Performance: Low Brass

Mike Lawson • Performance • June 18, 2014

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How to train (or tame) your low brass section

Have you heard the quote from Richard Strauss, “Never look at the trombones; it only encourages them?” They say the first year of teaching is the toughest – but I would argue any year teaching beginning low brass students can be brutal. Our trombone, baritone, and tuba students are often the musicians who have an enthusiasm for gregarious mischief – keeping them engaged (and seated) can certainly be a challenge in itself. And teaching appropriate rehearsal strategies is only half the battle – more importantly, we have to teach them how to play their instruments with sensitivity and musicianship. Of course, not all low brass musicians are troublemakers; many genuinely want to be strong musicians. And this is great news because good band programs require a foundation made up of happy kids. Here are a few suggestions that have shown to be helpful within my own ensembles.

Lasting Impressions

Take a moment and think about all the teachers who stand out in your memory. Perhaps they were incredibly patient, gave great advice, or had a loving demeanor. Sadly, I would bet some of you also thought of a teacher or two who you absolutely despised – maybe this instructor humiliated students, showed favoritism, lacked content knowledge of the class, or was just plain old cruel. Either way, these teachers were people who made a lasting impression on your life.

It’s important to step back and think about how educators have influenced you, because your teaching philosophy depends on it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a musical family – both of my parents worked at the college level teaching music. My dad began his career, like I have, teaching high school band. One of his veteran mentors told him that everyone has two stages to their careers: in the first stage, everyone teaches exactly as they had been taught. In the second stage, instructors adjust their style based on other expert teachers they’ve borrowed ideas from. The amount of time it takes teachers to move from stage one to stage two varies. Some take years, decades, or even never make it to the second stage of their teaching career, while others move from one stage to the next in a matter of hours.

This piece of knowledge completely changed the way in which I taught my students. As a student myself, I was a trombonist who attended a summer camp for several years and unintentionally had been brought up largely to fear authority and band directors. For example, my ensemble manager had very strict, militaristic rules. I dreaded attending my highly competitive biweekly sectionals and challenges, and swore to myself I would never teach the way I had been taught because I didn’t want my students to have the same type of fear of their instrument I had in the past.

I was unsuccessful despite all my best efforts. Straight out of college I found myself teaching all levels of public school band. What grade level and classes gave me the most problems in that first year? Sixth grade beginning trombone, baritone, and tuba by far! I was more than 10 years removed from my own beginning band experiences and I hadn’t fully thought through the process of explaining ideas that would be difficult for others yet easy for me.

My largest frustrations came from the realization that my high school trombonists couldn’t read music well. At first I assumed it was the students’ fault for not paying close enough attention to their previous instructor. I broke my promise to myself and found myself using some of the same fear tactics that teachers had used on me. And I found some surprising results. One afternoon I was working with the high school’s top trombone section. This was an outstanding band; they were playing pieces that many college bands might struggle with. The contest pieces that year included “Blue Shades,” “October,” and “Easter Monday on the White House Lawn.” I spent the hour trying to motivate one particular struggling student and his classmates to perform the music at a higher level, heard improvement, and then saw this student as an emotional wreck at the end of the rehearsal. Then I realized the students’ ability to read music or not read music was ultimately the teacher’s fault. My fault. I felt terrible.


Fear as Motivation

Fear is both an ugly and effective tool. One of the best things about beginning band students is that they are fearless and enthusiastic. If you ask them to count and clap rhythms loudly, sixth-grade trombone boys will shout the answers out loud because they are generally competitive by nature. Of course, the students’ enthusiasm fuels two purposes: bravado and attention-seeking behavior. And they don’t like to look stupid in front of their buddies. Left uncorrected, this rowdy behavior can be a pain in a band director’s side. Once student behavior has gotten out of control, the teacher may resort to tactics that will humiliate students in order regain control of the class. And this use of creating fear can be particularly effective if students are not sure when they may be singled out and embarrassed.

One example of the use of fear would be my weekly summer camp challenges. As a student, I was expected to learn and defend my chair against other trombonists by preparing all of my music during a period of about four days. The challenge could occur in any section of any piece and this was a very effective tool at getting me to practice; however, it was also a very effective tool at getting me to be physically ill whenever I walked from my rehearsal to my sectional location.


