• Secondary Instruments in Middle School Bands

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    Whether your band’s instrumentation is stable or the periodic loss of players causes gaps in part coverage, there may be occasions when you’ll want bandsmen who can play more than one instrument.

    Encouraging Secondary Instrument Players

    Developing secondary instrument players is important for personal exploration by students, to balance the instrumentation of your band, and to increase the variety of your programming.

    An instance where “The Middle School Philosophy,” including the concept that middle school is a time for exploration, seems to best fit band instruction is when we allow experienced players to try instruments other than their primary ones. The degree of student enthusiasm may surprise you when you announce, possibly once per quarter or semester, that your band is having an instrument exchange day for all who are interested. You can also do the exchange individually as interest surfaces throughout the school year. Let students try some of your spare instruments or have them try their friends’ horns (after cleaning mouthpieces). Give them enough instruction, augmented by assistance from other students, to master basic playing skills. Afterward, their curiosity satisfied, many will gladly return to the familiarity of their normal instruments, but others especially the really bright kids will discover that they can readily pick up a secondary instrument and play it reasonably well after a short time. For those who decide to follow through, suggest a piece or two from your band folder that will most likely ensure their success at the next concert.

  • Building Better Flutists

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    Throughout my years as a private flute teacher, I have addressed a wide variety of technical problems among my students. Unfortunately, many of their issues are very common: poorly maintained instruments, improper hand position, and incorrect fingerings. Through experience, I have learned that the best remedy for many of these bad habits is to correct them as early as possible since they often become so ingrained after a period of a couple of years that they are nearly impossible to correct. It is my hope that I can help prevent the frustration of the flute student and their music instructors by providing some hints for teaching the beginner.

  • Music Education in Urban Schools

    Mike Lawson | October 21, 2006

    The demographic, cultural and economic shifts in America over the past half-century have had significant impact on schools – especially our city schools. Urban schools are quite different than public schools in rural and suburban districts.

    The following six factors impact the culture and the way city schoolteachers and administrators make decisions regarding educational activities and services.

  • Winter Guard Opportunities

    Mike Lawson | November 1, 2003

    The conclusion of marching band season can leave a void in the lives of those percussion and auxiliary performers who have connected to audiences throughout their fall season. Many, however, eagerly look toward an even more specialized focus for their particular talents, as winter competition for percussion and color guard flourishes throughout the United States, Canada and now in Europe and Asia.

    Music programs are growing significantly with the inclusion of this special opportunity for students in these two areas. While concert band develops that mature and beautiful indoor sound that is the essence of music programs, the winter activities for percussionists and guard members yield the same level of excellence and development for these students. When the school year ends, all members of the band program have enjoyed their own special emphasis, moved to a new level of achievement and supported one another in a growing family of musical and visual excellence.

  • What Real Band Directors Use

    Mike Lawson | July 1, 2003

    This past year I was asked by MENC to respond to band director questions on the MENC Band Chat-Line. I found many directors were either looking for more money for their programs, or looking for answers to improve their teaching situations. It became apparent that most were just looking for programs and products that would be helpful to their ensembles. From that experience I then realized we as band directors need to do a better job at sharing ideas and products that really work in the classroom. Included in this article are some of the areas I covered as a mentor. For now we’ll leave finding more money for your program for another article.

    Did you ever attend a music conference, attend a session on some new product or new idea on how to teach and leave wondering if anyone ever uses any of those products? Or, how many sessions have you attended where the clinician got so deeply into the subject area that you were left behind while you were still trying to figure out the first concept?

    That happens to me, too. Computer technology sessions do that to me. I don’t know all the computer lingo. They leave me behind as soon as they use some computer word that I have no idea what it means. Meanwhile all the computer wizards in the room fly off on a tangent leaving the regular layman, or should I say lay bandsman, behind in the dark.

    A few years ago I attended a jazz improvisation clinic. It started out OK, but about 10 minutes into the session, some of the jazz music writers in the room took off with the clinician, running through a myriad of jazz chords. Meanwhile, the rest of us were still stuck analyzing and trying to figure out the first chord. I was lost the rest of the way.

  • Interdisciplinary Teaching in Middle School Music

    Mike Lawson | May 1, 2003

    This article was reprinted with permission from Tempo, the official magazine of the New Jersey Music Educators Association.

    Within the past few years, the interest and need for curriculum integration seems to have intensified through the country for several reasons. New books, new concepts, new interpretations of what should be taught and what should be eliminated present the curriculum planner with a difficult task – especially at the middle school level. State mandates and new educational standards influence the curriculum. We need to rethink these as we select what various areas to study. There is a need to teach students how various subjects actively influence their lives and it is crucial that students understand the impact of each discipline perspective in a connected way.

    In regard to the general music classroom at the middle school level, one might say, “Well, I’ve always integrated music with the classroom teachers and other subject disciplines.” Perhaps that is true, but to what degree and how detailed was the integration implemented? A mere sampling of knowledge from each discipline – a bit of history, a bit of literature, a bit of the arts, and so forth – results in a “potpourri” type of curriculum, which lacks focus. Effective interdisciplinary programs should include carefully conceived design features, such as scope and sequence, behavioral indicators of attitude change, criteria that promote and encourage critical-thinking skills and solid methods of evaluation. In “Interdisciplinary Curriculum Design and Implementation,” Heide Hayes Jacobs defines interdisciplinary as “a knowledge view and curriculum approach that consciously applies methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic or experience. Interdisciplinary does not stress delineation but linkages.”

