The first four weeks of beginning band or orchestra are a pivotal time. This is when we develop relationships and expectations. It’s also our chance to lay the groundwork for a successful beginning to a lifetime of playing, creating, performing, and enjoying music. When I think about this month, the three main areas I focus on are creating music and sound immediately, building a collaborative atmosphere, and giving students tools they can apply when they begin playing.
I have spent my career teaching in Chicago Public Schools where it is common to start beginners in high school. While I know many of my experiences reflect this unique setting, I believe that the strategies I employ can be adapted to apply to beginners in any age group.
The first day of school should also be the first day of music making. After establishing basic classroom expectations and procedures, I jump right in with rhythm. I’ll start by introducing the basics: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes. I write these rhythmic combinations on large flash cards and cycle through them at the beginning and end of class. It’s an effective “bell ringer” and is also a great way to take advantage of every last minute of class. I’ll also ask students to count and clap and practice with a metronome. Then to spice it up I’ll playa popular song in the background while students clap the rhythms on the card in time.
We also begin trying instruments out. I start by having students use only the mouthpieces. Students and I both rate their success. This serves as a useful tool when I review their instrument preferences. Students try every instruments mouthpiece in the initial round.
Though physical traits can be helpful as you assess a student, I typically do not share this info with students because I have many times been fooled by a low brass player with “thin lips” or a trombone player with short arms. Additionally, this is information that could easily upset a young student’s self-image.
Another trick I use in instrument auditions is peer teaching. I will coach one student on how to get a tone on a clarinet mouthpiece and barrel, and then have them work with two of their peers while I shift to the other end of the table to assist a flute player.
Students will continue to try out instruments this week. They’ll also get to try a fully-assembled example of their first choice instrument. By mid-week, every student should be assigned their instrument, just in time for our Beginning Band Parent Night.
All parents and guardians are invited into the school during the second week of school, instead of waiting for much later in the year (as is more common). This meeting allows you the opportunity to communicate directly with parents, allay any financial fears, and advocate for your music program.
During this week I also begin incorporating activities that encourage students to collaborate and build the relationships that they will need to form a strong ensemble. I use numerous activities including human knots, name games, and more.
One game starts with students standing in a circle and tossing a ball of yarn to each other until it forms a net connecting every student. As they throw the yarn, students can practice names or share an exciting event from the summer. Once everyone is connected with the yarn it serves as a great metaphor for an ensemble. If one or two members of the band drop their yarn, other members have to pull back to tighten the web, carrying the weight of their colleagues. Countless team building exercises exist and most exhibit some parallel to the rehearsal or ensemble situation.
Throughout the first three weeks I am always delivering information, strategies, and tips to the students with the hopes that they will be able to help both themselves and their peers once they begin playing.
One of the most effective projects I have done is called “The Instrument Basics Project.” Students start by independently reading and taking detailed notes on the first pages of their method books that cover details such as instrument care, assembly, posture, and formation of the embouchure. Then they join the other students in their section to develop a presentation about their instrument.
As they present, I step in with helpful tips (i.e. correctly attaching a reed, lining up bridge keys, steps to holding the trombone) and correct misunderstandings. By the first day of playing, students already have many of the basic skills needed to get started, which means a more focused classroom and independent learners.
By the fourth week we are ready to start learning our instruments! I begin with a focus on mouthpiece activities before adding the fully assembled instrument. Their first playtest occurs this week and requires them to be able to play a steady pitch on their mouthpiece (with neck or barrel), and for the woodwind players to match the correct standard pitch (i.e. clarinet mouthpiece and barrel should be a concert F#). This is an easy test that can be quickly assessed by having students play in succession and serves as an opportunity to deemphasize the nerves of playing in front of your peers.
Most method books fly past the first few notes, but I find my students need more practice. I developed a full page of beginning band warm-ups that focus on the first five notes. These allow students to practice good habits of breathing, effectively use air, and build endurance.
Using aural skills alone, numerous songs can be played with the first five notes. (My kids love “We Will Rock You.”) You can also teach these songs by assigning notes a number, solfege, or introducing concert pitch note names. However you do it, breaking out of the book and learning a few songs gets students making music fast. It also gives them an opportunity to practice the fundamentals introduced in the opening pages of a method book.
Knowing your students, anticipating struggles, and front-loading information will enable a successful start for your beginners. Consider first what you want your students to know and be able to do in December or May. Then plan backward all the way to their first day. With an organized plan tailored to you and your students, a successful first four weeks and year will be inevitable!