Positive Alternatives

There are certainly more positive ways to run rehearsals. What causes the opposite feeling of fear? And what would that be? Would it be considered happiness, tranquility, or something else? Over experience and time, after attending numerous workshops, reading about this subject, and conducting research, I’ve come to the conclusion that students can be pushed to learn out of desire rather than fear. In order to create an atmosphere of respect and patience, I’ve developed a philosophy that is based on a calm classroom rather than a happy classroom. A calm classroom has a lot of structure in place: the procedures are practiced and understood, there are rules and consequences for inappropriate behavior, and students are aware that learning is often a messy business. It’s important to note that calm classrooms are often also happy classrooms, but when the priority of the teacher is to create a fun classroom, “happy” classrooms are not always calm. This is not an easy atmosphere to create, as young students often have difficulty accepting the rewards of delayed gratification; however, when students share the common goal of musical achievement, it is much easier to have a positive tone in the classroom.


Developing Maturity

The secret to developing a mature attitude comes from a love of sharing music and teaching patience. I start all of my beginning low brass musicians on trombone partly because my school does not have many secondary instruments available for student use. Right from the very beginning, the students who are interested in either baritone or tuba are exposed to the power of delayed gratifi-cation. To some degree, we are all guilty of “knowing” we love something when it is a brand new possibility, even though in reality we are naïve about the amount of work this new love will take.

I inform the students of the requirements to be considered for one of the auxiliary instruments, and let them know they will spend at least one semester purely learning the trombone. This allows me to focus on teaching a single instrument rather than three concurrently, and also determine which students will be mature, intelligent, self-motivated learners. Along the way, I demonstrate professional models of what low brass musicians sound like in order to set an example for my students to emulate. And this last part is really important. My students are constantly reminded that they are on the right track in making approximations of those professional performances.


Communication is Key

Students need to be reminded why they’re doing what they’re doing. When we develop our procedures and rules for the year, I make it a deliberate point to explain why the items were deemed important. We’ve established that fear can be effective, but fear can also lead to resentment, right? For that reason, any procedures you devise must lead to positive results. And when students know that they’re making progress, they can’t help but agree to listen to you. You’re the expert. And you’re developing credibility every time you help a student do something he didn’t think he could do in front of his peers.

When students struggle with a new challenging task, remind them of something that once seemed unattainable. When you’re the voice of reason who reminds them of simple analogies, such as “an airplane has to fly very fast in order to gain altitude, so I need you to increase your air speed in order to play that high note,” the students are reminded that there is a scientific reason that can explain what you want them to do. I teach my low brass classes as much musical theory as possible during the first year because I’m trying to create autonomous musicians, not students who rely on me for every bit of information they know. This helps immensely, as students are able to transfer the knowledge of what they understand to new principles and ideas, saving time later in the school year. A strong foundation leads to a well-rounded musician.


Facilitate Growth

Treat your students as young adults. Another way to think of it would be to treat them as you’d like to be treated. One of the problems I encounter in my classroom is overly enthusiastic students who want a chance to play a musical selection for me when another has been unsuccessful. “Ooh! Ooh! Pick me!” they’ll say, shooting their hands in the air. I personally would hate being allowed to quit at the first sign of trouble. Instead of letting them play, I ask my volunteers to describe what the performer did well and what they could improve on. With this student led feedback, the original performer always improves. Would you like to know what the coolest feeling about that is? At that point, I know my students have truly grown.


Aaron Kennell currently serves as assistant band director at Plummer Middle School and Wilson Intermediate School, both of Aldine Independent School District in Houston, Texas. His duties include directing the Concert Band and teaching beginning brass and percussion students. A graduate of Bowling Green State University (Ohio) with a major in instrumental music education, Kennell received his master’s degree in music and human learning from the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to his appointment  at Plummer MS, Kennell held the position of assistant band director at Aldine High School and associate band director for Canyon ISD in Amarillo, Texas. Aaron Kennell is an active adjudicator, clinician, and consultant for bands in Texas and Ohio. His professional organizations include the Texas Music Educators Association, Texas Bandmasters Association, the International Trombone Association, Kappa Kappa Psi, and Phi Kappa Phi.



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