Teaching Journal 4.26.18

# of Students Taught: 8

Ages: 3 frosh, 3 juniors, 2 seniors

Instrument:  6 tenor trombones, 2 bass trombones

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; etudes, recital repertoire, jazz etudes and lead sheets

Fundamentals covered: clean, fluid articulation that matches shape of line and doesn’t halt airflow, tuning with drones, improvisation.

Memorable moment: Been musing about how best to redirect a student’s attention away from ‘how do I tongue properly’. Other teachers have called attention to the technical problems they perceive her having, and thus she’s been hyper focused on the ‘how’ and it’s getting in her way even more. Tonight I directed her attention back to the ‘what’- clean, fluid articulation is a product of a clear intention, good airflow, and solid time. We worked on her solo (which has lots of sixteenth notes) by just playing the rhythm on one note, hearing the direction of the line and delivery of the phrase, and then went back to the written notes.

Takeaways: She noticed a feel difference, and I noticed a sound difference. On her end, it felt easier to communicate the line when the air was moving freely and she didn’t hear as many cracks or need to take as many breaths. On my end I heard a much crisper phrase, with good musical direction and improved articulation to boot! A good reminder, again, that putting focus on a student’s technical challenges will only cause them to overanalyze and struggle to move past. Teaching requires us to distract them from this and put their focus back on the solution.

Teaching Journal 4.24.18 & 4.25.18

# of Students Taught: 9

Ages: 2 6th graders, 4 frosh, 1 junior, 1 senior, 1 adult learner

Instrument:  7 tenor trombones, 1 baritone, 1 tuba

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; etudes, recital repertoire, band music, chamber music

Fundamentals covered: playing as a chamber group, composition, stylistic interpretation of non-western music written in a western context, rhythms

Memorable moment: I coached a little chamber group today of frosh low brass players. They were working on a Schubert piece that they hadn’t really dived into yet. We started playing and while the first couple of notes were all unison, once it changed to chords it became a bit mushy (‘well, that was a hot mess’- one of the students). We worked on hearing what the composer and arranger had intended for that moment, and why it was so effective coming out of a unison line. We tuned up the chords and identified the important voices (all of them, in this case, but the first part lead the motion). By the end of the period we had a good little group going!

Takeaways: Chamber music is an important tool for developing not only our ability to play together but to refine our ears as well. We need to be ready to hear how our part fits into a smaller group, and not get lost or timid about making sure all the pieces fit together. It can be easy to hide in a big ensemble, but chamber music means you have to bring confidence to the table.

Teaching Journal 4.22.18

# of Students Taught: 4

Ages: 1 frosh, 1 soph, 2 juniors

Instrument:  3 tenor trombones, 1 baritone

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; audition music, etudes, recital repertoire

Fundamentals covered: polishing an audition piece, good time & rhythm, direction of lines

Memorable moment: I have a student who’s attendance at MN All State makes him eligible to audition for the All National honor groups, and we’ve been working on his etude for a few weeks now. He’s getting ready to record this week and send in his tape, and so today we really dug in on the finer points of a good performance. What I found most interesting was that, for as much musical flair as he gave the piece, his time was not ideal- a tendency to rush- and he didn’t seem to notice the places where it held him back. We spent the lesson with the metronome going, getting very accurate rhythm and tempo delivery in ever section. By the end he was playing so fabulously- all of the musical work he’d done now had room to breathe and remain under his control.

Takeaways: Good time is not an innate skill that everyone is born into. Although some might have an easier time keeping strict tempo or matching the beat, most of us work very hard to develop our timekeeping skills and must maintain adherence to that practice for our whole musical lives. I’m working on a theory that most of our musical problems stem from a tempo or rhythmic error. Music is an art that moves forward in time, and without accurate delivery, we change the meaning of the piece we’re performing. We also totally destabilize our brain’s ability to connect phrase to rhythm if our time is bad, and our brain can’t control the result if it’s uncertain where the line has gone. Lesson: put that metronome on. Listen to it. Count, clap, sing, before playing. Take it slow to decipher trickier rhythms. Make sure everything you hear is communicated in a musical fashion that makes sense to you.

Teaching Journal 4.19.18

# of Students Taught: 8

Ages: 2 frosh, 1 soph, 4 juniors, 1 senior

Instrument: 7 trombones, 1 bass trombone

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; jazz reading & improv, contest pieces, duets

Fundamentals covered: clean articulation of phrases, tuning with drones, sight-reading

Memorable moment: Never let it be said that I think I’m a flawless teacher. Today I realized in the moment that I was giving a student misguided advice and had to point out the error and help him get back on the right track (which he was on fine before I meddled). We were playing a jazz etude with some scoops in the middle of the phrase and every so often the amount of scoop he was giving it was putting him behind on the next part, so I said ‘start that scoop closer to the slide position you’re going to’, which is fine, I guess, if you haven’t just spent 5 minutes speeding up the whole phrase and are still at the slow tempo you started at. But introducing a new idea, particularly a technical change, at a faster tempo, goofs up your brain. He had trouble with the notes again and was frustrated.

