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The Art of Teaching Beginning Band

Greg recently commented on an article my site. As I typically do, I went to look at his blog Total Music Education and see what he’s all about.

His blog intrigues me. I didn’t have time to read through his entire site, but what I can gather is that he is a music education student in Minnesota. He’s still in school but is getting an opportunity to teach a local summer band camp. With the exception of his observation of the horn section in the camp, I haven’t found anything on his blog that is offensive. Haha.

Nevertheless, reading some of his experiences helped remind me how differently I see teaching beginning band now than I did when I was first starting out. My first experiences with beginners were teaching private lessons. Private lessons are way different than actually teaching classes. So I wrote a response to his latest post that I felt would be beneficial to some of my music educator readers as well. Even if you don’t teach band, feel free to take what you can out of this.

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For what it’s worth, I disagree with your advisers who have told you that it’s over if the kids like you before Christmas. I think You better smile before Christmas!

This is especially important as elective teachers. There are always other choices out there.

The successful beginning band student needs to make it through the year with these three essentials.

  1. Rehearsal behavior skills
  2. As much band weenieness as possible
  3. Characteristic sound on the horn

In that order.

The first comes from your enforcing rules.

The third comes from your entertainment value. Once their behavior is under control, make them enjoy being around you. When they misbehave, they will miss the happy

The third comes from your spending tons of time in class on long tones. They won’t practice at home. Accept it and move on. :-)

So there you have it. My entire Beginning Band philosophy boiled down into three bullet points.

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

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Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

25 thoughts on “The Art of Teaching Beginning Band

  1. It’s sad but true. The 3 bullet points of teaching BAND look a lot different than the 3 bullet points of teaching MUSIC. Unfortunately, the state of affairs in school systems across the country has teachers constantly justifying their programs by the ‘numbers’ of returning students or by citing music education research which (dubiously at best) tries to prove that music students math scores will improve.

    For some reason music education has been reduced to a noble but dispensable cause. And if we’re not careful, it could disappear from academia altogether. Come to think of it, that might not be bad for the overall health of our so called profession.

  2. Thank you very much for your comments and your kind words! And don’t get me wrong about the horn, either; it’s funny how your air and attitude change when you’re walking down the hall carrying a horn – you just feel important. :)

    Like “Mr. Maestro,” I had a lot of trouble swallowing that and because so much of who I am is a guy who likes to laugh, and I took it with a very large grain of salt. I like how you put it better.

    Also, how on-purpose is it that your bullet points cover the students’ interactions with their teachers, their peers, and themsleves? I like that.

    Thanks again,

  3. As a 30-year veteran of the music classroom, I like your 3 points very much–a whole lot more useful than most of the stuff taught in university classes on “Organizing the Instrumental Music Classroom.”

    You’re absolutely right that you can’t get anything done until the kids know the drill, so to speak. And that goes for small and large classes. I taught beginning band (among other things) for 21 of my 31 years, and frequently had mixed-instrument groups of 50+ brand-new musicians. It is possible to teach very large groups of beginners, if you have a well-developed system and enforce it religiously. An example: when the teacher must work with one small group or person, all the rest of the students need to have a silent task (fingering or air-drumming through a particular song or exercise, perhaps)–something to keep them productively occupied for the two minutes you’re demonstrating the flute embouchure or 3rd-position-without-grabbing-the-bell (for the 20th time).

    I also like the group bonding thing. They were “band fags” in my school (quite the sophisticated moniker, no?) and the sooner you deal with it, giving kids group identity and language to be able to laugh at their poor benighted classmates who don’t know how great it is to be part of the band, the better.

    You had some really good things about choice in an earlier post–for some reason, many band teachers feel that all choices need to be theirs (which supports my theory that most band directors are control freaks at some level). You really can give music students choices, including selecting performance music from a range of appropriate literature. And that helps. I agree that most kids don’t practice much, but suspect that they a) have not been taught how to practice or b)are focused on an arbitrary amount of time, not the task or c) have been directed to practice things they don’t like to do (including long tones). We had the Long Tone Olympics at the end of each marking period, with various events: straight, crescendo-decrescendo, etc. Great fun. And once you won, you became an Olympics judge.

    Great post, Joel.

  4. I am not involved in any way with education, but as I get older (45 now) I often look back in wonder at my sixth grade band teacher. How did he manage to get such different personalities to master such different instruments and make the whole process so much fun? Band teachers deserve a LOT more pay!

