Openers and Closers for Beginner Band

Mike Lawson • Features • June 15, 2020

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Administrators who evaluate performance-based music classes may not be musicians, but they often expect us to conform to the flow of more academic subjects, like LAL or math.

Current best practices in pedagogy suggest some type of opening activity (a “do-now” or “focus activity”) and/or a closing activity (often called an “exit slip”). Students spend at least some time each day in the common-core classes working in pairs or groups, helping each other learn and engaging in student-centered learning assignments. How, we ask, can we incorporate those elements into a class like band, which is inherently a very director-centered activity? The students have to play all together at the same time, they have to prepare for a performance on very limited time each week, and, at the beginner level, their basic knowledge on their instruments is usually far below their basic knowledge of math or reading. It can seem as though the pedagogical strategies used in common-core subjects would only get in the way of preparing our students to perform.

The good news is that when used efficiently, and when used to isolate the actual skills the kids need to become better players, well-crafted openers and closers can meet administrative requirements and reinforce what we want the kids to know. A good “do now” activity can help kids change mental gears and start thinking about music faster at the beginning of a lesson; that same activity can help review last week’s learning or help students practice a concept that they will use later in the lesson. A good “exit slip” can give valuable feedback to you as you determine where your students need extra help or extra practice, and it can also help to solidify a concept in their minds as they leave your room and wave goodbye for an entire week. More and more, the joy of play has to happen during class time; game-like openers and closers can serve the dual purpose of letting kids be kids and helping them learn at the same time.

The following activities are designed to help beginner band students focus, review, think critically, work collaboratively, have some fun, and develop musicianship. Some are more theoretical, some are more physical, and all of them are student-centered; some work better as openers, some are specifically designed for the end of class, and some work either way.

“SOB” (Save Our Band): Find one spot in your band music or in the lesson book that is a “trouble spot” for you. Do you know what it is about this spot that is giving you trouble? Be prepared to tell me your spot and describe why you chose that spot. For the first part of today’s lesson, we will go over everyone’s “SOB stories” and make sure you feel more comfortable playing them.

“Note-worthy or Not Worthy”: Hand each student a sheet of staff paper with different measures notes that are each labeled with their pitch names. In each measure, one note is labeled incorrectly (“Not Worthy”). Can you find it? What is the note’s correct name? The students choose which measures to do in this activity.

Differentiation: One example may have basic notation learned since the beginning of the year; other examples may have extended-range notes (higher and lower) that we have just begun working on, or will work on in this lesson. Optional Bonus: Have the students determine where the incorrect label should be notated on the staff, and write the note that matches the incorrect label in a blank staff space after the notes that are labeled. Students may use the lesson book or the notation chart displayed in the room if they feel they need support in doing this activity.

Play These Notes. . .You Choose How: Write three to five notes on the board that your students are currently working on. Notes may be new notes, such as higher-or lower-range notes, a complicated set of finger-switches, or notes that jump around in range. Ask the kids to read, identify, and play these notes, in any order they choose, and in any rhythm they choose. The basic option is to read and play the notes exactly as written on the board. Differentiation options include any combination of these notes in any rhythm, or expanding the notes into a longer melody where they repeat in a different order with different rhythms.

Finger Boggle: In recent years, students have been entering our band program with less finger dexterity than they had ten years ago. Whether it’s the phasing-out of arts and crafts in the lower grade levels, or the predominance of touch-screens nowadays, I’ve been finding that students need more help with finger coordination to be able to play standard beginner band repertoire. I learned the first part of this activity in yoga class, then thought of further ways to expand it for music students. Touch each thumb to the index finger on the same hand (do this with both hands at the same time), then thumbs to second fingers, thumbs to third fingers, thumbs to fourth fingers. Repeat four times. Now reverse: fourth, third, second, first, also four times. Now think of your own finger patterns, and mix up the numbers. Do you need to go slower? Can you do the harder ones faster after you practice?

Finger Boggle Combo: Try touching the following fingers to your thumb: Left-hand 1, Right hand 3 LH 4, RH 2 LH 2, RH 1 Repeat the above Boggle Combos four times in a row. Do you feel your brain working? Now think of your own Finger Boggle Combos. Let’s put three to five of them on the board, and try to do the sequence four times in a row.

Hand It to Me: Working with a stand partner, ask students to demonstrate the proper hand position for holding their instruments. Where should your thumb(s) be? Pinkies? What part of your fingers should touch the key or valve? Where on the key or valve should your fingers press? Your stand partner will tell you if you need to make any adjustments, or if you’ve got it.

Here’s What’s Coming/Hear What’s Coming: As students are setting up or packing up their instruments, play a recording of a piece your students will start learning in the near future, performed by a professional ensemble. Ask them to listen with specific questions in mind, such as: what do you notice in the music? What do you think will be some challenges for us to work on in this piece? What is your favorite thing about this piece? This type of critical listening helps to pre-teach the piece, as well as model a good sound.

Musical Math: A quick “Do Now” worksheet like the following can help students explore rhythmic values prior to playing them, while you take attendance or check their practice logs.

Count Me In: Please look at the following measures in the piece _______________. (Identify a title and 2-3 measures that your group is working on in rehearsal music.) Please label the rhythmic counts. You may work alone or with a stand partner. When you are done, decide whether you’ve “Got it,” “Almost,” or “Not yet.”

While You Were Out: Somebody was absent from our lesson group today. How would you teach her the things that we worked on today? Decide as a group how to summarize the key points of what we worked on today. You may ask for a volunteer note-taker, or you may take notes while they pack and discuss.

Assessment: as a group, evaluate how well we identified the key points. Is there anything else our missing classmate will need to know? Can someone go over this information with our absent classmate?

Rhythm Check: Write two or three 1-measure examples on the board containing rhythms that your students are currently working on (i.e. dotted-quarter-8th rhythm, 16th note rhythms, 16th-8th combinations, syncopation, etc.) Before kids pack up, have them choose one rhythm to play, on any note they wish.

Differentiation: Rhythms can range from basic to more challenging to most challenging. Students choose which one to play. You may want to have students self-assess, and then tell them whether or not you agree with their self-assessment. You can also give immediate feedback to help in their practicing at home.

Roundtable Review: While students are packing up their instruments, have each person name or describe something important that was discussed in class. You can type their answers as they tell them to you, and print the review sheet for them to put in their folders to look over as they practice. Or, if you don’t have a printer handy in the room, the review sheet may be posted on your Google Classroom. This is also a great formative assessment for you: Did students show comprehension of the key points in their explanation of them? Did they choose something as an important key point that you thought was a lesser point, and if so, should you expand more on that point and do some deeper delving next week? Did they miss or are they confused about some important information that you should review next week?

One thing I am going to improve this week is: As students are packing up their instruments, ask them to identify something they would like to do better in their practicing this week. Usually this will be something that was discussed during the lesson, such as “learn the note names, not just the fingerings,” “keep the corners of my mouth back when I blow into my mouthpiece,” “keep my fingers in the center of the keys,” etc. Have students write their suggestions to themselves on their homework sheet, and then review next week so they may assess their progress.

Feel free to use and adapt these openers and closers, or use them as springboards for your own ideas. Designing bell-ringers and exit slips can be a breath of fresh air for you, as you take a break from the administrative tasks of being a band director and use your creativity; when you implement them into your lessons and rehearsals, your classes will become more student-centered, more interactive, more playful, and more filled with good musicianship. Enjoy the process!

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