 

Takeaways: I immediately apologized and explained where I went wrong. We went backward a few metronome speeds and tried again, this time listening for the correct timing with scoop so his technical delivery could match the music he wanted to make.

I’ve been kicking myself all day though! I should know better by now. Bloop.

 

Teaching Journal 4.17.18

# of Students Taught: 7

Ages: 1 6th grader, 2 frosh, 2 soph, 2 seniors

Instrument: 2 baritones, 4 tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; audition repertoire, composition and improvisation, etudes

Fundamentals covered: direction of phrase- ‘ear on the prize’; loud volumes in all registers, making more out of musical ideas, airflow

Memorable moment: Today I had a student ‘make a match’, as Jan would say, in such an immediate and gratifying way that I’m not sure we’ll being going backwards anytime soon. His tune for major scales is Ode to Joy, and I’ve been trying to get him to hear the phrase go all the way through the line, instead of playing every note somewhat vertically and then taking a breath before the last 2 notes. He gets it, but he’s never quite executed it.

Instead of telling him not to take a breath there, I used the example of someone driving in a car and hitting the gas pedal in little bursts. It’s annoying for the passenger and other drivers, and incredibly inefficient for the engine’s gas usage. If the driver instead gently kept even pressure on the gas pedal, the car would run smoothly and reach its destination more efficiently. Our air works the same way: we’ll have more of it utilize and shape the music with if our intention is to keep the line directing forward. 

Takeaways: Telling a student simply where to or not to take a breath does not communicate phrase structure to them, it just gives them a technical instruction that becomes all they can focus on. Telling them where the phrase wants to go helps them breathe naturally and in time with the music.

(Coincidentally, during the last phrase of the song he took a breath in the middle of it but his direction and intention were so good it not only occurred in a natural place, but was barely audible and did not interrupt the music at all:

And that’s the magic of a proper focus of attention.)

Teaching Journal 4.13.18

# of Students Taught: 6

Ages: 2 frosh, 2 soph, 1 junior, 1 college senior

Instrument: 2 baritones, 3 tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; jazz, etudes, jury repertoire

Fundamentals covered: airflow & breath control (intention through the phrase), tone production

Memorable moment: One of my freshman students is a dedicated kid with a great ear, but his tone is still in need of development. It’s quiet and airy. Today I thought, ‘why not go over why the Bernoulli Effect is important again’, and did a demo of the paper magic trick.

the principle holds true for balloons too!

I used this as a way to remind him that our aural cavity and lips need to be OPEN in order for our embouchure to form when we put the horn on our face and blow through it. I had him try again, thinking about leaving space for the air to move through, and lo and behold, his tone was much improved! He noticed it too, describing it as ‘louder, more efficient’.

Takeaways: If I could put myself in every trombone fundamentals seminar and every beginner band classroom from now until the end of time I would undo this faulty notion that we need to physically set our lips together in order to ‘form an embouchure.’ In truth, we need to trust the science- by moving air past our open lips, the low pressure inside the horn creates suction moving backward that then pulls our lips together and allows them to vibrate and produce sound. It’s easy!

Teaching Journal 4.12.18

# of Students Taught: 8

Ages: 2 frosh, 1 soph, 3 juniors, 2 seniors

Instrument: 6 tenor, 2 bass trombones

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; solo contest music, audition music,

Fundamentals covered: playing with piano accompaniment, intonation, articulation

Memorable moment: I had one lesson where the pianist for my student’s contest solo joined us, and I listened to them play through. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought for a first run it went decently! It was after that I found out she had never played anything with piano before, and I really wouldn’t have guessed that. She kept good time, stuck to her musical guns, and they finished the piece together. We spent the next half hour working out the kinks and getting the piece performance ready, and by the end of the lesson it was really sounding good.

Takeaways: Chamber music is such an essential skill for musicians. Being able to coordinate with other players develops so many good musical habits. And being the featured or solo voice means you have to learn how to take charge of the direction, and be confident in your performance.