  5. True, true, true. I taught beginning band for 19 years, then took five years off to teach General music. Due to budget and staff cuts, I’m now going to have beginning students again. My perspective has changed greatly over the past twenty-four years.

    If they can make a great sound (your point 3) then everything else is possible. While the behavior skills give them discipline, and the attitude you show makes them happy, the sound is what others hear and relate to. I can’t tell you the number of performing groups I have heard (and adjudicated) where the primary problem was simply the lack of knowledge on how to create a consistently good sound on the instrument.

  6. @beloml – I think that comment is the best thing I have ever seen written on this blog. I should print it out and give it to my superintendent. Haha.

    @Eugene Cantera – I know what you mean. My district has reduced elementary music time to a single thirty minute class each week. Can you imagine trying to teach any note-reading or whatever to kids for half an hour, then not seeing them again for another seven days.

    This means that each student has a grand total of no more than 108 hours of music education from the time they enter kindergarten until they finish fifth grade. Of course, that is assuming there are no assemblies, TAKS prep classes, holidays (can you imagine the kids who have music on Monday?), special programs, etc.

    I am amazed at the work some of the music teachers do with recorders and note-reading and all that. But the system is weakened tremendously because of scheduling and priorities.

    1. I’ve been teaching elem. general, vocal, band, strings for years, most recently pared down to just band and strings and I have a new opportunity I’ve been asked to consider for my Fridays(currently a day off) to teach all 5th grade band – I’m amazed a school in our district has the vision and desire to give band to every student but the gotcha is that this school has only raised enough funds to buy 30 instruments (8 flute, 5 clarinets, 9 trumpets, 4 tombones, 5 snares and 5 xyl.) They envision students only playing the instrument in class once a week. Of course, they hope to eventually have 1-1 instruments-student like they do with computers. Am I crazy to consider this? I agree students don’t practice – much – but my kids do at least see me 2x a week and practice some.
      I would love to see this model work and grow but at this point in my life I don’t need more impossible goals. I realize I would have different expectations but will there be value for the students?

  7. @Dan Erbacher – I am becoming more and more convinced that band sound is the deciding factor beyond every other element. Notes and rhythms will come. And every band will miss notes and rhythms.

    Band sound starts with a fundamental understanding of great tone-production on the individual instruments. But I think beyond that, kids can be taught to have adequate sound and still have a great band sound. This has become my new pet project, I think and my challenge for myself this upcoming year!

  8. [Joel] Band sound starts with a fundamental understanding of great tone-production on the individual instruments. But I think beyond that, kids can be taught to have adequate sound and still have a great band sound.

    [Nancy] Been thinking about this idea, a lot. You know how, when kids first get their hands on the horn, they want to “play something”–and how their teachers want to get right down to “this is a quarter rest?” You might teach them a little lamb-tune (around here, it was “Let’s go Blue”) but then you feel pushed to start reading. Maybe that early play time, that experience of just enjoying having the horn in your hands and music coming out, gets short shrift.

    I have heard orchestra teachers moaning about having a class with mixed rank beginners and kids with Suzuki experience who “think they can play” but can’t read. I have even heard of schools where the orchestra teacher discourages families from enrolling their kids in Suzuki groups or lessons because it just messes them up, down the road. Shouldn’t the auditory and kinesthetic learning about how to play an instrument logically come first?

    Just asking. Not making a pronouncement.

  9. @Nancy Flanagan – Absolutely! When I teach beginners, I start most of my woodwinds out playing music the first week they have their horns. I teach the to play Mary Had A Little Lamb on their “baby flute” which is the head joint connected to the foot joint.

    All of my kids know a few songs before we get to the first page of the book. So when the Essential Elements 2000 book starts out with a whole note, they just learn to read that note and play that fingering. Plus, I am not a big fan of the sequence of notes that EE starts out with. I wish they would start out with a Concert D down to Bb rather than Concert F down the Bb.

    I used to do music theory before we got instruments and all that stuff, but as I get older (ha), I find that the method books teach the theory anyway. If I just introduce a concept the day before we see it in the book (dotted half notes, dynamics, or whatever else) then I just point to the thing on the page and am like “WHOA! That’s what we were talking about yesterday!!!”

    You’ve got me thinking, Nancy. I think I’ll write more about this later!

