3 Reasons to Teach Your Students Folk Music

By Reel, James | Strings, December 2010 | Go to article overview

3 Reasons to Teach Your Students Folk Music


Reel, James, Strings


Just a few traditional tunes can introduce a beginner to a wealth of culture and technique

FOR DECADES, folk music has received a mixed reception from string teachers - a perception that still lingers in some quarters, even eight years after the American String Teachers Association embraced the concept of teaching through "alternative styles."

Old attitude: folk music is mostly easy stuff that unschooled fiddlers can learn by ear without running the risk of developing actual technical skills.

More recent attitude: folk music offers an abundance of artistic and technical challenges - not to mention good tunes - but because of its various stylistic intricacies, it's best not to study it until you have a thorough classical grounding.

New attitude: folk music is great for teaching technique and musicianship right alongside classical pieces from the very beginning.

If you're still on the fence about the legitimacy of alternative styles, consider what Susan Kempter has to say. Kempter, the director of string pedagogy at the University of New Mexico, has had great success incorporating folk pieces into the lessons of her young students. "I have found folk music to be equal to the traditional string curriculum and highly motivational for kids," she says, "maybe because of the freedom and opportunities they have to develop their own musical voice in a different way."

Kempter maintains that folk music can help students develop particular rhythmic and bowing skills that they don't get from the standard classical student pieces. "In most folk music, the rhythm has to fit words, so it can move freely from one meter to another," she says. "This is really challenging and interesting for kids. It also helps them develop quick and easy string crossings when they're young.

"When we teach Mozart or Bach, there are all these rules about what kind of bow stroke you use and how to start a trill, and that's good skill development, but in folk music we have the opportunity to experiment more. Also, when we're learning a new folk piece, we can say, 'We learned this skill playing a particular Mozart piece - where can you find that skill in this folk piece, and how is it the same or different from playing Mozart?'"

In the end, Kempter says, what's important is to expose your students to the richest diversity of music you can. "We're not teaching kids to play a piece of music; we're teaching them to play their instruments," she says. "Technique is technique. It doesn't matter whether you get it from folk tunes or classics."

Here are three more good reasons to embrace folk music in your lesson plan.

1. FOLK MUSIC IS FLEXIBLE

A folk song isn't considered a sacred text, like traditional classical pieces.

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