Making the right instructional choices to develop your students can be overwhelming if you don’t take the time to consider the musical nourishment needs for your students’ level of development. There are so many instructional options to choose from, and you want to make sure that your choices are the genesis to a sequential path to healthy instructional choices that lead to strong independent musicians.
The following suggestions can be used from beginning level students through second or third-year students depending on the developmental level of the young musicians. The recommended time spent on each activity is based on a 50-minute daily class schedule and can be customized for any schedule. If your instructional time is limited, you may not be able to cover each element daily but perhaps prioritizing elements in order to touch base on everything within the instructional week. Monitor/assess student progress to determine their needs and let that guide your instruction.
Front of house
Picture a nice restaurant, what does it look like as you walk up to it, what is the atmosphere like, how are you greeted when you enter, what does it smell like? The best restaurants put a lot of thought into these things. They want your first impression to hook you into being a return customer. Just like these great restaurants, we want our students to want to come back each day and each year for more music!
World-class chefs employ a culinary process called ‘Mise en place’, which basically means ‘everything in its place’. This is a ‘religion’ for professionals in the culinary industry and describes everything from organization techniques, pre-reading recipes, prepping the workplace, and gathering all ingredients to chain of command. Great educators utilize ‘Mise en place’ in their classrooms as well.
Think of your daily plan as if it were a menu at a nice restaurant. You wouldn’t have a menu offering only one type of food, nor would you want to have a menu that was 30 pages long. Considering all of the instructional options available to develop young musicians, it is essential to design your daily plan to incorporate all of the necessary ingredients for the instructional needs of your students in order to develop healthy musicians.
Let’s begin with bite-sized offerings at the beginning of class to stimulate students musically, enhance fundamentals, and establish classroom culture and work ethic, your appetizer. Think of this as “pre-learning” the instrument and the next layers of instruction, allowing you to train for the situation, not in the situation. This may include things like basic music theory, rhythmic reading/pass-offs (clapping/counting/playing), note-naming speed drills/pass-offs, etc. Select different options each day to keep students engaged and to connect with them individually. Being proficient with rhythmic reading is the single greatest factor for sight reading success and music literacy. This can be done individually or as a full class. Consider spending 5-6 minutes on this each day and even using it as “bell work,” that period of time before the bell rings for class to begin. Structuring your classes the same way every day allows the students to know what to expect and gives them more ownership and individual accountability.
Each “musical course” should allow you to select different exercises that empower you to vary the activity from day to day, to keep the students engaged, and encourage student growth. Green vegetables provide essential nutrients for our bodies, just as proper breathing techniques provide the energy for tone on a wind instrument. Proper breathing techniques affect everything from the start of notes (is it clean, is it together), the tonal energy of the note, and how the note is finished. Learning proper breathing techniques is not a “one-and-done” concept. This is something that needs to be continually developed throughout a student’s musical career.
Basic breathing is learning how to use air for playing a wind instrument, as opposed to breathing to live. Breathing to play a wind instrument is more mindful and deliberate, beginning with an exhale to expel all of the old air, to the slow and deep inhale, to the tone production on the instrument. The “Breathing Chant” (pictured below) is a simple and effective way to teach students what to do prior to a breath, during a breath and using the breath to produce a sound. This chant tells the students what to do on each of the 4 beats.
Spend about 2-3 minutes at the beginning of class using this “chant” verbally, verbally with hand motion for a visual of what the air is doing, and then internalize the chant to further instill a good sense of pulse in your young musician. This chant is something that needs to become a habit to ensure consistent note starts, consistent tonal energy, and consistent clean note finishes.
You can elevate your basic breathing chant to include a variety of inhale and exhale counts to vary the activity and to further develop endurance and lung capacity. You may even consider adding a “breathing tube” (¾ inch cold water valve or PVC pipe) to your breathing chant as the students become more proficient. The “Breathing Chant” should be used every day to “count off” students to play or if a student is playing alone.
