Close this search box.

Aim to Inspire, A Conversation with David Dunham

Dan Blaufuss | February 2016

    A band director since 1986, Austin, Texas native David Dunham has taught in the Frisco Independent School District since 2000, starting the band program at newly open Clark Middle School. In 2007 half the students at Clark were split off into another new school, Fowler Middle School, and Dunham opened the program there as well. Now in his ninth year at Fowler, he and assistant directors Jenny Denis, Jonathan Adamo, and Rob Parks teach 350 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade band students. The Folwer Percussion Ensemble was the only middle schoool group to perform at PASIC in 2015, and the Fowler Jazz Band was selected as the first winner of the Mark of Excellence National Jazz Honors in 2010. In addition, 493 students in nine years have placed in the All-Region Band. Says Dunham, “One of the keys to success is that we play as much as possible. Students love to play songs. Some nights I have had to run students out of the band hall. They stay late playing Christmas carols in December, or I teach the band a duet and they pair up and just keep going. Students play all the time.”

What are the keys to a great first week of beginning band?
    Students start in sixth grade and for the first year are mostly separated by instrument. We have fun and are extremely active. The first day of school covers rules and regulations, but on the second day of school I teach every beginning class. I teach beginners exactly how I want them to sit and breathe, and the foot tap. The second day’s homework is that they are required to go home and listen to music and tap their foot to it. I give students paper because the parents never believe it.
    The next day we talk about breathing and a natural face, and their assignment is to watch television for 30 minutes, and during commercials think about what your face is doing and whether there is tension. I give them paper for that to convince their parents, too. By this time, band is the coolest subject because where else in middle school is the homework listening to music and watching television?
    All middle school band students are required to fill out practice cards, and this starts for sixth graders on the second week of school. Beginner practice cards start week to week, then every two weeks, and in spring they advance to a card that covers the whole semester. The first week’s practice card includes breathing exercises, saying the first seven letters of the alphabet forward and backward, and teaching parents how to sit properly.

How do you build a strong musical foundation in students’ first year?
    The more we learn in beginning band, the easier seventh and eighth grade band will be. Scales are a huge part of our program. I believe that everything my students accomplish is forged in beginning band, and the scales help the program immensely. We require that they learn Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F, C, G, and D major and a chromatic, but about 65-70% of sixth graders know all twelve major scales by memory with an arpeggio by the end of their sixth grade year.
    As an incentive, many teachers put a chart on the wall and add stickers by a students’ names when they pass something, but we take it one step further. We do have a chart with all the scales and the chromatic, but we give each student a leather strap and award students a bead every time they pass one of the scales. Brass players tie the leather to their instruments, and woodwind players often put in on their case. It is amazing how hard students will work for a bead.
    We are strict on passing off scales. To pass a scale, it must be played from memory in half notes and quarter notes at 80 beats per minute, tongued going up and slurred going down. They also have to play an arpeggieo (1-3-5-8-5-3-1). If it is perfect to the metronome, with no hesitation or cracks, they get a bead. It takes some students two weeks to pass their first scale. The first time the option to pass a scale is available, usually in December, I might only have one student who attempts it, but then once someone passes, the others become motivated to practice. There have been tears when a student comes very close to passing but doesn’t quite make it, but they learn the standard and expectations.
    This system has many benefits. It is a great chance to hear students one on one, because sometimes we teach to the group and students do not get as much exposure playing by themselves as I would like. It also helps students learn to feel a pulse. I have had students struggle with pulse, but when they put time into practicing the scales, it comes to them.
    To those who learn all twelve major scales and arpeggios by memory we give out a gold medal and a chocolate bar. In addition, everyone who does this gets to come to a scale party and has an asterisk next to their name in the spring concert program.

