Useful Tips for Teachers

Here are some tips for teachers using Vamoosh Books for any combination of Violin, Cello, Viola or Double Bass.  Based on teaching experience of my own and my colleagues, these tips are useful whether you are new to the material or just looking for fresh ideas.  Whilst they apply mostly to group teaching, they should be just as useful for individual lessons.

The object of this book is to provide enough clear information to the pupil that they can navigate and direct their own learning as much as possible.  Great care has gone into presenting the material in the most accessible way, with new challenges discretely introduced.  Once the pupil has learnt the basics, they are equipped to progress through the book at their own pace.  This is particularly useful when teaching in large, mixed ability groups.

Pupils often want to revisit pieces time and again, so I tend to use pieces for many weeks, overlapping 5 or more at a time.  My general approach is to keep them busy, either playing or answering simple, quick-fire questions.  I’ve also noticed that the quickest way to focus a noisy room is to play the introduction to a familiar piece.  Works every time.

Vamoosh String Book 1

1. Willow Waltz

Having played games to help pupils remember the names of the strings, this is a simple piece that can be used in the very first lesson.  It is worth returning to this piece once the pupils have been introduced to the bow.  I suggest using all down-bows, all up-bows, or down up followed by a rest.  Actions like knee-bends add a level of interest.

2. Jig

I teach this piece initially by singing it, either to Doh and Soh with hand signs, or to note names with other actions like standing and sitting.  I rarely show the music, instead relying on their aural memory.  You can also ask them to guess which string plays the high note if they start on D.  This encourages them to use their ears and to differentiate between the strings.  This is a piece I return to once the bow has been introduced. 

3. St. Anthony Chorale

This serves as an introduction to note reading.  Following a brief explanation of the staff, and a reference to the ‘Useful Things to Know’ page at the front of the book, I get pupils to read through this piece without backing or accompaniment.  They read at their own pace which is often slow at first.  I resist helping them and only intervene if a member of the group is not joining in.  They then sing along to the accompaniment, and only then attempt to play along.

4. Manhattan Blues

I tend to teach this piece by rote and only show the notes once the tune is well learnt.  Some teachers like to include movement in the rests, like ‘windscreen wipers’ for example.  Others prefer that the players leave their bow on the string and relax their hold, getting used to not making sound while the bow rests on the string.  In the improvisation sections I allow for optimum freedom, encouraging them to explore the instrument with no time constraints.  I only insist on a good bow hold.  Time limitations I introduce later once they have gained a little confidence.  One approach is to suggest a musical ‘conversation’ with questions and answers.  This helps to frame their improvisation into handy two bar phrases.

5. Sailing Home

Visualising a boat sailing across calm waters is one way to encourage a relaxed and gentle bowing action when playing this piece.  I prefer to teach it by rote allowing the pupils to focus all their attention on their bowing.  Visualising the bow itself as a boat, travelling from one end to the other is also helpful.  Simple swaying, left to right makes for good visuals from the audience’s perspective as well as helping to relax the bow arm.  I also ask them to play louder in the Da Capo.

6. At the Ballet

Having learnt several pieces by rote up to now, I like to use this as a note-reading piece.  Cellists will need to learn how to play E in fourth position.  Actions in the rests can liven up lessons, especially if you follow the ballet theme.

7. On Top of Old Smokey

The backing track for this goes at quite a lick, so it is important to sing this through several times before any attempt is made to play it with the backing track.  The backing track plays three times, so I like to have the pupils sing the second time instead of play.  The original words suffice, but kids enjoy very much this alternative:

On top of Spaghetti
all covered in cheese,
I lost my poor meat ball
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table
and onto the floor,
and then my poor meatball
rolled out of the door.

8. Clown Dance

The melody to this piece appears in book 2 so it can make for a nice number in an end of term concert with more advanced players.  A drum accompaniment in this case is sufficient, so no need for the backing CD or piano accompaniment.

9. Circle Madness

I encourage my pupils to think about the circles they are drawing with their elbows when they play this piece.  In bar 4 and 5 I ask them to make big circles with the arms as they retake their bows.  I like them to exaggerate the accents on these down-bows to release lots of energy.  I always encourage movement and dancing in the introduction and interlude of this piece.

