Strings Program Finds Harmony – Together and Apart

The relatively new strings program at MICDS is booming (in the rhetorical sense, not in the auditory sense). Starting this year, strings classes were offered as part of the Middle School performing arts curriculum, and the response has been enthusiastic. The strings program is robust and diverse, with 44 students in 7-12th grade, including new-to-MICDS students and MICDS-lifers alike, students of every skill level, and students focusing on the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The strings program launched in the 2018-2019 school year with the Upper School strings courses offered as part of the curriculum and the Middle and Lower School ensembles meeting after school. This is the first year strings classes have been offered during the school day for 7th and 8th graders.

And what a first year it has been thus far! Strings Instructors David Doherty and Erin Hamill have not only created the Middle School curriculum and welcomed new students, but they also adapted the program overall to the virtual and hybrid learning environments. Students have enjoyed learning new skills and perfecting their craft, and they have shown great flexibility in their learning environments as well.

Doherty shared, “There have certainly been some silver linings during these unusual times. In an ensemble environment, instructors typically select music with easy parts and more difficult parts, and then assign the parts to different students according to their skill level. That works well, but in some cases, we tend to work towards the middle of the students’ abilities and tweak from there. The online format has enabled us to differentiate more significantly. We can individualize assignments and development goals. Of course, ensemble playing and performances took a back seat during distance learning, and we all missed that dearly, but the students continued to improve their skills nonetheless. It has been incredible to see and hear students playing musical works that are very specific to their skill level.”

Hamill agrees, “The online environment allows us to spend time with students in individual Zoom breakout rooms during class and focus on their development. I have enjoyed the opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with students in the virtual environment.”

With these silver linings, Doherty and Hamill have certainly overcome their fair share of challenges. In the virtual environment, they aren’t able to provide hands-on help with the instruments themselves to troubleshoot any technical issues or to assist with tuning, which is always a challenge for beginning strings players. Also, in strings class during normal times, two students would share a music stand, side by side, and they would hear each other’s music closely, which might give them more confidence when playing their parts. Now, with social distancing, that is not possible, and students are adjusting and re-learning how to play together. Social distancing also precludes some typical instructional techniques, such as touching the musician’s shoulder to adjust their violin playing form. Doherty said, “Occasionally, we will reach with our bow to accomplish a similar gesture. We are adapting and finding workarounds as best we can.”

Technology has certainly enabled student progress in the strings program, and Doherty and Hamill have worked out their setup to best accommodate the needs of all students—in-person and at home. To create a sense of familiarity and community, they project the virtual students on a big screen at the front of the classroom so all of the in-person students can see their virtual peers. For virtual students at home, they provide three camera views from different spots in the classroom. They have one microphone on in the classroom (to avoid any feedback issues) so that the virtual students can hear the music from the classroom and play along with it from home. Because of sound delays, virtual students mute their microphones so students in the classroom cannot hear them. Instead, virtual students submit recordings of their lessons and assignments to the teachers for review and feedback.

The strings program at MICDS certainly has a bright future ahead. They are hoping to perform in the Upper School breezeway in the next couple weeks, socially-distanced of course, to provide a beautiful soundtrack for their peers during a passing period.

Enjoy these photos of the Middle School strings class in the Alumnae Room in Danforth Hall and the Upper School strings class in the Band Room.