Who is Tom Taylor?
My teaching career started in 1978 in Valleyview, a town of 2,000 people in northern Alberta. I was a math major when I first entered university, dropped out to get married and went on the road with a 7-piece horn band covering tunes by Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and the like. I could go on and bore you with the details, but the point is that I left the band when my daughter was about to be born, worked in a warehouse for six months, then went back to school and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education without ever taking a woodwind or a brass techniques course.
I was a trombone player and that’s all I knew. I started teaching beginning band with a method book for every instrument laid out over three or four music stands opened to the fingering chart page.
I was not a particularly good band teacher when I started out. I knew next to nothing about anything when it came to beginning band. I read books. I attended band conferences. I listened to on-stage adjudications for other bands at festivals. But most importantly, I talked and listened to experienced, well-respected colleagues. I was that annoying little kid who latched on and never shut up. 🙂
With perseverance I became a much better teacher of beginning bands, consistently winning Gold and Superior Awards at regional and provincial festivals. In 2013 I was part of the staff that opened a new K to 9 school. In March of 2014, after the school had only been up and running for seven months, the Westmount Grade 6 Band received a Gold Award at the Southern Alberta Festival in Calgary and the trophy for Most Outstanding Beginning Band.
I learned a lot in a career that spanned almost 40 years. This is my attempt to share as much as I can remember. I stole a lot of ideas from colleagues to place in my teaching ‘Bag of Tricks.’ You don’t need to steal any from me. I am giving them to you.
How to use this book
This book consists of a lot of ideas and suggestions which are entirely my opinion. No empirical data, just 35 years of experience and anecdotes. It is intended to be a resource; a collection of teaching tips gleaned over 30-some years of teaching beginner bands.
You can learn a lot by sitting with and listening to an old man do his thing. My “thing” is teaching beginning bands. There is nothing I do better, with the possible exception of fly fishing.
My beginning bands consistently received Gold or Superior Awards during my career. They won trophies that stated the adjudicators thought they were the best band in the entire festival.
Why am I writing these words at the risk of sounding cocky and arrogant? To make a point. The things you will read here will help you accomplish the same with your beginning bands.
You will accomplish this only if you are dedicated to your craft. If you are not excited to teach band, please go do something else.
You will accomplish this only if you work hard while maintaining a balance in your life. I worked my ass off for over 30 years. I loved my job. BUT, not as much as I love my family.
I hope you find the ideas and suggestions useful in one of the toughest jobs I know. This is why I structured the book the way I did. It is not a novel. It is not a research report. It is available free for you to use in any way that suits your needs.
Prepare Before the School Year Begins
I am a ‘list’ person. In teaching band, it seemed I added two ‘to do’ items for every item I stroked one off as completed. It is not practical in this setting for me to suggest a list of everything you should prepare for and consider before starting a school year (music folders, supplies, concert dates, festivals, seating plans, music stand storage, uniforms, course outlines, unit plans, decorating the room, assessment schedule).
Every summer I started going to work about two weeks before classes started. Some days I might only spend an hour or two before going home to do something with my kids or meeting a buddy to fish for the afternoon. Other days I might spend six or seven hours at work. Some people are good at flying by the seat of their pants. I am not one of them. I was a much more effective teacher when I had all the items on my Back to School list checked off.
A wise man once told me, “Teaching band is not rocket science.” The ability to produce consistently well-performing ensembles is not a matter of high academia. It is simply one of a commitment to prepare, put in the hours and most importantly, have a passion for teaching band.
If you are not the person to trust with starting and/or maintaining an up-to-date and accurate inventory, then find someone who is. Do you have a band parent who operates a small business in town who has years of experience with inventory?
Condition of Inventory
It is our responsibility as band teachers to provide our students with the best possible chance of success. The biggest roadblock to achieving this is to put an instrument in poor working condition in the hands of a beginner.
I started teaching in 1978. The school division that hired me had a lot of excess tax revenue and a superintendent who understood the value of a good music program. I wanted for nothing.
