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Help Music Students Discover Critical Thinking

Help Music Students Discover Critical Thinking

Where We Live Today

We live in a time where the tide is turning. Instead of giving everyone a trophy, we’re beginning to teach students how best to deal with both the ups AND downs of life. We’re moving away from helicopter parenting/teaching. Instead we’re allowing students to take calculated risks and see the benefit from both success and failure – giving them a longer leash by which they can engage in self exploration and discovery. Today there is a shift from giving students the answers to guiding them to discover the answers for themselves. If we are not making those shifts in philosophy, I think it is time we do so, and there is no better place to model that shift than the music room.

Think about it – the music room (band, choir, orchestra, classroom music) is a safe haven for most kids. It is a place where they come and are supported by passionate, dedicated teachers that care about them as human beings, not just as students or musicians. We want to foster and preserve their creativity and love of learning so it reaches far beyond their school years and translates to their adult lives. Although giving music students the answers (i.e. singing their part to them, etc.) and holding their hand may yield short term success (and a fine public performance) I do not believe this approach teaches them the core values that we all believe are most important.

Life Skills We Teach

We want our students to learn life skills through music. In our classrooms students learn skills that are applicable to their entire future. Isn’t that an awesome responsibility? We will teach them how to be a manager, a member of a team, and to work with a diverse group of people with varying skill sets and talents. We will teach them how to be a leader, how to be a follower, how to give direction, and how to take direction. We will teach them ways to come up with multiple solutions to problems and test them. We will teach them to evaluate the results of their experiment and revise their ideas. We will give them opportunities to become self-directed and self-corrective. We will allow them to experience the excitement of achievement and sometimes (even more importantly) we will allow them to experience the discomfort of not achieving excellence on the first try.

Critical Thinking Defined

Our charge as teachers is to guide students to develop their own skills and help them apply those skills as they practice for “real life.“ Our use of critical thinking helps students as they discover and experience learning. So what is this critical thinking I speak of? According to, critical thinking is, “the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.” Isn’t it beautiful? Doesn’t it read like poetry?

Think about what is happening when you are teaching a lesson or rehearsal and stop to address an issue you heard. Imagine this scenario: You are working on a beautiful legato section and your students played all the right notes, but the tuning of the last chord was a little off. You stop the band. Then what? You have so many options of how you can handle the tuning issue. One way would be to listen to them play the chord and simply say, “Johnny, your A is sharp. Play it flatter.” Done. Problem solved. While there are definitely times to teach with this kind of pointed direction, I would suggest trying to lead Johnny to the answer and let him discover the feeling of discomfort (out of tune) to comfort (in tune). How? It is fairly simple.

Provide Guidance, Not Answers

The first thing to do is ensure that you are consistent in relaying information about how to solve problems in their musical performance. In class and in lessons, share with your students the many ways to solve common performance issues. For example, in the scenario of tuning the chord, I would have students perform the chord and then I would describe all of the possible problems. “Everyone listen to the chord. Something isn’t matching in it. Maybe it is the tuning, some people may be sharp or flat or flarp! Some students may be spot on with their pitch. Listen around you and think about your pitch. If you think you are sharp, lower the pitch using your embouchure or air speed. Experiment! If you think you are flat, try to raise the pitch, again by experimenting. See if it sounds better. If you think your pitch is right, leave it alone!”

This is the beauty of implementing a critical thinking approach. You are guiding them, and helping them, but letting them find the answer. You will achieve the same result – an “in tune” chord – however, your students will become more willing to make a decision, try something new, test it out, and re-evaluate. It may take a little longer to get that chord in tune, and you will have to be creative in how you approach musical concepts and engage all of your students in the process, but that is another reason teaching this way is so exciting! When they do get that chord in tune you should most definitely celebrate it and let them know that THEY were the ones that made it work.

You are an incredibly important role model in the lives of your music students. If they see you experiment and see you get excited about their musical discovery, they will be willing to do things for themselves. By giving your students the power to make decisions about their musical performance you will be helping them to build true confidence, not inflated confidence. You will be helping them to deal with both the challenges of life and the exciting successes of life. You will be doing what we all set out to do; to help students love learning, stay excited, and remain curious. You will be helping to support students by maintaining their childhood excitement and creativity as they grow into adulthood.

Never forget that you truly make a difference!

Chris BernotasComposer, conductor, clinician, and educator Chris M. Bernotas has been an instrumental music teacher at New Jersey’s Mountain Lakes High School for more than 20 years. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, Mr. Bernotas is published with Alfred Music Publishing, Daehn Publications, TRN Music Publishing, Northeastern Music Publications, Carl Fischer Music and Bandworks Publications. His music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and has appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Mr. Bernotas is co-author of the third and fourth books in Alfred’s Sound Innovations series, called Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development, along with Peter Boonshaft. Mr. Bernotas is also an active guest conductor and presenter at clinics and conferences throughout the United States. Please visit his website or facebook page for more info.

Featured photo is of the 2016 Sobrato High School Band from Morgan Hill, CA; Greg Chambers, director.

