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An Interview with Darcy Williams

Dan Blaufuss | May 2019

    Darcy Williams, the daughter of parents who met in their beginning trombone class, started her music education training in her father’s band hall, where she would spend afternoons learning to play any instrument she could find. Says Williams, “It took a lot of the mystery out of the other instruments. It was interesting to me to watch my friends play trombone or oboe, and then take what I knew about the flute and figure out how to apply it to some other instrument. Having that background of figuring things out on my own gave me a great deal of confidence. She has been the head director at Florence W. Stiles Middle School in Leander, Texas since it opened in 2012. In July 2015, the band placed third in the TMEA class CC Honor Band Contest. In December 2015, they performed at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. Williams is also the author of Teaching Rhythm Logically and Pacing for Success: Beginner Band, and she also wrote Count Me In: A Comprehensive Approach to Rhythm with Brian Balmages.

How do you approach rhythm with your students?
    Our school district does not require music at the elementary level. Although a performing arts class is required, it does not have to be music, and one of my biggest feeder schools has a theater teacher but not a music teacher. Students who come from this school have no background of note reading. We start rhythm at the most basic level with the aim to teach it logically and in a way that allows students to draw conclusions themselves. It is easier to retain information when you understand how something works. 
In the first band class of the year, we learn to tap a foot with the metronome. We talk about how the foot going up and down is dividing the beat, and that the beat is what divides music. I explain that each of the beats is called a quarter note and show students how a quarter note looks. We also talk in terms of pulses. A pulse is when the foot moves either up or down, so one beat is two pulses. This gets students subdividing from the beginning, and then when they finally learn eighth notes, someone invariably comments that we have been thinking in terms of eighth notes the whole time.
    The information given on the first day is basic enough that any student who has never heard of a quarter note before will feel comfortable in that first class, and I give students enough information that when they come back to class the next day they can start drawing conclusions about the next steps, which are half and whole notes.

How do you use algebra to teach dotted notes?
    I used to teach dotted notes the same way everyone else does – by teaching students what a dot meant and then going through them. In my seventh or eighth year of teaching I accidentally discovered that using the note as a mathematical concept is what confuses students. Even if they understand how rhythm works, they have a hard time grasping the note having a mathematical value. 
    I gave the usual explanation of how a dot adds half the value to a note, but rather than talk about a dotted half or quarter note, I asked students, “What if we had a note called a dotted four?” I drew a 4 with a dot after it. Underneath it I started a mathematical equation: 4 + _ = _. I asked students what half of four was, and they would tell me two. I ask them to add four and two, which is easy math for sixth graders. We determine that a dotted four gets six beats, which is twelve pulses. We try it with other fictional notes, such as a dotted 8, 80, or 1260. I purposely include at least one ridiculous number, because the sillier and the more ridiculous it gets the easier it is for students to remember. They get a kick out of trying to do this math in their heads.
    The last fictional note I use is a dotted 2. Half of two is so easy that even the students who are apprehensive about figuring a dotted 1260 in their heads are quick to volunteer that half of two is one and two plus one is three, meaning that a dotted 2 gets three beats or six pulses. Then I ask, “What if we replace the 2 with a half note?” It clicks for everybody, and now they understand the math behind dotted half notes. Then later, when we introduce dotted quarter notes, they remember that a dot adds half the value of the note rather than a beat. Five minutes of basic math problems has rid my program of students who think a dot adds an extra beat to a note, regardless of which note is dotted.

What are the keys to recruiting beginners?
    I know I have the luxury of teaching at a big school. That said, it has been a long time since I have tried to convince any and all students that they should join band. I used to do that when I first started teaching. I would make sure every kid thought that band was going to be the most fun thing they did in their entire life but said little about what band actually was. The result was that numerous students signed up for band, but we would discover together that they were not interested in the reality of band. Band takes work. It takes a lot of work. If you cast a wide net, you end up with students who are not interested in practicing every night or the detail work that it takes to succeed. So, we were getting all these kids and they were flooding our classes. Some of these students discovered quickly that band wasn’t their cup of tea. Others did not drop the class in time and developed a poor attitude toward a class they did not want to take but could not get out of. When you have one student who is a stick in the mud, it affects the others.
    I started recruiting extremely honestly. I take the Honors Band to elementary schools in December, and although we play some Christmas songs, we also played Amparito Roca, because I want students to be just as excited about a piece like that as they would be about Sleigh Ride. It is obvious that the Honors Band students are having a good time, but it is also a serious demonstration of serious music.
    In February parents come to the school to hear the spiel of why they should sign up for the electives we offer. Our elective teachers talk about how fun it is and how there is no homework or cost to take the class. I always make sure I am last in line to talk. After parents have heard everyone else, I say, “Not only does my class cost money, but we are going to work your kids to the bone, and they are going to be frustrated. However, by the end of the year, they are going to love every single minute of it, because there is nothing more fulfilling than knowing that you got good at something that is difficult.” I talk about the worth of band and the extra and wonderful life skills, such as confidence and teamwork that come from the class, but I tell parents that at its core, we are going to teach their children how to play an instrument, which is an awesome skill. We want students to have fun and know about the great perks that come with the class of the band, but band is also an awesome class on its own, and the hard work is part of what makes it awesome.

