Every band program depends upon recruiting new members to continue the pride and tradition established by the current band members. Recruiting can be one of the hardest jobs a band director faces, and for some, the most unpleasant, while others love to meet potential students and â€œsellâ€ their program to the eager young students. In the end, after all the recruiting is over, you actually get to teach them what you love: music!
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 edition of the Iowa Bandmaster Magazine and was written by Patti Bekkerus, a well established and respected music educator currently teaching in the Dennison, Iowa school district.
Some directors walk into an existing program that numbers many students and their job is to maintain and continue the tradition. Others walk into programs with barely any members and not much interest in joining a program that is not thriving. For those programs, the director must be the best salesman ever! The important thing is to remember you are "selling" them a chance to participate in and learn something you absolutely love: MUSIC!
Before starting the actual recruiting process, I highly recommend "testing" the class on pitch matching and rhythm. There are several tests or surveys out there. I've used both the Selmer Music Survey and the UMI Recruiting Program for Band. I am also lucky enough to have the elementary general music teacher administer the test for me at my current school. She is a great advocate for our program and teaches them instrument families and names as well as giving the music test as well.
I am a firm believer in using the current band program and students to recruit beginners! I've also taken videos to show the kids and to publicize the program but I've found the band students themselves and a concert are much more effective. We invite the current recruiting class to a concert. We hold the concert in our high school Fine Arts Center (concert environment) and feature the High School Concert Band and the 7th Grade Concert Band. Each band performs two to three numbers for the students with the concert lasting a total of 30-40 minutes. I try to have the 7th grade band play something that is familiar to the students or a novelty piece. Our high school band director spends some time during the concert introducing a high school player from each instrument family. He strategically asks very well known students (even to the younger kids) ranging from our all-state musicians to the starting quarterback on our football team. Those kids all know those older students who are active in activities and they are true role models for them! The people he introduces play a short tune for the students to show off their instrument. It's amazing what hearing a familiar tune or an instrument just played well does for a beginner who is trying to decide which instrument he/she would like to play. He also has a way of really "selling" an instrument that we feel will be a real need to our program in the future years. (i.e. low brass, clarinets, etc.)
Following the concert, we take a week to test the students on the instruments. Although it is a very short time and one may wonder what, if anything, you might accomplish in that five minutes, it is often enough to convince a student who thinks they can play something (or that it would be too hard) that they CAN get a sound on an instrument! It also serves the purpose of helping them make up their mind as to WHICH instrument to play. I've had several students change their mind about what instrument they should play just because something was "easy to play" or "sounded cool".
This year, we tried an assembly line procedure to test. There are only two band directors in our district and I tested all woodwind instruments and percussion and the high school band director tested the brass players. we liked that approach as we were in our comfort zone and felt we had a good grasp on all three sections as we tested. We also have the luxury of helping each other when we got stuck and couldn't get a student to produce a sound. After they've played all the instruments, we ask them what their first and second choices would be to play in band. From this list, we form our ideal band instrumentation keeping in mind we usually start at least 50-60% of the class.
Approximately a week before our instrument display night, I take a few middle school students to visit the various classes and answer their questions about band and often just general questions about middle school! Again, the most effective way to promote your program is to showcase those who already love it!
Getting Started Techniques For Beginning Band
We start our beginners in the summer before their sixth grade year six weeks before school starts. They come to us four days a week in like instrument classes. The first week we meet with them for 45 minutes each as the first initial sounds and the putting together of the instruments take more time. Starting the second week, they come for a 30 minute lesson daily. Although there are some students whose attendance is sporadic, the majority of the students are in attendance. The daily contact with us and the immediate daily feedback prove to be a great start for our beginners. The other part of the equation that works is that even though they are large classes and we don't get to spend individual time with each student, they are motivated by their peers and feel the need to play their lesson well to keep up with the best student in the class.