Help for the Rock Guitarist in Your Jazz Band

Help for the Rock Guitarist in Your Jazz Band

Here’s the scenario; the middle school jazz band needs a guitarist. The best applicant is a rocker, who has some facility, can play in time, and is interested.

The first tune is a Basie-style swing tune. The chart says Ab7. The guitarist can produce a six string barre chord of the same name, but what’s next?

What’s next is uncomfortable for everyone in the room. I know, because I was that guitarist.

Freddie Green Can Help

In time I was fortunate to befriend more experienced musicians with whom the name Freddie Green often came up.  Green was the rhythm guitar legend of the Count Basie band. At first I didn’t fully understand his greatness; I often found it hard even to hear him in the classic recordings. Can you always hear your heartbeat (even in a noisy room)? Nope. Does that make its rhythm any less crucial? I don’t think so. Check out the chugging sound in this clip.

What do I wish I had known before that first rehearsal? Well, lots of things. But let’s start with some appropriate voicings that you can share with your students.

Three Note Rhythm Chords

Chord voicings are integral to the Green style, specifically voicings that only use a few strings. In addition to being easy to grab (and lending themselves to motion) their sparse nature also leaves more sonic space for other instruments. This space, combined with Green’s complete lack of grandstanding volume, may offer a life lesson in that it’s more about making the whole band sound good than convincing the audience the guitar player is awesome.

Sermon aside, the good news for young guitarists is that these voicings are not hard to play. Let’s start with these two:

Two chords to help the rock guitarist in your jazz bandNOTE: Numbers represent finger (pointer is #1) and the x means these strings are muted.

Check this out: the C7 chord doesn’t even have the root (a C) in it. That took me a bit of time to get used to. This fact that the root is optional is a valuable lesson, although guitarists may visualize the root (in this case 3rd fret, 5th string) when playing it. With just these two voicings your student could play an entire simple blues (sliding C7 up two frets to play D7).

G7  |C7  |G7  |G7
C7  |C7  |G7  |G7
D7  |C7  |G7  |D7

The trick here is to mute the other three strings so all strings can be strummed while only sounding three notes. In the G7 chord, the side of the first finger just touches both the 5th string, and the 1st and second strings, preventing them from vibrating. Getting this to happen takes a little trial and error, but’s it’s not physically tough like barre chords can be.

The Right Hand

To start, students should play these voicings with quarter note down-strokes. Chug, chug, chug, chug. Next have them add an accent on beats two and four. The simple blues above, played with just these two voicings, can really drive a whole tune in a musical way. It’s just a little practice to make it happen.

Learning Harmony

One music theory goal could be to get your guitarist to see every note of these voicings as it relates to the root of the chord. The G7 voicing (low to high) is root, b7, 3rd. The C7 is 5th, 3rd, b7. When they can identify these chord tones to you, and you’ve explained the difference between G7, GMaj7, G, G6, and so on, they can begin to discover their own voicings by understanding how each note relates. Plus this is all made a little more obtainable by the fact there are only three notes: it’s less to juggle in their mind.

Note how this is a very different process than trying to memorize a chord chart; I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Take Things Further

Got a student who’s already mastered the simple blues above? Here’s something that’s a little more fun:

Blues example to help the rock guitarist in your jazz band

Here are a few things to observe:

  • If a chord chart says G7, could one substitute G or G6 or Gmaj7? This is a type of conversation you might have with your students. G7 and Gmaj7 look very similar, but work very differently; G or G6 could work,
  • Check out the C#dim7: this is just the C7 voicing slid up a minor third (creating bb7, b5, 1).
  • At the top of bar 7, I threw in a G triad, which is a subset of G7. The third is in the bass: again, you don’t need the root, and it doesn’t HAVE to be in the bass!

Additional Ingredients

Of course additional ingredients include listening to music – including classic recordings – and playing, both with a metronome, and with others.  But you knew that.

If you have a rock guitarist in your jazz band, I hope this is of help to both of you. If so, click on the Like button above or comment on Facebook and Twitter. If we hear from you we’ll share more on this topic.

Scott YohoIn addition to being MakeMusic’s content manager, Scott Yoho is the leader of the Auto Body Experience, a horn-driven septet that plays his quirky music.

A graduate of the Musicians’ Institute, he earned a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota. For ten years he played guitar with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Gene Pitney, and has performed on stages as diverse as hay wagons, VFW basement floors, and Carnegie Hall.

Scott’s recordings have been featured in music magazines including Guitar Player, Vintage Guitar, and Keyboard, and was once interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

The Three Pillars of a Great Music Program

Three Pillars of a Great Music Program by Bob Phillips

The goal of every music teacher is, or should be, to involve the maximum number of students in the music program. This starts with a well-thought-out recruiting and retention strategy that involves all disciplines within the program; band, orchestra and choir. Teachers must cooperate to create a highly effective and complete program. Ancillary programs such as jazz band, specialized choirs, musicals, fiddle ensemble, rock band, guitar class, piano class, mariachi band, drum lines, and marching band all add to the fabric of a rich musical environment. Building a great program rests on three pillars: an effective recruiting and retention plan, a high-quality musical environment with great instructional leadership, and clear communication of your values and student successes to the community, school board, parents and administrators.