Why do you split beginner classes by ability?
    Our beginner classes are initially separated by instrument when possible, although some classes, such as low brass, are mixed instrumentation. We eventually also split some beginning classes by ability. This is controversial for some, but it helps us meet students where they are. Some students pick things up quickly and can handle a faster pace, while others need to move a little slower to be successful. Students do not want to feel like they are at the bottom of the class. When students are split by ability, some students who would have been in the bottom half of the full class are now in the top half of their class, and they gain confidence and independence from this. These are students who might otherwise have dropped band at the end of the semester because they are struggling to keep up. Instead, we have a place for them to succeed. Being successful is fun on whatever level it is.
    We do not set a date for splitting a beginner class, and we do not split every class every year. Usually flutes, clarinets, and low brass split because these are the largest classes. We have never split horns. We split classes when it becomes obvious that the students are no longer all on the same level and this is inhibiting some students, whether it is keeping some from moving as fast as they are able or keeping students so lost that we are on the verge of losing them. Sometimes a split happens in mid-October, other times it occurs as late as the middle of the second semester.
    I end up having to spend a decent amount of time creating ways for the top players in a class to show off while still being able to teach that class so everyone can succeed. One game students love is called Mess Up, Drop Out. I have students play a song at q = 72 and then I ask everyone who played it perfectly to raise a hand. We raise the tempo by ten clicks, and the students who played it perfectly get to try it at the faster tempo, and we keep going until everyone is out or until I decide we have spent enough time on it. I also sometimes ask for volunteers to come up and perform in front of the class and let top students show off that way. It has been a great alternative to trying to push more material on a class in which not everyone is ready for it.

As you move students into seventh and eighth grade, how do you choose who plays piccolo, bass clarinet, and tenor and baritone saxophones?
    I believe that some people have the right lips for piccolo and some do not. My sister is the perfect example. She was a good flute player but amazing on piccolo. She had the ear and the ability to get a warm, beautiful sound on piccolo and made All-State as a piccoloist. It is such a present instrument that I don’t try students out on piccolo unless they want to. It takes high confidence to be that prominent, and if you do not want to be heard, piccolo is the wrong instrument for you. I will lend a piccolo to a student to practice at home for a couple days and then have them play the same audition etude the played last spring. I had my two eighth graders interested in piccolo this year, but one did not enjoy it at all. The other works hard to be accurate and play with a clear sound.
    Bass clarinet is a difficult instrument to place someone on. Usually I offer it to a student who has the right brain for Honors Band but struggles with some aspect of playing the Bb clarinet. These students are smart, driven, and might have lungs of steel. Sometimes a switch to bass clarinet works perfectly and what would be a perpetual third clarinetist becomes an awesome bass player, but sometimes the switch does not. I am unsure why.
    For the large saxophones, our lesson teacher gives every student, even the ones who do not take lessons, an opportunity to try tenor and baritone saxophone. What I have learned from our saxophone teacher is that success on one size of saxophone does not guarantee success on a different size. The saxophone teacher gives me recommendations for each student, and we offer some of them the opportunity to switch. In some cases, I will use the prospect of moving to a more advanced band as a reason to switch: “If you will play tenor, I can have a spot for you in Honors Band, but if you want to stay on alto, you are likely to be placed in the Symphonic Band.” Sometimes the student switches; other times they prefer to stay on alto.

