My approach to intermediate/Junior high teaching

I’ve primarily taught in schools where “beginning band” is 6th grade, rather than 5th, and things get crammed rather tightly in a year and they’re right on into serious competition in their second year.  Since starting at Wilkerson, a couple of years ago, I’ve had to adapt my  teaching philosophy a little.

I treat 5th and 6th grade as “beginning band” and I see it as my job to try to ensure that students get a good basic start and not learn things incorrectly.  I do alot of “hand holding” and playing along to reinforce things like practicing techniques so that down the line, students will have the skills to work out technical difficulties on their own without having to devote lesson time to doing the nitty gritty wood shedding later on when there is more to accomplish in lesson time.  That they are pushed along to improve,  but still enjoy  band and playing their instrument.  But not push them overboard where they feel pressured and end up hating playing.

7th grade, as before, things start getting more serious, high school starts to come into view and there are more competitions/pressures.  I still try to not get too gung ho in my teaching.  I like to leave it up to the student to decide the direction they want to take as far as how serious they want to push. Some teachers only think of themselves and want all their students to be the best of the best, seeing them as representing who they are as a teacher based on how many of the top chairs they win.  Teachers like this, tend to only devote s attention to their star students and the rest are ignored as fodder.   The top students risk getting pushed to the breaking point and wind up hating playing and/or the ignored students wind up floundering and become disinterested in music.


When students move on to junior high, I encourage them to take the start of the school year to get a feel for the new surroundings and see what the competition is like and decide how serious they want to take things.  If they want to claw their way to the top of the heap, I'll push them harder and help them reach their goals.  If they are perfectly happy with their position and just want to have fun playing in band without the pressures of trying to be first chair, then That's fine with me.


playing along in lessons

I think I probably do more playing aling with students during lessons than many teachers.  It depends on the age and level of the student.  With beginners, I tend to spend the first several weeks playing along.  I find it helps them to hear what they should be aiming for as far as sound, articulation and just learning to notice when they've played a wrong note or rhythm.  After a certain point, I start tapering off how much playing I do and try to get them to be more indepenent.  After they play whstever exercise we were working on, I'll ask them how they felt about what they played- get them to learn to be self-critical and be aware of what they're doing when they play.  After thay've assessed their plaing, I'll concurr and/or add my remarks to point out what they did especially well, or bring to light  an error they might have overlooked.  Some teachers get in the habit of having the student play something and merely point out the mistakes. I try to look at both positive and negative equally, so as to encourage students and  not make them feel like they don't do anything right.  

As students get more advanced, I tend to make duet playing part of the regular lesson structure.  Duets are a great way to reinforce ensemble playing skills such as listining to style, matching tone and pitch, and  learning to be able to play what you see on your line independent of what the other person is playing.  My life as a doubler taught me how important sight reading skills are.  I  admit that as a high school freshman, I was quite possibly  THE worst sightreader in the state.  At the time of my stroke.  I could show up at a rehearsal, read the music, get an idea of what I needed to touch up on in my own practice, and have the kinks worked out for the next rehearsal.  

Even with advancing students, I'll often play along during the early stage of just learning a piece or etude.  But once a certain degree of familiarity is acheived, I cut the cord and let them start playing on their own to see that they know what they're doing and aren't trying to crutch along.


Summer Lessons

I don't push summer lessons terribly strongly.  I do mention it to parents and students as the school year draws to a close, so that they know it is an option.

Summer is a great time to be able to make good headway in lessons without the distraction of school band competitions.


As a bit of an incentive, I have always had the policy that students who take lessons over the summer will have first call on lesson times in the fall when school resumes.  returning students that did not  continue over the summer get the second priority. New students get their pick of whatever time slots I have remaining. Even if lessons during the summer can't be weekly, I still  encourage them.  Any little bit to keep students playing and progressing is invaluable.


