What Should I Teach My Students?

As we prepare lessons for our students regularly we sometimes question ourselves and ask: “What should I be teaching my students?” “What are other people teaching their kids right now?” “Am I on track with other programs?” It doesn’t matter how long you have been teaching, these questions will arise.

Routines and procedures
To begin with, we should all be about teaching the basic routines and procedures we want our students to execute daily in our band rooms. If you have not taken the time to think about exactly what you want your students doing on a daily basis as productive and positive habits, then you should stop right now and do that before continuing on with this article, as nothing else matters until they are in line with your basic band room policies first.

Character traits
Next, I make sure that I am teaching them the basic character traits I want them to display in my program.  These basic character traits must be defined and discussed so you are all at least on the same page.  If students are not displaying the proper social life skills necessary to be on a publicly displayed team then you might be in trouble in the near future as they take to the concert venues.  I don’t leave question marks in my students’ minds of how they should act.  I also don’t assume that everything they need to know to be socially respectable is being taught at home.  Many students come from outstanding and stable homes, but the trend today is that many do not.  Unfortunately, several students are coming from very dysfunctional settings and I believe that as a teacher, it is my responsibility to at least make sure that they understand the basics of proper social etiquette.

Individual and group sound
Additionally, after they know my routines and have a brief daily character lesson, I get to my musical foundations of individual and group sound.  If you have experience with teaching, then you know that these two are very different.  How does one fit their individual sound into their section sound and then the section sound balanced into the full band sound?  It is critical that daily time is spent on developing the individual tone qualities of your players.  All teams are built upon the strength of individuals.  After individual tone production is addressed for at least a couple of sections each day, it is then that I can move on to developing the full band sonority.  Doing all of this does not take long if you have it all planned out and move quickly through the various fundamental tasks.  The most effective way many directors work on full band sound is by finding an ensemble-appropriate chorale.  Starting simple is probably the best way to do this as you can always increase the level of difficulty once the basic sound is developed.

Rhythms
All components of music should be strengthened on a regular basis; therefore, rhythms should also be addressed regularly.  As a basic fundamental to music reading, this can be done with fun exercises or played along with tracks in the background.  Students should be able to do these as a group, sections, and individuals.  Be creative in your approach to this and even offer extra credit for lines of rhythms played correctly.  Make it a challenge and the kids will rise up to your expectations.  Just be sure to start at their level and work your way up.  These are simply the necessary tools of all musicians.

Articulations
Articulations must be addressed as they apply to the various instruments.  If this is not done as a full ensemble, then clarity in full ensemble playing will be left up to each individual player and might be very unproductive.

Dynamics
Dynamics exercises should not be left unattended either. Dynamics are the spice of the ensemble and must be worked on as individuals, sections and full ensemble.  All students should be able to watch the conductor and respond to the various gestures of dynamics as a group so that performances are interesting, varied, and spectacular.  Don’t neglect working on dynamics, or the true music will never be attained.

Phrasing
Phrasing is an art and must be addressed regularly as well. Students are very intuitive and many (if given a chance) can help the ensemble understand where the appropriate place is to breathe as well as how to shape the phrase.  If the music is on their level of ability, many will be able to figure it out.  Challenge them and discuss this in class as a group.  If this art is not addressed, individuals will all come up with their own phrasing and it will most likely not be correct, as they will take the easiest way to play the line.  I tell kids that many times it is difficult to play music correctly, as you must make the music happen on purpose.  You cannot leave it up to chance.

Scales
Scales are the building blocks of all music regardless of genre or style.  Therefore, at least one scale should be studied daily.  In addition to the scales being the foundation, other things such as range, primary and alternate fingerings can be introduced.  Increasing both upper and lower ranges is also a necessary aspect to working on scales.  Various octaves can be expected so the students can perform all necessary range demands for their instruments.  Furthermore, all auditions and many tests include scales as a part of the process.  There are so many reasons why scales are so important for the students. However, if you – the teacher – don’t approach scales with a positive attitude, scales will be just another thing an adult tells a student they must do “because you said so.”  Of course this is not the positive attitude we must have in order to inspire our students to want to learn.  If you can tell me why I need to know something, all of the benefits of it, and how I can apply it in real life settings, I will most likely want to learn it so I can improve.  I would apply these scales or keys into simple chorales, as chorales really encompass so many musical qualities and teaching opportunities.

Quality literature
Quality literature is so important for the development of the musician.  We as teachers and educators must present music to our students in a responsible and thoughtful manner.  The musical selections we put in front of our students and spend many hours on is our curriculum.  We must choose it wisely and purposefully.  Method books are one source by which we can address many of these fundamental components, but quality concert literature is what they are going to perform for the audience, so be sure to give considerable thought to the selections.

Your mission
All of these fundamental components of music are important to the development of the young musician – now your mission as the teacher is to come up with creative plans, inspiration, and a regular schedule of tasks to be addressed during the lessons.  This is where you get to shine and make learning fun.  Your students will be grateful to you for getting them off on a solid foundation in a great field of subject and enjoyment!

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Jim Matthews

About Jim Matthews

Jim Matthews is a veteran band director of 28 years at Jackson Middle School in Titusville, FL. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from Florida State University. His bands continuously receive superior ratings at band festivals. The bands have received the Florida Bandmaster’s Association Five, Ten, Fifteen and Twenty Year Superior Awards for continuous Superior ratings. He is a member of Florida Bandmaster’s Association, Music Educator’s National Conference and Phi Beta Mu – an International Honorary Band Director’s Fraternity. He is also a National Board Certified Teacher in music. For more information, see the About section.
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