What are other secrets to teaching beginners?
    We develop a culture here. There are better teachers and pedagogues, but I aim to inspire. Someone once told me I could motivate a rock to move. At the beginning, we are relentless about how they sit, how they breathe, and how they hold the instrument. We smile and have a good time, but we are relentless, and we teach like we have a concert the next day, even with beginners.
    I tell students that it takes a lot of multitasking to do what we do. We’re asking you to sit a certain way, to hold the instrument a certain way, to breathe a certain way, to blow a certain way, to tongue, to finger, to tap your foot, to read the note and know its name, to know what button it is, and the duration. Then we add dynamics, articulations, and slurs. I take a bunch of pencils and hold each one up as I list it, and then I try to juggle them all and they immediately fall on the floor. If you always sit correctly or always tap your foot, then we can move on. Otherwise, there is too much for you to juggle.
    Beginning brass players especially want so much to make a sound that they take shortcuts, and we have to tell them not to be satisfied with just making a sound. I can get almost anyone to make a sound on an instrument, but that doesn’t make them a musician. The battle is in getting students to understand that it takes time to sound good; there is no instant gratification in music. You have to focus on the shape of the face, the embouchure, the air. I put a skull and crossbones on the board in my classrooms every year and I call it the three kisses of death for brass players. They are teeth too close, smiling, and poochy lips that stick out. I point up to the board when I need to and the skull and crossbones is a constant reminder for the first six weeks or so.

As a tuba player yourself, what is your approach to starting beginning tuba players?
    Tubas, even at 3⁄4 size, can be unwieldy, and it is difficult to get technique out of beginning tuba players when they are just trying to get enough air moving to support a note for two beats. Also, it can take a long time to get a beginning tuba player down to low Bb. I start tuba players on euphonium, but reading tuba books, until they can get through eighth notes and feel confident. I want to develop tuba players who have a euphonium mentality so they are not afraid of technique.
    We switch over to tubas about two weeks before Thanksgiving. By waiting to move to tubas, students learn on something less unwieldy at first, and they get a few more months to get a little bigger. When students turn in the euphoniums, we spend two days on only the tuba mouthpiece. The third day is a combination of mouthpiece and me holding the tuba so they can make their first sounds on it. On the fourth day, we hold tubas, and after a week they can make a good sound. By the end of the first week, they can go all the way down to Bb and below. We start back at the beginning of the method book and replay everything they learned on euphonium, usually at a pace of two or three pages a day. Starting on tuba books while playing euphonium means they do not have to relearn any fingerings. It goes a lot faster for them.
    When students switch to tubas, I give them clear plastic mouthpieces so I can see their embouchures and make sure they are not collapsing the lips into the cup. When they move enough air consistently, I give them the silver mouthpieces that they were required to buy at the beginning of the year, and which I have been storing. This typically happens around February. As soon as the first student gets his silver mouthpiece, the others start working hard to get theirs, too.

How do you retain students?
    The first time sixth graders get to do anything with the seventh and eighth graders is on a Christmas caroling night in December. Caroling night is chaotic but wonderful. Band parents provide glow sticks, and there are lead vehicles and tailing vehicles designed to keep students safe. One of our band parents is the association president of a nearby neighborhood, and he sends out an email to let people know we are coming.
    We all learn a packet of tunes and then take about 240 students out to play Christmas carols. All of us pick a house and knock on their door. The older students can sightread it. We walk around the neighborhood for an hour, then come back to school to have hot chocolate and cookies. It is community outreach, but the biggest payback is getting all the students to play together. We push the social aspect of band and tell parents of younger students that the older students are who they want their children to be around. We treat band as a safe haven.
    We also have a short beginner concert in February, coincidentally timed to happen just before students pick their class choices for next year. We have students wear their band t-shirt all day, stay after school and rehearse, have pizza, and then play the concert together. At this concert we play a crowd pleaser called Creepy Crawlies and some other fun pieces. At the February concert, the top jazz band plays at the end, and every other year, we have a surprise flash mob of over 200 seventh and eighth graders, who run in from all sides of the gym wearing the same black band t-shirt as the beginners and play the school Fight Song.
    We also get out the step-up horns to show students. The school has a Bach Strad trumpet and some Miraphone tubas, and I let beginners try these. We introduce the bass clarinet then, too. We typically switch some of our better players to bass clarinet and had four of them make the region band this year. We also let the beginner alto saxes play on tenor and baritone saxes. All this gets students even more enthused about band.

