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ASTA Ups Alternative Offerings at Annual Conference

National strings curriculum, eclectic festival signal a new wave of teaching methods and style

Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo has been used to sell beef and conjure the untamed spirit of the 19th-century American frontier. In March, it became the unofficial anthem of the 2011 American String Teachers Association National Conference in the “Heart of America,” Kansas City, Missouri. The performances of the “Hoe-Down” at the opening ceremony by the classical-leaning Indiana University Violin Virtuosi and at the closing concert by electric rock violinist Mark Wood and the Olathe Youth Symphony Association combined to display the breadth of the traditional and nontraditional styles that ASTA has come to embrace as well as the organization’s “eclectic” future.

Workshops by renowned clinicians and master classes by the likes of Rachel Barton Pine, Roberto Díaz, and other notable educators packed several hundred college and elementary-school string teachers and students into conference rooms at the Kansas City Convention Center and Marriott Downtown. But the biggest seller in the exhibit hall was the book ASTA String Curriculum 2011 Edition (Alfred Music Publishing, $49.99). ASTA’s first national model curriculum presents standards and benchmarks for K–12 strings and orchestra programs.

The ASTA curriculum incorporates the teachings of Shinichi Suzuki, Paul Rolland, Kato Havas, and others, but it is by no means a method book. Rather, it’s a road map to which teachers—those trained on strings or other instruments—can refer to make sure their string classes are on track delivering the requisite skills. It’s also a solid lesson plan that educators can present to administrators and parents. “As teachers, you have to be flexible and creative, but if the administration doesn’t see this in writing, it doesn’t exist,” Stephen Benham, chair of the curriculum committee, told a standing-room-only crowd at his presentation during the conference.

The curriculum is organized into three categories and several subdivisions: Executive Skills (body format, right and left hand); Musicianship Skills (aural, ear, and rhythmic skills, and creative musicianship); and Artistic Skills (music literacy, ensemble and expressive skills, historical and cultural elements, and evaluation of music and musical performance). Benham stressed that the curriculum is a starting point, and that a new edition may be published as soon as 2013. “You may not use everything, but we hope you will be systematic and intentional,” Benham said.

Though the teachers hadn’t yet had a chance to digest the dense tome, reaction to it was generally positive, as evidenced by its selling out at the exhibit hall. “It was flying off the shelf,” said Kathy Johnstone, who’s been Alfred’s trade show and convention manager for more than 12 years. “When something blows the socks off attendees, I can see it.”

One of the teachers perusing the curriculum was Lorraine Davis, a string instructor at a private school in London, England. “It’s the sort of thing I’d want to digest and infuse into my teaching gradually,” Davis said. “But I wouldn’t want to get bogged down by everything. If I read 25 things to do, I’m going to try to do all 25 things, and I’d get bogged down.”

The $49.99 price tag was reasonable to some, like Kristen Harris, a master’s student at the University of South Carolina. She and her classmates have been cobbling together lesson plans as part of a project—a task made all the more difficult by varying state standards, but that might be alleviated by the new ASTA book. “We’re looking at curriculum from different districts around the country,” Harris said. “It was different at every one!”

To retiring math and science teacher Jim O’Neal, the asking price presented a hindrance to the sharing of information. During the presentation, O’Neal argued that the curriculum should be free and posted online, where it could be debated and updated in real time, similar to a wiki. Benham countered that the committee had discussed offering a PDF of the curriculum gratis, but ultimately decided against it. “No way is anyone getting rich on this,” Benham said. “ . . . I wish that all knowledge was free . . . but the production of knowledge is not.”

After the presentation, O’Neal noted: “The people with the purse strings call the shots. . . . I question whether it will have wide distribution in the nation.”

While the curriculum is, as ASTA National President Kirk D. Moss noted, “a historic achievement,” it also officially documents the shift in ASTA’s attitude toward alternative styles—a term that encompasses bluegrass, rock, jazz, and other fiddling styles, but has come under fire from notable practitioners. Julie Lyonn Lieberman, a clinician who specializes in improvisation and world styles, authored the curriculum’s Creative track. During her presentation of the improvisation and alternative styles track, she offered comfort to the wary traditional teacher. Her track, she explained, was a combination of the left and right portions of the brain. “It’s not about one thing preempting the other,” Lieberman said. “It’s about combining the two. . . . Improvisation is not about pushing them out into a wide expanse and saying, ‘play now.’ It’s much more structured.”

Mark Wood, the aforementioned rock violinist who has also served on the ASTA board, had a chance to preview the alternative styles section. He echoed Benham’s disclaimer: “It’s not the bible,” Wood said after a panel on incorporating rock music into orchestral repertoire. “It’s a starting point. Teachers can implement more jazz and rock on their own.”

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