Modeling for our students is like giving them better ingredients and depth of flavor for their playing. We need to offer quality modeling for them to emulate during class to create a habit they will use away from class. Spend about 3 minutes on teacher led modeling on the ‘small instrument’ like the flute headjoint, clarinet mouthpiece/barrel, sax mouthpiece/neck, etc. Focus on clean note starts, the consistent shape of the body of the sound, clean note finishes, and even articulation. You can vary this activity by doing “echoes,” a model student group plays followed by a second student group, or even passing the note(s) down the line for matching consistently from individual to individual. “Gamefying” these exercises will engage students and keep them working on FUNdamentals! Be sure to use your ‘Breathing Chant’ to make sure everyone is exhaling before they inhale as they pass the note(s) down the line.
Range-developing exercises are other key ingredients to a nutritious daily plan. Spend about 4 minutes of your rehearsal on long tones one day, scale sequences on another day, and flow studies on yet another day. Take a day at the end of the week to do a sampling of all three to reinforce prior learning. Long tones can include Remington patterns, chromatic patterns, and diatonic patterns. Scale sequences are carefully curated scale sequences for effortless range extension and include a side of ‘scale donuts’ (see This Handout). Flow studies are season specific according to students’ range and tempo limitations.
The next part of our daily plan is for technical development. Spend about 4 minutes each on finger dexterity and articulation skills. Simple exercises like “Finger Wiggles,” “Finger Ninjas,” and other scale patterns (see This Handout) are great options to develop these skills in your young musician.
Isolate the skill first by fingering on the instrument (or a pencil if the student is just starting out), by simply calling out finger numbers for the students to move, start slow and gradually speed up as coordination is developed. Monitor hand position as students isolate by having the students hold the instrument in a “fingering position” near their ear; they can hear clean intentional “popping” as the keys are depressed (especially woodwind instruments). Work towards muscle memory for proper hand/finger placement by monitoring for consistency and by not moving too fast in terms of adding additional exercises. Slow and steady wins the race!
Proper articulation is indispensable for ensemble clarity, so spend about 4 minutes each day on this skill. To ensure that students are all articulating properly, assign specific articulation syllables to each instrument. Start with a consonant to determine the style of the front of the note (T or D), then add a vowel (A, E, U, O, depending on range and individual instrument tongue placement), and always end with an H for resonance (finish). Using the “Breathing Chant” helps students prepare both the tongue and the air for starts of notes that are together, match, and are clear. If students within a section are all using different articulation syllables, there will be clarity concerns that will affect your ensemble sound, so check with students regularly to make sure they are using the syllable that you assigned to them.
Modeling daily for your students and listening to them individually is key for good articulation development. Consider doing a follow-the-leader or echo game where you say the syllable (student repeats), you “airplay” (tongue and air without tone) the syllable (student repeats), then you play the syllable (student repeats). Vary the activity once students are consistent and allow for student lead modeling. This is a great way to access students and develop individual musicians and leaders. “Airplaying” is a great way to hear what the student is doing with their tongue; you can diagnose and correct a multitude of problems using this technique.
Tongue speed development and tongue/finger coordination come after students are consistent with the articulation syllable and starts of notes (see This Handout). Exercise #1 is great for developing tongue speed. Monitor your students daily to make sure they are placing the tongue properly and using the recommended articulation syllable. Exercise #2 is great for adding fingers or moving between notes to ensure good tongue/finger phasing. All exercises should be taught slow to fast, gradually speeding up the tempo, and only once the students are consistently articulating correctly.
This brings us to more advanced musical concepts that may need to be taught by the end of the beginner year. Prerequisites for these concepts are consistent characteristic sounds with good tonal energy and well-developed embouchure and articulation skills.
