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Branching Out, Teaching Outside Your Primary Area of Expertise

Lisa Martin | August 2015

    After five years of teaching band in elementary and middle school, I began a new position where I was also responsible for teaching orchestra. This teaching assignment gave me some concerns because my experience with string pedagogy was limited. I wanted to be sure I was able to effectively address the needs of all my student musicians.
    Teaching an ensemble outside of your primary area of expertise can be a challenge. This challenge is amplified when working with younger students, because teachers of these students must shape and develop fundamental musical skills and habits. Teachers who work outside of their primary area of expertise can gain new and valuable musical understandings because they must go through this experience both as a teacher and learner. I learned a great deal teaching orchestra, and several beneficial tips helped me along the way.
    These points of advice could apply to all forms and styles of music teaching. Whether you are a violinist now directing a jazz band for the first time, or a vocalist suddenly tasked with directing a chamber orchestra, these tips can help you transition into less familiar territory with more success.

Observe Exemplary Teachers
    Seek out experienced directors who are experts in the areas in which you will be teaching, and schedule times to observe those directors teaching ensembles that parallel yours. If you are responsible for directing an advanced middle school chamber group, try to find a veteran teacher who leads a similar ensemble. Beyond parallel ensembles, it is important to identify directors who teach in schools similar to your school in terms of instructional time, scheduling, performance expectations, or student body makeup. Finding an exemplar director who leads a program similar to yours will help you to gather useful, relevant information and ideas when observing.
    Among the many benefits to peer observation, watching other excellent teachers will help to build a good teaching vocabulary in your new discipline. While observing one orchestra teacher, I learned several analogies that proved helpful for coaching students to move their bow slowly when appropriate. This director instructed students to “pull their bows like taffy.” When I have used this analogy I found that it effectively communicates an image that helps students to zero in on their slow bow technique.
    Follow-up conferencing with the teacher post-observation is helpful, because the director can explain the reasons for certain choices with regard to classroom organization or instruction. Perhaps the teacher arranged the musicians differently from your approach. Learning the rationale behind another director’s methods can help to inform and enhance your practice.
    Finally, it may be helpful to seek out other music educators who have taught outside their area of expertise. Teachers with this experience may be able to offer perspective on how to convey a particular tactic that works for them, or they may offer some insight on how your new world is parallel to the ensemble setting that is more familiar to you.

Seek Out and Accept Critiques
    Beyond observing other directors, try to find opportunities to bring in expert directors to observe you and your classroom. Finding directors who have time to do this can prove challenging, as most directors have busy class schedules. However, other teachers may be willing to make time to observe if visiting your class can be treated as professional development leave. Another alternative is to call on retired directors, who may have more flexible schedules that will allow them time to visit your rehearsal. A retired director can draw upon years of experience, which can lead to detailed and thoughtful feedback about your instructional approach.
    If schedules allow, try to invite more than one experienced director to observe your classroom. This should provide multiple perspectives on the strengths and challenges you face in your new instructional setting.
    It is also important to be receptive to criticism and suggestion. Because teaching requires a large degree of personal investment, it can be difficult to accept advice or criticism without being affected personally. Ultimately, you should try to view any critique or constructive criticism with the mindset that the other teacher is simply hoping to improve your students’ overall experience.

Take Lessons
    Consider taking private lessons on one or more of the instruments you are now responsible for teaching. Many studios offer instruction to students of all ages, and some may even have instructors who specialize in teaching adults. Private instruction will deepen your understanding of the nuances associated with each instrument, while also cultivating a sense of empathy for your young students, who are similarly exploring new territory.
    If you live near a college with a music education program, it may be possible to enroll in or audit an instrument-specific techniques class. A class like this may give you a refresher that enhances your ability to address the needs of your new ensemble.
Also worth noting, some schools may be willing to provide teachers financial support for private lessons or related coursework, as they are a means of professional development. If you plan to take private lessons or enroll in coursework specific to a certain instrument, be sure to check with your school administrator regarding potential funding.

Model with Integrity
    Modeling is a useful pedagogical approach, especially with young instrumentalists. However, it is critical that when you model, you are setting an exemplary standard for students. Providing students with inadequate examples will only create problems. To set an exemplary standard for modeling, you may want to consider asking a more experienced student to demonstrate certain skills. For example, when a piece in our orchestra’s repertoire called for tremolo, we had our first chair violinist model the technique, and she effectively demonstrated this for the other students, while offering useful tips she had learned from her private teacher. High-quality online videos may also be useful in helping to communicate or demonstrate a technique that you may not feel secure in showing students yourself. If you want your trumpet section to achieve a warmer tone quality but struggle to achieve the sound to which you aspire, consider other avenues for effectively modeling that tone quality.

Ask for Help
    It is impossible to be an expert at everything, so be forgiving of yourself if you do not always have the answer. Explore options for bringing in a guest artist or co-teacher who can help you with targeted instruction in areas with which you are less familiar. I did this during my first year teaching orchestra to teach the concept of shifting, which I had never taught before. I brought in a guest teacher to lead several lessons on shifting, while I observed her approach and the materials she used. The students benefited greatly from her expertise, as she was able to communicate essential components of technique more effectively than I might have done as a first-timer.
    Similarly, bringing in co-teachers or volunteers to help with small group instruction or sectionals can be invaluable. Many times local private teachers will be happy to come in and assist with a small group sectional, because they see it as a good opportunity to promote their studio. These individuals can provide your students with detailed, instrument-specific insights and advice, while also serving as a model on these instruments. While this type of assistance is useful, it is also important to have a good sense of your guest teachers’ style and approach to music teaching and learning before inviting them into your classroom. Be sure to do adequate research on each guest teacher’s style and reputation, and check references.

Seek Advice on Repertoire
    Directing a different ensemble also means learning new repertoire. Certain guiding principles may apply across ensembles of various types, but instrument-specific considerations add another dimension to repertoire selection. Experienced directors in a given discipline can offer important insights regarding what works – and what does not – for a developing musician in that area. As experienced directors know, you should not rely solely upon what music publishers deem appropriate for a given age group or level.
    Consider browsing other directors’ repertoire libraries, and ask questions about the various pieces they have chosen. For example, you might ask a director: “With which group did you perform this piece, why did you choose this piece, and at what point in the year did you perform it?” Some area directors may also post their libraries or recent concert programs online, which can serve as a useful resource as you learn about repertoire in your new discipline. Furthermore, you may choose to survey older students in your program about the pieces they have played in order to figure out which pieces they enjoyed or found appropriately challenging.

    Directing an ensemble outside your comfort zone can be a challenging but enriching experience. Directors who are given the opportunity to lead a different ensemble should approach their new and unique responsibilities with rigor and determination, seeking ways to enhance their own content-specific understandings and skill sets within the new classroom setting. Achieving success in less familiar music teaching scenarios is possible if you are able to refine your understanding of new musical disciplines, seek out the advice of experts, and maintain a teacher-as-learner mindset.