Every student who played an instrument larger than a tenor sax or trombone was assigned two – one for school and one for home practice. The quality of every instrument was excellent. This was especially helpful in this farming community where most students had up to a 90-minute bus ride each way.
In 1988 I took a job teaching band in a different school division. The inventory consisted of two tubas, a very old bass clarinet, no baritone sax and one front-bell euphonium which needed duct tape to keep the bell attached.
I struggled with this situation for two years until I thought of a solution. I did a lot of research into instrument prices and what to expect when ordering large numbers. I drafted a proposal to admin and eventually made a presentation to the school board. I showed how a $400 clarinet would generate $1,500 in rental income over the expected 15-year lifespan. The $1,100 difference between the initial cost and the rental fees generated could then go toward the purchase of larger and/or more expensive instruments.
The Board approved my proposal in 1990 to buy a large number of band instruments to rent out to students. The rental monies collected each year were handed over to band directors in June to buy new instruments. We called it the Evergreen Program. It was extremely successful to the point where they are now purchasing semi-professional models for high school band programs.
The main point here is to be prepared. Go through your inventory. Give yourself time to consider solutions to any potential problems, such as introducing an optional rent-to-purchase plan from a local retailer. Take a problem-solving approach. Be careful not to be seen as a complainer. Contact an experienced colleague to ask for advice.
Sax and Percussion
Are you concerned about balanced instrumentation? If the answer is yes, you must have a plan or a standing policy on students starting on saxophone or percussion. Why? They are by far the two most popular choices of instrument by beginning students AND parents. My policy was that nobody started on either and students had to earn their way to switch.
I used every avenue of communication available to ensure students and parents were informed of my policy well before the time arrived to make their instrument selections. Parents occasionally tried to circumvent this policy by purchasing instruments before the selection process. My attempt at a diplomatic solution was to offer free rent for a school-owned instrument other than sax or percussion for the first year of band. I would then consider allowing the student to switch or double starting in year two if they earned that privilege.
Having no saxes or percussion in a beginning band presents no performance problems. Third year students can easily fill in at a moment’s notice. For festivals I had second year students learn, rehearse and perform on the three saxes, bass clarinets and percussion. I always informed the adjudicators of this and mentioned that all of the second years are actually first years on the instruments they are playing.
When switching to sax or percussion, first and foremost, students should earn the privilege by demonstrating consistent effort in class and private practice. I have tried various strategies to assist students making a switch or learning a second instrument in order to double.
The club was open to every student who met a minimum criterion of private practice, classroom effort and concert attendance. It started in May after school; one day a week. I recruited older students to be my peer mentors.
I made it clear to students that attending Saxophone Club did not mean they could necessarily switch completely to sax the next school year. Most students were encouraged to remain on their original instrument for concert band and double on sax for jazz band. They were also allowed a chance to rehearse for and perform at one concert on sax with the concert band.
This is where I tried many different approaches. In my early years I allowed students with advanced piano studies and proficiency to start on percussion. Another strategy was the Percussion Club, which was run exactly as described for sax. Another successful approach required students to attend a week-long summer band camp where beginner percussion instruction was available.
Whatever method you use, the one most important requirement is start on MALLET PERCUSSION! Once and only when students demonstrate proficiency on mallets, allow them to learn snare drum, timpani, bass drum and auxiliary percussion.
Some other options to consider:
- Allow percussionists in beginner band but always start them off on mallets. They earn the privilege of moving on to snare drum after proving proficiency on mallets.
- All students who express an interest in percussion start on a wind instrument, but are part of a rotation that allows them to play mallets in class once every week or so.
- Start the doubling process on sax immediately following the Christmas concert with the goal of the students returning to class in January with enough basic skill level to double between sax and their original woodwind instrument.