1. Recruitment and Retention

Recruiting the maximum number of students for each program, orchestra, choir, and band, can and should be done cooperatively. The most successful programs are always strong in all three areas. This starts with a clear recruiting strategy that entices students and parents to participate. Fortunately a number of fine resources are available.

String Clinics to Go: The Art of Recruiting by myself and Bob Gillespie has helped teachers increase their starting numbers in significant ways over the last fifteen years. A new and incredibly exciting set of materials was unveiled last year by inspirational speaker Scott Lang. The series, Be Part of the Music, can be viewed at and You can also visit  and for discipline-specific information. Scott has created a complete set of recruiting materials that include videos, letters and strategies. Be Part of the Choir will be released soon. Thousands of additional music students have been added nationally since the inception of this program two years ago.

Retaining students is an ongoing process that requires careful thought and planning. The first step is to know the exact dates students will be presented with registration materials for upcoming school years. In most high schools this occurs in January with middle school following in February and elementary students in March. It is critical that you present students with a comprehensive retention program in advance of the distribution of the general scheduling materials. This should include identifying possible student issues and offering pro-active solutions. These may include schedule problems, extra-curricular conflicts and any others issues that prevent students from re-enrolling in music.

Once this has been done it is extremely important to survey the students and use that data to help students make informed choices. I always asked students to indicate: 1) yes, I am continuing, 2) I am not sure, or 3) no, I will not be continuing. The “undecided” responses offer a great opportunity for you to talk to them and find out what the issues are.

In my own career I asked students about my teaching, the atmosphere of the class, what they were learning, and anything thing else that I thought would help me to be a more effective teacher. I would also put their responses into different categories to see if I could discover any patterns. An example would be athletes versus non-athletes, economic status, ethnicity, gender, or college prep versus non-college prep. What I wanted to know was, were there any certain populations that were dropping out disproportionately. If so then I knew I needed to look at the program and my teaching. It could also point out a schedule problem or other community factors. Armed with this information I could more intelligently guide students and help them continue in the program.

2. A High-Quality Music Environment

Building a comprehensive music program happens over time. The richer the musical offerings, the more students there are that will find a home somewhere. The most important factor however is high-quality teaching and musical leadership. Sometimes the fastest way to grow your program is improve your knowledge base. I have been a teacher, clinician, writer/composer for forty years and I am constantly trying learn new things and improve my skills. Education is a non-stop process for both students and teachers. Great music programs always have great leaders. People who put students first and are constantly trying to improve the musical environment for the entire community increase the number of students involved.

3. Communication

The last pillar involves communicating the success and values of the program to the community, school board, parents, and administrators. Make sure you view every performance as an opportunity to do just that. Concerts can be informances as well as performances. Explain what you doing and why. Have students talk about and reflect upon their experience. Have students play at board meetings and throughout the community at large. Be an artistic presence in your school area.

It is important to communicate with administrators and school boards. One very powerful way to do this is to create an annual “State of the Music Department” report. This type of report will speak volumes to both these groups, and was pioneered by music advocacy expert John Benham.

Benham’s theory of reverse economics has saved hundreds of school music programs throughout the country. It suggests that music is often cheaper to teach than other disciples because of our larger class sizes. More importantly it states that when you cut elementary programs it doesn’t save you money but cost more because of how it affects your middle school and high school numbers in subsequent years. For more information read his book Music Advocacy and visit

When communicating with administrators, the most important data point is the per student cost of instruction versus other areas of the school. Below are some additional points to consider, based on Benham’s work.

List honors and awards of student and faculty:

  • Solo and ensemble
  • Professional awards
  • Festivals
  • Non-music awards of students and faculty

List of and number of performances of each music ensemble:

  • Curricular performances (in school day)
  • Co-curricular performances (outside school day)
  • Extra-curricular performance/activities (primarily public service or public relations)
  • List of offerings at each grade in curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular areas

List by ensemble or grade level:

  • Average G.P.A. of music students
  • Average scores on SAT, ACT, and other relevant tests (District report card)
  • Participation in other school activities (honor society, athletics, etc.) –survey students
  • Number of students by grade, building, and area (band, choir, orchestra, general)
  • Percent of student participation compared to number in overall class by grade and area (band, choir, orchestra, general)
  • Total music numbers across disciplines
  • Percentage of total music students compared to total enrollment
  • Maximum number and percentage of students possible with current staff
  • Percent of attrition by grade and area (band, choir, orchestra, general)
  • Budget over time, music versus academic, where is the money going

Faculty – list data by ensemble, grade level, discipline:

  • Student/Faculty Ratios (SFR), based on actual enrollments in music – teacher track
  • Student/Faculty Ratios by curricular area and grade level in other subjects
  • Average FTE value of music faculty, based on actual teaching loads and student enrollment, as compared with non-music instructors
  • Cost per student for faculty
  • Cost per student of total music budget
  • Breakdown of Individual Faculty Loads (FTE) by area

Building a great music program happens by design. If the music staff works cooperatively with each other then everyone wins. It starts with recruiting and retention, is followed with great teaching and leadership, and finishes with clear communication to build a broader arts coalition.