  10. Fascinating read!!!

    For sure us band directors are a bit of a control freak when it comes to choices but then most of us don’t know anything else. I mean, what else is there other than the most incredible experience in band??!!! Once a band geek, always a band geek. I mean really! :o)

    I’ve discovered this year that there are different levels of beginner band. For instance, the biggest difference between a fourth grade band and a 5th & 6th grade band is the maturity and attention span. I have no problems teaching a fourth grader how to blow on a trumpet knowing that this first experience may or may not be their calling in life. However, by the time they get to fifth or sixth grade, they’ve made up their mind (kinda) what they expect from being in band and what possibilities await them if they continue.

    I am proud of all my students for showing the strength it takes to to learn and appreciate their instruments. They’ve come a long way since September and some of my kids will be attending area music camps and other arts functions this summer.

    Since I have opportunity to teach three different beginner bands with all different playing levels and abilities. It’s almost definitive who’s going to hang there and who won’t. I can usually tell by the end of the first year. Those who have made significant progress in attitude and overall playing ability will most likely hang in there a few more years and further develop their skills. Those who tried but were not successful in their attempts or who simply lost interest will leave the program and not look back. I have 31 total beginners this year – a record for the school- and I’m sure that five or six will not return to the program next year.

    I am very religious with rehearsal behavior and I know the kids like me and are comfortable in my classroom, but they know when they’re in trouble for excessive talking or whatever. I have a “Respect barometer” in the front of my room to help the kids gauge their attitudes and the respect level they are showing for their director. I think it’s important for kids to have this kind of feedback. When they behave, they know a reward is more likely to come their way. However, if they choose to gab instead of play or listen, then they may lose the privilege of talking during their lunch period or worse, write sentences during recess. OH NO!

    I love challenging those who are just doing extremely well. I’ve been working on sight reading other necessary skills to build up the esteem within the groups. My fifth grade band, especially, like to come up to my room after school and gather together just start playing their concert repertoire.I don’t even have to be with them when they do this. It’s just a natural thing for them. I’ve noticed they’re very tight group and even if someone messes up, they work it out together until it’s right. I love that group! Because they do this on their own, regular rehearsals are usually smooth and function well. I can feel free to work with one or two students at a time and I feel accomplished, they feel accomplished. But there are times, they would rather talk and we deal with that as it happens.

    Thanks for reading. I’ve got many more good stories likethat.

  11. Emily,

    Your 4th grade beginning band is a class just for 4th graders? I’m starting a band program and the director of the school wants to combine 4th, 5th, & 6th graders into 1 beginning band class, but divided by sections. What are your thoughts about this? Do you think it will be successful? I’m a bit leary about it myself.

  12. Yes, actually because of the time schedule at my school, it has to be this way. I would encourage you talk with the admins and let them know that, cognitively, fourth graders can indeed learn and play instruments, however, because of their age and attention span, your band may not be as successful grouping all three grade levels together. 5th & 6th graders work very well together their first year because their attention spans are longer and they will be more likely to do the long jumps to improvement on the second try. My fourth graders have a deficit when it comes to finishing what they started and sometimes, I find, a little break from our repertoire to do some basics really gets them back on track.

    If you can’t talk them out of it either way, and your group gets too huge to handle, let them know you need some help by grouping them by grade. Your fourth graders are just “checking it out” not making a life long commitment. See if you can construct it it more as a “graduated recorder class” where they’re learning just the basics and that if they go on next year, you can pick up where you left off OR if some who chose to sit out this year can catch up quickly and not feel like they missed anything.

    How many kids are you expecting to join this group? that can also make a difference. I have 11 in fourth grade, 13 in fifth and 9 in sixth. My 4th and 5th grade groups meet every Monday and Wednesday for 30 minutes and 6th grade meet M,W-F 30 mins each time. I also offer sectionals after school by sections, There, I combine all three grade levels because I’m the only one teaching. It would be easier with a second person but then my salary would get cut in half and I’d still have the same amount of work. That doesn’t work either.

    I hope I’ve answered your question in some fashion.I’m working on reformulating my program for next year since this was my first year with elementary groups playing. A lot of it is trial and error. Discipline is going to to be the key and you have start on DAY 1.

