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  • Writer's pictureWendy Higdon

Teaching Clarinet: The Very First Lesson

In June, I teach a three week summer band class for beginning students along with my colleagues. We teach Summer Band as an entire district with teachers and students from all three middle schools coming together for the camp. There are many benefits to this arrangement, but one of the things that I love most is that the directors, for the most part, get to teach their instrument specialties. This arrangement makes for very detailed, specialized instruction for all the students who attend! This summer, I taught two clarinet classes and a saxophone class. Each class was 55 minutes in length and had about 25-30 students.

I have changed my approach to teaching beginners quite a bit over the last several years. Previously, I used to try to get as I much as I could accomplished during our summer class. Now, however, the pacing of my classes is much slower, sequential and deliberate. We don't accomplish quite as much, but I am so happy with the results because the students are much more successful! Below is a description of the very first lesson, including specific activities and language that I use. In subsequent posts, I will discuss Days Two through Five. As we go through the series, you will notice that my students don't actually play a sound on their instruments until Day Three! It seems crazy, but it works well!

Day 1: Learning about our Instrument and Accessories

1. I welcome the students to band and tell them how excited I am that they are here. I tell the students that even though they may feel nervous, there is no need to worry because I am going to show them everything they need to know, and we are going to make sure everyone is successful.

2. I distribute the instruments (which have been delivered by the music store in advance of the first class) and ask the students to place their cases and items from the music store on the floor in front of them.

3. I ask the students to sit on the floor in front of their chairs. This is very important. We always open cases on the floor to avoid spilling our clarinet on the ground.

4. The first thing we do is go through the "bag of goodies." This is the bag of accessories, reeds and cleaning supplies that the music store has packaged separately. Together, we pull each item out of the bag and discuss what it is and what it does. I also have a handout with pictures and explanations of each item in case the students forget what something is. As we go through the bag, we divide the items into two piles. One pile contains items that the students will take home today, such as folding music stands, method books and metronomes. The other pile contains all the items that we will put in their clarinet cases a little later. 5. I then talk about clarinet cases. I ask the students to place the case flat on the floor with the handle facing them. We talk about how to know which side of the case is up and how to operate the latches. There are always a variety of cases, so I make sure to discuss each kind. Once we have covered all the options, the magical moment where we open our cases has arrived!

6. We open the case lid and everyone gets to see their clarinet for the first time! Together, we identify each part of the instrument. Once we know what each piece is, I call out the name of the different parts and have the students point to each in their case. Notice that we have not taken anything out of the case yet. Then it's the students' turn to call out parts of the instrument and we all point to them together in our cases.

7. I talk about how instrument cases are designed to hold and protect their instrument and how we can only place other items in the case in the special compartment. We never place anything on top of our clarinet inside the case. We locate the compartment and carefully place all our accessories from earlier inside our case. The one exception is the swab which we fold and place inside the clarinet bell. 8. I have the students close their cases carefully. We discuss how to close the latches, and I caution students to never force their cases closed if things don't seem to be fitting properly.

Let's Shift Gears, Pick Up the Pace, and Say our Musical Alphabet

1. By this point, we are a good 15-20 minutes into class, and the students have been still and quiet for too long! It's time to get them active.

2. I ask the students how many know their musical alphabet. Some will raise their hands, but several do not. I tell them, "You ALL know your musical alphabet, even if you don't know that you do! Your musical alphabet is the first 7 letters of the regular alphabet." So, we name those 7 letters together as I write them on the board. I tell everyone, "In the musical alphabet, once we get to G, we just go right back to A and start again."

3. We recite the musical alphabet together. I want all the kids chanting confidently: this is something they know and can do! "ABCDEFG ABCDEFG ABCDEFG!" I tell them how great they are and say, "Now I am going to challenge you. Can you say it backwards starting with G and going to A?" The alphabet is still on the board where I wrote it earlier, so the students can refer to it if they need, and everyone is successful. "GFEDCBA GFEDCBA GFEDCBA!" Again, everyone is awesome, and I tell them so. Tomorrow, we will do this again, but I will add a twist. . . we will not always start on the same letter!

4. I tell the students that the notes go on the staff in alphabetical order. Some of the students are already familiar with "Every Good Boy Does Fine" and "FACE," and I tell them that those sayings can be very helpful. From a pedagogical perspective, however, I focus on teaching alphabetical order because we can continue above and below the staff easily. I draw a treble clef on the staff and ask the students if they know what it is. Some do, and are happy to share their knowledge. Then I tell the students that the first line on the staff is E and together we name all the rest of the notes (in alphabetical order) together and I write the letters on the staff. This is easy for the students, and we can even name notes above and below the staff on the first day.

Time to Stand Up and Learn How to Sit!

1. "All right, everyone stand up!" The kids are happy to get out of their chairs, and everyone is engaged.

2. I say, "When we play an instrument, we want our bodies to be in a natural position. We don't want any tension in our bodies, faces or hands. So I want you to stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your weight evenly distributed on both feet. I want you to pay attention to what this feels like. Now, without changing anything from the waist up, bend your knees and lower yourself to your chair." I will have them do this two or three more times in succession, so that we can feel that our body stays in the same position when seated as it is when we are standing. I also tell the students that if they have to move their feet in order to stand up, that is a signal that their posture has changed while they are sitting. We practice standing and sitting until everyone is maintaining the proper body position.

3. Notice that I have not talked about anything specific related to posture at this point. The words I have used are things like "natural" and "tension free." In the beginning, I am not going to get too technical or detailed about posture. (We do talk about the fact that sitting to play an instrument is different than how we sit when watching TV, reading or playing video games at home.) I will continue to build on this in subsequent lessons.

Let's Look at Our Method Book and Wrap Up Class

1. By now, we are nearing the end of our time together. I ask the students to look at their method book with me.

2. Nearly all method books have pages that define the parts of the instrument, explain the basics of music reading and provide other introductory knowledge. We look at those pages together, examine the diagrams and photographs, and I encourage the students to look over these pages before the next class if they have time. I don't require them to do the reading, but it does give the students something to do at home, as well as something they can show their parents.

3. At the beginning of our lesson, I have told the students that we will not be taking instruments home for a couple of days. I have explained that this is because we need to learn a few things first, and if instruments go home before we know what to do, it is possible that someone might accidentally damage their instrument. So, at the end of the class, I show the students a place in the classroom where everyone will leave their instruments. (Make sure all the students have name tags on their cases first!)

4. It's time to say goodbye for the day, but before I do, I make sure to complement the students on how well they listened and followed directions. I say, "I'm so proud of aIl of you. If you keep listening this well, we are going to be awesome!" I want everyone leaving the class after Day One feeling happy, confident and successful.

Final Thoughts for Day One

As you can see, the first lesson keeps the students busy with several activities that begin to build the foundation in a very detailed, sequential (but attainable) manner. Tasks are designed so that everyone can feel successful right off the bat while still feeling a sense of accomplishment!

Next up, we will discuss "Day Two" and how to build on the foundation we developed on the first day!

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