Lessons without being in band

Over the years, I have had a few instances where a student had an older sibling in band and already knew they wanted to play the same instrument.  They wanted to get started in lessons the year before they started beginning band in school.  I no longer accept students in this situation.


Lessons are meant to compliment the classroom beginning band experience.  There is too much learning experience lost by not having that daily group playing/instruction present.  Beginning band class programs area rarely perfect, as far as the teacher being able to address each student's  difficulties, But the regular application of what is learned and  playing as a group is a great learning aid and keeps playing interesting.  When i've had students before they began band in school, they often lose interest, I feel, because they don't have that group experience to help gauge their progress and learn from seeing what other kids do wrong/right, or having a practical way to apply what they are learning in the lessons.


Expectations And Goals

I think it's important for both sides to have a clear understanding of what each other expects of and from lessons.  There are some teachers who expect their students to come in each week with the lesson materials assigned the previous week to  be up to or near perfection.  That's fine if the student desires to be the very best of the best.  But band is an elective.  Hopefully, they are in band because they like music. But not everyone is driven to be the best player in the world.  I try to get a feel for each student's goals  on their instrument.  If they want to move up to the next band, I'll do whatever I can to help steer them towards attaining that goal.  Even if a student is perfectly content with where they are, I will try to gently nudge them to still improve so they can get even more enjoyment from making music.  I will not force them into doing competitions or contests they do not want to go to.  If they really want to go to a competition, and I feel they are not ready for that level, I might suggest that trying at that time could be more harmful to their morale and they hold off until the next year and let's make that a goal to work towards. 


Student/parent expectations from lessons

I wish I could wave a magic reed over a student and recite some ancient incantatiion and instantly make a student the best player in the school.  Unfortunately, That is not possible.  Lessons aren't going to magically make a student better. It doesn't work by osmosis. I couldn't count how many students I've had over the years that just expected to end up top of their band just because they were "taking lessons."  In other words, It takes work and dedication.  

My Expectations of students

I expect students to be prepared for lessons.  It doesn't have to be perfect.  But I want to see that they have worked on what I asked of them.  Notice my wording, "worked on what I asked of them." Because lessons are  voluntary, and not a  graded course as in a college degree program, I don't look at at lesson material as an assignment.  If the student wants to improve and learn, they will be motivated to do the work.  If they aren't, they will just be wasting everyones' time and their money.  That is when I consider suggesting that they discontinue lessons and let the time open up for a tudent that wants to improve.

Some teachers devise "punishments" for students who come to their lessons unprepared.  Some make the student spend the rest of the lesson drilling scales, or give them the same assignment plus additional materials to prepare for the next week.  I don't see it my job to punish students for not practicing sufficiently.  I let fate and luck of the draw be their punishment/reward.  If they have not done the work, they will see the ressults in placing lower in a chair test or competition.  If they have put in adequate work, they will meet or exceed their goals.  I will seek to keep their goals and expectations in check.  Obviously, if a sudent is no where near the level required to make first chair at region, it would be unfair to let them go into the audition with the expectation that they should place that well in the ranking.  I won't tear a student down.  but I will be honest with them.

In that same vane, I will not artificially build up a student'sexpectations.  I try to be honest yet supportive.   I'm not in the habit of giving idle compliments.  If I tell a student they are doing a good job, I mean it.



As far as practicing;  I Don't expect to see everything pristine each week. As I said, I just want to see obvious evidence that they have practiced what I asked, and not come in week after week unprepared.  I can tell when something is unprepared and trying to scrape by, versus something that was worked on and just isn't working at that moment in time during the lesson.  I always say that lessons are not intended to be supervised practice time.  I try to discuss methods to make most efficient use of what practice time a student has.  I'm happy to talk about how to practice if a student *is* practicing but just not seeing results.  Everyone learns at a different pace and some students require more practice time to acheive the same results as others.  Other students need different approaches to practicing to get results.  Just like "there's more than one way to skin a cat." There are many ways to practice passages to get it down pat.


Here is a great blog that discusses practicing