I have started students in band as early as Grade 5 and as late as Grade 7. My personal preference is to start in Grade 6. There are many band teachers who do a great job of starting earlier but it does not suit my teaching style. Translation – I don’t have the patience!
I have been able to consistently start beginning Grade 7 bands in September and guide them to Gold or Superior Awards by April or May. There is a readiness factor that comes in to play at that age. In other words, something biologically and/or physically occurs around the age of 12 that enables youngsters to physically handle the instruments with more ease and develop the musical components much more quickly.
Mandatory or Elective
The key element in making these decisions is the starting grade. I have taught in just about every kind of program. The biggest stressor in my long career was caused by teaching mandatory Grade 8 band. Actually, it was a result of one particular incompetent principal, but that is the topic for another book.
My experience has been that by the time students reach Grade 7 they have fairly strong opinions on joining band. Band is like few other courses in the sense that improvement, learning and musical progress are so interdependent. It is truly a group activity. Dealing with students who do not want to be there is not only stressful, but they have can also have a serious impact on the learning and musical development of the rest of the group.
I once had an amazing beginner band of 135 students. At the end of the school year we received the class lists for the following September and about 10 of our better Grade 7 band students were not signed up for Grade 8 band. We had a meeting with those 10 or so students and this one brave little girl had this to say: “I loved band at the beginning of the year but after 10 months of having to sit beside ‘Johnnie B. Good’ (real name withheld to protect the guilty) I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
A colleague calls it the ‘cancer in the room’ and if you do not remove the cancer, it will spread and continue to cause damage until it is removed.
Have a Plan
I always had a plan. It might not have been written down, but I had a plan. My plan would not suit every band director’s needs or teaching style. My plans were not necessarily the best. The following is merely one example of a list I might have written to prepare for the start of the school year.
- Letters home: Introduce yourself to the parents and add a few words about the program. Include a description of how the first few weeks will unfold – instrument demonstration and choosing instrument process. How do students obtain their instruments – school provided, rental purchase plan?
- Calendar: Include dates such as demo, instrument selection, first few lessons, first concert.
- Book clinicians for start-up day.
- How and when will I show videos?
- Handbook: Research other band directors’ handbooks. Be very clear. Do not include any rules or policies you are not prepared to enforce and stand up for.
- Check the inventory.
- How will we dispense reeds and oil?
- Purchasing music, instruments and supplies: Does the school use purchase orders, credit cards, standing accounts?
- Music folders: How many? Where do we keep them?
- Method books, scale sheets, rhythm sheets
- Literature: Christmas, festival, pops concert …
My first class with a beginner band class was a demonstration of the instruments available for the students to choose from. If you are not proficient enough to at least play a scale or simple melody, there are other resources available.
The easiest and sometimes most effective is to have older students to come in and play. If you do this, make sure you meet briefly ahead of time and give them clear instructions on what to play, what to say, etc.
Another option is showing some videos, such as the following from the U.S. Army Field Band.
An excellent Professional Development activity is to spend some time over the summer learning how to play a major scale and/or a few short recognizable tunes on every instrument in the band. It will make the instrument demo session easy and also establishes a bit of respect in the students’ eyes toward your ability to teach them.
I start by quickly discussing how the instruments are divided into two groups – brass and woodwinds. I then pick up a flute, ask what the name of the instrument is, then play for no more than 30 seconds. If you want or need help, older students are usually more than happy to get out of math class to come in and help with the demonstrations.
I use this time to discuss the selection process which should be within no more than two or three days. I also send home a form that must be completed and signed by both student and parent.
U.S. Army Field Band Instrument Demonstration Videos
Take an opportunity at the beginning of this class to reinforce the need for a balanced band. I will have an approximate instrumentation numbers already posted on the board.
Over the years I discovered a lower retention rate among trombones and low brass. So when I looked at my enrollment, I leaned a bit heavier in that direction. Another trick I developed was chatting with the feeder school teachers and especially the music specialist to get some recommendations for F horn players. The same can be said for oboe and bassoon. You need special students on these instruments. I usually had chosen them and contacted parents before the school year began.