Teaching Journal 4.11.18

# of Students Taught: 4

Ages: 2 juniors, 2 frosh

Instrument: 1 trombone, 2 baritones, 1 tuba

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; band music

Fundamentals covered: 7tuplets (Al-ex-an-der-Ham-il-ton), articulation, low range

Memorable moment: I have a student who has claimed repeatedly that he is tone deaf, and doesn’t know what he’s doing on baritone. But, repeatedly, he matches pitch, self-corrects errors, and retains all his learned music from lesson to lesson. Today I asked him to pick a note to start a scale on and he picked B (!). Without telling him the key, we worked our way up and down the scale using our aural knowledge of how a major scale is built. He did great- the sharps didn’t phase him- but he kept saying, ‘this would be easier if I could see the notes’. I told him if he could actually see this scale he’d either quit in protest or play all the wrong notes a la a Bb major scale. After we’d played it successfully a few times I told him the number of #s and he smiled.

Takeaways: Little by little I’m just going to build up this kid’s confidence so that he sees that making mistakes from time to time =/= tone deafness. He just needs patience and time to develop his ears so that his natural inclination to hearing music can come through and be under his control. Plus, teaching a complicated scale like B without giving away the key is a great way to take the fear out of #s.

Teaching Journal 4.10.18

# of Students Taught: 3

Ages: 1 adult, 1 junior, 1 6th grader

Instrument: 3 trombones

Materials: scales, tunes, & ear training; etudes, composition

Fundamentals covered: low range exercises, warm-up routines, articulation, tempo changes

Memorable moment: I really struggle with middle school/beginner students- I definitely skew toward older, more focused kids- but every now and then I make a breakthrough. This 6th grader and I work a lot on composition and improvisation, because I sensed early on that learning the technical rigors of reading music was a little too much for him. So I’m trying to build a foundation wherein he can hear what he’s seeing, and to do so we are creating a lot of brand new melodies and learning how to transcribe them. The biggest discovery I’ve made is that he’s fascinated by the piano, and today we went over to it to see if he could figure out what the interval Bb-D sounded like. Immediately he started picking out “When the Saints”, a tune we learned by ear a while back.

Takeaways: The piano is a good tool for all students, but it’s especially laid out in a good way for younger musicians. It’s tactile, it makes sense, and it allows them to experiment easily without getting frustrated they way they might get frustrated on a brass instrument (too many things to do at once!).

Teaching and Learning: Putting Words to Your Pedagogy

On Friday, I asked followers of my Facebook page to try to succinctly define their teaching and learning philosophies. There were some amazing responses from educators around the country that were truly inspiring to me; some which aligned perfectly with what I believe and others that helped me stretch the boundaries of how I think about learning.

Here’s my initial answer to my own question:

“My teaching philosophy: Form follows function. Everyone is musical, and through developing their musicality, all develop skill. My learning philosophy: Be curious and brave.”

I get “form follows function” from Jan Kagarice, who describes it as a bigger part of natural law. Meaning: whatever it is we need to do, our bodies will develop the skill or adapt however necessary to complete the task. In biology that’s evolution; in instrumental playing, that’s technique developed through musical expression.

I also firmly believe that we all have some level of innate musicality, and the sooner we are encouraged to use it and grow with it, the longer we’ll feel confident and enjoy our participation in music at any level. Not everyone has to be a professional. I am often so discouraged when I hear people say they have no music talent. I translate that as, “I was told I wasn’t good enough to play professionally, so I must be terrible at music.” No, not everyone is going to be a musical genius. But yes, everyone can be musical.

Some of my favorite responses from the thread include:

-“we learn by doing.”

-“Every student is different. If a student isn’t “getting it”, it’s my responsibility to think of as many different exercises and analogies as I can can until one clicks. Also, the teacher does not get to determine what a positive student outcome is. There is no ‘trombone mold.'”

-“I  hope my students learn from me as much as I learn from them. I strive to inspire my students to love the process of learning rather than focus on the end result, to be fearless and tenacious music makers.”

-“we keep what we have by giving it away”

-” I try to strike a balance between giving information and asking questions to get students to think for themselves.”

There are so many good things here. First of all, “we learn by doing” is a direct offshoot of “form follows function.” Jan would say “the body learns by doing” and trial and error is a critical component of our learning process. We too often get discouraged when we fail, as though failure were not the best teaching tool there is. And by focusing on a task, slowly, critically, letting our form develop as we communicate the function we desire, creates neural pathways that lead to better, longer-lasting results.

I also love “there is no ‘trombone mold’.” I would like that tattooed on every trombone instructors arm so they can remember it every day. Often times I tell my students, “there is more than one way to be a musician” and I mean it. A homogenous, restrictive idea of what success looks like has held classical musicians in thrall for far too long, and it’s time we redefine what meaningful music-making looks like.

“Fearless and tenacious music-makers” comes from Sean Reusch, and I love the symmetry of his teaching philosophy with my learning philosophy. It shows  how much his example has guided me into my professional career and personal creed.

What’s your teaching philosophy? How do you approach learning?

The featured image on this post is John Cage’s 10 Rules for Students and Teachers.