While at Grade 10 Band Camp, the chaperones (all of whom were educators) were discussing the trials of teaching and one of them said something that I haven’t forgotten:
What really troubles me isn’t when they don’t get the material, but when they resist it. If they’re trying, then they’ll get it eventually, but when they resist it, they will always miss the beauty.
That’s what is really tragic to her: When they miss the beauty.
And we’ve all been there, right? The hashing of parts, the correction of chromatics, the clapping of rhythms, etc. We know, it’s boring. It’s boring for them and it’s boring for us.
But it’s okay because we have one-liners to quell their frustration, right? “You can’t access the music if notes and rhythms are in the way,” or “actors can’t make magic on the stage if they’ve still got their heads in their lines.”
Not that I pretend to have any answers, but the older I get, the further I’m distancing myself from those common reasons. I may find my way back, but this notion of “missing the beauty” has been with me for a few weeks. I don’t make music for the notes/rhythms, I do it for the beauty. So I’ve been asking myself how do I make sure they don’t miss the beauty?
That’s been the theme of this month. Now what does that look like in the classroom?
It’s taken a lot of reflection and, for me, the beauty of a line is usually in its shape. For non-musicians, that means the rise and fall of volume in a musical phrase. What really gets me going is when the lines, volume, and intensity all move together. To be said another way, the musician does what the music demands.
So, even in sightreading (even in technically difficult sightreading), I’ve always made sure that we got to rehearse shape once per rehearsal. Even if it’s only eight bars, or four bars, or two bars, shape must be prevalent every time.
As it turns out, the kids are really driven by shape too. Granted, kids are usually motivated and excited by the things that do so for their teacher - it was tuning/pitch for me in high school – but this seems to really connect my kids to the emotional feeling of the music and it does so quickly. Mr. Cooper from Music Ed blog Cooper’s Divertimento sums it up well:
It can be what Peter Boonshaft calls a “pearl”. It’s one thing per rehearsal that you really work to perfect so that the kids can experience something truly amazing in band that day. A crescendo, perhaps, or a single chord played beautifully. When a kid is part of making something like that happen, when it happens, they feel it somewhere deep down. Remember that feeling? It’s that feeling you get when something sounds so amazing that you just get pumped, or otherwise filled with excitement. If a kid doesn’t care, it’s probably because they either haven’t had that experience, or they haven’t had it regularly, or have been too long without it.
Going back to band camp, I made it my mission to find this feeling in our brass and percussion sectional. Going into that rehearsal, I really had to fight my “band teaching” toolbelt, to go outside my comfort zone and try something new. Teach them the thing(s) that make you love making music. Pick one thing and do it.
Shape. Shape. Shape.
I didn’t focus too much on basics because, strangely, they fixed themselves on their own. As they grew through the phrase, some player’s bad tone got better with more air. Any wrong notes and rhythms were corrected either by their ears or their classmates and they didn’t need to me to tell them. When it sounds wrong, they know, and they want to fix it
We were rehearsing Brian Balmage’s Whale Warriors and there was one moment where the melody was in three different one-bar statements in the low brass. Where’s the story? Find it and tell it with shape. Now teach them that.
- Crescendo for three beats, then descrescendo on beat four. (if each bar is like a sentence, give the sentence some inflection)
- The shape of the notation is very similar in each bar, so let’s find a way to make them different.
- Now, make each bar slightly louder than the last one. (take each sentence somewhere… or ‘when in doubt, move forward’)
And there it was. The basics corrected themselves and the music happened. The story was told and they knew it. It was a great feeling in the room. It was only four bars, but it was awesome.
I’ve been doing it for a month and I really like it. I feel like I have a little pearl every day. Granted, the pace of learning the notation is slower, but the ecstacy of playing the music is more present. For me, that’s a good trade-off
Have any great pearls? Or great stories about these moments? Leave them in the comments section!
Until next time,