For those of you who have not heard of Edwin Gordon, I would recommend doing a little research on the “Gordon Musical Learning Theory.” It has been used quite a bit in the general music world, but not nearly as much in the band world. The theory is based on the idea of learning to perform music in much the same way that we learn to speak/read/write. And it makes a TON of sense. I have been doing some of these things for several years and I love it. Despite how it seems on the surface, it is NOT learning “by rote.” It is like the exact opposite of that. It is learning LITERACY.
We as band directors tend to do things backwards. I know – I did for several years. By that, I mean we throw a piece of music in front of the kids that they can’t play and we spend 9-18 weeks “teaching it” until they are ready to perform it (hopefully), and then we play it at the concert. We teach them “how the rhythms go,” how all the notes should be articulated, where to breath, etc. They do it and it sounds great. Good, right? But what happens when you put the next new piece in front of them?
Oops – they can’t play it because they can’t read it. The cycle starts over again. The public doesn’t know the kids are illiterate (they sound great!), but the high school band director will know and won’t be too happy with you (unless you are your own high school director I guess…).
Or, we put a piece of music in front of a kid with 16th notes on it and say “Hear Ye, Hear Ye! These are 16th notes! Notice the stems are connected by two flags, in groups of four, there are four in a beat, there are 16 in a measure, we say ‘1e&a,’…”(World’s greatest lecture continues for 10 more minutes)…..”now play it!” And they can’t, can they? A couple of them can, but the rest are utterly confused. They are wrestling with your theoretical explanation and trying to do it, and they sound like elephants tripping over themselves. (You know exactly what I am talking about, don’t you?)
There is another way that is really easy and they “get it,” and it takes VERY LITTLE TALKING! Simply say “copy me on a tuning note.” Then play some short, four-beat rhythms with 16th notes in them. Do this for a few days, one or two minutes a day. Then say “Repeat verbally after me: 1 2& 3e&a 4” etc. Then a couple days later say, “I’m going to PLAY a rhythm, and you speak it in counting words.” And they are able to do it.
Then one day (about a week into this….you’ve only done 5-10 minutes total of this as a warm-up for the week), you say “repeat after me on a tuning note,” you play a four-note rhythm. Then you flash that new rhythm on the board as they play it. They are playing it correctly while looking at it – and they immediately figure out what that new symbol means. The next day you do this in your 1-2 min warm up, you do the same thing for a while, then tell them to IMAGINE what the rhythm is going to look like on the screen. Do it a couple times, then display it. The whole class has just done “mental dictation.”
Last step – don’t copy and repeat (don’t demonstrate first). Just flash the rhythm and tell them to play it. They will nail it. And they will UNDERSTAND it. And they can TRANSFER it into any song. That is literacy. That makes them monster sight readers. Then you open the method book to the page that introduces the new rhythm (because you planned this two weeks in advance…that was slick of you!) and you tell them to play it. And they do, no problem. Easy actually. No more tripping elephants. They learned to SPEAK on their instruments, then READ – and finally it is time for the explanation. In fact, there is not much left to explain. Have them explain it. They’ll explain it correctly. I teach every new rhythm this way after the initial quarter note / half note/whole note intro in band camp.
Pretend you want a 5 year old to recite one chapter out of a kids book by the end of the year. In fact, they are going to perform it in front of 1,000 people. You have two options here:
On day one, start reading the book over and over to the kid. Have them copy you. Tell them every single word. Have them repeat it back until they memorize it. This may take several months. Once they get the words, teach them the inflection. Teach them how to say every single word. Teach them how to stand, where to look, what to do with their hands. Then, a year into it, the kid will stand on stage and recite it PERFECTLY and the crowd will go wild. What an accomplishment! Now give that kid a preschool book and ask them to read it…….pretty obvious what is going to happen. They can’t read. WE DO THIS TO OUR KIDS! That is why they can’t sight read! We have taught “the song,” not MUSIC.
Option 2 (the Gordon way of doing things)
By this point, the kid has learned to speak fluently. That was the first step. They had to know how to speak. Now….they have a year before “performance day,” Let’s teach the kid to read. (That’s a novel thought, isn’t it?) Teach them the building blocks of language. Start with the alphabet. The kid can already say it. Time to show it to them. Show them what WHAT THEY CAN ALREADY DO (speak letter sounds) “looks like.” Show them the written alphabet. Work on that with them until they master it. Then teach them a few words that they already know (like “dog,” “cat,” “bat,” and show them what those words that they can already say LOOK LIKE. Teach them how to read short sentences. Teach them about inflection. Have them READ a TON of short books that are below their level to solidify their ability to read, while simultaneously giving them stuff that is just a little harder and a little harder. Finally, after a year, the kid gets up on stage and you hand them the book for the first time and they read it. And they can read 100 other books as well. They learned TO READ, not how to recite one book.
Be wise with your time. I set out to prove this last year and the band sight read a grade 3 piece at a concert (second and third year kids) and nailed it. I told the audience what we were doing, and they got a kick out of it. It was a big leap of faith, but I wanted to prove my theory.
Imagine what you can do with a band like that! It is pretty fun to tell you the truth. You give them a meaty song and on the first run through, they play most of the notes and rhythms correctly….they know those, that is nothing hard. Then from the second run through you start teaching ENSEMBLE concepts. Not notes and rhythms. You work on blend, phrasing, balance, intonation of chords, tone color, general effect, EMOTION, nuance. And it is fun as a director.
Basically to do this, simply teach kids how to physically do something, wait till they “master it” (new notes or new rhythms, or dynamics, or anything really) and THEN show them what it looks like. They will have mastered it and they can then transfer it, and you will have little sight reading monsters.
Food for thought. It works.
Eric Combs is the director of bands at Richland County Middle School in Illinois. He manages Thoughts from a Beginning Band Director and Sound Beginnings – Beginner Band Series where he shares thoughts and videos from his daily life in the band hall.
If you would like to receive our weekly newsletter, sign up here.
Don’t forget to like us on Facebook too!
Learn. Share. Inspire.