Performance: Working with Beginners

Mike Lawson • Performance • November 23, 2014

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Break It Down: Learning it all at once is just too much for beginners – It’s the first day of handing out horns at school and the kids are off the wall with excitement about learning how to play music. Congratulations, you have created a new band member who can’t wait to get his or her hands on an instrument and start making music. Now what? If you’re a beginning teacher faced with large numbers of mixed instruments, this question can be paralyzing. When I was in my first few years of teaching, I realized that I was spending most of my time fixing mistakes. It wasn’t until I discovered how to “break it down” that my band program really took off. Breaking it down allows you to make kids comfortable, give them confidence, and, most importantly, not practice mistakes.

Here is what has worked for me: I break the learning down into three basic parts – intellectualizing, listening, and blowing. When combined with a good feedback system and a non-threatening environment, this will yield positive results for your band program. I believe those “off-the-wall-with-excitement” students will enjoy making music because they are confident and able to get really good really quickly.Intellectualizing

As I was preparing for a trumpet audition early in my career, I went to New York to play my audition for a member of the New York Philharmonic. On the list was Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” which has very difficult fingerings and requires you to quintuple tongue. I gave my best effort, which was weak, and my teacher said to me, “Bob, do you think that trumpet is going to tell your brain what to do? Or is it going to be the other way around?” That was pure wisdom. I had not put nearly enough time into getting the coordination of my fingers and tongue to even make an attempt at the blowing required in that piece. Intellectualizing means thoroughly understanding the constructs of music –rhythmically, melodically, idiomatically, and tonally – before attempting the final product. Granted, there are several light years in between “Three Blind Mice” and Stravinsky, but the concept is similar.

I believe in lots of finger practice and rhythm practice. It is also important for students to practice with a model and without a model. I give them a model about 50 percent of the time. In the very beginning, when it’s only three or four notes, the rhythm is not usually a problem. Most beginner books allow you to get through these parts with just quarter notes and half notes. It’s after we start adding a few accidentals and some dotted rhythms that this part is really important.

In my band, we practice “Say and Finger” a couple of different ways:
Silently to one’s self, using the instruments note names in rhythm.
Out loud for everyone with solfege.

After each pass, I ask for non-verbal feedback from the students. Never underestimate the power of non-verbal communication. One thing about this: you need to make sure this is genuinely accurate information. This is the chance for kids who are struggling to let you know they need some extra time, so give them the freedom to ask for help.
Thumbs up means “I got it, let’s go.”
Thumbs sideways means “Almost, I need another pass.”
Thumbs down means “I’m lost!”
I use a partner system and give the students time to help each other in between trials. We practice rhythm using numbers and traditional counting. Most beginners come to us using Kodaly syllables from general music class, so it is up to the middle, junior, and high school directors to come up with something that will be consistent for the kids. We do rhythm practice with two fingers in the palm of the hand and chanting together. Clapping can give immature kids who struggle way too much of an outlet to be disruptive if they get off track. If they are using two fingers in the palm of the hand, they won’t be distraction for everyone around them.
I follow each trial of rhythm practice with the same non-verbal feedback cycle that we use for the fingering exercises. Once I am satisfied through my feedback from the students and their partners that we are on track, we are ready to move on.
Ear Training for beginning band – ugh! You didn’t like ear training in school. I didn’t like ear training in school. If anyone says they just loved it in, they might be fibbing. However, we are all grateful we had such dedicated ear training teachers, because they made us better musicians. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so miserable if our middle school band director had started us on ear training from day one, so it would have just been part of being a musician rather than something that was tossed in during the senior year of high school for the kid who might be a music major.

There are two essential tools for ear training: Curwen hand signs and audiation. Kids really respond to these, provided your learning environment can support it. It has to be handled with maturity and mutual respect, so that all are comfortable. After all, if the students had only wanted to sing, they would have joined the choir.
Curwen hand signs provide a visual relationship between the notes of the scale – the thumb and index fingers point to the half steps.