If I was starting 50 students in beginning band, my list of instruments and numbers available might look like the following:
4 French Horns
A letter with an attached form to parents was handed out. A sample is shown in the Resource section. Students who return the completed and signed form are allowed first crack at their first choice on selection day.
The selection process goes something like this:
- Have everyone who has flute as their first choice stand up. If the number does not exceed the number on the board (in this case, seven), all of their names go on the list; a list I have someone else like a colleague on a prep compiling. If the number is greater, they sit down and take time to consider trying their second choice.
- Proceed through the list in this manner.
- Nothing further needs to happen with any instrumental sections that have been filled. For example, if I have four students listed for tuba I am done with them. I take a moment before returning to the top of the list by stating that this is a chance for some to be guaranteed to get their second choice. Students willing to fill spots in less than prescribed sections are quite anxious to do so.
- Then I start back at the top for a second round. I use discretion at this point and am a little flexible. For example, if we are down to eight students who adamantly want to play flute, I will ‘give in.’
The important thing to keep in mind is trying to start out with an instrumentation balance that makes sense and serves your situation and purposes. This is not the one and only way to get there; it’s just how I did it.
This whole process is completely unnecessary if you use the following exploratory method.
I taught at Cayley School for several years. Cayley is a tiny hamlet south of Calgary, Alberta. The combined Grade 5/6 homeroom often had no more than ten Grade 6 kids – the grade we started band. I struggled for a few years with kids who ended up on an instrument that did not suit them. In almost every case, those students dropped band as soon as they could.
During that time, I met Clinton Marshall, maybe the best guest conductor I have ever met and had the privilege to watch and learn from. One day in Banff where he was working with my high school bands at a band retreat, Clinton mentioned a band director in the U.S. who had been experimenting with something called an “exploratory.” An exploratory allows students to try out 2 or more instruments over a period of time before deciding on an instrument to remain on for the rest of the year.
I tried it the following school year at little Cayley School with a Grade 6 band of nine students. They were required to try three different wind instruments (at least one brass and one woodwind). At the end of each trial, which lasted about three weeks with three classes per week, I would listen to a student perform something – a simple song from a method book or a part of a scale, lasting no more than 20 or 30 seconds. That’s all it took for me to jot down a few observations.
It was mid-November when the third trial period concluded and it was time to select an instrument to remain playing for the rest of the school year. I used my notes to guide students to the best choices.
A few times, but very seldom, I would put my foot down and not allow a choice I felt would end up in failure, especially kids who demonstrated they could not come close to pitching a trumpet. An NHL hockey coach once said, “My main job is to put players in the position where they can be successful.” If I put a student in a position that is impossible to succeed in, that is my failure and is inexcusable.
I was nervous that my experiment with using an exploratory concept would put that group way behind schedule. Quite the opposite. Because every student ended up on an instrument that suited them and they liked playing, that group soared through the curriculum, was more than ready to perform at the Christmas concert, and became one of the best beginning bands I had the pleasure to work with at Cayley School. AND … every one of those students remained in band when they moved on to high school three years later.
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!
Below are YouTube videos on assembling instruments; one for each band instrument.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
- 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
- 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
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.
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.
Selecting Literature | Tone | Phrasing | Accent | Crescendo | Start at the End | Run the Transitions | Count and Subdivide to Your Baton | Student-led Warm-ups | Loonie Contest | Sing | Video links: Lip Slurs; Tuning; Hear the Pulse
First and foremost, talk to experienced band directors with a track record of quality beginning bands. Steal as many ideas about everything as you can. These men and women often have a list of pieces they like to use for beginning bands at festivals. I developed a three-year rotation of festival literature. My all-time hit parade included March of the Irish Guard and Anasazi.