Bob PhillipsPedagogue, composer, and teacher trainer, Bob Phillips is an innovator in string education. During his 27 years of teaching strings in Saline, Michigan, Bob built a thriving string program of over 700 students and was honored as teacher of the year 9 times by regional, state and national organizations. A recognized expert in the use of large group pedagogy and alternative styles, he has presented clinics throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. Phillips has authored over 19 book series that include 130 books for use in the classroom including Alfred’s revolutionary new method, Sound Innovations for String Orchestra and Sound Innovations for Concert Band as well as the ground breaking Philharmonic series. He has had over 140 works published for orchestras and bands and is an award winning ASCAP composer. His conducting resume includes professional, all-state, and youth orchestras. Currently the director of string publications for Alfred Music and the past-president of ASTA, he was inducted into the University of Michigan School of Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Bob and his wife, Pam are also part of the creative team for Barrage 8.

Alfred Music Joins the Peaksware Family

Peaksware + Alfred_blog

Earlier today, SmartMusic’s parent company Peaksware, announced that Alfred Music, the world’s largest educational music publisher, will be joining its portfolio of companies. This is very exciting news for us at MakeMusic. But what does it mean for our products and our customers?

Both Alfred Music and MakeMusic will continue to operate independently. Our customers and current partners won’t be impacted; they will experience “business as usual.” This will, however, allow our organizations to share resources which will result in additional content and distribution channels for both companies. It’s important to note that this relationship will not change MakeMusic’s long-standing commitment to work equally with all publishing partners to provide the highest level of quality content for musicians and educators within SmartMusic.

“Our long-term goal at Peaksware is to build an end-to-end ecosystem that connects composers, publishers, educators, directors, and musicians,’ explained Peaksware CEO Gear Fisher. “Alfred brings additional distribution opportunities for artists and composers while expanding the repertoire within SmartMusic for teachers and musicians.”

“Music educators know and trust Alfred Music,” said Heath Mathews, SmartMusic director of licensing. “For more than 90 years the company has built a remarkable reputation, particularly in the world of music education, and we are honored to play a part in continuing to grow that reputation. Among our common goals is to provide educators with tools to engage and inspire students, so it makes perfect sense for us to expand our work together beyond simply including so much excellent Alfred content in SmartMusic. We believe this partnership will further extend the reach of SmartMusic into the education market. As a result we’ll be able to bring music from all of our publisher partners to more educators and their students; clearly a win-win for all involved.”

Read the full press release here.

Have questions or comments? Please share them with us on Facebook or Twitter. You may also wish to visit the Alfred Music Ledger Lines blog and follow Alfred on Twitter.

Integrating Common Core into the Music Classroom

Integrating Common Core into the Music Classroom

Integrating Common Core Standards into the music classroom is an important (and often required) contribution to the school’s learning community. As music educators, we need to reexamine the music rehearsal to encompass all aspects of learning while simultaneously maintaining high-level, culminating performances. Integrating writing and reading skills into the rehearsal room is a common sense approach to including Common Core Standards that can deepen music learning and lead to expressive performances.

Since the Common Core Standards have been adopted by a majority states, it is likely that most music teachers are being asked to integrate these standards into lesson and rehearsal plans. Here are a few quick tips to help you integrate the Common Core Standards into the music classroom in easy, common sense ways…


One of the Anchor Standards for Writing [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7] states that students should, “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” Music teachers can address this standard by asking students to answer focused questions about the music being prepared for the next concert. Students could compose the answers outside of class and submit them electronically (or in written form).

One alternative can be to integrate an “exit slip” strategy used by other disciplines. An exit slip is a written student response from a question posed by the teacher. This quick, informal assessment asks students to summarize a portion of the content learning from the class period in a few sentences as they depart from class. Sample writing prompts might include:

  • Describe a musical phrase in your own words.
  • Why do composer’s change keys in music?
  • What percussion instruments are used in the piece?
  • What is an anacrusis?
  • How do the meters in the piece relate to one another?
  • What is a canon?

The best writing prompts for exit slips directly relate to a musical topic from the rehearsal, but it is also possible to use more general questions to inspire student focus in rehearsal or to glean feedback from the students for planning the next rehearsal. More general writing prompts might include:[1]

  • This piece of music shows…
  • The best part is…
  • It was hard for me to learn…
  • A question I was curious about and want to learn the answer to is…
  • What changes did you make today?
  • Today we worked on…


Another Anchor Standard for Writing [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10] states that students should, “Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.” Teachers can craft writing prompts that can be answered by the students in one sitting, or develop more complex questions that require extended time (perhaps a week or two).

  • What is folk music?
  • What is your favorite American folksong? Why?
  • When does the composer use augmentation and inversion in this piece?
  • What is a mode in music? How does modal music make you feel?
  • How is a phrase used in poetry? How is it used in music?
  • What is Ballad form? How is it used in this piece?


An Anchor Standard for Reading [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1] states that students should, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it.” A second Reading Standard [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10] states, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational text independently and proficiently.” Another way to integrate Common Core Standards is to ask students to read an informational text related to the music a (or about the composer).

