Reply To: How to get started with small group instrumental lessons

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Insisting on proper techniques for instrument assembly can save their parents (or your repair budget) a lot of money over the long run. I demonstrate the process as they see it from where they are sitting as much as possible, because younger kids get confused when they are asked to mirror what I’m doing.

I usually have kids sit on the floor with their cases in front of them when they are learning to assemble their instruments.

As they are super receptive at this stage to everything you say, I explain simple cleaning techniques as we disassemble the instruments. The flutes learn how to use their cleaning rods, the clarinets and saxes their swabs, the brass instruments empty spit valves and wipe fingerprints.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with starting on just the mouthpiece. This is particularly important for beginning flutists, so they can locate that sweet spot and work on breath support. Once the flute is assembled, being able to produce a good sound will help ease some frustration that occurs when they are learning their first fingerings. Brass players can buzz simple melodies and reed players can strive to hit the pitch on the mouthpiece that means they are using sufficient breath support.

Be diligent over the first few days (assisting as necessary) in supervising instrument assembly. More capable students can ‘buddy up’ with one another to reinforce good habits.

It’s often worthwhile to show them how assembling an instrument incorrectly can cause damage, a poor sound, or both. Explain to your brass players that ‘popping’ the mouthpiece in the horn sometimes results in a stuck mouthpiece. Along those lines, I tell them what they cannot do for themselves right away, since I don’t allow valve players to remove and oil their own valves. And examine reeds very frequently. Kids don’t understand how much chips and cracks affect their sound, so you will have to let them know for awhile when their reed is no longer good to use. Some kids save the reed money their parents send with them for other treats!

I never introduce the method book right away, unless the book has a good section on assembly and posture. I demonstrate a good sound on each instrument, and students work to match it. I’m sure there is an endless supply of utube videos you could show your students of good players producing a good sound (no concertos at this point…) Of course, you can begin to introduce different fingerings, but at this point, I do it by rote. I try to have the students play concert Bb,C and D with a good sound before they even see it in the book. As a vocal/general music teacher, you already know the value of singing with kids. We sing (and play) all kinds of Do Re Mi patterns. To give their chops a rest, we play ear training games in which they sing and identify which pattern I play from those on the smartboard. Sometimes, different students can lead this game. I play rhythm patterns on one pitch for them to echo. As this is going on, I’m teaching articulation skills, doing a heckuva lot of cheerleading and roaming around the room as much as possible to identify those kids (particularly in the brass) who aren’t matching pitch, or flutists who are moving their fingers but not producting a sound. Sometimes, I’ll ask for a volunteer soloist to echo a rhythm or melodic pattern. I’ve found that can be really encouraging for kids who are convinced they sound worse than anyone else in the universe. Encourage the kids to figure out a song ‘by ear’ with just Do, re, and mi. Even in Grade 5, it can feel pretty cool when they can play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’

Since you are new at this, I would highly recommend inviting a private instructor or retired band director to come in and assist with helping your beginners until those (sometimes) chaotic first few lessons are behind you. I’ve gone to private teachers for one or two lessons myself just to learn (or learn a new way) how to introduce an instrument.

And finally, I find that I draw on my general music experience all the time when working with band. Incorporate those parts of lessons from your general music lessons that you know will be successful into your band lessons. You’ll feel more relaxed, and so will they. At the end of the day, kids want to have fun, feel encouraged, and can be very empathetic if they know a skill is hard for you right now, too. This will be an exciting year for you. Good luck.