. Those who owned a string instrument were automatically in; one girl had a viola, and other students bought instruments from eBay although the quality was poor.
    I was also able to purchase a few more instruments. The second-year orchestra, which was basically a double quartet with a bass instead of a second cello, rehearsed after school one day a week. I did not want students to drop other extracurricular activities. As this was almost all new students, we started over with the method books. They advanced more quickly and were able to play slightly more difficult repertoire, but I felt they should have more practice time than was available after school.
    I talked to the curriculum director to find out how to make orchestra a curricular class. I wrote a curriculum and got it approved by the school board. In our district high schools offer a course called Preparatory Band, that is designed for non-musicians to learn any band instrument. The class covers everything students learn from fifth through eighth grade but is condensed into one year. Because that program was already in place, it was easy to adapt it for orchestra. This was a better choice than trying to design an entirely new curriculum.
    My next step was to find repertoire. I called music stores and publishers and talked to string teachers to collect suggestions for good works and composers. Eighty percent of the curriculum was borrowed from Preparatory Band, and the other twenty percent was concert music.
    The goal was to create a program that audiences would enjoy hearing at a concert. While I would love to read symphonic literature, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is not possible with beginning strings. I wanted repertoire that had contrast between pieces but could be played by inexperienced students. One work I found was Las Mariposas Exoticas, which is almost entirely pizzicato. I chose the piece so students would learn both arco and pizzicato. Another piece was Dorchester Street Songs. This is in two movements, all in D major, which meant we could start working on it while still going through the method books. A third piece, El Toro, was in 34 and E minor; this gave students practice with accidentals and sudden dynamic changes. There was also a solo cadenza section for violin and cello. The last work I picked was a strings arrangement of “Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music. This was the most difficult of the four works on the concert.
    There was an incredible amount of paperwork to fill out, but eventually everything was approved. The final obstacle was numbers; the class needed at least 12 students, and 14 enrolled this year. This is the first time in over 20 years that the school has had an orchestra; we are also the only school in our district to have one. Students rehearse every day for 50 minutes. The class is labeled orchestra in the course catalog, but it is really a beginning strings class.
    Now that it meets during the day, anyone is welcome to join. This year there are three first violins, four seconds, three violas, three cellos, and a bass, and the group is projected to double in size next year. Students recruit their friends, and orchestra is experiencing a revival, which is interesting because there are no middle school string programs in any of our feeder schools. Many of the band students tell me they have figured out in advance what year they can take orchestra and what instrument they want to play. It is exciting as a teacher to see students plan to take a class years in advance. Students even get tips from current orchestra students about how to play a string instrument before they  join the class.
    The ensemble includes band members who want to play a secondary instrument, some choral students, and even some who have never read a note of music before. Prior to the start of the year I surveyed students to find out what instruments they wanted to play. For those with no preference, I made choices for good instrumentation.
    To obtain more instruments, I posted a fundraising project on and was able to get five violins, three violas, two cellos, and a bass through donations from people across the country. This is a website founded by a New York public school teacher to help teachers who often have to pay for classroom supplies themselves. The site allows teachers to post project lists, and people can decide to whom they would like to donate. Donors can browse projects by area, school, teacher, or subject.
    A full orchestra is on the horizon, but my primary focus is to grow the string orchestra as much as possible. With more students I can campaign for additional sections of the class. I would love for the school to eventually hire a full-time orchestra director and include strings in the feeder programs as well. For the last four years, we have been doubling in size. Ideally there will be a beginning strings class similar to Preparatory Band and a top orchestra to match the top concert band.
    My biggest struggle is my limited string playing and teaching experience. I have played in orchestras as a percussionist since high school, so orchestral repertoire is familiar. However, string players have a different perspective than a timpanist who may have a roll followed by 180 measures of rests. I had to become reacquainted with the fundamentals of technique and posture prior to teaching the course.
    Because I was primarily a band teacher, I had a pretty good grasp of what the classic band pieces were. However, orchestral repertoire goes back many more years and there are a huge number of options. I had no idea how to go about choosing music. I found some great string players to call with questions, including a former roommate who was a cellist. The first time a violin sound post fell, I spent an hour trying to fix the instrument before calling him. Through Skype he showed me how to fix it in a minute and a half.
    As an educator I want my students to experience different things. Orchestra has taught my band students something new, brought new students into the music program, and given them the joy and satisfaction of playing in a musical ensemble.