Serious vs. Pop Music: This might be the most divisive subject known to mankind. Well, that is a slight exaggeration. I have always been somewhere in the middle. If you steer your beginners in the right direction, they will quickly prefer to rehearse and perform quality and serious literature composed for band at their level of difficulty. They will also develop the skills needed to judge and make decisions on their own. Isn’t this one of our main goals in teaching music to kids?
“Tone always wins.” This simple three-word phrase has made Clinton Marshall famous. At least he thinks so. His point – nothing matters if it is not played with good tone. If your band cannot play ff with good tone, do not play louder than f .
I always have my beginners play loud for the first two or three weeks. Starting on about Day 14, I start asking them to bring it down a little. I will play a minute or two of a quality recording of a professional _____ (take your pick) player and ask my students to strive for that tone. By Week 4 I insist on good tone. ALWAYS!
“Hi…my name is…Mr. Taylor. I…am pleased…to meet…you.”
Say something similar with intentionally placed pauses and they get it. A phrase is a musical sentence. You say a full sentence and then take a breath. We breathe at the end of sentences, not in the middle. Phrases are musical sentences and it sounds weird when we breathe in the middle of phrases.
Have the band play a whole note at forte. Then have them play the same whole note starting at f and decrescendo to piano over the four beats. Repeat the same process and decrescendo over three beats, two beats and finally over one beat. Voila; I guarantee one of the finest accents you have ever heard.
This is a perfect example of a couple of things. First, most of the teaching strategies you will collect will be through interaction with colleagues. I knew nothing about teaching beginner bands in 1978 when I graduated. I owe everything to my mentors who I had the privilege of watching, listening to and learning from. Second, very young bands have the ability to perform with sensitivity, emotion and musicality. They have the ability to perform dynamics, phrasing and accents with beautiful control and tone. You just need to find a way of making the concept understood by that age group.
Write the numbers 1 to 4 on the board. Discuss your expectation that 1 will stand for piano. Play p until you are happy with the level, tone quality and tone. Repeat this process with 2, 3 and then 4 representing forte.
The next step is important. Ask the band to simply respond to the number of fingers you hold up – 1,2, 3 or 4. Or by pointing to the numbers on the board. Select randomly from the four numbers moving on to a different number only when you are happy with the sound as described above. Eventually lead them to the not-so-random order of 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. That will create a very nice crescendo.
I translate this exercise into the literature. If there is a two-measure crescendo, for example, I do not attempt to create a ‘gradual’ increase in volume. Rather, I have them play 1 (p) for 2 a half measure, 2 (mp) for the next half measure, and so on.
Every young band will perform crescendos better than they perform decrescendos. It goes without saying that the use of this exercise in reverse order will also help tremendously with this.
I thank Larry Schrum for the following trick. I train my kids to respond to my question “Crescendo means?” with a group shout-out “Start soft.” Some colleagues adjusted the response to “Start softer.” Either way works by making the crescendo more effective and apparent without overblowing and threatening tone quality.
Start at the end
Have you ever realized days before a major performance that the first half of a piece sounds great and the last half is barely ready? I often have the band start with the last section and work it for the first rehearsal. On the next day, work the second last section and put those two together. Keep working backwards until you run it from start to finish.
Run the transitions
This rehearsal trick produces great results. Run a few measures at a time wherever time, tempo or key changes occur.
Memorize first three or four measures of the intro and all transitions.
Give the band two minutes to memorize the 3 or 4 measures that contain a tempo change, for example. After the two minutes are up, have them turn their music stands to face you. Run the two measures making wild variations on how much and how quickly you change the tempo.
Count and subdivide to your baton
Simple. They count (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +) while you conduct. Change up the tempo and the number of beats in the pattern. Make sure they ALWAYS look for ‘one’; the downbeat.
I always pick a tuba or low woodwind player. Sometimes I have the class close their eyes.
- Start and stop just one note together
- Play a major scale with 4 or 8 eighth notes for every scale degree.
