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Lessons from Beginners

Anthony Pursell | March 2019

    Finding effective teaching strategies can often be a challenge for those who teach beginning and intermediate band. Working with classes of mixed instrumentation, including combinations of different woodwind, brass, and percussion during the same class period can exacerbate these challenges. This is especially true with the beginning band class, as the combination of mixed instruments and student dependency may often overwhelm the director. To assist with these challenges, the director should reach out to parents for help.
    Shinichi Suzuki was noted for promoting many pedagogical ideas to make students better musicians. Some of these suggestions include simply surrounding the child with good music to help influence student understanding. Another component that many string music educators are familiar with is to include the parents to supervise and participate in the child’s music learning, especially at home. Band directors might find some benefit with this method, which will provide benefits not only to the student who is trying to learn the instrument but also to the relationship between that student and their parent.
    My son, Timothy, came home at the end of his fifth-grade year with a note from the local band director recommending that he be allowed to participate in band next year on bassoon. The note mentioned that while my son scored highly on his first attempt on saxophone and trumpet, the director was especially impressed with his interest and proficiency on bassoon.
    Even as a music educator, my first reaction was a bit reserved when I read that. During my undergraduate years I took all of the methods classes required for music education majors, but I was never required to learn bassoon because of a shortage of available instruments. Needless to say, I was concerned that I might not be able to assist my son as I had originally hoped to do.
    To overcome this deficiency, I borrowed one of my school-owned instruments to begin learning how to play it. Within less than a minute I realized how cumbersome assembling the bassoon was. Memories of my woodwind techniques professor warning us about assembling woodwind instruments and the dangers of bending keys, especially when joining two joints together, we quickly remembered. Before I could break something, I shut the case. I decided to bring the instrument home and ask my son to help me assemble it.
    When I brought my instrument home my son’s first reaction was that we were going to play duets together. I had to remind him that my proficiency was not exactly up to par with his (he had a few lessons over sumer before starting sixth grade) and that any duets that we might eventually play would probably be reserved to his father playing poor sounding drones to his quarter notes and half notes. Nonetheless, Timothy almost immediately asked if we could play together. Noting his interest, I agreed and promptly opened the case. My fear of putting the instrument together returned, but this time I asked him to show me how he did it, as I was curious to see what he had learned.

    I was impressed with my son’s pedagogy as he explained not only how to put the instrument together, but also some of the concerns with the instrument’s assembly. Once the instrument was put together, he then disassembled the instrument and told me it was my turn. I remember giving him a sarcastic smirk but then realized he was modeling the importance of correct instrument assembly, including some of the concerns when handling the instrument.
    Once I was able to assemble the instrument, which took me a bit longer than it did my son, I asked him to show me how to get a sound from the reed. Although I did have experience with oboe, I wanted to have my son explain and demonstrate the steps that were necessary to achieve this. His explanation was followed by a short demonstration. Afterward, I followed his lead and produced a sound. While I was not overly impressed with the sound that I produced, my son was encouraging me similar to the way I encourage my students when they accomplish a task for the first time.
    As the lesson progressed, I realized that not only was my ability to play bassoon improving, my son’s understanding of the fundamentals needed to play bassoon was also being enhanced because of his ability to teach what he had just learned himself. That summer I received a half dozen lessons from my son, and I can proudly say that I was able to perform an F major scale and accompany my son by playing drones along with some of the exercises from his method book.
    While not every parent will have the ability to have a second instrument available for their child to teach them as my son did with me, finding a way to be engaged in the process may still be possible. For parents who do not have this ability, securing a second mouthpiece or an additional pair of mallets may be possible. This would allow the parent the ability to participate in sessions that are led by their child. Having the child teach the parent allows the student to not only recall those fundamentals needed to teach their parents, but it can reinforce good habits for the student musician themselves. During my summer lessons, I would often show my lack of understanding of some fingerings, especially when a new fingering was introduced, and my son would not only demonstrate using his instrument he would also mold my fingers to the correct position on my instrument.  Parents who may lack complete musical understanding can take these opportunities and learn from their child. In these cases, the benefits obtained are reinforcing good habits of the child on their instrument, but also strengthening the relationship be­tween the parent and child. For many parents, including myself, a greater appreciation and understanding of their child’s learning a complicated instrument was also accomplished.
    During the school year, directors can continue to enhance these experiences by inviting parents to attend a class and demonstrate a miniature private lesson. They can also expand the curriculum to having the child teach music- and rhythm-reading. Although the benefits are greater if there are like instruments in a single class setting, the suggested method may provide the director with much-needed support, especially during the very early period of a child’s music instruction.