Mix-n-Match & Show-n-Tell: An Idea for Teaching Basic Music Terminology

Rob Shaver • CommentaryJuly 2023 • July 16, 2023

To keep our listeners’ attention, we must fill up our performances with expressive details like dynamics, tempo markings, and articulations.  Before we can do that, the students need to understand what these words mean.  They need to learn the vocabulary of music, or as I like to say, they need to learn to speak music.

Early last school year I took several rehearsals to systematically introduce style markings to my beginners.  In the process I stumbled on a fun way to focus their attention on these important music words.  While teaching simple melodies in their method books, I asked them to play the melodies louder, then softer; faster, then slower, etc.  Then, little by little, I introduced the terminology of what they were doing: “Would you say we are playing at a medium speed?  Let’s call that ‘moderato,’” and so on.  

Gradually, as the students learned the words and how to play them, I drew or wrote the markings and words on the white board and left them there for the next rehearsal.  One day, stepping onto the podium to begin our warm-up time with a review of what we had covered so far, I asked a student to choose an articulation marking for the band to play on a melody.  When that was done, a different student was asked to choose a dynamic marking, and later, someone chose a tempo.  

The next day, three students were each asked to pick a style to mix with the other students’ choices.  One chose a dynamic marking, another a tempo marking, and the third an articulation marking.  The band then had to play the day’s melody using all three styles at the same time.  

On yet another day, a student was asked to choose a dynamic marking and keep it a secret from me.  I turned my back while the student shared it silently with the class.  Turning back around, I instructed the band to play the melody in such a way as to show me the dynamic marking.  If I couldn’t tell them what they were playing, they would have to play it again until the dynamic marking was obvious to me.

This eventually led to three students each choosing a marking from one of the categories and sharing it with the class, so the melody had to be played with the combination of markings: staccato, forte, largo; or accent, piano, allegro.  The goal was for me to tell them what markings they were trying to show in their playing.  Even if they didn’t play the markings perfectly, the effort helped them learn the vocabulary and how to express it in music.  

In a recent rehearsal, the students were playing a method book melody that included crescendos, decrescendos, and a rit. at the end of the piece.  Closing my book, I instructed the students to make all the markings clear to me.  At the end of each attempt, I told the class what it sounded like the book was telling them to do.  They were only supposed to tell me if I was right or wrong.  They were not supposed to tell me the correct markings; they had to show me by making it clear in their playing.  It took three or four attempts, but they were successful.

If you are looking for a way to focus your band’s attention on the details of a musical performance, try letting the students mix and match the terminology and show it to you in their playing.  Then, incorporate these stylistic details into your rehearsals from the first day you hand out a piece of music and watch as your students grow from players into musicians.

Rob Shaver has been a middle school band director since 1993 where his duties have also included teaching general music classes and directing the middle school choirs. His ensembles have earned 43 gold awards at ISSMA festivals, including 10 “With Distinction” citations. He earned a BA degree in music education from Anderson University in Indiana, and an MM degree in piano performance from the University of Maryland. His articles have appeared in Bandworld magazine, Conn/Selmer’s Keynotes, IMEA’s“INfORM magazine, KMEA’s Bluegrass Music News, and SBO+ magazine. He has presented clinics on band and general music topics at the IMEA state conference and the IMEA Southern Symposium. Under the BRS Music label, he has published a collection of beginner clarinet solos called Three Adventures for the First Year Clarinetist, and a beginning band piece called The Cadet Band March.

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