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.