Everyone stand up. When I count you in, take a deep breath and start playing. Sit down as soon as you stop playing. Flutes get to take a second breath. Last man standing wins a Loonie. But only after he takes a minute to catch his breath and stands to do it again by himself.
My bands sang a lot; from Day 1. If you do this you will avoid any chance of kids being reluctant to sing out. Young kids love to dance and sing. Try having them sing their parts while doing the fingerings on their instruments.
Here are links to three videos of me teaching various warm-ups and concepts.
Hear the Pulse
Systems & Routines
Have a system. As a matter of fact, have a system for everything. Plan how you want classes to enter your room, get set up and how you want things to look when they leave. If the system is not working the way you hoped then change the system, not the students. Your school year will get off to a faster start in a direct correlation to how well you are prepared and able to teach your systems.
I have witnessed very successful systems that are worlds apart in philosophy and application. My room was almost always neat and clean; chairs and stands stacked in the corners of the room. My office desk was a different matter. I called it an “organized mess.” It looked bad, but I knew where everything was.
I teach every class a 5-minute individual warm-up. I expect every student to come into the band room, set up their chair, stand and instrument and immediately begin their warm-up. The warm-up consists of a mouthpiece warm-up, long tones, tonguing, lip slurs for brass and a trill exercise for woodwinds.
If the warm-up is completed before I am at the front of the room, students are expected to practice a scale, exercise or a part of a piece in the folder. This system allowed me about five or six minutes at the beginning of class to deal with issues.
I had a rule – if you are bleeding, come and tell me. Otherwise it can wait until I am at the front of the room.
Seating plans can be your most effective classroom management tool. Tired of the same two students horsing around and wasting class time? Move one of them. In extreme cases I would have one or both guilty parties move their set-up right next to me.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. I often used a regular classroom-type arrangement of four or five straight rows with enough room between chairs that I could walk completely around every chair in the room. This enabled me to check postures, embouchures, finger placements, and so on.
Get away from your podium. One simple way to deal with issues is physical presence. Go stand next to a student having difficulty staying on task. You will also hear things that you never did while standing at the front of the room.
I yelled a lot in the first 10 years of my career. It was stressful for me and everyone else in the room. I never raised my voice once in the last two years and those years marked the finest ensembles of my career. Be strict. Insist on your high expectations.
If you speak in a normal or even a quiet tone, the students will adapt by being quieter themselves. Then if you do raise your voice occasionally, it will be extremely impactful.
Flutes, clarinets, trumpets and possibly alto saxophones bring their cases to their chairs, set up their instruments and place the case under their chair. All others set up their instruments and leave the cases on their designated shelf. Nothing bothers me more than working in a room where I need to keep one eye on the floor, so that I will not trip over a saxophone case.
I walk around the room a lot when I teach band. I get a completely different take on the music my group is producing when standing in the middle or the back of the room. Ever get a comment from a festival adjudicator, listened to the recording and thought, “How in the world of beginner bands did I not hear that before now?”
I’ll tell you how that happens. You never leave the podium. If you want a different take at another level, leave the band room and listen from the hallway. You will be amazed at the difference.
Now we get to the end of the class time. If you are anything like me, the bell will go sometime during the last eight measures of a piece you are getting ready for festival. PLEASE try to shut the class down with at least a few minutes remaining. You cannot expect woodwinds to swab or percussionists to put mallets and auxiliary percussion away neatly if their minds are on Mrs. Snooty, the Grade 7 math teacher who is about to rip them a new one for being late.
I once read an interview in The Instrumentalist of a once-retired middle school band director. This gentleman was widely known for his ability to develop quality ensembles in a less than high-income area. He loved what he did so much he returned to teaching in his 60s after trying retirement for a short time. One thing he said struck a chord with me: I have a 15 second rule; that is, I never stop the rehearsal for more than 15 seconds. If you have something important to say, then say it. Kids want to play music and learn. They don’t want to hear you go on and on about it.
