Instrumental methods courses are about more than teaching pre-service educators how to play instruments. If all the students needed to know about teaching band or orchestra was posture, embouchure, fingerings, and articulations for each instrument, then we could give them a beginning method book and call it a day. We need to provide pre-service educators with more meaningful methods courses so that they not only know how to teach instrumental technique, but also how to teach the children playing the instruments.
I currently teach the Woodwind Methods course at the University of Colorado Boulder to undergraduate music education majors. I approach the course in the same way I taught middle school orchestra. My goal with middle school students was to develop independent musicians and thoughtful people through meaningful musical experiences. My goal with preservice educators is to develop independent teachers and thoughtful people through meaningful teaching experiences. In the same way we cannot expect middle schoolers to learn by sitting and listening to a teacher, we cannot expect undergraduates to learn to be great educators by listening to lectures about education. We learn best by doing.
As other music educators can probably relate, many of my undergraduate methods courses consisted of learning instrumental technique with little attention to pedagogy. I could play a chromatic scale and an eighth-grade level etude on every instrument by the time I taught in practicum, but I found that my technical skills were not enough. I could model for my students, but I struggled to address problems outside of fingerings and posture at an age-appropriate level.
Therefore, I approach teaching the Woodwind Methods course at CU Boulder through a pedagogical lens. The students leave with the ability to play at least a concert Bb major scale and a dozen folk songs on flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, and bassoon with characteristic tone. More importantly, they are also able to teach beginning to intermediate woodwind students with age-appropriate pedagogy and feel successful in the classroom.
A Typical Day in Woodwind Methods
Every morning, the Woodwind Methods students take turns warming up the class to practice concise directions in front of a group of students (as seen above). I introduce the day’s presenter with a fun fact, such as their favorite movie or an unusual talent (one student could play trombone with their foot). This helps the class get to know one another and build community. Throughout the semester the warm-up pacing becomes more efficient as the students become comfortable with their peers and gain confidence in addressing groups.
When the students are warmed up, we launch into peer teaching to review the materials from previous classes. I set a timer on the board and the students have two to three minutes to find a partner and teach them how to assemble their instrument, form an embouchure, articulate, play notes, disassemble, or clean their instrument properly. The students find a new partner each class to get to know music education majors in other grades or specialty areas so that they can learn from each other’s strengths. I watch the students from afar to informally assess their directions as well as walk around to hear how they change their instructions when they know their teacher is listening. I jump in with suggestions when students are lost and highlight strong examples.
SmartMusic in Methods Courses
SmartMusic is used in every class to help the students explore the woodwind instruments. I project lines from various method books so that the students have experience with different styles and layouts that they can use in their future classrooms. When students struggle with fingerings, I hover over the notes and quickly show the fingering diagram, which saves time from flipping to the front of their hard copy method books. It gives everyone a reminder for a difficult fingering as well, which ends up helping students that are too timid to ask for help in front of the class.
We use the method book lines to practice instrumental technique as well as teaching decoding skills to younger students. When we are focusing on technique, I give the students three to five minutes of personal practice time to explore the music and think about what would be challenging for a young woodwind student. After we come back together and play, we discuss the struggles we are feeling and how they might manifest in our future students. I include anecdotes from my own teaching experiences to give the students real-life examples of what actually poses a challenge for young students and how we can go about helping them succeed. Getting the pre-service educators in the minds of students is invaluable because it develops their understanding of how children learn.
We also use SmartMusic to practice teaching decoding notation. We project method book lines on the board and the students take turns using the concept of whole-part-whole to guide their peers in playing the music correctly with understanding. Students employ modeling on the woodwind instruments, singing and fingering to build aural connections between the sound and feel of each note, and clapping rhythms to address aural, visual, and kinesthetic learners. The students explore techniques that will guide their future students to successful note reading by drawing on their previous knowledge to understand new concepts and the language of musical notation.
Beyond Method Books
In addition to using SmartMusic to read and play music, I demonstrate how to use it as a rhythm-reading tool. On the first day of double reeds, I displayed unpitched percussion exercises for the students to practice articulating on their reeds. I highlighted how excited my string students would get to see how accurately they could air bow rhythm exercises and the power of developing rhythmic confidence for everyone in an ensemble, not just the percussionists. SmartMusic contains numerous rhythm reading exercises for all levels that can help develop steady internal pulse and rhythm reading skills in our students.
The Arrangement Project
The final project in Woodwind Methods is an arrangement of a popular song for flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, oboe, and bassoon for a beginning to intermediate ensemble. The song is purposely nontraditional band repertoire because it pushes the students to think about music their future students are interested in outside of school. I share stories about my success with popular music in the classroom and how it inspired my students to grow from playing grade one to grade two and a half repertoire in one year through increased engagement, rhythm reading abilities, and pitch accuracy. Students know how popular songs are supposed to sound and therefore work to play it correctly even when the rhythms are more complicated than traditional band repertoire.
I bring my arrangements to class and explain how I chose each popular song to meet my students’ needs. We discuss the length, range, rhythms, and melodic distribution of each piece and how it is appropriate for middle school string players to get the students thinking about how to make their own arrangements pedagogically appropriate. Students brainstorm techniques for arranging because we have freshman, sophomores, and juniors in the class with a wide range of experiences. The older students act as more knowledgeable others allowing me to step back and help the younger students learn how to arrange while practicing teaching complex musical topics.
I use the arrangements to demonstrate how to upload content into SmartMusic as educators, which they do with their arrangement project so their peers can practice their parts before we play them in the final days of class. We discuss the benefits of being able to assign our own repertoire to students to practice and our ability to monitor their progress through playing assessments. The students also explore the beta compose tool as an option for getting their arrangements into SmartMusic and practice making their own exercises for woodwind instruments to develop a deeper understanding of how to build technical skill in our young students.
We learn best by doing. Therefore, the most effective way to teach our pre-service educators about playing and teaching woodwind instruments is to get them playing and teaching as much as possible before they enter the classroom. We flip the classroom with elementary, middle, and high school students, so why not with undergraduates?
What is your experience with methods classes in higher education? Please consider sharing your ideas on meaningful methods class experiences for preservice teachers.