Sunday, December 29, 2013

Little Trombonists. Can it work for them?

It just looks like it's too big!

It is a challenge to get elementary kids interested in trombones.  They are not out in the forefront like trumpet, saxophone, or drums.  They certainly don't fit into a locker like flute or clarinet.  Getting a kid to play trombone is almost always a result of changing someone's mind, as opposed to their following a dream, or even a hunch.

Any time I suggest trombone, the reason I am told that they would prefer something else is because it is big and heavy.  It's probably about the median weight for beginning instruments in all truth, but it does make a pretty good sized footprint.

While recruiting them serves to be an issue, I am very much also trying to decide how to best teach them once I've roped them in.  I don't think lung capacity or embouchure are major stumbling blocks, but in terms of the slide, fourth and even fifth graders have a legitimate concern.  There are seven slide positions, and at best, the average elementary school students has access to six of them.  Seventh is too far out there.

For the kids willing to give trombone a shot, there are several ways I have seen over the years in which people try to cope with this:

* Using all kinds of alternative body parts (feet, knees, etc.) to try and extend the geography of the slide.

* Leave out notes that use seventh position all together

* Play those notes in fourth position.  There is a decent  chance that the note you settle on will be in the chord.

* Suplemental equipment that extends the range of the slide, like a handle extension.

* Just play it as far out as you can reach for now.

I've never encouraged the first one, of course, but I think I've tried the last four at some point or another, and I have decided that my go-to is the last one.

There are only two notes in a simple full-range chromatic scale that even use seventh position: a low E, which is the lowest note in the second partial, before you get down to "pedal tones", and low B, which is the lowest in the third partial.  In a vast majority of band music that these kids will play in their first year, there will be very few occurrences of the B and likely none of the E.  If you encourage the player to keep a good posture and embouchure, and do as well as he or she can in reaching seventh position, then yes, those rare B's will be sharp.

Maybe you are in a program where that sharp B is a real problem in the sound of your band, but I think in my situation, more often or not, I have plenty of bigger fish to fry if we are playing in C, G or D major in elementary school, or music chromatic enough to use that note outside of those keys.  I trade that otherwise perfect intonation for a training that helps encourage good muscle memory, proper embouchure and playing position, and quite frankly I imagine that depending on how you handle to topic of the intonation issues, that conversation can be a good teaching opportunity in and of itself.

I am more than interested in hearing your take on this.  One of my goals for growth in the next year or two is improving the low brass culture in the younger grades.  In a later post, I'll talk about my approach to slurring with young trombonists.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Stage Elves

This is one of my favorite stories in a school year full of nice stories so far.  It starts back at the beginning.  After a summer of changes, plans made with haste out of necessity, and thus a very hectic start, I met with a group of sixth graders interested in band.  As the dust settled in the first week, we ended up with only ten sixth graders at this school, one of three middle schools in town.  It had been a challenge to recruit, because it wasn't until late in July we really had a solid idea for just what we were recruiting.  By the second week of school, it would be this ten kids.

Two were solid veterans on the trumpet.  They had a year on everyone else.  Otherwise, it was eight beginners.  I decided to take some measures to try and steer this smaller group into some typically difficult instruments to sell, low brass in particular.

"What instruments are you considering?", I asked the eight students not yet committed.

A very enthusiastic young man waxed poetic about his hitherto lifelong dream to play the alto saxophone.  He passionately spoke of an early childhood love for this instrument.  As though he made a case for this, five of the remaining seven also declared a love and devotion to the alto sax, the other two vowed to become percussionists.

"Really, guys?  Nobody is interested in trombone or french horn?"

"OH…I'm playing French horn!", declared my dyed-in-the-wool future alto saxophonist!

…and so he does, and he's good.

So, now my ten sixth graders at this school make up a group of five alto saxes, two percussionist, two trumpet players, and a horn.

