Perhaps some of you may have been lucky enough to experience the wonders of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as performed by a live orchestra, with the sounds filling the hall, your very being able to feel the music as well as hear it. More of us might of had the experience of being moved to tears as strings serenade the passing of a beloved character on the screen, or having our pulse set racing as the orchestra crescendos to accompany an heroic charge in the last scene of a movie.
There is something in music that has the ability to move us deeply. It nurtures our being in a way that nothing else can. That is the reason it is such an integral part of the curriculum at any Waldorf school. Steiner says that “Music in the Waldorf curriculum awakens and nurtures the deep inner life of the child”1. Students sing from the earliest age as they go about their daily routines, and then gradually add more complex and formal music education as the child progresses through the grades..
In Grade 4, an element is added…. string instruments. Some students (and parents) might be super excited about the prospect, while others might be far less enthusiastic, and may wonder why we make everyone learn this particular instrument. Why violin or cello, why not guitar or ukulele? Or a wind instrument for that matter? Afterall, string instruments are quite complex to be able to play, not to mention being extremely finicky when it comes to tuning. And when it comes to being affected by changes in weather? Goodness gracious. If you could pick the worst instruments for New England weather, strings would be it. So, why do we teach it? What is the point? Well, there are many reasons.
One reason that strings are taught is that they are unique in that they are the only family of instruments that enable the player to really feel the music that they are playing. The bow being drawn across the strings sends vibrations through the instrument producing the sounds, which the player can then feel within themselves. Also, though this is coming from a biased string player, no other instrument type is able to as closely mimic the sound of the human voice. This last element is especially important to consider especially when you think of when the instrument is introduced. In Waldorf schools, violin or cello is introduced in late 3rd grade or early 4th grade, right around the time of the nine-year change, when the students are starting to experience the world in a new way, and their emotional lives deepen2. Strings give them an outlet to express those new experiences.
Strings also offer unique developmental opportunities as so many things are required of the student at the same time. The student has to move the fingers of the left hand independently and in completely different motions from their right hand not to mention at different speeds. Not only that, but the students are regularly crossing their midline as they play, which has great benefits for brain development 2.
And lastly, though this does not only apply to Strings, learning to play an instrument teaches a lot more than just the instrument itself. One does not go from being a beginning student scratching out a rough approximation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to being able to soar through the gloriously moving “Lark Ascending” without a lot of disciplined work. Not only does the student develop self-discipline as they learn to put the work into practicing, but practicing itself also teaches important problem-solving skills. A good practice session will include a lot of questioning, such as if a piece sounds right, if the rhythm is correct, if it is in tune, and so on. It will also include the student asking themselves what parts of the piece that they are having trouble with, and figuring out different strategies to help themselves accomplish their goal of playing the piece correctly. Such skills are extremely useful not only in other areas of school, but also in life in general.
There are many reason why strings are a part of the Waldorf curriculum.They provide an emotional outlet, give the students the opportunity to feel the music in their own bodies, provide excellent brain development, problem solve, encourage self-discipline and problem solving. In addition to all of that, strings provide the opportunity to be a part of an ensemble working and striving together to create something beautiful. Strings are worth the work!