Chapter 3: Teaching

The First Few Classes | Instrument Assembly | The Next Few Classes | Band Method or What? | Teaching Through Warm-ups | Reading Music | Teach Concepts | Concerts | Band Camps | Festivals | Using Recordings

The First Few Classes

After instrument assignment and distribution have taken place, the next and very important step is to teach students how to properly assemble and care for their instrument. I have used and heard of quite a number of different ways of delivering these lessons including:

  • Do it all yourself within the timetabled classes. Highly stupid idea! That’s the way I did it for years. Stressful. Inefficient. Did I say STUPID?
  • Ask older students to stay after school with your beginners. Buy pizza.
  • Arrange for all beginning band students to be with you for an afternoon. Hire professionals to teach assembly, embouchure, tonguing, etc.
  • Organize a division-wide “Band Jump-start Day.” Hire professionals or have band directors do the teaching by section.
  • Along with any of the above, arrange for parents to be there to record assigned instruments into your inventory list, collect fees, distribute uniforms and any other function or activity your band parent group is responsible for. Really SMART!

Instrument Assembly

Below are YouTube videos on assembling instruments; one for each band instrument.

Flute

Oboe

Oboe Assembly

Bassoon

Clarinet

Saxophone

Trumpet

French Horn

Trombone

Low Brass

The Next Few Classes

It is critical that your kids get a start that teaches them proper assembly, care, disassembly and cleaning of the instrument from the very first moment. 90% of all repair shop bills result from students not concerned with one or more of these.

Do the smart thing and hire senior band students to teach all of the basics after school one day. This will cost you the price of several large pizzas and some beverages. Or hire local professional musicians/teachers to do the same for much more of a cost than four or five pizzas.

Band Method or What?

I know a lot of band teachers who use a band method book as soon as their students can assemble the instrument and produce a sound. Some of these directors produce good beginner bands because they teach their students how to read, interpret, understand and apply musical concepts, and so on.

There is nothing wrong with teaching by rote, if it is used at the right time for the right reason. I contend the first 2 to 3 months of a band student’s first year on a band instrument should be completely rote learning. Going back to the spoken language analogy, we listened to our family talking, we tried to imitate everything we heard which included not only vowels and syllables, but also tone, inflection and emotion.

After we learned to speak we were gradually taught to read, starting with our parents reading to us. We eventually learned enough to the point where we could read an entire novel without help from others, interpret the plot and enjoy the suspense and emotion intended by the author.

My theory is that we should emulate that same process, but on a different timeline. I also contend if you eliminate everything that is not needed when a student is starting out; reading notes, remembering fingerings, counting rhythms – you are opening up that student’s mind to focus on a few tasks at hand – tone, articulations, dynamics.

I wrote out and transposed a few pages of simple and recognizable melodies for my beginner band classes when I first started teaching; nursery rhymes, folk tunes, a few popular songs. I am not a pianist, but I know how to chord. A basic rock progression using I, IV and V can be used for a slew of rock tunes.

A few years after I started teaching, Brian Appleby, a prominent junior high band teacher in Edmonton, published a method he developed called ApRo Sound Start for Band (Beginning). This wonderful tool comes with a CD with accompaniments that Brian created and recorded; every style imaginable, from classical to polka to heavy rock. The first several songs require students to know two notes. The method progresses gradually to where the use of five notes creates sophisticated-sounding arrangements.

The arrangements are not really that sophisticated, but the audience does not know this. I used the ApRo system for a concert every year in early October. The concert was used to get a majority of our band parents gathered in a room so that the executive of our band parent group could conduct an AGM, hold elections and encourage parents new to the band program to volunteer to sit on the Board and/or help plan events.

Getting back on track, the Sound Start method allows band directors to teach and beginner band students to learn the same way they learned to speak their native tongue. I used a few of Brian’s arrangements of Christmas carols found later in the method for our winter concerts. I also have a colleague who wrote some very simple and easy, yet interesting, arrangements which he sent to me via PDF. I used Sound Start until the beginning of December.

My students did not see a band method book nor a single note on a staff during the first three months of school. I used this time to teach posture, embouchure, tonguing, breathing, tone, tuning, phrasing, shaping of a line and a hundred other concepts that make playing a musical instrument so complex.

I handed out the traditional band method books the next day following the Christmas concert. It takes me two lessons to teach students how to read music – notes, names, location on the staff – even less if they have had a good elementary music education taught by a music specialist. The band always soars through the method book.

Regular band arrangements and compositions in the Very Easy range of difficulty are learned quickly. Why? Because my students have been taught all of the concepts listed earlier and simply apply them to the music. They are not trying to learn how to read at the same time as they are being urged to sit properly, get a better tone and all of the rest of the concepts I expect. These have already been learned and have become an integral part of their ‘language.’

Is this a blatant promo for the ApRo Sound Start method? Damn right it is. It is a proven pedagogy and the kids love it. Almost as importantly, the parents love it. The biggest thing for me is … IT WORKS!

Teaching through Warm-ups

Reading Rhythms: I firmly believe in teaching students how to read rhythms from Day 1. EASY – start every class with a short rhythm on a board (black, white, SMART). Use Kodály and all of the other proven techniques. But don’t forget to write the counting over top of the rhythm. Have the class count out loud while clapping the rhythm. You can help students develop quite a number of skills by adding some other exercises. Once the class is comfortable counting and clapping, they can sing it using the syllables ‘doh’ or ‘dah.’ Sizzle it. Buzz it on the mouthpiece. Play it using one or more notes the class has already learned.