At the end of the six weeks when school starts, I'm able to break them into smaller groups based on ability where we can work on special needs or let the gifted student take off and soar. I have also brought in some of our all state high school musicians to assist with the beginner classes. They are an extra set of eyes and ears and can also take a student one on one to work on an exercise or help with a problem they are experiencing. The beginners enjoy this because it is yet another picture of where they are headed in their band career. I am also lucky enough to have both the high school teacher and myself teaching the beginners. Every student responds differently to every teacher and many of them make a connection with our high school director which encourages retention into the high school band. We've had our highest retention numbers since we started our beginning program approach.
Each instrument has its own issues for beginners. Here are a few tips that we have used. Some work with some students and not with others. I encourage you to continue to find strategies to help those students who might be struggling. We are one of the biggest classrooms of differentiated instruction!
For all instruments, we only allow them to do mouthpiece workouts the first night of practice. Without the rest of their instrument to play on, they are concentrating only on their embouchure and what kind of sound/buzzing they are making. We have them practice long tones and 4x4's (4 quarter notes, 4 quarter rests). We also have a mirror in class to show them what their face should look like when they get the correct sound. Encourage practicing in front of the mirror the first night! If and when they struggle with tone the first couple of weeks, keep that mirror handy and pull it out so they can see what their embouchure should look like.
We start tonguing the very first day and check their tonguing daily--even if it is simple as going around the room and having everyone play a single note. Another way we reinforce that the tongue starts the air (and this also helps develop a good air stream) is to have them "spin a pinwheel" with their air---but the tongue must start the air. We just use a child's plastic pinwheel found in any toy department. Later in lessons when they are not using enough air, we say "use pinwheel air" and they understand what to do.
Besides producing the first sound, I think the hardest part for a flute player is holding the flute and putting the fingers on the correct keys and then fingering between notes (especially C to D!) I have found success in putting a small sticker on the keys where they should put their fingers for the first couple of nights. When I first did this, we had EVERYONE come back the next day knowing how to hold the flute and where to put their fingers. That took one problem out of the equation so when they practiced, they could focus on their embouchure and tone production. The next step for them is fingering between their notes since they can't look at their fingers. I spend time with the class having them finger between the two pitches while looking at their fingers and then I have them finger while holding in playing position.
After their fingers are moving correctly, we put sound with it. Part of their homework that night is to watch their favorite TV show and finger between whatever sets of notes we're working on over and over again. Even if they only finger during commercials, they will still get a good two-three minutes of finger repetition between those notes. After we are solidly producing good tone with good fingers, I spend the first five minutes of each lesson doing finger olympics with them making sure I hit all of the fingering changes that will be in their lesson that day. I find that technique is very effective even with my older band students. When they miss notes, I isolate the problem and ask them to finger only and then play only those two notes. In most cases, after they isolate the passage, they are able to put the entire lick together. In changing from C to D, I put stickers on their fingernails of the fingers they will push down for C. Then I tell them that the fingers with the stars must go up while the non-star fingers must go down. That gives them one more visual to help them work on a tough fingering.
I attended a wonderful clinic at IBA this past year given by Kariann Voigts, Simpson clarinet instructor. She gave many tips, some I already use and some that I tried for the first time. Some favorites that I like and use:
- first note on the mouthpiece AND the barrel. I found that the students had much better intonation once the entire instrument was put together rather than starting on the mouthpiece only. Since the pitch is lower on both the mouthpiece and barrel, I think that it is more tolerable for the student to listen to and practice!
- using enough mouthpiece: Slide a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece. Draw a line on the reed where the paper stops. Students should put their thumb under that line and the mouthpiece should go into their mouth up to their thumb. Sometimes I wait and use this technique a little later in their playing (not the first few weeks). It depends on if the student is ready for it. I find that the longer they play, some will get lazy and use less mouthpiece.
- right hand thumb position: I have them hold the thumb rest between their thumb and index finger for the first week. This allows them to feel they have a good grasp of their instrument when playing F and G where not many fingers are used. Don't allow them to do this for very long, however! You don't want it to become a habit that is HARD to break.
- make the first note Eb This gives the student security by pushing down their thumb and first finger without requiring them to put a lot of fingers down or to balance their instrument with their mouthpiece to play a G.