    1. The other problem is the admin. is also wanting the class per. to be 100 min. I think that is way too long! Thanks for the advice about combining all three grades and for the specific ex. I’m going to share this w/the administration. I don’t think I will have a problem w/#’s bc this is a Christian school and the total enrollment is only like 150. So maybe, there are a total of 60 kids in the 3 grades together and I don’t expect all 60 kids to participate in band. However, the director did mention he wanted to make band mandatory. I’m not sure how that’s gonna go over. Providing an instrument is a big commitment for a parent, for a mandatory class.

      Yeah, I have 8 yrs. of teaching experience and this is a private international Christian school, so I’m not expecting discipline to be my biggest challenge. All the same, I’ll be ready either way. Thanks again for the advise!

    2. I I also teach at a Christian school with 580 total students K-12. I currently have 46 total in the program. We started the year off with 60 and well I lost most of my second year students due to the fact I set some standards and goals the kids didn’t feel like rising to. So the admin decided to go against their own “rules” by saying the “middle school is a time for exploring different interests.And if they don’t feel like continuing in the music program, they don’t have to.” Of course I pointed out that if this trend continues, we won’t have a quality band, ever.The other problem is, they’ve had huge turnover as far as music teachers go in this school and no teacher has ever been there more than two years at a time. This also has taken its toll in the department. Every teacher that comes in needs to “clean up” from the last teacher. The teacher that preceded me was in the students’ terms: bipolar at best and she didn’t teach squat. Therefore, most of the third year students aren’t any better than my beginners except that they get a better sound out of their instruments.

      Most of my students rent instruments on their own. The school own about thirty instruments to rent out. Which I’m happy to say, most of them are rented out this year.

      How on earth can the admins make band mandatory? What if the kid really doesn’t have a knack for it?They’re gonna lose families and yadda yadda yadda. I just hope they don’t blame you for that decision.My situation is right now not a super duper one. Because tings haven’t come even close to what I wanted to do this year, I may not be returning next year. Like I said, most music teachers don’t last more than two years at this school. I wish they would help fix the problem rather than just move onto the next. I had a meeting back in October with both of my supervisors and the superintendent. stating that I was on the fence with my job because the kids were being jerks and there wasn’t any control in my classes. Chaotic at best is what my middle principal said. They made some suggestions but so far, they haven’t really come in to help me since and now my contract is in limbo for next year so I can’t make any plans for new students or my continuing students. I’m asking God to make it crystal clear what I should be doing over the next two months so that I can either continue to improve the band program at this school or take a year leave and teach privately. Something I don’t really want to do since I’ve made so many friends with the families and I relocated my family across the country because of this job.

      Anyway, sorry for dumping. Just a lot on my mind.

    3. Emily,

      Do you mind if I ask what some of your requirements for the students were? Sorry to hear about the drop in the # of students in your band program and the problems establishing a good program due to the faults of the prior music teachers.

      I guess, there was a misunderstanding. The admin. won’t make band mandatory, mainly due to the fact that the school at this point doesn’t own any instruments.

      I hope maybe by now you’ve received some clarity as to what it is you’ll be doing next yr.

    4. P.S. Emily – are you the only music teacher at your school? If so, how do they handle the scheduling of band classes? Like for example, what do the other students do while the band kids are in band?

    5. What a golden opportunity to have a solid middle school program! I’ve seen band as a mandatory class (or as one of a very small number of electives) and have seen it work really well.

      It’s all about communication. If they make it mandatory,be sure to inform the administration about the costs involved (get some numbers to back it up) and work with your local music dealer to find great quality used instruments that the school could buy to let those students who cannot afford it use. If they are attending a private school, odds are that most of the parents won’t have too many problems getting instruments.

      At the beginning levels, used instruments are a great option. It is always much better than rent-to-own.

      One concern I would have with 4th and 5th grade beginners are teeth. Heck, I still have 7th graders who lose teeth, and each lost tooth changes the embouchure.

      Here’s how I would do it. I would start out by combining 4th and 5th grade classes. I’d have a woodwind and a brass class for both grades. 4th graders can ONLY play clarinet, trumpet, or euphonium. 5th graders can move to flute, alto sax, trombone. 6th graders can move to oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet, tenor sax, bari sax, horn, tuba, and percussion.

      If it’s not mandatory, you would weed out the kids who don’t want to read music (ie. drummers) and help the younger kids establish good fundamentals before moving them to more difficult instruments.

      4th and 5th graders start out with how to hold their instrument and basic classroom discipline early on. Then you move to long tones and finally work to get the first five notes. You could push the 5th grade clarinets across the break at this point as well. That will help establish great tone as well as keep the 5th graders from getting bored out of their skulls.