10. Can Can

I first teach lines 3 and 4 of this piece, as they are the easiest to remember/copy.  I play or sing the piano part while they answer.  The rhythm is different the fourth time, so I like to turn this into a game, trying to catch people out.  I then teach the Chorus, asking them to stand and sit instead of playing the notes.  This helps to focus and release energy at the same time.  Lastly I teach the first two lines, showing them how to hold the bow and pluck at the same time, though it can also be fun to see them grab for their bows in the bar rest.  The icing on the cake is asking them to count out loud the eight beat link into the chorus, then the same only silently for the return to the beginning.  I think of it as a sort of introduction to counting bar rests.  The melody for this piece is in book 3.  Colleagues of mine made up words to the chorus that the kids love to sing:

My cat cannot do the Can-can better than my dog can
And my goldfish finds it very difficult so
Now my cat is doing Can-can lessons and my
Goldfish gave it up instead he’s doing tap!

11. Airport!

This piece serves as a cure for the most undisciplined bow hold.  I ask the pupils to place the tip of the bow on the G string (‘G runway’) and wait for clearance that is signalled in the introduction.  They then start the up-bow slowly, gaining in volume over four beats until they launch the bow into the air with an almighty roar before quickly replacing the bow at the tip on the string.  For the middle section I encourage a lighter (‘airborne’) quality with not too much bow.  The final G in this section is one long down-bow that lasts for two bars where they will find themselves at the tip ready for the reprieve.  This encourages them to lean into the string and relax their grip on the bow.  Placing the final ‘ggg G’ can be a little hard to synchronise, but this I find adds to the dramatic effect.  Reference to the piano part will help to understand how this piece works.

12. Morning Sunshine and 13. Afternoon Rain

I find it easiest to teach Afternoon Rain vocally so as to learn the melody and fingering simultaneously.  Teachers who use Solfa may prefer a different approach.  When I teach from the piano I like to play the piece on all strings.  Afternoon rain offers an alternative accompaniment that may help them to relax.  I use these pieces as a warm up for many weeks.

14. Flapping Around

This piece is a little harder than it looks, and I often come back to it when I’ve covered other pieces in the book.  There are several places where physical actions can liven things up.  For example: Chicken-dance style flaps at the end of the first section and/or full spins during the bar rest on the second page.

15. Under the Coconut Tree

This is the piece where fingered notes are first notated.  A convenient bar rest breaks up the note changes, allowing more time to think.  These breaks are also useful for teachers who like to shout fingerings out where necessary.

16. Grand Old Duke of York

I like to have kids marching on the spot during the introduction to this piece.  For the retake at the end of each line I ask for a big circle in the air.  This piece also contains a variety of note-values that I like to test pupils on.

17. Hokey Cokey

The toughest decision to be made when teaching this piece is the extent to which mayhem is permitted when singing.  I like to strike a deal whereby as long as the first note on the repeat is perfectly in tune they are allowed to go wild. 

18. Dark Horse

This is a good time to introduce note naming rather than fingerings if you haven’t already done so.  I start by asking them to guess what note one finger on A makes.  This helps to distinguish between 1 on A and 1 on D when calling out notes/fingerings.  I encourage more creative and disciplined improvisations when using this piece, thinking of it more as a chance to show off their good technique than anything else.

19. Twinkle Twinkle

Often I like to start this piece by giving them the first note and asking them to work out the rest.  I am quite happy for mayhem to ensue so long a I can see a determined effort being made by the majority of the group.  It may however be more practical in other instances to play it and ask them to copy.  The idea is to encourage them to explore the tonal layout of the instrument.

20. Footprints in the Snow

You may wish to change the name of this piece to Footprints in the Sand as it rarely seems to come round at Christmas time.  This doesn’t seem to bother children much however.

21. Old MacDonald

This old favourite is useful for strengthening the 3rd (4th) finger. 