- use a sticker where their pinkies should float over the keys. I find that this helps improve hand position greatly and their low notes are clearer because they have good finger position.
Buzzing is essential. My students buzz everyday at the beginning of their lesson using long tones and the 4x4's. Listen carefully for their tongues and demand that they use it even when buzzing.We also have them buzz high pitches and low pitches. Eventually we introduce the siren buzz to them as well. After a minute or so of buzzing, we match pitch DAILY. We play the pitch, they match it as a long tone and then the 4X4. Once eighth notes are introduced, we include a rhythm to echo using the eighth notes as well. Daily pitch matching makes such a difference. In the beginning it takes time and it seems as if that's all you get done and you and the student are anxious to move on to playing the exercises. It gets easier, better, and faster the more you do it. Stick to it! It's worth it.
Depending on which grip you teach, I spend a lot of time with hand position and the correct stroke. Again, I tell them to watch their favorite TV show with sticks in hand. During commercials (or the whole show!) it is their job to make sure their grip is correct and the stroke is correct (using wrists). I spend the majority of my time with beginning snare players on grip and their strokes. It's impossible to develop the drummer further without those things. My percussionists also start on mallets at the same time. For most kids, this is the biggest challenge. I find that most students memorize the exercise or already know the song so they play by ear. Not a bad practice, especially for the developed mallet player but it also diminishes their ability to read the notes on the staff. Insist that the students learn those note names and read music to play the exercises. It makes them a much stronger musician.
Beginning Band Rehearsal
With the first few group rehearsals, I continue doing a lot of pitch matching as a group, including the 4x4's and a measure that includes an eighth note rhythm. We also do a lot of rhythm raps. The lesson book I currently use has a rhythm rap when introducing a new rhythm. I turn other exercises into rhythm raps as well. I also isolate 1-2 measures to rhythm rap if it's a rhythm they are having trouble with. I also demand that they count aloud. Knowing how to count it will pay dividends in the long run. Resist the temptation to just show them how it goes (one of my all time favorite questions). I also do a lot of clapping echoes with them. I clap and count 1-2 measures and they echo my clapping and counting. Incorporating rhythm exercises into your beginners is so important and they won't get bored with them if you change it up with different strategies.
Once school starts, my students have band everyday and a small group lesson once per week. Obviously their time to focus on their instrument is less but their participation in an ensemble has grown. I use their book during class as warm ups. I focus on one page per week to give time for instruction, practice and performance on each exercise. I often use Friday as their â€œplaying testâ€ during that portion of class. I put a variety of music in front of them and a LOT of music in front of them. The more they read, the better players they become. I also like to push the difficulty level with them. Don't be afraid of giving them something new in their band music that they haven't yet covered in their book. They are excited about learning something new and more advanced and they have the security of the full band to try it with them. Pushing the difficulty level also helps keep your gifted students engaged and working hard. You can always write an easier part for someone if they are just not up to the part on a more difficult piece.
It is important to balance that rehearsal with your warm ups, playing music and working on things that need to be rehearsed. They like to play their music without stopping and it's hard when you work with just one section of the band. I like to include the entire band whenever I can. For instance, if you are working on a rhythm in one section, write it on the board and have the whole band learn the rhythm. Another idea is to ask the other sections to be the judge if a section plays something correctly. I use a thumbs up or down system for them to vote. Then I challenge the students to listen to that particular part while playing their own. Not only does that work on your balance, it also gives them ownership in what the band is doing. One of the last things I do in a rehearsal is to read a piece down without stopping. That's their favorite thing to do so send them out the door doing what they love.
I truly believe that the key to a successful program (district wide) are your beginners. They are your future and giving them a good start ensures their success at the high school level and beyond. The better they know how to play their instrument, the more fun it is for them as well and the more likely they are to continue. Continue looking for new tricks of the trade when it comes to dealing with beginners. If I've given you some new ones or reminded you of yours, wonderful--keep it going! Teaching beginners is hard work but the rewards are great. Keep it fresh for yourself and your enthusiasm will shine through to your students.