      I would expect to get through an entire book in the first year with 4th and 5th graders, but if you can get them through about 100 lines or so, you’ll be good.

      Then start the 6th grader classes out wherever they left off the year before, and try to get them through the book as fast as possible, and then go back and play everything in cut time. After that, spend the remainder of the year working scales, grade 1 music, and having fun!

    6. Thanks Joel!

      Perhaps my emotional state needs an overhaul. I had taken a lot of things personally that were more about the professional lifethan not.

      I agree with you on the first year band thing. At this point in the year, most of my fifth graders are about 3/4 the way through the first book and I don’t plan on taking them further this year. We are concentrating on balance and concert repertoire. I think balance is one of the biggest things when teaching,as you had said in another article. By teaching the kids to listen for it and maintain their section’s quality early on, they get a better sense of what I’m looking for and they sound better.

    7. The only ones that I’ve found that I would be comfortable using are Essential Elements 2000 (my personal preference), Accent on Achievement, or Ed Sueta’s oooold band method.

    8. Joel,

      Thanks for your suggestions! The Essential Elements 2000, I read somewhere that Book 1 comes with a planned 1st concert? Is that correct and if so does it actually include the pieces in book 1? Why would you recommend Essential Elements over Accent on Achievement or Standard of Excellence?

    9. Angie,
      I like the way Accent on Achievement begins. In fact, I have used copies of the first couple of pages of AoA with students before even when we start in Essential Elements. The range on the first few pages is easier for most brass players when they start (starts on Concert D instead of F). I have no experience with students using Standard of Excellence, so I won’t address it.

      Unfortunately, after Holiday Sampler, AoA goes downhill. Essential Elements has a better second half than Accent on Achievement, in my experience. Actually after page 5, I love Essential Elements. It introduces the right concepts in a straightforward way, and it just has some fun music for the kids.

      As far as the planned 1st concert, I guess pretty much all beginners books have that sort of thing now. I prefer to pick different music each year to help me grow more as a teacher, and also to be able to choose some stuff that might be more appropriate for the level of my kids. I like the full band music in Accent on Achievement, though.

  13. Angie – Currently I am the only music teacher at the school and that, too will will be a thing of the past as I did not get renewed for next year. In fact, they’re dismissing the entire band program altogether and trying strings instead. Those parents in the program are REALLY mad and want me to be reinstated because their kids think the world of me and I’m their only band experience. So, the kids who were not in band this year but wanted to be next year, can’t and those who started this year and want to continue, can’t. My family was uprooted from PA in September 2007 to take this job. After spending our entire life savings to move here, I was expecting to have this position for at least five years but I guess God has other plans. The admin could’ve done so much more to ensure I would stay but they didn’t help one bit. So, anyway, to answer your questions….

    The only requirements I had for my first year students was that they were entering fourth grade and were willing to commit themselves to one year.

    The scheduling is handled mainly by the middle school principal. The 4th & 5th grades have something called an “Enrichment period” where those in band or orchestra go to rehearsal and the others will go to computer , art or drama. I think it works on paper and sorta in real life. I still had to put about two hours in after school for sectionals everyday. By the time leave school, everyone’s long gone. the middle school band kids had electives this year which attributed to the # I lost earlier this year. I gained two sixth grade and lost 14 in 7th/8th. they’re just at that age where they want to do all kinds of stuff. If our electives didn’t meet four days a week or the kids could choose one other elective to go to during the week, I probably wouldn’t have lost that many that quickly.

    Most students rent from a local music store but the school does own some old instruments which kinda work but by the end of the school year, most kids have convinced their parents to go rent a “real instrument”.

    I’ve been using Standard of Excellence in my beginner bands but I’m leaning more toward Essential Elements 2000. It’s just a better set up all together. However, I found that SOE’s theory and History companions to be very good at reinforcing the basics. I also found that once to get about the middle of that book, it’s sometimes easier to use band music to build concepts and the kids have a better time because they’re actually playing music and not dorky little exercises in a book. Those are good if some of the kids are really struggling with a specific problem but not when you have 14 or so and they’re all really good at what they do. It’s almost insulting. Maybe that’s part of where I’m going wrong, but really, my fifth graders and some of my fourth graders do so much better since we quit the book about two months ago. We’ll finish sometime but for now our concert music is appropriate to what’s in the book anyway.

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