Alternative Strings

Alternative Strings and the New Golden Age of String Playing

Alternative Strings
Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s Alternative Strings by Amadeus Press (2004)

For some time ASTA (American String Teacher’s Association) has been focusing on training string music teachers to develop Alternative String programs.  Last year I had decided that I need to formally join the organization (which I haven’t done yet but still intend on doing) so that I can be better informed about the programs, literature and techniques being created by those involved in the organization.

ASTA apparently has an “Alternative Styles Award competition” which I learned about after reading Rory Williams “Report from an ASTA Roundtable: ASTA roundtable finds alternative-styles education moving a step ahead—slowly” in the Strings magazine from the conference in Georgia in 2009.  Here’s what sparked my interest in the organization:

Vighnesh Viswanathan, 14, milled about the exhibit hall with his father and sister at the 2009 American String Teachers Association National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. What set him apart from the several hundred teachers, dealers, and performers that visited that day in mid-March was not just his age, but his name badge, which proudly proclaimed “winner.”

“It’s for the Alternative Styles Awards competition,” he said, smiling from ear to ear.

One of 12 string players chosen out of 35 applicants, Viswanathan, of Westford, Massachusetts, won the Junior Division of the “Recognition of Established Traditions” category. His specialty: Carnatic (Indian) violin.

“He studies classical music, too,” his father says.

Viswanathan is part of a growing number of bilingual string players—those who can play both classical and alternative styles—who are seeking a well-rounded education. But nearly a decade after ASTA first embraced alternative styles as a viable pedagogy, the question remains whether teachers and institutions—from the elementary to the graduate level—can accommodate these students.

A more recent article by Williams,  “Find Your Alt-style Sanctuary: 3 college programs that speak another string language,”  briefly describes three college programs involving Alternative Strings.  The introductory paragraphs gives some quotes by cellist Renata Bratt:

“We’re at the beginning of an incredible Golden Age,” said folk cellist, composer, and pedagogue Renata Bratt when Strings asked about the increasing interest in alternative styles. “You can’t believe the music that is coming out of these young people—it’s so eclectic. They’re bringing in music from Sweden, Ireland, jazz music, and Indian raga stuff. Everything that they’re interested in, they’re doing it.”

Yet, for those alt-styles players planning to continue their education after high school, a serious question arises: where can I earn a degree and learn different styles? The good news is that this has been a big year for secondary education and American music. Not only did Mark O’Connor release the first installment of his much-anticipated American fiddle method book series, but several colleges are warming up to the idea of majors in alternative styles—especially folk, bluegrass, and other American roots music.

The three colleges, with links to their program descriptions, are Denison University Bluegrass major; Berklee School of Music American Roots program; and New England Conservatory Contemporary Improv.

What prompted this post was as I was doing a search for “Alternative Strings” on the first page I got a hit for an “Alternative Strings” program at Centerville Schools Orchestra Program in Centerville, Ohio.

The Alternative Strings program at Centerville High School is a performance and comp[e]tition group that studies and performs music that that is not co[n]sidered classical.  This includes bluegrass, jazz, pop, and folk.

Which just reminded me of a similar program local to me by the Orchestra Director at Highland Hills Middle School and Floyd Central High School, Doug Elmore, who I had learned (before moving back down to the Louisville area) started an “Alternative Strings” ensemble of his own, Celtic Fire:

Celtic Fire is a special group of student musicians from the Floyd Central High School Orchestra who perform a unique blend of bluegrass, jazz, rock, and latin music. The musicians play a wide range of styles and genres of music and improvisation is an integral part of their performances. The instruments used include violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, mandolin, drumset, congas, bongos, and other percussion instruments.

Celtic Fire was selected as a Distinguished Ensemble at both the 2004 and 2005 University of Louisville Jazz Festival. The group was also given a Gold Award at the 2004 Indiana State School Music Association Jazz Ensemble Festival. They are trained by Doug Elmore, Director of Orchestras at Floyd Central High School, and many of the musicians also study with private studio teachers in the New Albany area.

The book in the image above is Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s book/CD on developing (and revitalizing) school string programs, Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum.  I have a copy which I’ve yet to finish reading.  I ordered a copy after coming across references to it in the Strings magazine.

Let’s keep our string programs vital, contemporary, and thriving! Alternative Strings: The New Curriculum is the first resource book in the world to offer a comprehensive guide to string educators wishing to step into twenty-first-century inclusive string pedagogy. The “Dear Abby” for string players, Julie Lyonn Lieberman, offers detailed descriptions of over two dozen fiddle, blues, jazz, pop, and world styles; bountiful support materials; a massive discography; musical examples; photographs; and audio from master players and clinicians, far exceeding the scope of other books in the field.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I’ll see if I can’t get past the first page of the search results for “Alternative Strings!”  😀


  1. True that, but these are in the Midwest so you can forgive us for being a little behind the times! 😉

    Though it was really cool to find those two Chinese Youth Orchestras in Seattle and San Francisco–that is really encouraging. There is actually a summer youth orchestra outside of Indianapolis that always brings in clinicians and the directors almost always have a world music focus for those they bring in. I was asked to do one on Mediterranean music (which reminds me that I really need to get back in touch with them!).


  2. I want to thank Mae Mai for including the dream group I founded back in 1998 “officially” The Centerville Alternative Strings. Even years before this I had been working on the concept, but I felt so much resistance to change. I believe the biggest hurdle for string kids and myself was that we were not taught any of this in the classroom ever!!! The band kids always seemed to get a natural dose of great jazz but we evidently were “not allowed” to partake in that because we were “classical.” I never bought into that. I began playing cello in the third grade and then the banjo in 6th and kept both instruments going even up till now. I always wondered how to merge my orchestra friends with my Bluegrass friends! I just wanted us to play music together! Another shot in the arm for me was my discovery of the Turtle Island String Quartet! Their music literally saved me from quitting the cello altogether. I studied this group and their music like a scientist and began using their music in my Alternative string group. Another relief was the publication of Darol Anger’s Chops and Grooves DVD! Finally, something to help the kids with back beat chop patterns and different grooves. I am also guilty as charged for raiding the band teachers trash cans! All of the old jazz instructional books they threw away were most invaluable for us. If it was good enough for them then it had to be great for us! We were never taught Jazz as young string players but I loved that sound way too much so I studied it, learned how it worked and applied it to our group. Guess what…String kids can swing! String kids can Rock and most of all string kids are cool…very cool! Sorry so long…I was just inspired that you even mentioned us in your post!!! Thanks so much!


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