  • Learning to Rock at an Early Age

    Mike Lawson | April 1, 2003

    The cynical could paraphrase Mark Twain and say that everybody talks about the lack of music in our schools, but nobody does anything about it. But David Wish did: he founded a national organization called Little Kids Rock. The 501(3)(c) nonprofit comes into economically disadvantaged communities and bestows hundreds of guitars on children who would otherwise not have a chance to strum and pluck.

    When he started teaching at a San Francisco public school in 1992, Wish, like many of his fellow public school teachers, was shocked at how little music was being taught.

    “They did hire a guy to come in for half an hour once a week,” Wish recalls. “But he was focused on nursery rhymes. I knew the students’ preference was for pop music, and their pop sensibilities were being left out in the cold.”

  • Making Room for Music

    Mike Lawson | December 1, 2002

    In many school music departments, storage can be a stealth problem. Unless you had input in the initial design of the music area, chances are the storage areas are inadequate. There never seems to be enough space to store the furnishings and equipment you use on a daily basis, or items used only seasonally. While you focus on day-to-day teaching activities, it’s easy for storage issues to escape detection – until one day, when the stealth problem suddenly demands your attention.

    It might be the instrument cases cluttering the floor of the storage room, making navigation dangerous. Or it could be the file cabinets in your music library that are overflowing with sheet music. Maybe the choir robes and band uniforms are hanging unprotected in the open common area or shoved into overstuffed closets. Or, the worst could happen – an instrument is stolen.

    If not addressed, storage problems like these can become time-wasting distractions that disrupt the teaching and learning process. In addition, improperly stored equipment is more susceptible to damage or theft. This article will offer trouble-shooting advice for common storage problems related to three of the most expensive types of equipment found in school music departments: instruments, sheet music and uniforms. For each type of equipment, solutions should strive to minimize the space required while maximizing the amount of protection.

  • An Alternative Christmas Program

    Mike Lawson | November 1, 2002

    Do you ever wish for a different kind of Christmas program? Are you concerned that your students may already be saturated with traditional Christmas music after hearing it almost nonstop on the radio and at the supermarket since late October? Do you feel awkward asking non-Christian students in your band or orchestra to play Christmas songs?

    If you’re ready for a change, you may want to consider an option that we’ve been using at Prairie Middle School for over 10 years. Student groups perform music of their choice for holiday shoppers at the local mall.

    Just before Thanksgiving, band and orchestra students plan solos or organize themselves into ensembles. They often get a group of their closest friends together, or the teaching staff suggests like-instrument groupings – ensembles that include high, middle and low voices, or groups comprised of section leaders that we would like to have working together. Students are also allowed to form ensembles that include family members, private teachers or friends from other schools. They can choose any music they like, with the exception that we don’t let three flutes play their favorite concert band piece or two trumpets perform the hottest jazz band chart in their folder. Otherwise, they can choose holiday or non-holiday music, pop tunes or something from their private lessons. We maintain a substantial library of ensemble music collections, supplemented by books our students find at music stores, so students have a wide variety of arrangements and styles to pick from.

  • 50 Steps to a Better Marching Band

    Mike Lawson | August 1, 2002

    As those associated with the marching band activity know, it's quite a task to coordinate music, movement and auxiliary work into a unified field presentation. With band camp fast approaching, I began to focus on the many tips and techniques I've picked up as a student, director and adjudicator to make that job go a little more smoothly. Here are some ideas I've accumulated over the years that I will be using this fall with the Duquesne University "Pride Of Duquesne" Marching Band, located in Pittsburgh, Penn. Our students come from a wide variety of band programs - from highly competitive to "parade only" situations. These points have been helpful in unifying these students into a common style. Hopefully you will find some of these points useful, and add them to your teaching "bag of tricks."

  • How to Prevent Teacher Burnout

    Mike Lawson | July 1, 2002

    Approximately 6,000 music teachers leave the profession each year. According to education statistics from the U.S. Office of Education, 40 percent list job dissatisfaction as the main reason for leaving.

    Satisfaction, then, is the key to retaining teachers and helping to reduce stress to a level of toleration that helps to eliminate burnout. Burnout is one major culprit in teacher dissatisfaction. By doing a few things, as a teacher, to be effective and satisfied, burnout can be eliminated.

    Burnout is stress that’s not relieved. It exists in all careers. Burnout results from a continuous effort to do the job with no rewards.

  • Conducting a Historical Inquiry

    Mike Lawson | May 1, 2002

    Our school was about to close and be merged with the other two high schools in our district, due to declining enrollment and budget pressures. Before the baby boom necessitated multiple high schools, our school was the original high school for the town. This lineage provided us with a history covering more than 125 years. As director of bands at the time, I wanted my students and the community at large to know at least a little bit about the history of bands at this school before it was dissolved.

    I did some homework of my own, going through old yearbooks, scanning old newspaper clippings, talking to former band members and, when possible, former directors. This process proved to be time-consuming but intensely rewarding. The more I found, the more I wanted to know.

    Already resolved to have the students learn something of the band’s history, I decided that telling them wouldn’t be enough. These students would have to experience the discovery process first-hand in order to take a greater interest in the band’s history. In this way, they could take ownership in their own band heritage.

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