I often struggled with time management, hearing the bell at the end of the period without getting to the most important objective of my lesson plan. Then I tried starting my classes by rehearsing or teaching that most important objective. Once you have obtained your musical objective, go back, maybe to the beginning of the piece, and work toward the spot in the piece you initially began the rehearsal with.
Don’t forget to leave a few minutes at the end of the period for announcements and dismissal. Try to eliminate the stress of kids running to their next class and being late.
Plan Your Year
BAND BOOSTER AGM
BAND METHOD INTRO
Create a timeline of events for the coming school year.
Allow me to qualify the following before I get to it. Over a 34-year career I tried just about every form of assessment known to man … live, taped, private, cassettes.
By far the most useful form of testing of first year students in a beginner band was this: I trained my kids to the point of involuntary spasms. At any time and for any reason I would stop the class, point to a particular section and say, “Measure — to —.”
The first student plays with no further prompting, followed immediately by one of these two comments from me: “tomorrow” or “next.” “Next” was the good response; it meant the student’s performance was good enough so the next student plays. “Tomorrow” meant it was not good enough and I expected that student to practice and be prepared to play the same passage tomorrow.
The next student in line would know to start playing immediately following my comment to the first. They also knew they were allowed one do-over if they were not pleased with their first effort. On the other hand, if a student was taking too long to get started, I would simply say “tomorrow.”
I always kept my marks binder at hand. A checkmark went beside the names of students who were awarded a ‘next’ comment. I started early in the year and did it at least once every class to create an atmosphere in which students were comfortable playing before their peers. Well, all except those who were not practicing.
Every student knew exactly my expectations. They could approach me at the end of class to ask what or how they needed to improve in the passage or exercise.
The purposes behind this assessment practice include efficiency. I could test 10 kids in less than 5 minutes – assessment for learning – immediate feedback – peer exemplars – comfort. But mostly because IT WORKS!
Once or twice each term I would send the majority of the class to their assigned locations throughout the school; spare rooms, stairwells, etc. while I kept one section (i.e. clarinets) in the band room for private one-on-one playing tests. The students sent out were expected to rehearse exercises from the method book, simple duets or trios, scales, etc.
When I was finished with the first section they would go to their assigned location while the section leader informed the next section to go to the band room for testing. If I had supportive admin at the time, I usually could convince one of them to help me out by walking the halls and checking on the small ensembles.
One of the most effective things I ever did was incorporate my MacBook and the Photo Booth app. As is the case with almost every worthwhile teaching tool, it takes some time and effort to train students to be efficient and understand how to use the technology. I had a small practice room set up with a chair, music stand and a small desk with my laptop arranged to capture every student performing. Students in this case did not have a second chance on that day. Their instructions were to sit down, push the Record button, state their name and play the required scale or passage, then press the Stop button.
The most startling example of the power of this tool occurred one day when I met a parent of one of my Grade kids in the office. Mom was in paying for some field trip, saw me and said she was meaning to ask me why her daughter received the mark reported in the last report card. I asked her to wait a minute while I grabbed my laptop from my room. Mom and I sat down in one of the administrator’s offices, I quickly found and opened her daughter’s file and played a couple of her Photo Booth test videos. Mom’s response was simply, “Thank you. I understand and I will have a chat with my daughter.”
One alternative if you do not have a Mac laptop is set up a camcorder on a tripod in a practice room or your office. Set the camcorder to record and pause. Train your students what button to push to start the recording and pause when they are done playing their test. Uploading the video onto a computer and separating the individual student clips into files is a bit more involved.
Writing this book has been cathartic. I have always been in the camp of collegial support for colleagues as opposed to competitive isolation and protectionism.
I had to rein in the writing process in order to have this book ready for a publishing deadline. I still have more thoughts and ideas I want to share. My plan is to continue to add material over time.
I hope you take away at least one or two suggestions which will help you teach better and save a little time. It will never be on the New York Times bestseller list, but if it helps even a few band directors, my goal will be accomplished.