My failure to encourage them to seek a wider variety of instruments notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary group of young musicians.  They are enthusiastic, supportive of each other, and motivated to learn.  They prepare themselves from class to class, and they work hard.  They expect and inspire my best teaching.

They meet twice per week.  Friday afternoons during the last period of the day, and Tuesday mornings right after homeroom for the first period of the day.  Neither is ideal, and it takes a pretty mature group to consistently focus during those times.  That's who they are.

Not too long into the year, I stared to notice that when I got to school, our horn player had come into the auditorium and staked out his position, as though a shoemaker's elf had been there.  After a couple of times, I took a picture of it, and told him how cool I thought that was.

 November 12, 2013

The following week, I arrived to find that one of his friends had joined him and set himself up early as well.

 November 19, 2013

"What a cool thing to see!  I wonder what I will see next week?"

 November 26, 2013

"Wow, guys! Dare I imagine there will be four next week?"

 December 3, 2013

"Heck, at this rate, we'll have all of us doing it in a few weeks!"

 December 10, 2013

By the next week, they were all set up and ready to go.  If they don't get to it before I arrive, then they try to sneak in and do it while I am backstage working with one of the seventh graders.  The horn player is the ring leader.  He encourages his friends to join him, and even gets the chairs and stands out for the kids who arrive on the later busses.  They need only pop in with their instruments and put the books on the stands.  It is such a gratification to see this develop, and I can't wait to see their leadership and love for music begin to have an effect on the program as a whole, as they grow into it.

How to maintain this momentum?  That is a daunting yet fun challenge.  I'll have to keep you all posted.

Author's note:  This manuscript was read to the class about a day after it was posted, and for the most part, they were pleased and amused, but most members emphatically insisted that I point out that they think a disproportionately high percentage of the credit had been given to the horn player.  So noted.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Importance of Practice

I repost this one from my more informational/logistical blog ( from this morning.  I fear that my potentially timid approach to encouraging practice has not built that kind of culture that I would hope for.  I will probably always resist those accountability exercises that encourage busy work and a lack of candor as much as any practice it promotes.  We'll see if this makes any difference.

Most students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could probably provide, in a very short amount of time, a very accurate and detail diagram with mathematical calculations exactly how much force and angle was necessary to put a 12" basketball through a metal hoop 24" in diameter who's plane is  120" above the floor by a human being whose feet are behind a line fifteen feet from the area directly below the hoop.  However, any of us who follow college sports at all know that all of this knowledge has not put MIT into March Madness at any point in our lives.  It's about getting out there and shooting foul shots, hundreds of them.  That knowledge has to be followed up with practice.  Your brain needs to know what to do, and your muscles need to how to do it.    (In all fairness, MIT has a history of a decent NCAA Division 3 program.  I guess they can find at least five men and women who are willing to put in the time to let their muscles catch up with their brains.)

It is not easy to work practice time into a busy routine of homework and other after school activities.  For most of us, it takes a pretty strict routine to make sure it happens.  Try dedicating fifteen minutes while dinner is being prepared, or before the evening shower, or something that happens pretty much everyday, but what might be most helpful is to include practice in what is considered 'homework'.  It gives me a little touch of heartburn to hear kids say "I couldn't practice this week because of homework".  What other homework didn't they do because of homework?   I fully understand that band is different than any other class or activity, but a significant investment of time, money, and energy is being put into this activity, and where practice is so essential to its success, it is important to include in the routine, like other homework.

One of the challenges of practice is getting everything out and ready, and then cleaning and putting everything away.  It stands to reason that if you just do it all in one 60 minute blast on Saturday, it saves that hassle.  Unfortunately, the musician, from developing to virtuoso, needs to limit the duration of time away from the instruments as much as increasing the time spent with it.  The muscles and the brain need to keep things fresh, and I assure you that you will see a difference if you can get to the instruments four to five times a week for a modest time instead of the long cram sessions.

