Saturday, November 10, 2012

Simple Procedures to Develop Literacy & Technique

Wait... is he the only one reading music???
Two of the biggest goals we work towards with beginners, after tone quality, is music literacy and playing technique. When I was in college I had the chance to observe a great beginning band teacher, and made notes of the procedures he used to teach new music to his students. Later on, attending workshops and reading posts on the YellowBoard reaffirmed that this was indeed a widely used practice by great beginning band teachers. The procedures are simple, easy to teach, and quickly become a routine to learn new lines of music. In the process it teaches music literacy, technique, and teach students how to break down and learn new music independently. If you're an experienced teacher, you probably already do this or something like it. But if you're struggling with your beginners, or if you're a pre-service teacher, then I hope this article will help shed some light on how to help your beginners with what can be a daunting task when presented all at once - learning and playing new music.

Count the Rhythm

I've heard many great directors admit that the right rhythm is more important than the right notes, if you had to choose one. So understanding the right rhythm is the place where we start in learning a new line. Simply say, "Count the rhyhm," start their foot tap, and count them off. Repeat as needed and coach the mistakes until it's correct. This also requires that you have taught your beginners to use a Counting System!

Note Name & Finger

During the first few weeks of learning new lines I'll sometimes split this into two steps, note naming first and then adding the fingers second. Eventually they'll be able to do both. Like with the first one, you simply tell them to "Note name & Finger" and they need to be trained to understand that means speaking the note names aloud while pressing the buttons. A few helpful notes about making this effective. 

1. Note name on pitch - I don't expect it to be perfect, but I want them to get in the habit of seeing the music and trying to hear what it should sound like. When they sound like zombies I will play the line while they're note naming & fingering along, which instantly improves their singing. I've heard of teachers using sol fege as a procedure to learn new music, but our students don't have that foundation this year. Most beginners have no problem singing in a music class, but you can just say, "on pitch" and model for them and they'll understand exactly what you're asking for. Because the ability to audiate is important for playing in tune, and especially important for brass players to hit the right partials, this is a critical skill to develop!

2. Make sure they're fingering along! Listening for note names and pitch is one thing, but your eyes should be locked in on their fingers and in trying to see as many hands at once as possible. If someone is not participating, remind them to do it and repeat until everyone gets it right.

3. Do this no less than three times on most lines. Coach any wrong notes you see, but mostly understand that the more times you "Note name and finger" and especially the more repetitions of doing it correctly they get, the better it will sound the first time they play it.

Buzz (for Brass)

You play the line while brass buzzes. They should already have a good idea of how to make it sound based on singing it, but I think it's best when they have a pitch to reference. You can mix this up by having first chairs play while the rest of the group buzzes. In a heterogeneous class (or in woodwind classes) you can have the woodwinds Wind Pattern and listen for air speed, articulation and phrasing. 

Play It!

The goal of all of this prep work, breaking down the music and rebuilding it one step at a time, is that it gives them a good chance of playing it perfectly the first time. This won't happen for every kid, but it will for many, and most will be close. Developing accurate muscle memory is important, and you should be pleasantly surprised with the result if you have never used this process. Any errors can be coached from there, including going back to previous steps, for example counting or fingering through a trouble measure. Don't forget to coach them on articulation and tone quality as well. 

One more thing about this, play the line at various tempi. Our learning tempo is 70 beats per minute. Depending on how long it took to learn the line, we will then speed it up in increments of 5 bpm until they hit the tempo on the accompaniment CD. If we need to move on after a few playing reps, then we still aim to increase the tempo over the next couple of days when we review the line. And speaking of which...

Review - The More the Merrier

Our music pass off system allows for ample review on its own, but even so we make it a point almost every day to review at least the last two lines of music that we've learned. I once read that students will only gain mastery of a melody after several days playing it, so this year I've tried to incorporate plenty of review. I want them to not only understand how to play music, but also feel what it's like to gain mastery over it and play well. This is one of the many things I missed with my first class of beginners in my effort to push them ahead, which was always difficult enough considering that first year I had a heterogeneous class. Now, while I still feel that need to push them along, I recognize the importance of review for mastery to not only improve the top players, but give the least skilled kids plenty of chances to get it. I also want these beginners to be more flexible with tempo because I've noticed that our other band students have a tough time adjusting the tempo in either direction. 

The last comment I want to make about these procedures is that even though they give your beginners a way to tackle and learn new music independently, make sure you remind them once in a while that they can and should use all of these strategies to practice. Our top student was working on a line after school the other day and was making the age old mistake of just playing over and over and hoping to not make the same mistake. It was a great teaching moment where I could talk to him about the importance and time saving tactic of practicing smart. Don't just start from the beginning of the line. Break down the problem spot, practice it without playing it, then play it correctly at least three times in a row, then go back to the beginning. A light bulb seemed to click because he had been at this thing for probably twenty minutes, and after just a few minutes of guiding him through this kind of targeted practice he played the line perfectly. It reminded me of when I used to practice that way, even for most of my college experience, and the next day I took a few moments to talk to the beginners about that. After all, most beginners have no idea how to practice effectively. It's the difference between how they might use these procedures on their own, and how we know to use them for efficiency. 

I know for many readers this will seem like a no brainer, but I also know there was a time when I didn't know any of this stuff. So if you're one of those that has never heard of this system, I hope it helps! It's given me a high literacy rate, and the more effectively you coach at every step, the more effectively you break down the technical challenges with these tactics, the better the players you will produce. Thank you for reading, and good luck!

Musically yours,
Mr. Cooper

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