The University of South Carolina String Project has won national recognition, including the Verner Award and a documentary on South Carolina ETV celebrating the 20th anniversary of the program. When the University of South Carolina String Project was founded in 1974 there was just one small string program in the Columbia metropolitan area. Now all five school districts in the Columbia area have large and active string programs, with orchestras in every high school and six regional youth orchestras.
The USC String Project has had a major impact in a city with no previous tradition for orchestral music in the schools and little interest in the arts. Initially the program provided competent young teachers and well-trained string students. Eventually the large numbers of children playing string instruments created a critical mass and the parents demanded programs in their own local schools.
Training tomorrow's string educators
providing accessible string instruction opportunities for youth and adults
The teachers in the program are undergraduate string education majors. However the String Project is not part of the regular undergraduate curriculum; instead freshmen are accepted into the program and given an ‘assistantship’ which is paid monthly. If they violate any of the rules (i.e. they are late or absent, or if they neglect to fulfill an obligation) their pay is docked. The assistantship stipend is used as a recruiting device, and to encourage students to consider majoring in education.
The university students study their own major instruments, secondary stringed instruments, and take pedagogical methods and technique courses, in addition to the standard undergraduate music education courses. The String Project teachers also attend a weekly organization and pedagogy meeting. They actively participate in all the activities of a professional teacher: recruiting students, planning lessons, writing report cards, keeping records, conducting orchestras, teaching beginning classes, teaching smaller homogeneous second-year classes, coaching chamber music, teaching private lessons, setting up rehearsals, organizing recitals, etc. Therefore, by the time they graduate, these students have had four or five years of practical training and experience and are ready to begin teaching on their own. One of the additional benefits of having college students beginning to teach early in their careers is that they discover whether they really want to teach; those that do not usually change their majors prior to their student teaching experience in their senior year (or often even after they have their first job!).
The full-time student teachers in the program work for 6 hours/week, although their load is considered to be 10 hours/week. The additional hours are calculated to include time spent in the beginning of the semester in recruiting, and at the end of the semester in putting together studio recitals, the large ensemble concert and doing paperwork. Full-time student teachers receive $1600 per year, or over $9.00 per hour for their teaching. First-year teachers usually work half-time while they are becoming acquainted with the program, so that they are not overloaded during their freshman year at college. They receive $800 per year, working for 3 hours/week (although their load is similarly calculated as 5 hours/week).
During their first year in the program, Freshmen university students observe various aspects of the program. They help with the recruiting, are ‘assistants’ in the large beginning classes and the second year classes, and participate as coaches for the various orchestras. After the first year, they are assigned to teach private lessons and other activities depending on their interest, ability and maturity. By the time they graduate, they will have been able to teach in a variety of pedagogical settings.
The Master Teacher is a part-time instructor who has taught in the public schools for many years. By teaching one of the heterogeneous classes she is the model for the young teachers. She also observes and critiques the classes which the college undergraduates teach.
For many years, the Director of the USC String Project was an applied faculty member at the School of Music. However, as a result of the enormous growth of the program a new position was finally created at the university for a music education string specialist. This step was a direct result of the success of the program and the need for a faculty member to address the specific requirements of music education students.
Children in the third and fourth grades are recruited from local public and private schools to study in the String Project. The teachers go to about twenty schools each August and play short demonstration programs for the children. In addition, local newspapers print informational articles, and letters are sent to area principals to inform them about the opportunity for youngsters to join. People who are interested in the program are invited to come to an information and registration meeting held at the university. Each year about 120 students are selected for the four heterogeneous beginning classes (violin, viola, cello and bass taught together). These classes meet twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). The first class (4:00-5:00) is taught by the Master Teacher. The teachers of the other three classes observe the first class, and then subsequently teach their own classes during the next hour (5:00-6:00). At then end of each semester all the students in the program participate in a concert in the Koger Performing Arts Center.
Students in the second year of the program attend once a week for an hour class with like-instruments (homogeneous classes). They also come on another day to play in an orchestra. After the second year, students come for a private half-hour lesson once a week. They also are required to play in the Advanced Orchestra. All students in the program are expected to play in an orchestra (either one of the three String Project orchestras or one of the Youth Orchestras run by the SC Philharmonic Orchestra). They are also expected to participate in their own school programs in order to be in the String Project.
According to an article in the November 1998 edition of the American String Teacher journal, the ‘guiding principle…. of a string project is to provide college string majors with teaching experiences while providing pedagogy classes or supervision over a number of semesters in order to prepare the college students for private or public school teaching while promoting the talents of pre-college string students.’ (Hurley, 1998). The first String Project was the program at the University of Texas at Austin, which was started in 1948.
The model for the national grants which have funded most of the Consortium sites is the USC String Project at the University of South Carolina.
String Projects provide practical hands-on training for prospective teachers during their college years. As a result, the undergraduates who teach in these programs gain valuable experience prior to taking a job. These programs also attract string players to the teaching profession by giving them stipends for teaching in the program. As a result of this experience while in college, music education majors often discover whether they enjoy teaching before actually entering the field; those that find that they do not want to make it their career may decide to change their majors before getting their first job. On the other hand, performance majors at colleges often discover their love of teaching children as a result of their positive experiences in a String Project.