I spent a decade teaching band in a middle school classroom in Brooklyn, NY. I started students on band instruments, from scratch, in a group of 100 — no small group lessons. By 8th grade, the students were performing high school and college level music at a very high level.
I wish I could say I walked into the job knowing how to accomplish what I did, but that was not the case. I was a professional musician with no degree in education; I couldn’t put a flute together, let alone teach it; and worse — I had a low expectation of what kids were capable of doing musically (especially in an urban setting).
Although I am ashamed to say those things, I am proud to say that I was wrong, and I spent all my life energy seeking to find ways to help all students reach their full musical potential. I also found that, if I taught every class as if it was a large private lesson — a “perfect practice session”, of sorts — instead of teaching to the concert, my students improved in leaps and bounds.
Here are some ideas to maximize your large ensemble rehearsals and create great musicians — and people — in the process:
Be mindful and deliberate, especially in the beginning. The more time you spend on the basics — taking the instrument safely out of the case and putting it away properly; posture; breathing — the better your students will be for years to come. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you don’t have enough time for this because the concert is near, because your concert will sound (and look) poor if the foundations are not addressed.
Model what it is to be a musician. Students are a reflection of their teacher. If you are going to stand up in front of class and insist students practice, you must be actively engaged in your craft as well. Always play for your students and model what it is to be a great musician, educator, and lifelong learner.
Strive to give ownership of the learning to your students. When a student understands “why”, “how”, “where” and “when” to practice, they have been given power. They will feel a sense of responsibility, which will then lead to self motivation and routine. Ideally we want our students to have ownership over their own learning in every aspect of life, and music education is a wonderful way to teach this! This isn’t taught in one lesson — it’s taught consistently, every day, over an extended period of time. If students leave your ensemble with an intrinsic motivation to get better on their craft, you have done more for them than you can imagine.
Teach them how to breathe (for band). Breath control is the single most important part of playing a wind instrument. However, many Directors neglect to make breathing an essential part of their lesson each and every day, and most band method books don’t consistently emphasize the importance of breath control for young students. Most of us walk around utilizing less than 10% of our breathing apparatus on a daily basis. Wind players must utilize 100%. This is reason alone to teach students how to deep breathe, since they have never done it! If this simple process is not discussed, demonstrated, and constantly monitored, you will NEVER have a good sounding ensemble…ever. More importantly, your students will never truly know how to play their instruments correctly and will acquire many bad habits in an attempt to create sound.
Make long tones a cornerstone of your rehearsal. Any decent practice session begins with long tones. STAY ON THESE FOR AWHILE and do not leave any child behind! Walk around the room, checking posture, fingers, slide position, etc. and make sure every student in the room can play these notes with a good sound before moving on. Even when you “move on” (you never move on from long tones; professional musicians still do them daily) to the next exercise, make sure long tones are the first thing you do with your band daily. If you are not a big fan of the first note in the method book (some start on concert D, etc.), start on a concert note that you like.
Strive to develop a beautiful aural concept of sound for your students. Students need to know what a beautiful sound sounds like in order to create a good sound. Using words such as dark, warm and full are not enough for the younger student. Even just a few minutes a month of guided listening, in rehearsals or lessons, will be enough to help students develop their “inner ear”. A beautiful sound need to be “burned into” their minds…the sooner the better! Everything students hear must be of the highest quality. If you’re not incredibly proficient at your secondary instruments, DO NOT PLAY THEM FOR YOUR STUDENTS. If we want our students’ standards to be high, then excellence needs to permeate the classroom. If they hear you playing with a poor sound, then they will play that way too, simply because you are their teacher! I never model for my students on any instrument other than trombone. A beautiful sound on any instrument has the components students are looking for, and you can help describe them through your own beautiful sound. For the other instruments, bring in guests, play recordings, or point your students to great local concerts.
Use the band method book religiously (but use it the RIGHT way). The method book should be the cornerstone of your band rehearsal. It is the only time where low brass and other “non-melodic” instruments will have a chance to play the melody and use the rest of the rest of the ensemble to train their ear. There is no one exercise in a method book that covers all the aspects of performing on an instrument, therefore it is crucial that you design several exercises out of each method book exercise. I wrote a book called the Band Director’s Method Book Companion that covers several ways in which to rehearse one exercise in order to ensure that every student masters the aspects of music making. Sometimes I will spend two days on one exercise, but it never gets old to the kids because it is done so many different ways! Once finished with an exercise, you can be rest assured that kids know it really well and will probably have a better understanding of how to practice music at home.
Here are some ways to change around method book exercises:
- Count and clap
- Play every other measure
- Subdivide the exercise in 8th (and even 16th) notes.
There are several more, of course.
Don’t be afraid of students getting bored with playing a phrase many different ways. They will enjoy the challenges, and by differentiating each exercise you will ensure that all types of learners are engaged.
Choose repertoire that doesn’t distract from your teaching. If you feel that you don’t “have enough time” to learn music with your band if you are reinforcing the concepts above, you probably have chosen music that gets in the way of your teaching. Make sure the music you rehearse is an extension of your teaching — don’t abandon good instruction to “teach to the concert”. For beginning bands, making a concert out of the first few pages of the method book is a great idea, and if done in an innovative way, parents will love it!
Schedule frequent performances. The best way to motivate students musically is through performance. Weeks or even months on end of practicing without performing for an audience gets old very quick, and student will certainly get bored and definitely quit. Teachers should schedule performances every six weeks or so in order for students to stay engaged and practicing. Even an in-class performance is better than none at all!
Don’t leave any student behind. If you have students who are falling behind, look at yourself and your teaching methodology first before blaming them. Most directors do not rehearse half tempo enough. Try taking tempi that trombones can successfully play (insert joke here), and you will find that your ensemble improves faster. Many teachers move on from the first pages of the method books too quickly. Find ways to challenge your advanced students while you strive to improve students in need of more time–your ensemble will be better for it.
You can cultivate a great ensemble. I was guilty of having a low expectation of young music students when I first started teaching. What I learned throughout my teaching years is that if you set the bar at its highest–expecting beautiful, in-tune sounds with great phrasing–students will always respond. It is possible to cultivate a great ensemble without small group lessons–I actually prefer it.
It’s not about the written exercises in your method book (or piece you are performing), it is how you practice them! Our goal as teachers is to get students to take ownership over their own learning. Once students learn how to practice and get better, they will be able to effectively practice anything at home on their own: the goal of any great music teacher.
Here’s to creating a great beginner ensemble this year! Good luck!