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What to Do When You’re Not Sure What to Do

Mary Land | February 2015

    Mary Land’s career includes 29 years of teaching middle school bands and her current role at Young Harris College directing bands and training the music educators of the future. We asked her to discuss her approaches to several common problems faced by new directors on the podium and outside of class. Her solutions combine practicality, hard-earned wisdom, and a healthy dose of compassion. These lessons can help an ensemble at any level.

Fixing the Sound
    When a band just doesn’t sound right, I focus on a unison pitch, even with high school or college players. I tend to use concert F, but any comfortable, easy register will work. I have found that if you give students a model, they can listen and reproduce that sound. I find the member of my ensemble with the best tone to play the pitch. It doesn’t matter what instrument it is. Students can tell a good tone regardless of whether it is a flute player or a trumpet player. I ask the student to play that pitch and then encourage everyone to hum the note back in a call-and-response style. We are creating a model sound for all to follow.
    I then get students to hum and sing the pitch. I hold my fingers on both hands on either side of my face with my fingertips and thumbs closed. Students should hum the pitch when my fingers are closed. When I open my hands I want them to change that hum to singing an ahhh. This eases them into singing, particularly if this is the first time I have done this exercise with them. Many times students feel reluctant to sing a pitch, but when I have them start with a hum, they move right into singing.
    Next, I ask my brass players to take their mouthpieces out and buzz the pitch. The woodwinds still hum or sing as the brass are buzzing. Again, I use call-and-response form with the model tone and the buzzing. Then, we add mouthpieces to the instrument and move on to playing. With the woodwinds, particularly the reed players, if I hear a poor sound, I verify that the embouchure is good by having the clarinets play with mouthpiece and barrel only. I can easily walk through the section and put my hand on the barrel to make sure that it is not wiggling in the mouth and that the embouchure is firm.
    I tell my saxophones to drop the chin, as if the embouchure is pulled by a drawstring from the corner. I tell them to think of saying ohhhh. Then we return to that model player, and everybody plays back to that tone. The next step is to ask everybody to hide their sound in the model tone. This gets students listening carefully. That usually solves the problem.
    Occasionally you hear a band that has a peculiar sound, and you quickly discover a problem with an easy solution. This happened not long ago when I was invited to work with a band and make suggestions. I found that the tubas were playing an octave too high. Once that was adjusted, the rest of the band sound fell into place. Sometimes the problem is as simple as a baritone saxophone player playing a tenor saxophone part. Strange things happen in bands, and you have to figure out the solution. An oboe with a key that is missing a spring can produce a sound that distorts the rest of the band.
    To fix intonation problems, I always use the analogy, particularly with younger players, about a pencil sharpener. If your pencil is sharp, you pull it out of the pencil sharpener. If your point is dull and flat, you push it in. Usually that helps students remember what to do. You cannot hide in someone else’s sound if you are out of tune. It is not a big crime to play out of tune, but it is a humongous crime to keep playing out of tune.

Teaching Rhythms
    I use modeling in class to teach rhythm where I say it and then the players say it. I count it, and they count it. I clap it, and they clap it. They have to have a concept of feeling the beat. Once again, I find a student who can play the rhythm correctly to serve as a model. If there is no one who can play the rhythm, I might play it. I use my phone or iPad to record the rhythm and let players hear it correctly. Then, I ask students to play it and decide if what they played matched the model. If they can distinguish that it is not the same, then they will come closer to understanding the rhythm.
We use a lot of slogans and sayings for specific rhythms that students will remember. They can even take their pencil and write these above a particular measure to get the rhythm correct. One of them is trip-a-let, for triplets. I was taught a syncopated rhythm, before I even learned to count it, as quick-draw, ma-graw. This is pretty simple, but if they say it they get it.
    Solfege is also a great technique for learning rhythms, and I do not think many directors use this method often enough in class. Students understand solfege because they learned it in elementary school. As instrumentalists, we need to build on that early musical experience. It is a logical step in learning.
    Students want to be the heroes of the class, and being used as models for good rhythms or pitches makes students feel good. They go home and practice their parts and come back and volunteer to play.

Improving Style and Dynamics
    Let’s say a piece calls for light and separated playing, and the band sounds heavy and slow, like they are just stomping through the music. To help students, I tell them, “these notes cannot touch.” In these four measures, no notes can touch each other. Let’s say we have a fortepiano. I like to use the word zoom; if you say that word, it starts out strong and immediately disappears. If I have a whole note or a long, sustained note with a fortepiano underneath it, I have students take their pencils and write zoom underneath it. After I have had them say it several times and it is written on the page, students remember it.
    With accented notes, I still want these to be separated, but here I use the phrase “pointed in style.” It needs to project. Depending on the experience level of the group, I use all kinds of analogies. I might say that playing in an accented way is a similar to throwing a dart. It is very pointed in style. If I have a section with an extremely boring style, where everybody is playing about mezzo forte and there is no excitement, I compare this to a person being in the hospital hooked up to a monitor with a flat line going across. Students love that and they say, “Oh, that means the person is dead.” I respond that this is how they are playing.
    We talk about adding life and vitality, increasing dynamics and intensity to produce a blip on the monitor. I tell them there are more ways than just volume to increase interest. We actually nudge the tempo up a bit and then back off and bring the volume down. Sometimes there are notes that have to be airlifted, and I use the analogy that the notes should evaporate like a puff of smoke. Don’t slap at them, don’t stomp them, just let it be a puff of smoke that evaporates.
    We might be playing through a piece of music and suddenly it sounds like flutes accompanied with a little bit of band. I remind the flutes that their register is way above everybody else and will sound louder. I ask the flutes to darken their sounds and blend in with each other. Just because it is a high register, does not mean that you need to play it loudly. Flutists can still play softly, even in the high registers.