How do you introduce students to jazz?
    In January we teach every sixth-grade band member to improvise on the blues scale. I have the Bb blues scale transposed for all instruments posted on my website. We explain how jazz is the first truly American music, then I ask, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a math test and be guaranteed an A on it no matter what you did?” That is how improvisation works. It’s only wrong if you make a bad sound or don’t try.
    We learn by call and response and start by only letting students use the first note of the scale. Eventually this expands to the first two notes. Once students seem comfortable, we turn on an Aebersold Bb blues recording and go around the room, with everyone getting two measures. Whatever they play, we are excited about. The aim is to keep it positive and build self-esteem. Students are pleasers. They want to do well.
    There is also a beginning sixth-grade jazz band that starts after spring break and performs on a concert during the first week of May. Last year there were 55 students in it. Beginning jazz only meets for one hour a week, and we play the same two tunes each year: Peter Gunn, because they get to learn triplets, and James Bond, which is an excellent introduction to swing.
    Jazz band rehearsals start with listening. We have music on when students come it. We love to use the Complete Atomic Basie CD and sometimes play Tower of Power, also. In rehearsals we also work on improvisation through call and response, reminding students that the only way to make a mistake is for nothing to come out. Students should be excited about improvisation, not fearful.
    Jazz is a huge part of our program; we have four jazz bands. One of my assistants, Jonathan Adamo, is a former trombone player with the One O’Clock Lab Band at North Texas and also toured for a year with Tommy Dorsey’s band. For the good of the students, I turned over the three older jazz bands to him, but I love it and am happy I still get to do it with the beginners.

What is your approach to warmups?
   I like warmups to be aural. We primarily use a Remington warmup and different permutations of that. We play an F Remington, then a Bb Remington. The next two will be an F Remington that is just a quarter note to work on entrances and an F Remington that is a dotted half note and a quarter rest to work on releases. Doing everything based on the F Remington means that students can memorize it and not really need anything written out.
     Students also need to play songs. They didn’t get into band just to play lip slurs or whole notes. There are reasons for doing such things, but we play a lot of songs, too. I use an occasional sightreading exercise I wrote called Key Fun. I take a song out of the beginning band book, such as This Old Man, and write it in five keys without a break in between. Students are not allowed to write on the music; they have to just read it straight through.

How much sightreading do you do?
     In Texas, they have the UIL competition sightreading written for the state each year so there is no chance that anyone has seen the sightreading music when they go to contests. We have all the old ones.
    We also have a book of rhythms that we read from. With the top band, I will have them read a group of rhythms and play a scale, changing notes each measure. That gets them multitasking. I’ll work it up to moving to the next scale degree on every note.

How do you motivate students to practice?
    On Fridays, I like to pass out new music as a motivator for students to practice over the weekend. I’ll say, “Oh, by the way, here’s this piece called Star Wars. You might have heard of it.”
    Students are required to take instruments home every day. There is some leeway for students who have difficulty transporting instruments on the bus; I let them practice here before or after school rather than take their instrument home during the week, but they still have to find a way to get it home for weekends. An instrument left at school cannot be practiced.
    We tell students they only need to practice on days that end in Y. Students fill out practice cards. With the exception of the first semester of sixth grade band, practice cards are for a semester at a time, and include important band dates on them. Although students are required to show them to the director once a week, a primary point of the practice cards is as a record for students to see.
    I have found that if students are having a good time, feel self-confident, and think they sound good, practicing takes care of itself, but I tell students that I am like Santa Claus and know when they have been practicing. I sometimes ask students, “Is this etude in three sharps getting any easier?” When they say yes, I respond, “No it’s not. It’s the same music it was two weeks ago. You’re just getting better at it.”

What is the most important goal of your teaching career?
    The most important thing to me is that I was a positive influence on their self-confidence and their self-esteem, and gave them a passion for music. I want them to appreciate music, encourage their children to join band, serve on school boards, and be a patron of the arts. I love when a student goes on to be a band director, but a much larger percentage won’t have anything to do with music after middle school. They will not remember much of what you taught, but they remember how you made them feel.  


* * *

One of the most useful items in the band room:
    A bluetooth receiver has proven to be quite helpful. Mine is a little $40 device that plugs into my speakers and lets me control them from my phone. I can play a recording or turn on my metronome app and have it project through the speakers all without leaving the podium. I also can record from my phone and instantly play it back for my students.