22. Walk on Mars!

It is best not to demonstrate the sliding in this piece until all the notes are learnt.  This spares you having to listen to them slide around when they should be paying attention.  The second half proves quite challenging, and I like to emphasise the piano quality, creating the illusion of a space walk, light and floaty.  The following slides should be harmonic slides to encourage stress-free movement of the left hand.  It also makes for a nicer and quieter sound, so fewer confused faces in the audience.  Once all is learnt I ask them to slide up and down during the introduction as loudly as they can, stopping abruptly when the ostinato begins.  This I describe as the sound of the space rocket landing on Mars.

23. ‘A String’ Hoe Down

This is a good note-reading piece because of its simplicity.  By now pupils should be able to work out for themselves what all the notes are.  Sometimes I divide them into groups where they work them out in two-bar sections, adding a degree of competition that usually fires them up.  The last line I teach by rote, adding foot-stamps or ‘yee-ha’s in the rests.

24. Rolling Hills

Both legato bowing and dynamic contrast are explored in this piece.  It is sometimes nice to repeat the last line as it works with the backing track.

25. Fiery Fiddler

Though this piece is technically quite challenging, it is simple to understand and for that reason quite popular.  The repeated open strings help to tune the fingered notes, and performances often sound more impressive than they deserve to.  The other advantage is that the piece works fine with no accompaniment, giving the player a little more freedom with regard to tempo.  Initially I ask the pupils to sing the fingered notes, omitting the repeated As.  I then ask them to identify the fingered notes on the second page as a descending scale.  As a carrot I offer a free book 2 to any pupil who can perform the piece well, funds permitting.

26. Ode to Joy

No better way to celebrate completing the book.

Book 2

1. Midnight Highway

This is a simple open-string piece to ease pupils into the new book.

2. 3D Scales

As the top note is not repeated, it is possible to play these scales in canon, a third apart.  This however only works without accompaniment.

3. Carnival

The simplicity of this pieces means that it can be taught by rote.  I like to split each line into two-bar questions and answers. 

4. At the Ballet, 5. Sailing Home, 6. Clown Dance

These are all the melodies for their equivalent pieces in Book 1.

7. Jingle Bells

8. Duet

As this is the first ensemble piece in the book, the rhythms are kept deliberately similar.  I rarely use any accompaniment in performance.

9. Low Down Twos

I start by leaving out the open D string notes, teaching the tune by rote.  I initially use the improvisation sections to start practising the string crossing.  Some pupils who find the top line too challenging can look at the bottom line, which also covers low second fingers.

10. 3g Scales

See No. 2. 2D Scales

11. Alpine Waltz

A simple waltz that helps string crossing in 3/4 meter.

12. London’s Burning, 13. Frere Jacques

Two old favourites.  I like to alternate playing and singing when performing this as a canon.

14. Lazy Sundays

I start by practicing just the first bar, repeating it over and over.  I then bar 3 over and over.  Once they can coordinate these bars the piece is not too difficult.  I am sure to point out the difference between a slur and a tie.

15. Summer Parade

This simple piece in two parts uses both long legato bows and short accented notes.  The slur in the first line is something to focus on with players who are more advanced.

16. Prelude

This piece is a little challenging at this stage in the book, so I return to it later.  No accompaniment is necessary if you have both parts covered, but I like to add a simple drum ostinato to give it an Elizabethan flavour.

17. William Tell

Ideal for mixed ability groups, this familiar tune works well in concerts and does not necessarily need accompaniment.

18. Big Dipper

This piece looks more difficult than it is.  It is really an etude that introduces Sautillé bowing technique.  The simple phrases and patterns make it easy to learn and memorise.  It also introduces A Tempo for the first time and repeated slurs across two strings.

19. Kitchen Capers

This uses similar finger-work to Big Dipper but with slurs.  It makes for an effective duet.

20. Smooth Operator

There are plenty of details to focus on in this piece.  Only low 2nd fingers are needed that removes a level of complexity.  Several new things are introduced including low 1st finger, trills and tremelando.

21. Down the Dusty Road

This first piece in C major contains lots of descending scales.  Dynamic contrast, accents and different articulations are a feature of this piece.

22.  Gridlock

This piece uses low 2nd finger followed by high 2nd finger encouraging the player to hear and feel the difference.  I like them to imagine car horns when they play the two crotchets in bar 4, 6 and subsequent times. 