Music teachers can find a plethora of informational texts related to a study composition by using quick internet searches. Students may write a short response or summary about the readings – again, integrating writing standards into the curriculum. To focus student responses, teachers may provide additional writing prompts:

  • Why did the composer write this composition?
  • Who premiered the composition? When was it premiered?
  • Does this music include a program? Describe the program in your own words.
  • What style of music does this piece represent? What musical elements are included in this piece that are typical of the style?
  • If you were visiting with the composer, what would you tell him/her about this music?

The ability to design student activities that reach musical goals using the Common Core State Standards is only limited by the instructor’s creativity (and investment of time).  Rehearsal time is a cherished resource in any music program. Music teachers may be worried about “adding more” to an already overflowing plate. However, it should be noted that most of the activities recommend in this article could be completed outside of the classroom or in short, in-class activities that require only a few minutes of time.

When music teachers adopt a common sense approach to integrating Common Core Standards they develop immediate, useful and practical applications that lead student musicians to an enlightened and expressive performance while simultaneously supporting the school’s learning community.

David Kish, author of Integrating Common Core into the Music ClassroomDavid Kish is director of bands and professor of music at Metropolitan State University in Denver, and was recently appointed conductor and musical director of the Colorado Wind Ensemble.

David has taught instrumental music at all educational levels. His writings have been published in The Instrumentalist Magazine, Journal of Band Research, Music Educators Journal, and four volumes of the popular resource texts, Teaching Music through Performance in Band. David recently authored Volume VI of his book series, Guides to Band Masterworks.

Dr. Kish earned the D.M.A. and M.M. degrees in Instrumental Conducting and Music Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and B.M. in Music Education from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA. He maintains an active schedule as guest conductor, clinician, and lecturer throughout the United States. 

[1] Adapted from Tools for Powerful Student Evaluation by Susan R. Farrell, Meredith Music Publication, 1997.

Teaching Swing to Young Musicians

Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 1Many young jazz ensembles focus on funk and rock arrangements to hide the fact that they don’t know how to swing. Rather than limiting our concert programs to “25 or 6 to 4” and “Fantasy,” we should be teaching swing to young musicians from the beginning of their jazz careers.

Of course, jazz directors of all experience levels know how hard it is to teach a swing feel. Even the name — “swing feel” — implies that this is something you feel, not something you reason out or intellectually understand. As a teacher with both private students and full ensembles, I’ve heard (and tried) all sorts of different explanations of swing. Many teachers start with that little musical diagram that’s part of the tempo marking (pictured above).

When you’re working with middle schoolers who barely understand triplets, asking them to internalize a rhythm with tied triplets is already a tall order. To make things worse, jazz often has different articulations than what students are used to. Students need something simpler. The next thing teachers try is usually “Well, just play long then short.” This can turn the greatest Count Basie tune into the Mickey Mouse March. Emphasizing a long-short pattern causes all sorts of ricky-ticky side-effects.

The Secret to Teaching Swing

The most effective method I have found for teaching students (especially young students) to swing is to use “back-accent tonguing” (but don’t tell the students it’s called that). Rather than have students hung up on the precise rhythmic values of swing (which vary based on tempo and style anyway), get the articulation correct and the rhythms will follow. Have students start on an upbeat with a firm accent, and slur into a tenuto downbeat. Add notes until students start to get the familiar swing “doo-BAH-doo-BAH” sound.Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 2

One key to making sure this exercise goes well is to focus on keeping the downbeats long.

The Slur

Next, add the slur. The goal is to make the accented upbeat drive forward into the long downbeat. Note this is easier to play than to read; be certain to model the sound so no one is intimidated by the notation (they can look like ties, not slurs). Don’t let students get overeager with the accent — the slur into the downbeat is just as important as the emphasis on the upbeat. 

Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 3

Once students are starting to swing, apply the articulation pattern to something that students are very familiar with: scales. Now starting on the downbeat, use the scale up to the 9th to practice the accents and slurs:

Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 4

Going to the 9th not only ends the scale on a downbeat for rhythmic comfort, but gets students used to extensions common in jazz and de-emphasizes the importance of the root (which students will rarely play in voiced chords). Practicing back-accent articulations on scales also kills two birds with one stone: your warm up already got students practicing scales and swing. Even better, you now have a vehicle for teaching advanced theory concepts like modes — use the same pattern on dorian or mixolydian scales.

The Benefit

The biggest benefit to teaching students swing feel using the back-accent method is that it wires their brains and ears to automatically articulate soli passages in an idiomatic way, improving their sight-reading skills. Take a look at this example:
Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 5

Experienced jazzers will naturally articulate the line like this:

Teaching Swing to Young Musicians 6

You can see that back-accent articulations are similar to what experienced musicians will intuitively use on a swing line. Young students may still need some courtesy articulations written in, but the back-accent approach puts them in a position where they will start to automatically articulate in swing style.

Have you tried this approach to teaching swing with your students before? Going to try now? Let us know how it went on Facebook or Twitter.