Vibrato is used to enhance tone, create intensity and a variety of tonal colors, and to convey emotional nuance in music. Vibrato should never cover up a bad sound or distract from a good one. Vibrato doesn’t always need to be present, and sometimes less is more. When students have met the prerequisites, spend 2-3 minutes each day on teaching vibrato, vibrato exercises, and how to apply vibrato to music. The time to teach this concept varies greatly from class to class. A good guideline is to make sure that your students are using their air consistently, they can produce a consistent characteristic sound, they can articulate consistently, and they have good control within a two-octave range. After it is taught, vibrato can be incorporated into your long tones and other exercises that you do on a daily basis.
I find dynamics to be one of the most difficult concepts to teach young students. My explanation for dynamics is soft is less FAST air, and loud is more FAST air. Dynamics should not affect tone, tonal energy, or pitch. Students need to be able to produce a characteristic sound on their instruments in all registers prior to learning the mechanics of playing dynamics. To accomplish dynamic changes that don’t affect tone or pitch, a student must have great control over the embouchure and air column. Playing with less FAST air requires a smaller aperture for the air to pass through, and playing louder dynamics requires a larger aperture for the same FAST air to pass through. Maintaining the speed of the air column is key. See the “Dynamic Sheet” (in This Handout). for exercises to use with your students once they have mastered the mechanics of playing loud and soft.
Once we have worked on all of the daily nutritional requirements, we need to apply those skills and knowledge to music. This should take about 8-10 minutes to guide your students through song lines or even full band tunes to prepare for a performance. Let the students be the guide through the literature. Ask them to scan the music and locate ‘things they know’ like scale sequences, Finger Wiggles, Finger Ninjas, etc. They will most likely find that they already know everything in the music, thus simplifying it for them, and they will be able to ‘sight read’ it with minimal effort.
Practice and applying the skills learned in class is another essential ingredient to the success of the young musician. Engaging the help and support of students’ parents will go a long way in ensuring that students are spending quality time practicing their instrument at home. Parents may not know what is involved in purposeful practice so consider sharing practice guidelines with the parents that might include tips like what is practicing, how the practice environment looks, how to motivate students to practice, etc. Here is a link to an example: A Parent’s Guide to Successful Practicing. Keeping parents involved throughout a child’s musical journey will help create a culture of volunteerism when the child gets into high school and parents and students will be more likely to be supporters of the arts long after they graduate from high school.
No matter if you are planning for a beginner class or a more advanced class, if you will plan with the end in mind, take the time to provide daily offerings that develop their individual skills and provide them with opportunities to apply those skills at the end of the class, your students will thrive and grow into healthy independent musicians. I hope that these thoughts will help you get started making healthy choices for you and your students.
Provided by Kathy Johnson on behalf of the Musical Mastery for Band authors Asa Burk, Alicia DeSoto, Kathy Johnson, Dominic Talanca, and Chris Meredith.
Kathy Johnson – Adjunct Professor of Woodwind and Brass Techniques at the University of North Texas, has led a distinguished career of 40 years teaching music education in Texas. Highly respected clinician, adjudicator, and conductor, Mrs. Johnson serves as Artistic Director of the Dallas Winds Honor Band and is the UIL Region 2 Executive Secretary. Dedicated to music education and developing the individual young musician, Mrs. Johnson co-authors Musical Mastery for Band and the forthcoming Student Teachers Workbook.
Bands under the direction of Kathy Johnson have been selected as TMEA honor band, performing at the Texas Music Educators Conference, have performed at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, have been the UIL State Marching Band Champions on multiple occasions, were awarded the Outstanding Band Program Award by the Texas Chapter of the American School Band Director’s Association and were selected as an Exemplary High School Band Program by the Texas Bandmasters Association.
A member of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association, Mrs. Johnson serves on both the Ostwald and Educational committees. Her other professional affiliations include Phi Beta Mu International Band Fraternity, where she is on the board representing the small schools of Texas, the Texas Music Educators Association, the Texas Music Adjudicators Association, Women’s Band Directors International, and the Texas Bandmasters Association, from which she received the Meritorious Achievement Award. Mrs. Johnson resides in Flower Mound, TX, with her husband, Eric.
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