I teach all my students how to do a short 5- to 10-minute warm-up. The warm-ups consist of mouthpiece, long tones, woodwind trill exercise, lip slurs and tonguing. These kinds of individual warm-ups develop tone and technique. I often use sporting analogies in my teaching. For example, I will ask the question: What would happen if a sprinter did not warm up before racing in the 100 meters on a cold day? The answer is always some sort of injury. I relate this same thing can happen to musicians.

This also allows me to have 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of class to attend to student ’emergencies’, hand out reeds, or read a note from home. I have read and heard of some directors who train their top students how to run group warm-ups.      

Reading Music

Once the band is comfortable physically playing the instruments and can perform simple songs with note names or solfège,it is time to start teaching them how to read.

They started with Mama and Dada. This was followed with short expressions such as ‘Preston hungry.’ By the age of two or three they are asking questions; A LOT of questions. Around their 5th birthday they can read simple words.

Between the ages of five and six they start Grade 1 and they start reading about Dick and Jane walking up the hill. Oh, does that date me? My point is that we all spend several years listening, mimicking and learning to speak. Then, and only then, are we taught to read.

If you teach the right way – proper technique, learning note names, playing with good tone – then all that’s left is to start with Exercise 1 on Page 6 of the band method of your choice. You will be amazed at how quickly your band learns to read and start performing ‘regular’ music. View one of my YouTube videos below showing my method of teaching Key Signatures.

Teach Concepts

If you teach concepts you are training young musicians to be independent, skilled, knowledgeable and all of the traits that will result in excellent sight-readers.

Why is sight-reading so valuable? Young bands can learn songs quicker and spend much less time rehearsing because they are making smart musical decisions without needing to be reminded every time they see a dynamic marking or where to breathe.

In the next chapter, my Bag of Tricks, I describe how I teach accents and crescendos. If you teach the concept well, you do not need to repeat yourself every time students see it in a new piece of music.

The most critically important concept is reading music, especially rhythms. I once witnessed a band teacher singing a part to his flute section literally minutes before going on stage for a concert in May.

Teach your kids to read, understand and interpret music. It might take a bit more time when you start doing this, but the time you will save later in the year will outweigh this by a factor of 10.

Do not teach songs. Teach music.

View an example of teaching concepts below:

Concerts

Perform Often: I know this might sound like a bold statement, but kids are human. Human nature says we work harder if faced with a deadline. Young musicians – no, all musicians – work harder in the weeks leading up to a performance.

So it is only common sense that young bands will progress further and faster if they are scheduled to perform often throughout the school year. I started my band teaching career conducting concerts only two or three times each year. We teach the way we were taught.

Recruiting Concerts: Pay for the busing cost to bring your next year’s kids to you. This way you do not need to haul instruments, percussion, stands, etc. to one or more feeder schools.

There are a number of ways you can approach recruiting concerts:

  • Concert only
  • Concert followed by instrument demonstrations
  • Small group demonstrations led by your band students

Keep the music up-tempo and light – marches, movie themes, dynamic overtures. Show a video highlighting the activities at band camp or the school year to date.

Try a Saturday one-day mini-camp in the last month of the school year led by your students, or try the week before school starts.

Band Camps

Camp Caroline: a church-run camp in Alberta with 360 acres of wooded trails, large pool, huge gymnasium, rooms each with four bunk beds, a large dining room which also serves as a rehearsal hall, breakout rooms for sectional clinics, and a kitchen staff that prepares hot meals that kids love to eat.

Banff Music Retreats: hosted at one of several hotels nestled in the midst of the Rocky Mountains. Featured are clinics, rehearsals run by a guest conductor, and many options to choose from to fill some free time.

We have the luxury of several camps in Alberta. A band camp gets the kids away from common daily distractions, allowing their focus to be on learning for two days. Discovering the impact of band camps is the best idea I have ever embraced to add to my bag of tricks.

DO:

  • Hire a quality guest conductor
  • Hire professional musicians to run sectional clinics
  • Mix work and play (movie night, skits, pool time, hiking)
  • Try to go in late winter or early spring about a month before festival season

DON’T:

  • Leave the full band unsupervised with a guest conductor
  • Allow too much unstructured free time in the schedule
  • Go without more than enough adult chaperones

Festivals

When I hear band directors say things like, “I don’t attend festivals because the benefit gained does not merit the time or effort needed”, what they are really thinking is, “I’m afraid that my bands might not be good enough.”

Everyone is different. I once joked “I think I came out of the womb a cocky SOB.” I have often been nervous but rarely afraid. I know this does not describe every band director or even the majority, but you owe it to yourself and your students to attend at least one festival a year.

Most universities do not prepare student band teachers for the real world. That statement will not make many friends, but it is true. You start the real learning process when you start teaching. Please go to festivals and stick around long enough to hear other bands, listen to their choice of literature, what the adjudicators say.

Your band will not be great the first time you go to a festival, but take that first step and one day you will be directing a band that other band directors make their kids sit and listen to.

Attending festivals was the best professional development activity and had the most influence in shaping me as a band director.

Using Recordings

Playing a recording of a new piece before a group has tried to read it at least once or twice has been cause for a lot of heated debate. I must admit, my feelings about the matter have swung to each end of the pendulum and everywhere in between.

My argument early in my career for not playing professional or college recordings of a piece before the band rehearses it was that the band would learn the piece by rote. Subsequently, the band’s ability to read rhythms and in general, sight-read, would be compromised.

My view has swung almost 180 degrees. If you do enough rhythm reading exercises and teach your kids how to read, they will take from the recording only what they should – a very good exemplar of how to interpret the piece.

My school division implemented Assessment for Learning for our PD for two or three years. One of the things I learned from this was the importance of using exemplars so kids will be aware of what you are asking them to do. They can’t hit the bull’s-eye if they can’t see the target.