Ryan Sargent

In addition to his role as MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent is an active teacher and performer in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area, and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

A graduate of Baylor University, he has studied jazz composition and improvisation with Art Lande and Alex Parker.

Update on the New SmartMusic Beta Test

beta blogAs you may have read last week, we are hard at work on the new SmartMusic, and eager to make sure that all SmartMusic users are up-to-date on our progress. Back in February we recruited nearly 500 music educators to participate in a private beta test of the new SmartMusic. Such a test allows these educators to try the software as it is being created, provide us with their feedback, and play a large role in shaping the results, which we’ll make available to everyone this fall.

Today, as we approach the halfway point of the beta, we’d like to give those of you not participating in the test a glimpse of what we have accomplished so far with the assistance of these dedicated educators.

25 Bugs Identified & Fixed

While we’re thankful that most of these bugs were minor issues, we’re glad to get them out of the way. Fixes include the retention of the student’s voice upon launch (instead of defaulting to flute every time), the resolution of a crash that could occur when creating loops, and the addition of high-quality Garritan clarinet and bass clarinet sounds.

50 Features Added

Features added as a result of beta input include students being able to specify their preferred cursor, and many user interface enhancements (including larger, more legible fonts). We initially counted down multi-measures rests by beats; 16, 15, 14, 13…; but have since changed to a clear preference for incremented bars; 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4… Similarly, in creating an assignment, we initially proposed a linear view of the assignment, but changed to a page view based on the majority of requests received.

More Improvements Coming in April

In the next few days tempo will switch from a percentage to beats per minute (we had many comments on this). Additionally, the software will soon be able to copy the configuration of one part to all the other parts with a single click, as well as support the creation of rubrics.

We asked for feedback about grading points and weightings, and the response was clear that we should retain the existing system where educators can assign any number of points to any assignments.

In Closing

We hope you’re as excited as we are to see the new SmartMusic when it’s released this fall. If you’d like more information, including how it will differ from the current SmartMusic, check out

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb

As anyone who has ever taught beginning flutists knows, the flute is an awkward instrument to hold. Posture and hand position issues often linger well past the first few years of instruction, and perhaps none are as ubiquitous as the protruding right hand thumb. A protruding right thumb causes shortened tendons in the right hand, which can both restrict a player’s flute technique, and result in future hand problems..

Even though instructors and students both recognize this fault, it can be notoriously difficult to address. This protruding thumb is actually symptomatic of larger postural imbalances. If these root causes are not addressed, it is no wonder that so many students revert back to their old habits. Thankfully, by learning to recognize and address the following posture causes, instructors can quickly get the right hand in check.

Problem 1: Slouching

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 2

In the above photo, Nola is demonstrating a typical slouching posture. Notice that she is using the side of her body to support her right arm. This causes an almost 90 degree bend in the right wrist and a shorting of the tendons. It is difficult or impossible to keep the right thumb in line, or to play anything fast, while holding the flute in this manner.

Problem 2: Straight and Narrow Posture

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 3

Here, Sarah is demonstrating an overly straight posture. Since slouching posture contributes to poor breathing and sound production, instructors often encourage students to sit up straight. Sarah’s wrist is straighter than Nola’s, but the thumb still protrudes and the tendons are still shortened. Also notice that her left arm is compressed against the left side of her chest and that her shoulders are tilted. This posture is uncomfortable, and many students will not remain upright without constant reminders.

Solution: Point your Feet to the Right

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 4

The solution to both of these issues is to have students rotate their lower bodies approximately 45 degrees to the right, while keeping their flutes parallel to the front. For the slouching student, this provides a sense of balance by keeping the legs underneath the flute. For the overly-straight student, this allows room for the right elbow and wrist. It also levels the shoulders and frees the rib cage for better breathing.

Problem 3: Securing the Flute

The weight of the mechanism of the flute is also unequally balanced towards the back side of the flute where the rods are. This creates a tendency for the flute to rock backwards whenever the student uses the left hand thumb key. Since this key is used frequently, students will compensate for the instability by gripping the flute with the right hand. When a student has this issue, the shifting movement is often visible from the side and may cause small breaks in the sound. This problem is often seen in combination with problem 4.

Problem 4: Over-Rotated Wrist

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 5

In the above photo, the wrist is rotated too far to the player’s left. This causes the right thumb to protrude and puts extra strain on the ring finger and pinky. This issue is visible and will also prevent a student from reaching the other pinky keys.

Solution: Rotate the Headjoint or Get a Thumbport

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 6

While it may seem obvious that the solution to problem number 4 is to stop rotating the wrist to the left, the change will not stick if problem 3 isn’t addressed as well. Traditionally, the solution is to ensure that the flute is properly balanced between the right thumb, the side of the left index finger, and the chin (some teachers also include the right hand pinky when it is not in use).  In order to achieve this, the headjoint position must be adjusted to ensure that the student can achieve proper balance and proper sound production.

The difficulty that I have experienced with this is that without a constant supervision from an instructor, students will revert to their old hand position, only now the headjoint is in the wrong position. Lately, I have been having students buy a thumb guide like the one in the photo above (the Thumbport by Solexa). They function much like the thumb rests found on other instruments and go a long way towards keeping the flute secure.