When one practices by his- or herself, there is no model, or support.  The truth is out there, and it can be frustrating when it doesn't sound quite like it's supposed to, or even the way it did last time.  As a teacher, I absolutely can tell the difference between someone for whom practice didn't go the way he or she wanted, and someone for whom practice didn't happen enough or at all.  It is OK to fail, and from that we learn.  Come to band or your lessons with lots of pencil marks and lots of questions.  Those are allowed and encouraged.  Enjoy the learning process!  It is also so important to play something you love, and with which you are successful.  Playing an instrument is work, but fun work.  See to that.  Have fun, and be patient with yourself!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Um, I have to tell kid NEVER practices"

Over the course of my career, I probably have not been any better than any of my colleagues at getting kids to practice.  One speed bump that I put in front of myself in that challenge is the fact that I can't quite bring myself to get into a war over it with anyone: not my students, not my son, nobody.

I often quip with my students that practice, broccoli, and naps are three things that I used to avoid when I was a kid that I now crave.

In truth, I think I have always loved practicing the tuba.  I have always enjoyed working on technique, musicality, literature, and everything about getting better.  I think I was driven a bit by the comparison with other tuba players around, and by my aspirations to make music my livelihood.

I also love playing soccer.  I enjoy going to the gym.  I enjoy preparing and eating a healthy home-cooked meal.  I like having a tidy place to live, and a clean car.  I love updating this blog!  I don't even mind doing the tasks required to have all those things in my life.

It's just that not all of them are not part of my routine.  I have a hard time making those tasks a regular part of my day, or week, or month, etc.

They should be, and probably can be.  I am learning very slowly that in order for me to do what I should do, in almost any facet of my life, I need to make it a routine.  It has been a great Fall for improving a few aspects of that, and has encouraged me to further explore this with other aspects.

Without routine, kids practice "when they get a chance", and for many kids, that is never.  My friend Amy teaches over sixty students in a week, and when practice becomes an issue, she makes them take out a schedule grid and program exactly when they will practice.  Maybe they follow it without fail, but at the very least, they hold themselves accountable there being a routine, and if they do not follow it to the letter, they at least adjust to it.  It's the same reason I always make a dentist appointment on the way out from the last.  There is almost no chance that I will keep that very appointment, but I will reschedule it, as opposed to thinking every time I see a toothpaste ad or drive by a dental office that I need to get around to it.  I have a routine with that.  My practice routine these days is to take some of the planning time leading up to a class to play, and maybe even get caught at the end of it doing so by my entering students.

In general, kids enjoy playing their instruments, and they will enjoy practice.  We just have to work toward finding a way to get the horn out of the case and the backside into a chair with the stand in front of them, and spend twenty or thirty minutes getting better and falling further in love with it.

Of course it is important that they use this time to prepare and improve, but especially when they are young and new at the instrument, it is equally important that they have some gratifying and enjoyable time with it, playing what they like.  Often that's just a matter of letting it happen without adult interference, other than "Hey, go spend a little time playing your sax.  I'll call you for dinner.  Super Mario can wait."

Get that up and rolling.  I would wager that their wanting to be prepared for band and/or lessons will help guide them into better using that time, once it's routine.  In the meantime, getting the instrument out regularly will likely make them better if even by accident.  Neither of you want a battle over it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


For those who read this but do not follow me on Facebook, I encourage you to do so if you like. I "microblog" there pretty regularly. I am there most of the time as opposed to Twitter because even in my micro-efforts, I am often a little more verbose than 141 characters allows me to be. (

Becoming a Music Parent

First, please forgive the time between posts. I do need to do this more often. I do love it, and it really makes me think about my teaching.

2012-2013 is the twenty-fifth year of my career. Thinking back on the really pivotal events, such as a brief stint teaching early childhood music in year five, completing a masters degree in year seven, returning to high school in year thirteen, or becoming a father later that same year, I am now realizing that as profound as any of these was when my son began studying violin in school in year twenty-four.