Marking It Down
   I hear so many directors say, “Pick up your pencil and mark that,” but they are not giving enough details about what to mark. Be specific – use your board in the room and draw a staff on it. If you want them to mark that F# on it, put an F on the staff and show them properly how to draw the sharp sign. Too many times, students pick up that pencil and circle something. They have no idea what the circle means the next day, much less at a concert. I tell my students they don’t have enough time when they are reading through a piece during a concert to read a novel. Try to use symbols and not so many words when marking a part. If there is a Bn, students should put a natural sign in front of it. Do not write anything above it.
    I learn quite a bit about my teaching when collecting music after a concert. I examine how students marked their music. When I see a whole measure or specific notes circled, I wonder what it meant. If I want students to play in a separated way, they should take a pencil and draw a straight line between those notes because those notes do not touch. If there is a crescendo that is not going well, take your pencil and make the crescendo much more bold on your paper, and then put a p in front of that crescendo because the brain will think to start it a bit softer and then the crescendo will be more effective. I can make accent marks bolder with a pencil. If I want to show places where I don’t want students to breathe, I use the symbol of a staple. “Staple measures 2 and 3 together.” Students get that.
    Some students resist marking their parts and say that they will remember the Bn. I will tell them, “You might remember it, but you might be sharing the music with someone who forgets their music on the night of a concert, and they may not remember it, so just mark it anyway.” It is always safer to mark potential problems. Sometimes I show students how I mark my part, and they see that I do exactly what I ask them to do.

Keeping Students Engaged
    Directors should know a piece top to bottom before beginning to teach it. You are the expert in the room. Do not learn the music with them. There are recordings of everything, even newly published pieces. You should also know your performers and understand where the clarinets or trumpets might struggle with a section of a piece. The best plan is to have that difficult section written out for everyone to play. I like to write up an extra sheet and pass it out. In my teaching I call it a lead sheet, and this approach requires every student to learn this tricky little part. If you are planning properly, you can even distribute that lead sheet out before you pass the music out, and the entire band can learn this phrase that one section is going to struggle with. Let’s say there is an obbligato flute part and the flutes are having trouble. Write it out for the whole band to learn. When you hear the tubas and trombones nailing that technical part, you can bet that the flutes are going to go home and learn it. It is a great motivator.

Calming Angry Parents
    I joked to some of my college students not long ago that it should be a law that you cannot teach until you are a parent yourself. One of my mantras is to teach every student the way I would want my children to be treated. Sometimes, information reaches home in a confused form, and the parent wants an explanation. I stop and let the angry parent speak. Hopefully, it is behind closed doors. I resist the temptation to interrupt and clarify something. When I respond, I always start with “I completely understand. If my child came home and told me the same thing, I would be so upset. That is not what happened. I will give you all the details.” Then I invite the student to come into the meeting and ask them exactly what happened. I would try to explain why I said what I did. Usually this clears up the problem.
    The hardest thing is to avoid becoming defensive. Defusing the situation in privacy while keeping your cool is the best approach. If I made a mistake and blew it, I don’t have any problem admitting that I was wrong and apologizing to the parent or student.

Preventing Dropouts
    I always take it personally and feel that I have failed a student who wants to drop band. It tends to haunt me for quite a while. I try to figure out what happened. It took me years  to discover that people drop activities for millions of reasons. Often, money is a factor. You have to find out, without appearing to harass the student, what caused them to leave. It could be that their parents can’t afford the instrument, or the student just isn’t good on an instrument and feels embarrassed. They may be a star in academics but feel less successful in music. Maybe you put them on the wrong instrument. It could be that the student is having a bad day, and the one thing they can control is whether they continue in band or orchestra. They have to go to math but they do not have to go to a music class.
    Students in school are very sensitive. A funny comment on the wrong day can be taken as a personal insult. The teacher has to be able to sit down with students and have a mature conversation and figure out why they want to quit. Frequently problems can be resolved to keep students from quitting, but sometimes it is best for all if they do drop. When students come to me and we decide that it is best for them to pursue other interests, I always try to end it with the phrase “I will sign the form, but you have to come by and say hi to me one day a week.” That ends the conversation with students knowing that I care about them and am not mad because they are dropping. Students need to know that it is not all about your band, it is about the individuals. I teach my college students now that students are not going to care about an ensemble until they realize how much you care about them individually. If they are also on the soccer team, find a way to go to a soccer game. They will think the world of you because you went to something else that they enjoy.