Although it can be a challenge to change a habitual way of playing, addressing a protruding right hand thumb is well worth the investment. A natural and relaxed right hand position can do wonders for a student’s technical facilities, and by addressing underlying postural issues, students can achieve this with much less physical effort.

Carolyn Keyes, author of Flute Technique and the Awkward Right ThumbDr. Carolyn Keyes is a flutist, educator, and arts advocate whose love of performing has taken her around the United States: most recently to join the faculty of Cameron University in Lawton, OK.

She has been a member of the Longmont Symphony (CO), the Lone Star Wind Orchestra (TX), and was a frequent performer with the Cheyenne Symphony (WY). A finalist and prize winner in the Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Competition, Carolyn also received honorable mentions in the National Flute Association Masterclass Competition and the Texas MTNA Woodwind Young Artist Competition.

She received a D.M.A. in Flute Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Colorado, a M.M. from the University of North Texas and B.M. from Bowling Green State University. Her teachers include Christina JenningsTerri SundbergElizabeth McNuttLeonard GarrisonNina Assimakopolous, and Judith Bentley.

Teach Improvisation to Your Entire Ensemble at Once

Group Improvisation

Have you ever tried to teach improvisation to an entire band at once? I have, out of necessity: most of my students were not working on improvisation at home, no matter how much I suggested, incentivized, encouraged, and begged.

I’ve tried all kinds of ensemble exercises and activities: blues warm-ups, call-and-response, learning ‘head’ tunes, using the circle of fourths, using pentatonic pairs, etc. Some captured the students’ interest at first, but all eventually stalled. Ultimately they never made much of an impact on the students’ abilities to play a convincing improvised solo.

But I started to figure out a few important truths:

  1. Aural learning is the most direct and effective way to get students improvising immediately.
  2. Group improvisation work has to be part of every single rehearsal.
  3. Using our actual repertoire as the improvisation learning vehicle has huge benefits:

– It enables me to equip the students with specific tools for improvising on songs they will actually perform (more below).
– It also allows me to justify ‘taking time away’ from rehearsing the actual arrangement, because the aural work we do carries over to their performance of the notated parts. I guarantee it.

What follows is the thumbnail-sketch of the method I’ve developed for an effective and rewarding improvisation warm-up, using music from your repertoire. It’s easier to teach with sight and sound, but I’ll do my best to lay it out for you in this article.

How to Start the Entire Band Improvising

  1. Identify the key of the song. Ask the students what key they think it’s in. Have them look at the key signature. If it’s a minor key, then you have a nice teachable moment on your hands.
  2. Number the notes in the scale. Use hand signals (i.e. hold up your fingers) to identify the scale degrees: one finger for the first note, two fingers for the second note, etc.
  3. Teach them the root movement of the chords to the solo section. Use your fingers as above. Do not even use the word chord. Tell them this is the accompaniment. To initiate this process, you should sing or play the root of the first chord in a simple rhythm that fits with the groove of the tune:Rick Hirsch music example 1Have everyone play the roots of the accompaniment using the simple rhythmic pattern you just taught them. Play through the accompaniment several times until you sense that they’ve internalized it. If the solo section is long, break it up into smaller chunks. Teach the first part today, and add the next part at another rehearsal soon.
  4. Get the rhythm section cooking. Your objective here is to have the rhythm section players get comfortable as soon as possible. With this in mind, it is not important that they play the rhythm grooves precisely as notated in their parts (you can get to that later). Rather, ask the drummer to play a groove that will fit with the accompaniment pattern we’ve all been playing. Then have the bass player join the drummer in the same way. Then add the remaining rhythm players, then the horn accompaniment.
  5. Time to improvise! Count off the rhythm section, and then tell all the wind players to improvise at the same time. Do not give them any additional instructions. It will be noisy, but there is safety in numbers.

All of this takes about 10 or 15 minutes. One rehearsal and you’re up and running. You have now established the core of your improvisation warm-up. When you begin every rehearsal with 10 minutes of this warmup, every member of the band will begin to internalize this song and acquire specific language for improvising on this tune. The rhythm section will become rock-solid on it, too.

It is important to note that you must add something new every rehearsal or two. This can be a minor change in the process (e.g. Have the students improvise in pairs, or short 2-measure solos) or a new musical skill (e.g. This is how you build a triad on each root of the accompaniment). Introducing new elements prevents the students from going on autopilot and develops specific skills and knowledge.

Directing Student Improvisations

  1. Discuss improvisation strategies as a group. Do this immediately after you let all the horn players improvise (simultaneously) for the first time. Some students will intuit what to do, some won’t. Ask the kids what they think they’re supposed to play when they improvise. You’ll get answers like “play in the key,” “play the rhythm of the song,” or “play the chords.” For now, stay away from chords. Acknowledge these responses and choose one of the simple ones (e.g. play in rhythm of the song) and tell everyone that they’re going to improvise again and that you want them to focus on the rhythm this time.
  2. Have them improvise in sections. It can be a bit overwhelming to have 12 or more wind players going at it all at once. Simply use hand signals to cue one section at a time (saxes, then trombones, then trumpets, for instance).