How have you reduced the number of unhappy students and parents after ensemble placement auditions?
    We send home a course expectation guide that describes each band and clearly defines the expectations of all three of our seventh/eighth grade bands. It covers everything down from sectional attendance and extra rehearsals to whether students are required to try out for district band. We describe it to the kids as:

    If you felt really good about book one, then Concert Band is the perfect place for you. Concert Band is the natural extension of book one. Everything you will play in Concert Band next year is going to feel comfortable, and you are going to be successful on that. 
    Some of you started working on book two. If you felt pretty comfortable with book two and you really enjoyed that kind of difficult song and the sixteenth notes that got thrown in there sometimes, Symphonic Band might be a great place. The music is going to be a little more challenging. If that thought excites you, Symphonic Band is going to be a great place for you.
    If you got so excited when you got book two that you went home and started teaching it to yourself, Honors Band is the right place for you, because in Honors Band our songs are so long and there is so much music that you have to be literate enough to go home and teach yourself. If that sounds exciting and easy for you, then Honors Band is probably the ensemble you should audition for.

    Because we talk about it with the students, we make sure that they understand that all three of our bands are extremely successful. There is no such thing as the bad band, only the most appropriate ensemble for each student. We get these thoughts in students’ heads early, so they can talk realistically about where they want to be. There are always a few students who should be auditioning for Honors Band but have low confidence. For these, we send an email home or you pull them aside to say, “You’ve done such a good job. I really think you should audition for Honors Band.” 
    Parents and the students have to check off which of the bands they are interested in auditioning for and sign at the bottom to indicate that they understand what the expectations are for each group. Having to turn that in allows you to have those conversations with the kids before they get upset because they didn’t get the band they wanted. Since we have started doing this we have had far fewer parent calls or emails, or upset students. 

You have your students fill out practice sheets, but you tried something new with that this year. What did you do?
    Seventh and eighth graders in the Honors, Symphonic, and Concert Bands have typically been given assignments and tracked how many minutes they spent practicing them. However, earlier this year I realized my students were not spending their practice time as productively as they could when my trumpet players told me one day in a sectional that they had put in great deal of work on the etude they could already play and little to none on the one they were struggling with because the latter was less fun to play.
    I redesigned the Honors Band practice sheet to look more like a page from a music journal. To start, students are responsible for setting a daily goal, such as preparing an etude at quarter note = 60. This can be anything, but they have to notate it on the sheet. Students then have to list what fundamentals they worked on each day and how long they spent on each, because while their goal is the main focus of their practice, it is not the only thing they should do. On the back of the practice sheets every instrument has a set of fundamentals that I would want them to work on, along with suggested tempos. Options for clarinetists might include long tones at quarter note = 70 and register drills at quarter note = 92. The final section of the sheet is where they note what music they worked on. This can be band music, audition music, or something from private lessons, but students have to tell me why they chose to work on it and how much time they spent on it.
    After two weeks of using the new sheets, I asked the Honors Band students how many of them found that the new sheet had changed how they practiced. Almost every hand went up. The first thing students noticed was that before the new sheets they rarely spent more than three minutes on fundamentals, and there were some fundamentals they never practiced before. In addition to increasing how much time they spent on the basics, having to explain why they chose the music they did to practice led them to make wiser choices.
    I am unsure whether I will keep the forms all year or let students revert to the old practice logs. This is a college-level assignment, and I do not know if having students notate this level of detail daily is sustainable. I might revamp it or only use it during region band tryouts. It is probably not the right choice for my Symphonic and Concert Bands, though.

What advice would you give a new teacher? 
    Until students know that you want what’s best for them and want them to do well, it will not matter how high your expectations are. Those expectations aren’t going to be met until students know you care about them. At both of the places I taught at before coming to Stiles, the students were still loyal to the previous directors. You have to tread lightly that first year rather than immediately reshape every aspect of the program, but stick with it, and work to win students over. When they know that you care, you can be extremely demanding. 
    Set clear expectations. Your students want to please you, and if they know what you expect from them, most of the time they will do it. Beginners especially want you to love them, and when you show them exactly what to do, beginners will try their best to do that. Some students will struggle, but their struggles might have nothing to do with band. Keeping that in mind helps you shape how you teach.    

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    Leander, Texas is a suburb of Austin and one of the state’s fastest-growing cities. Stiles Middle School is one of eight in the district and is named after Florence Wallace Stiles, a longtime Leander resident and retired teacher who has made numerous contributions to the City of Leander. There are 380 of the school’s 1,388 students in band in grades six through eight, with sixth graders separated into like-instrument classes and seventh and eighth graders split by ability in to three bands.