A student’s first year in band or orchestra is arguably the most influential and critical time in their musical life. Rather than teaching a beginning student all of the things they need in music, I tend to take the approach of teaching a small number of concepts and focusing on preventing the development of bad habits.
We can all agree that starting a bad habit at a young age is very easy to do, however breaking that habit down the road is exponentially more difficult! With beginning mallet students, I use the practice pad to develop technique in the hands, as the keyboard is largely used to develop the musical mind. We simply transfer our basic “piston stroke” over from the pad to the bells with the understanding that the bells are not providing rebound. Further instruction on keyboard tone quality is delayed until the second year of instruction when we are able to play on a variety of keyboards, rather than just beginner bell kits.
Through years of being a “struggling” mallet player, I have developed a teaching strategy that has yielded positive results in a short time. When learning a mallet piece at a young age, I would spend ten minutes on just one measure to make sure I was playing all the right pitches. Talk about inefficiency, not to mention sight reading skills in the basement! I have absolutely used my personal struggle to help my students not fall into the same trap and the new strategy has done wonders for my own playing, even at a more mature age.
With beginning mallet players the first step is internalizing what notes correspond to the lines and spaces on the staff. Luckily, most of my students have been exposed to this in their general music class before they get to me. The next step is to know where all of these notes are on their keyboards. This one can take a while. One of the best tools for this is a speed note reading game such as this free one online. When youngsters play a game, they are SO much more willing and excited to learn. It is during this time of finding notes on the keyboards that half steps and whole steps are introduced. I find this concept to be very important to the next steps.
Early Reading and Avoiding the Sun
Once we can find our notes on the keyboard fairly well, we start the reading process. The first thing we do when “reading” is count the rhythm out loud. Next, we say the names of the notes (in rhythm) and touch the note as we say it. This step is the most crucial step in my opinion. This is where the connection between the music and the keyboard happens, which is where I always derailed as a young musician. We will repeat this step until everyone is comfortable and feels successful, and then we play!
While the students play, I am on high alert in search of the beginnings of bad habits, the biggest culprit being looking down at the keyboard! One of my favorite analogies is telling students to treat the keyboard like the sun. You can glance at it, but if you look for longer than a glance, you’ll go blind!
Now, the big issue with fighting this habit is that students are also developing technique at this time which increases their note accuracy. So when a student hears a wrong note, they instantly want to look down instead of understanding that it is likely just an accuracy issue that will get dialed in over time. My students start on bells, which is difficult for even experienced players to be accurate on, so I stress that missing a pitch on the bell kit is an acceptable mistake, whereas missing a rhythm is not. Most method books do a good job of starting with one or two notes and expanding the reading range little by little, which is helpful in building accuracy.
Before we start introducing the concept of key signatures, I introduce scales. I have really come to embrace the power of scales. The better students know and understand them, the more dangerous they become as musicians. I have tried several different approaches when teaching scales; here’s what I like at the moment: learning scales without music.
I understand the irony. Scales are the one thing that I would like my students to have memorized. Most other instruments have some sort of tactile reference in playing a scale, whereas on a keyboard instrument all of the notes “feel” the same when you play them. For this reason, I find it VERY difficult to play scales on a keyboard without looking down and my students are taught that they may look at the keyboard ONLY while playing scales.
So, we learn them in patterns. First the wwhwwwh formula (whole steps and half steps), and then we “block” them out. Meaning, grouping the naturals and accidentals to see the pattern created (ie for Bb: 1,2,1,3,1).
We organize the scales in the circle of 5ths/4ths, or as my students deemed it, the “circle of life.” This concept of understanding that all music is written in a series of scales and the circle is absolutely not above a beginning musician. I love seeing the “light bulb” moments when students begin to see all of the patterns that surround scales and the circle. Then with this understanding, when a key signature is present, the students know that all of the notes are just patterns in whatever scale is dictated.
This is all I teach a young mallet player for the first year; all major scales and reading as much as we can get to. The finesse and nuance of mallet technique is reserved for the second year of instruction. Teaching finesse on a bell kit is a pretty tall order and it’s hard enough to hit those tiny keys as a 6th grader!
Nick Fernandez is the director of percussion at Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he teaches percussion students from 6th grade through 12th. Previously, Nick served as the director of percussion at Owasso Public Schools in Owasso, OK.
He has performed with the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps, the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Tulsa Signature Symphony, and various local bands in the Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas areas.