You’ve Laid the Foundation, Now Build the House

At this point in time you have established—and the students have internalized—the song’s form, the key/tonality, the rhythmic-metric context, and such. Your objective now is to gradually add to their tools and skills on this song. Here are ideas for things to introduce over the next couple of months: Call-and-response, rhythm sheets, harmonizing the accompaniment/chord structure, guide tones, melodic vocabulary from a source recording. There are many other ideas out there, too. Be creative and resourceful, and trust your instincts as a musician-educator.

Applying This Method to a New Tune

  1. Determine the solo section. Even if it’s not a repeated section in the score, often times it works just fine to repeat it. If it’s a longer form like AABA, I’ll treat the A and B sections separately and will put them back together later, well after the students have developed some comfort with each.
  2. Boil down the chords to the most structurally important. As you may remember from college music theory, not all chords are created equally. Observe the overall harmonic rhythm. Listen to the recording. Play it on piano. Determine which chords sound like they are in important places, and which chords are extra seasoning:Rick Hirsch music example 2Remember, the more simple your chord reduction, the easier it will be to get your students improvising right away. You can always insert more chords later.

Not Just for Jazz

I’d like to mention that this process is not just for jazz band. As a visiting artist-educator, I’ve used it with middle school concert bands, string orchestras, and more. Students with as little as 1 or 2 years on their instruments can succeed with this approach.

I hope that you’ve found something worthwhile in here that you’ll be able to try out with your students. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to discuss it further. I love doing pedagogical consultations with teachers, and Skype is great for things like that.

Rick Hirsch by Chuck Fong/Studio 2Rick Hirsch is a lifelong jazz educator based in State College, PA. He has been on the music faculties of Penn State University, Northern Illinois University, and high schools in PA and WI. And he is in demand as a visiting artist-educator, in which he composes commissioned music for school ensembles and follows up with residency visits to work directly with the students for whom he wrote the music.

Rick’s compositions and arrangements are published by Alfred Music, the UNC Jazz Press, BRS Music, and his own HirschMusic Publications. This article is excerpted from his 2015 presentation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. You can reach Rick through his website

Photo by Chuck Fong/Studio 2


SmartMusic Repertoire Update: April 2016


This week we added 24 new ensemble titles to the SmartMusic Repertoire Library. Included are new pieces for choir, concert band, jazz ensemble, string orchestra, and full orchestra (a full list appears below).

The SmartMusic carousel has also been updated, and in recognition of Jazz Appreciation Month, we have added a Jazz Appreciation Month category, featuring more than 90 jazz titles including methods, solo transcriptions, big band charts, and more.

Title Comp/Arr Publisher Music Type Pepper Level
Hotaru Koi (Ho, Firefly) – SSA Japanese Folk Song; Ogura, Ro Presser Choir MA
Never Seek to Tell Thy Love – SATB Porterfield, Sherri; Blake, William Alfred Choir ME
Sing Alleluia, Clap Your Hands – SATB Albrecht, Sally K. Alfred Choir ME
Sing with Pleasure – SAB Liebergen, Patrick M.; Handel, George F. Alfred Choir ME
When I Hear Music – SATB Martin, Michael G. Alfred Choir M
Bright Shining as the Sun (Amazing Grace) Newton, John; Prescott, John Wingert-Jones Concert Band M
March of the Dwarfs Grieg, Edvard; Story, Michael Belwin Concert Band ME
March of the Hyperion Guards Sheldon, Robert FJH Music Company Concert Band VE
Minnie the Moocher Mills, Irving; Calloway, Cab; Ford, Ralph Alfred Concert Band E
Robotics Romeyn, Rob Barnhouse Concert Band VE
Santa Fe March Thielman, Ronald TRN Music Publisher Inc. Concert Band M
Scholastics March Compello, Joseph Carl Fischer Concert Band ME
Tone Poem on “Taps” Hedwig, Douglas F. TRN Music Publisher Inc. Concert Band ME
Vivaldi Rocks Vivaldi, Antonio; Wood, Mark LudwigMasters Full Orchestra MA
Black Cat, The Beach, Doug; Shutack, George Doug Beach Music Jazz Ensemble E
Can You Dig It? Shutack, George Doug Beach Music Jazz Ensemble E
Foo Birds of a Feather Thomas, Reginald Doug Beach Music Jazz Ensemble MA
Hold On! Traditional; Sieving, Robert Kjos String Orchestra M
Hunters of Avatar Wood, Mark LudwigMasters String Orchestra E
March of the Wood Elves Spata, Doug Highland/Etling Publishing String Orchestra E
Red Lion, The Woolstenhulme, Jeremy Kjos String Orchestra VE
Rue de Royal Wallmark, Zach Kjos String Orchestra MA
Sinfonia in A Minor Telemann, Georg Philipp; Mathews, Bob Kjos String Orchestra E
Such Sweet Sorrow Woolstenhulme, Jeremy Kjos String Orchestra ME


You can request a piece for a future SmartMusic release here.