Almost two years of this has had some pretty significant effects on my teaching. I will have to admit that it might be that writing about this runs the risk of being a waste of your time to read. Maybe being a parent of a music student is necessary to grasp this, and maybe being a parent of a music student makes reading this wholly unnecessary because you don't need me. You already get it. So, I have to imagine the only person this entry is having any effect on is the author. In any event, I thank you for being a good enough sport to read this far.

When I became a parent in 2002, i began meditating quite regularly on what role I should and should not play in his musical development Obviously, I consider music deeply important, so all at once I needed to find a way to insure that it would be an important part of his life. This means not only encouraging him, and guiding him into opportunities, but also to be sure that I am not forcing it upon him, and making his involvement appear as though it is a chore. It has been a great fear of mine that I could potentially drive him away from music with the weight of my expectations.

Also when I became a parent, I began paying very careful attention to the parents of my students. I have had the opportunity to witness hundreds upon hundreds of parenting practices for the last eleven years, and have taken volumes of mental notes. Every year at the band banquet, I deliver a very similar message that thanks these parents for their support, but also for the exquisite modeling they have given me for my own parenting, in hopes that my son would be the same sort of person that I get to teach, day in and day out. Despite this comment being somewhat of a tradition, I find that I mean it more deeply every year I say it.

And now, in year twenty-five of my career, my son approaches the age of my students. Everything is different. On a purely practical level, I instantly found myself I am being more careful about communications, and much more mindful of how the way I conduct business effects them as parents. I am more aware of how much time they need for tasks like finding concert clothes, and how much guidance they might need in finding resources for their child to be successful. I am far more empathetic about the financial impact on a family of a music student, and the impact that my own schedule has on theirs, and how much notice I should give them should it need to change.

 On a deeper level, I posted about a year and a half ago on Facebook that I'd had a bit of an epiphany. For the first time, I pictured my son sitting in a room along side kids just like these. I realized that every kid in this room meant everything in world to someone, the way my son does to me. I look at a quiet little girl with an alto saxophone who always has to be reminded to read the key signature and is always late because it takes her extra couple of minutes to change after Phys-Ed. I now more clearly realize that  she is the absolute love of someone's life. As her teacher, she deserves to have me remember that, at all times. This is true for the kid who never stops talking, the kid forgets his trombone on the bus, the kid who can only come once a week because he needs extra help in reading, the kid who constantly shows off on the piano at every opportunity. I try to remember at all times that they all mean everything to someone, and deserve every shred of respect that I expect my son's teachers to afford him. If, God forbid, I am wrong, and for some reason there is no such person in their lives, then that is all the more the reason that, amid my teaching, guiding, coaching, and correcting, they deserve my respect.

I write about this now because I just had yet another moment of realization this week. I work with my son on his violin about once a week, and this has become a time that we both enjoy. I am very grateful for that. I love going to his concerts, and I see a happy boy up there who I know is prepared, and I have a great deal of respect for his teacher. I would love for the parents of his students to feel about me the way I do him. The one thing I have noticed is that my son sits way back in his chair to the point that his feet barely reach the floor. I have also noticed that when the music gets really going, so do his legs. They fly around the legs of his chair like wind chimes in a howling gale.

My first instinct is to explain to him, as I do to my own students relentlessly, that he needs to sit at the edge of his chair with his feet flat on the floor, and that instinct is the right one. That's the best way to play, to study...maybe. Mack loves to play. He loves going to orchestra. He loves going to his lesson. He loves practicing with me. He stands when he plays with me, so I don't see and thus address the leg thing. Fortunately, I have never gotten around to addressing it, because as I sat and watched him, I knew that it was just the joy of playing making it all the way down to his feet.

We can always fix the leg thing, if growing another two inches doesn't do it automatically. In the meantime, I will not crush his joy. I won't draw his attnenion to it. When he outgrows it, I will miss it dearly. You know what else? I am going to run all those little idiosyncrasies of all my students through that "joy" filter, and see if it really needs to be corrected right then.