Silence is Golden
…Yamaha sees educators warm to Silent String products
Yamaha is on the move promoting their Silent Electric String Quartet, and they think they’ve hit upon a key: it’s the “un-clinic.”
“The heart of it all is that there is excitement and growth in the ‘alternative string’ market,” explains Roger Eaton, Yamaha’s director of marketing. “What we’ve discovered is that string teachers in the school systems are tapping into the energy that is out there for this cutting-edge technology.” But to tap into it, the instruments have to be presented in the right manner.
“We’ve carried them to some degree since they came out, and now we stock them all the time,” says Kent Isenberg of Ted Brown Music in Tacoma, Wash. “They are getting more acceptance from teachers all the time. One teacher here was so inspired by a recent Yamaha seminar that she got a whole string quartet of silent strings.” This particular educator teaches grades fifth to seventh grade, and actually uses the quartet of instruments as a “reward” — if they practice hard and do well on their traditional string instrument, they get to play on the Silent Strings.
Isenberg says interest from students is growing each year. “It gives kids the chance to do things you can’t do on a traditional violin,” he says. “It generates enthusiasm in general. We just ordered a silent cello because a woman’s son made up his mind it’s what he wanted, and we used rental credit from the traditional cello he was already renting to do it.”
As for his intermediate teacher, she recently called Isenberg and asked when Yamaha is going to have another seminar. “This gal has captured the vision for the instruments and it’s working for her.”
“For Those Looking for Excitement …”
Helping to fuel it all is the Yamaha String Educator Developer Seminars (YSEDS). While it’s one thing to bring in a virtuoso artist to discuss advanced technique, and dazzle in ways that can’t be repeated, Yamaha has decided on an “un-clinic.”
“We gather local educators and bring in a quartet of string players that first play through an acoustic piece,” explains Ken Dattmore, marketing manager for orchestral strings. “Then they play the same piece on ‘silent’ –you can’t hear them unless you have headphones. The next step is to present the electrified aspect, and the quartet plays a modern piece like ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ The fourth piece is full-blown electric — something with wah-wah pedals and distortion boxes … at that point it doesn’t even sound like a string quartet!”
Dattmore and Heather Mansell, Yamaha’s product manager for orchestral strings, are leading these events, including the one staged at Ted Brown Music. They are there to show the possibilities and lead a discussion for music educators. “The reason we decided to go with this type of program is that we wanted to work with teachers in a way that focuses on the educational elements,” says Mansell.
It makes for an impressive demonstration of the possibilities, one that most teachers respond to. “Teachers at the collegiate level are sometimes slow to get it, but they don’t have the challenge of recruiting as other teachers do,” Dattmore says. “For those looking to make a program more exciting and appealing, these instruments are helpful. They help with recruitment and retention.”
Yamaha is also launching another program they hope will be a two-way street. It’s the Yamaha Certified String Educators program, and they have tapped into 14 of the nations top, cutting-edge string educators who are using innovative ideas and pushing the boundaries of string education. The goal is seek advice and feedback from the group.
Dattmore says that by watching what educators are doing with Silent Strings, and by highlighting creative and forward thinking educators taking advantage of these instruments, they will inspire others to get involved. “This core group has all these ideas they have pioneered on their own,” he says. These star educators will be able to tell other teachers, “I was once where you were, but now I have an orchestra with 50 electric strings.”
“Music educators are interested in trying something new, but often don’t know where to start,” says Mansell. “These certified educators will be able to show them.”
They acknowledge that budget issues can be a roadblock to acquiring instruments for an electric string quartet, but they have seen creative solutions: for example, while it’s traditionally the case that the music program has a budget that is tight as a drum, there is often a generous amount dedicated to technology. So while $5,000 for electric strings out of a music educator budget might be tough, they have seen teachers tap that amount out of the technology budget.
Also they tell of an educator in Pittsburgh who has been successful with kids and electric violins, showing them off at community events. He was able to write a grant for more instruments that the city could get behind.
Mansell says the ultimate goal is to have electric strings in all levels of string education from the middle school to the university level. One potential barrier is the misconception that these instruments in any way take away from traditional, formal music training. It won’t cause students to “stray” away from classical studies; it will only offer the student more musical possibilities, thus make for better young musicians. After all, marching and jazz bands never took away from the concert band. (And speaking of marching bands, these instruments allow strings to be added to them.)
“This needs to be seen as that one extra hook that keeps kids involved,” Roger Eaton adds. “It appeals to a wide variety of kids. For some, if they only play Mozart on the instrument, they may quit. But if you also offer chart arrangements on songs by Coldplay and Radiohead, who knows? Just because the instrument is rooted in classical music doesn’t mean it needs to always stay there.”
The look of the instrument is a draw as well. “The philosophy of the design was to create an instrument that would be the most natural transition from acoustic to electric,” says Mansell. “It effortlessly hits all the natural touch points of the traditional instrument, which is a way to help the player. Some instruments on the market incorporate guitar-like features or solid-body guitar patterns, which add weight and do more to inhibit the player’s ability to naturally switch from an acoustic to an electric instrument.”
“The innovation has been so incredible that the cello is on display at the Art Institution of Philadelphia,” she adds. “It’s a merger of design and technology.”
Dattmore says the looks of the instruments are part of the appeal, and just having them in the traditional string shop draws attention and interest. “Also, for that customer you’ve already sold a $10,000 violin to … all he or she is coming back for are strings and rosin. Now they come through the door, and they see a second instrument they can add.
“Plus, I’ve always wondered about these bass players — lugging around their $26,000 instrument to a jazz gig that pays $80,” he laughs. “The Silent String Bass is so much easier to get around — it’s very subway-friendly!” Raising awareness of the electric bass instruments are Five for Fighting, Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, and Josh Groban, all of whom have bass players play their instruments. When Gnarls Barkley last toured, they took a full electric string quartet.
Eaton notes most would agree that the overall number of kids joining string programs hasn’t changed much in the last 15 years, yet dealers are always looking for new opportunities. “The money line here is that if the dealer hasn’t explored this new opportunity yet, he or she should,” he says.