Audiation is the musical voice inside your head, something like your musical imagination. (Please forgive the oversimplification, Dr. Gordon!) We use the Curwen hand signs to train the audiation.
Start with the interval of the minor third, sol-mi, and progress outward from there. Use the hand signs with a model, then have the kids “sing in their heads” (audiation), and then have the kids sing it out loud and have fun with it. This is particularly important for brass players. The biggest struggle for young brass players is starting on the correct partial, and the only thing that will fix that is quality ear training.

Finally, you are the model of a good sound for your students. You are the local expert on all instruments. You need to play for them frequently, on all instruments, modeling a good sound. This may take some work if you have weakness on a particular instrument. I am a brass player, so I do pretty well with the brasses, but my flute sound was dreadful for a long time. I finally realized that I needed private flute lessons from a member of our local orchestra, so I could properly model for the kids. Kids learn a lot by imitating at this age, so make sure that what they are imitating is excellent.

I started my career as a professional trumpet player. I only bring this up to emphasize the importance that orchestral brass players place on breathing and creating an air model for their playing. I have taken some of the very advanced breathing techniques I have used in my own playing and adopted them to group instruction for beginning band.

Professional brass players use rebreather bags, incentive spirometers, and other tools to create an air model and to increase lung capacity. At times, the practice room can look something like a hospital ward. With these tools, the emphasis is on what it “feels” like to take a breath sufficient for playing a musical instrument. We also need to give kids an idea of what it feels like to breathe in an unconventional way. Children are used to taking conversational breaths; we need to teach them to breathe like musicians.
There are two parts to the blow: the inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (playing). For the inspiration I recommend using a breathing tube – basically a ½ to ¾-inch piece of PVC coupling. You can get these from your local hardware store for a few cents. Give one to each of the students and have them tie a string around it and wear it around their necks during rehearsal.
If you place the tube between your teeth and breathe in, you will notice a big difference. The opening of the mouth with the tube is closer to the opening of the trachea, making a direct line from the outside world to the inside of the lungs. Before each tune we take a few breathes with the breathing tube to keep everything loose and the kids love it.

In order to make an air model, I use “sizzling” and “long tones.” Sizzling is great because you have the students create a natural resistance that simulates what it is like playing the horn. Another benefit of sizzling is practicing the correct articulations. Especially in beginning band, we always play a long tone on the first note of the tune for the duration of the breath. For example if we were to play “Hot Cross Buns,” the kids would play a D concert for four measures, and then at the breathe mark, breathe and switch to BH concert for four measures. This only works on sound and airflow, because we’re taking out the fingerings, slide positions, and so on, so that the kids can just concentrate on the blow.

Long tones are very important to the development of a good sound. My students ask if they can play a long tone before their playing assessments just to make a good air model. The ultimate goal down the road is for all of these beginners to play in tune. You need to work on a good sound from day one. You cannot tune a bad sound!

The synthesis of all of this is actually playing the horn. You are basically going through each little tune in the book a couple times before you try to play it so as to ensure success while getting feedback from the kids, and so that you know their level of understanding before you move on. It is also important not to get bogged down. It’s OK if some kids don’t get it right away. Give them the latitude to work on what they need while the rest of the class tries to play it for the first time. I have always tried to set the kids up for success by decreasing the likelihood of them making mistakes and subsequently practicing mistakes.

As the adage goes, “practice does not make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect. Practicing mistakes makes perfect mistakes.” Hopefully, if you break it down, your students will not practice mistakes and, instead, will be on their way to becoming better players.

Robert Parker holds a bachelor’s degree and a performance certificate in Trumpet from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, an MAT from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and National Board Certification in 2007. Parker is a former member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and the Millbrook Orchestra in Lambertsville, New Jersey. Parker has been teaching middle school band for 22 years: three years in the Millburn Township Public Schools in Millburn, New Jersey, and 19 years at South Oldham Middle School in Crestwood, Kentucky. Robert Parker was the recipient of the WHAS 11 Excel teacher award for Oldham County Kentucky for the 2012-2013 school year. He can be reached directly at

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