23.  Pick’n’Mix

There is a lot of flexibility built into this piece allowing for optimum possibilities. 

24.  Catch Me If You Can

This piece is effectively in D minor but I left out the key signature to simplify the look of it.  If you have more than one good player in the group, it can be played as a canon as directed.

25.  Barcarolle

This famous tune encourages legato bowing.  With both cello and viola, shifting is required to play some of the high notes.

26.  Papageno’s Song

This combines two famous arias into a simple duet that does not necessarily require accompaniment.

27. A Major Scale

28.  Lucky Charm

To help establish the extended shape of the left hand, this gentle piece also encourages legato technique and gives the opportunity to explore vibrato and dynamics.

29.  Rumba Cucumba

Another extended shape piece, only livelier.

30.  An Arabian Night

This piece promotes a good left hand shape with back extensions by keeping the second (third for cello) finger in position.  It also combines sharps and flats helping to establish the difference.  Otherwise it is very simple.
31.  Kremlin

Introducing changes of meter, accelerando and double-stops.

32.  Adios Amigo

Another chance to explore vibrato in this piece in A minor.  Use of the fourth finger for violin, and 3rd position for cello.  Introducing the grace note.

33.  Vamoose

This piece brings together many techniques, helps focus intonation and string crossings/double-stops.

34.  Jupiter

A nice famous tune to end, in a the new key of F major.

Book 3

1.  Café Calypso

This is a simple opener for the book.

2.  Jamboree

Here is a good string orchestra piece if you combine violin, viola and cello parts.  It works well with any combination of parts, including solo with CD.

3.  Nocturne

A gentle and emotive piece to focus on tone, vibrato and intonation.

4.  Canon

An old favourite.

5.  Dona Nobis Pacem

This makes for a nice song, though it goes quite high.

6.  Reel

A jolly Scottish reel.

7.  Pavane

This is a great concert number for groups, especially if you have all the instruments covered. 

8.  Chillax

Based on how music is presented to ‘big bands’, this piece offers flexibility for large groups and an opportunity to improvise.  I like to teach the easy stuff first (the Bass Line and the Backing) to ensure everyone is included.

9.  Sarabande

This piece works well as a solo number with the possibility to expand the ensemble.  Sections A, B and C can be played simultaneously, and there is also an easy bass line.  I ask for a strong sound and clear intonation to be the focus.  Finding new left-hand positions in Section A is also an area to explore.

10.  Free Wheeling

The middle section of this piece uses Sautillé bowing.

11.  Changing Tides

The first piece in 12/8, this piece focuses on legato technique.

12.  Can-can

This is the melody that can accompany the version in Book 1. 

13.  My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

An old favourite, with both a difficult and easy accompaniment option.

14.  Renaissance

This piece helps to formalise the back-extension.

15.  Droid

This piece is really a study in arpeggios, cunningly disguised as a fun piece.  The middle section covers almost every hand shape in first position, sandwiched between two much easier melodic sections.

16.  Panis Angelicus

An old favourite that makes for a great concert item.

17.  Sonata

This item was adapted from a sonata for cello by Stephen Paxton (1735-1787). 

18.  Turnpike

This unaccompanied duet of equal parts is quite tricky but a pleasant challenge none the less. 

19.  Wind Chimes

This simple piece explores shifting from first to third position with an oriental flavour.

20. Trepak

This is an arrangement of this classic item from the Nutcracker.

21.  Winter

Requested by one of my pupils, this arrangement offers the opportunity to explore new hand positions.

22.  Saint-Saëns Finale

This is a simple arrangement of this popularised finale.

23.  Brahms Finale

This works well with a large ensemble including cellos. 

24.  Tango Por Una Cabeza

A good number for soloists, solo duets, or ensembles. 

25.  Carmen

An arrangement of a popular favourite.

26.  The Jammy Dodger

A fun piece with jovial outer sections and a more lyrical middle section.

27.  Concerto

This mock Corelli concerto includes lots of passage-work sections that work to hone the skills developed throughout the book. 

28.  Passacaglia

To end this book, this piece offers flexibility with various performing options.