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  • Wendy Higdon

Setting Your New Beginners Up For Success

In a week, I will be starting a new crop of beginning band students-- my 26th opportunity to share this most exciting and crucial time with a new group of musicians. If this group is like most of the others, they will come to their first day as nervous as they are excited. They will have questions that they are too afraid to ask, but a strong desire to please. Their success will be almost solely dependent on what I say and do in class over the coming months.

These are, without question, the most important lessons I will plan during the entire school year, and it is essential that I get them right.

If you are fortunate enough to teach beginning band, first, be grateful that you have the opportunity to open the Band Room door to a new generation. The rewards are many- both for students and teacher! Second, take your responsibility seriously. The first weeks and months of instruction for new musicians are some of the most difficult. You will be more "hands on" than at any other time in the musical development of these students. And the foundation you set will determine not only how successful these students become on their instruments, but maybe even whether they continue their instrumental music study at all!

Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind:

1. Start at the very beginning. Don't leave out any steps and don't assume that the students know anything about what you are teaching them. I tell my students and their parents that our first lesson will be to learn how to open up the case without dumping their brand new instrument on the floor. I always get a chuckle, but it's really not a joke! I have to teach this skill, and every other tiny detail of playing an instrument.

2. Break everything down to its smallest component and isolate skills. I would never start off by showing students how to hold their instrument. That is much too advanced at the beginning. In fact, we probably won't even get to hold the entire instrument until Day 3 or 4. Before we can hold the instrument, we have to learn how to sit in proper posture without tension. We have to learn to relax our hands and fingers. We form a "natural C" shape with our hands and learn what that feels like. We look at ourselves in mirrors and critique. Then, depending on the instrument, our first experience may only include holding part of the instrument. For example, on clarinet, we would practice holding only the upper and lower sections (assembled by the instructor!) and learn about "instrument to body balance." The point is simple. If you break everything down for students, talk them through each step and practice while monitoring and providing feedback, you can insure that everyone is successful.

3. Chunk your instruction (and their learning). In the beginning, I will rarely spend more than 5-10 minutes on any one skill. In one lesson we might work on playing posture, then recite our musical alphabet several times, then practice breathing, followed by forming our embouchure and making sounds on the mouthpiece only. After that, we might do "finger wiggle exercises" to make sure the students know which finger is which (I number the fingers of the left hand 1-2-3 and the right hand 4-5-6 when teaching woodwinds.) And so on. In this way, I am able to keep engagement high and touch on many different concepts and skills.

4. Review, reteach, reinforce. Once is never enough. My students will hear the same ideas and practice the same skills each day until they become ingrained. I will constantly reinforce and review these all-important fundamental skills, providing ongoing feedback in each lesson. I will ask the students questions about how they should approach their instruments. If a student can describe the steps to forming their embouchure, for example, then they will be able to talk themselves through the process at home as well.

5. Check everyone's progress every day. In beginning band at my school, we will see about 30-40 students at a time in heterogeneous groups of similar instruments (clarinet and sax together, low brass together, etc). It is crucial that we individually check every student for understanding. It takes a lot of time to check so many individuals, but this is not something that we will skip. Be creative and bring in help at the very beginning if you can. If not, try to keep your groups small and, if possible, limit the number of different instruments in each class.

6. Celebrate successes! Let your new musicians know how proud you are of them when they do well. Make note of their efforts, even if their performance is not perfect (because it won't be). When a student makes their very first sound on their instrument, that is a big deal! Let them know that you are excited for them. When the little guy in the second row finally remembers without being reminded that his left hand goes on top instead of his right, give him a high five. You get the idea. In the beginning, everyone is fabulous. Make sure each student leaves the lesson feeling successful.

Just writing this post makes me look forward to seeing my new students next week! If you teach beginning instrumentalists, I hope you eagerly anticipate your next group of new band members too! Best wishes for a successful start!

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© 2020 by Wendy Higdon