Beginning band students are tasked with learning and demonstrating many new skills in a short period of time. Proper air support is one of the most crucial skills to a wind player’s early development and success. There are many special methods, techniques, books, and DVDs devoted solely to breathing. But one small and inexpensive tchotchke can get kids demonstrating the correct technique in no time. Bring out a bouquet of shiny, Mylar pinwheels and let the air flow!
Introducing the Pinwheels
Using pinwheels in class creates one of those special moments when kids think they are “just having fun,” but are actually learning and reinforcing the foundation of their playing technique. Before you introduce the pinwheels, your students should already have a grasp of excellent posture as well as the full, relaxed breathing needed to play a wind instrument. Make sure that students have both feet flat on the floor while taking deep, relaxed breaths. Watch the students to be sure that no one is creating tension by lifting their shoulders or artificially puffing out their chest. Remind them to keep their breaths natural. Initially, have the students experiment with using their airstream to get the pinwheel to start spinning. Have them blow fast and slow air, and try holding the pinwheel in different positions.
Teacher Models, Students Imitate
The pinwheel can be used as a great visual representation of several techniques to model for your students. You can vary the airstream by blowing faster or slower air, tonguing lightly, and changing air direction. You can also demonstrate poor examples of each to show contrast. Interestingly, a pinwheel blown with brute force will often get “stuck,” showing students that a happy medium of airflow is needed. This will help with endurance, too. Once the students are familiar with these models, you can have them demonstrate the same techniques. A pinwheel will even spin when held in front of a student buzzing into a mouthpiece or blowing across a flute head joint.
One of the best uses I have found for the pinwheel is to use it as a visual of a constant air stream when tonguing multiple notes in a row. The students are able to see and feel how to keep the air moving while tonguing lightly. Utilizing the pinwheel model for tonguing will ultimately help with tone quality and phrasing, deterring students from clipping notes or using air attacks. Again, this will also work with a brass mouthpiece or flute head joint if the student is using the correct technique.
When students aren’t supporting their air, you can hear it, but the student may not always realize it. Holding up a pinwheel, or even just pointing to one, can serve as a quick visual reminder for the air support the student needs to use. When students aren’t using enough air volume, I hold a pinwheel further and further away from them as they play, asking them to imagine making it spin. I use the same technique to help my brass players get higher notes—holding the pinwheel up high as a reminder to keep their tongue up and direct their air higher. They already know how to use their air to spin the pinwheel, so they can imagine using their air to make it spin, even when they are playing a note on their entire instrument. For a flute player trying to reach low register notes, remind the student to imagine spinning the pinwheel steadily and slowly.
Longest Spin Contest
Instead of the famed “longest note” or “longest buzz” contest, you can have a “longest spin” contest, and see whether your students are supporting the air and keeping it steady. Using the pinwheel for this sort of contest also prevents students from straining to eke out just a little more sound. When the air column becomes too weak, the pinwheel will just stop. If a student can keep the pinwheel spinning for 8 or 16 beats, then they can play a 2- or 4-bar phrase on their instrument.
Kim Harrison teaches 4th and 5th grade lessons and band at Pine Tree Elementary School. Pine Tree is part of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District in Orange County, NY, which has been named one of the Best Communities for Music Education by the NAMM Foundation for six consecutive years. Miss Harrison is passionate about finding the best ways to engage her students and to encourage them to reach high standards. In Spring 2017, the Pine Tree 5th Grade Band received a Gold rating at the NYSSMA Majors festival.
Thanks to a reader who shared a great find on Amazon – 100 pinwheels (assembly required) for super cheap! Check it out here.
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