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The Method on the Method

In the future, I hope to bring you blogs from other successful educators. For this first attempt, I want to talk about method books. Often the most important decision a band director makes (especially inexperienced ones) is made on the spur of the moment or without adequate thought and preparation. Often, they will simply use whatever book had been used in the past, basing the selection on the advice of a music store representative or, even worse, a band director whose success had been inadequate to the job. There are some cogent reasons behind the decision and, since French Creek Publications has no plans to deal with lesson books, I can discuss this with objectivity and the hindsight of a thirty-plus year career in music education.

Band directors would do well to consider how the students are to be taught when making this selection. There are four traditional methods of instruction: 1. Private lessons, 2. Homogenous small group lessons, 3. Heterogenous small group instruction, and 4. Full band (or orchestra) instruction.

The first of these will allow a teacher to tailor instruction to each student and proceed at a pace best suited to that child. Method books for individual lessons abound, as do supplemental materials. The second, small groups of like instruments (all clarinets, for instance), can use the same materials as do private lessons if the instructor desires. In a school setting, it may be best to use the same method used for all students. The third grouping for lessons, mixed groups of non-similar instruments, poses the majority of problems for teachers and will be discussed separately in the next paragraphs. Using a method book for everyone at once will be discussed at in the same paragraphs, but it should be noted that there are many warmup books of excellent quality that may serve the purpose, particularly at advanced grade levels.

Once the method of instruction has been determined (usually by your administration, unfortunately), look at several method books, investigating the following criteria:

  1. Pacing (balance between repetition and new material. Younger students need more repetition, older students need a faster pace. Some method books excellent for fourth grade students will bore older beginners and lead to a higher dropout rate and subsequent lack of progress.
  2. Opportunities for duets and divisi playing. An unfortunate characteristic of many school band programs is an inability of students to play independent lines and parts. The playing of duets is a first-rate method of teaching independence.
  3. Good and frequent harmonizations of material. Play along with the class using a keyboard. This way they learn balance and intonation without being forced to tune unisons for hours.
  4. Clarity and ease of reading fingering charts, graphics, text, and music. If you place in their hands something too difficult to transfer, they’re not going to bother!
  5. Distraction. Often, textbook writers let the graphics and color get in the way of what you’re trying to teach. Your job is hard enough without your students being distracted by loud colors, lengthy stories, and oversized music fonts with letters inside of the noteheads. Opt instead for the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid).
  6. Frequent opportunities for the teaching and use of chromatic fingerings. Make certain there is adequate reinforcement of these skills! (This and a lack of duets are two of the most neglected items in most methods).
  7. Taped accompaniments, CD play-alongs, online play-alongs. These can be a blessing or a curse. Opt for true accompaniments over unison playing. The long-term benefits for your students is much greater with that option.

Concentrate your efforts on the clarinet and horn books. Look for specifics as outlined below.

Clarinet book:

  1. Alternate fingerings!!!!!
  2. Ample exercises in the chalumeau register. You can add the register key and have your students playing over the break before they realize what they’re doing. It makes it much easier when you teach the actual notes later in the year.
  3. Exercises that allow students to cross the break in descending patterns. It’s easier this way!
  4. Over the break at the semester break. This is particularly true of sixth grade and older beginners. Within a few weeks of the semester break (either side of it), you’ve got to have the players crossing the break.
  5. Do not allow the method writer, the book’s publisher, your music store representative, or Joe Schmoe off the street to determine whether your students are using the correct strength reed or have correct posture! If the pictures or recommendations are really bad, the rest of the book probably isn’t any better. Beginning clarinet mouthpieces are designed, by the way, to be used with a reed of 2 ½ or 3 strength. Anything softer does not allow development of the embouchure and discourages progress by yielding an unsatisfactory tone quality. Start with a 2 ½…you won’t regret it.

Horn book:

  1. Range
  2. Range
  3. Range – yeah, this is kind of important. Most books start by showing octaves. This usually confuses the daylights out of youngsters. You might try this: use a trumpet book! Fourths and fifths are not dissonant intervals, so they can play along with other students just fine and the range is perfect!
  4. Lip slurs. I don’t know why so many methods neglect these. ALL of your brass players need these in their books. Of course, if they’re in the horn book, they will be in all of the others.

For actual instruction for your percussion students, NONE of the standard method books do an adequate job. They’re good enough to keep players occupied during band and orchestra but for actual instruction look to the many fine percussion methods that are available.

Once you’ve decided on a method, LEARN it inside and out. Don’t be afraid to take things out of sequence. There are all kinds of things you can do to make the book instruction more interesting if you know the series well. I’ve had students playing bitonally (and in tune!) in the first semester, taught alternate fingerings at the first lesson (first and sixth position F on trombone), and had clarinet players playing over the break in the first six weeks of instruction (imagine their surprise when learning third space C that they had already played it, making it easy, not difficult). One final word. If you’re looking for the method book to inspire and motivate, you’re looking in the wrong place. That’s YOUR job. The book is to allow them opportunities to learn and lead them to success. With the right method book and an inspiring teacher, they WILL be successful.

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