Five Common Problems Teaching “Simple” Band Music

11 Sep

By Si Millican

In most of the courses I teach in the instrumental music education area at the University of Texas at San Antonio, my students are required to teach their peers in a series of microteaching episodes. Some of these teaching episodes require my students to engage in teaching tasks such as teaching a rote song, a line from a beginning-band method book, or to rehearse a portion of a full-ensemble work. Often my students are surprised when they find that even their experienced colleagues struggle with seemingly “simple” elements in the music.

What trips up these experienced musicians as they perform “easy” rote tunes or read beginner-level lines? In my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that young band students (and even experienced performers playing “secondary” instruments) often encounter the following issues:

  1. Skips are more difficult than steps. Since many young players often initially learn to play adjacent notes that are intervals of a second apart (C to D  to E for instance), changing the fingering pattern to include skips (C to E) poses a “finger familiarity” problem. Even if all of the notes in a given tune are sufficiently “learned” in isolation or in a familiar, step-wise sequence,  putting these notes in a different order often causes significant difficulty for students.
  2. Leaps are more difficult than skips or steps. Just as the difficulty level increases when we move from steps to skips, leaps (intervals of a fourth or greater) are challenging partially because that they present familiar notes in a different order than we’re used to. Leaps can also present problems in that notes further than a third apart  often represent a significant change in the length of tubing (and thus the resistance of the instrument to the embouchure/air combination). Brass players may also skip partials in the overtone series when the leaps move across leaps involving nonadjacent harmonics.
  3. Reversing the order of notes is often challenging. Playing the notes Bb, C, and D should be just as easy as playing D, C, and then Bb, right? Many young teachers think this is the case, but any pattern change is likely to present at least a little bit of an executive-skill challenge. Often coming down is more challenging than ascending scale-type passages.
  4. Changes of direction are often challenging. Once students are used to playing scale-type patterns, any change in direction often disrupts the mechanical flow of muscle memory. Often the transition from upward movement back down (particularly when accompanied by a skip or a leap) is a portion of the music that requires additional attention.
  5. The three most troublesome rhythmic challenges are long notes, rests, and tied notes. I borrowed this piece of wisdom from my great friend and public-school pedagogue Mark Nalley. He determined that most of the trouble his less-experienced ensembles encountered when sightreading involved long notes, rests, and tied notes. While most young teachers think that the “fast notes” will give their students the most trouble, quite often it is these seemingly “easy” rhythmic issues that confound their students’ playing. These three elements all involve students failing to count carefully or to give the notes or rests their full time values as they perform.

By simply being aware of these potential problem issues, teachers can help their students navigate even the “simplest” of tunes with greater ease.

What are some other common “simple” elements that trip up your students? What ways do you address these problems? Feel free to share your ideas and tips.