Following "smoke and mirrors" teacher

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    to keep this brief, i am following a teacher that has been at this school (5-12 band position) for 30ish years. a few years before i came he “retired” due to health problems, but continued to work part time. i can tell about when he retired due to how well the students are. the ones that have been here and had him as a teacher before he retired are pretty good, i have no complaints. that being said, the ones he started after he retired appear to have learned by rote. some don’t know how to read music, others seem to only know how to play songs they already played and their sight reading is well below what it should be. i let my administrators know about this, and they weren’t too surprised. they said the concerts in the past were always pretty good, but they were the ones that called it “smoke and mirrors”. now my question is how do i work with students who aren’t used to reading music, working out rhythms, finding fingerings on a fingering chart, and practicing on their own, and convince them they should be able to do all of these things without alienating the previous teacher or the students?

    Things i have done so far:
    there are some students who do have a grasp on how to play on their own, those are the ones that have a musically inclined family or older siblings from before the retirement, i have been using them as leaders to help the others.
    i had the 6th graders start from the beginning of the 5th grade book, we went through it faster and had a few vocab/content tests to make sure they weren’t just doing it from memory (they are now up to an early 6th grade level but still not where they need to be)
    I’m attempting to get the middle school band to have the students encourage the others and help them work on their own.
    most of the HS has the ones from before he retired so it’s not so much an issue there.


    Sounds like your a breath of fresh air for some of those students! I’m going through the same issue, I would caution that it’s possible that not all of this is due to the formal teacher. I’m sure most is but not all, some kids escape through and don’t ever really make the effort to learn to read until you push the issue like now. Going back through the old method book is a great idea I think at any level to retrain reading. But there is a difference in reading small excerpts to reading large 80 measure plus pieces of music. You might want to pick out some level 1 11/2 pieces for your middle school even high school to read for a week or just sight reading and keep at for the rest of the year and into next.Nothing wrong with going back to basics. But also remember you’ve got to find some fun aspects that they can get into each day.


    With older students, I wonder if you could find songs that they might be more interested in playing, rather than the elementary songs. I can imagine kids labeling those as “baby songs” and feeling degraded because they are much older. (Even though that’s their appropriate playing ability). In my opinion, those books are written for 8-10 year olds. Middle schoolers can be quick to make a judgement. Maybe you could make a list of folk songs and have the students vote on which ones they would like to study so it’s their choice.

    I’d pull rhythm exercises from an outside source and make that one large topic to teach. From the very beginning, teach how to tap/clap/count, how to write in counts, time signatures, etc. All the very basics. You can easily have kids play rhythms on their instruments as a start for fingerings and then later transfer them to rhythms on the staff. Scales are great for rhythm exercises too. Rhythm Master is a great website with printable rhythm exercises and games.

    I know the Rubank books don’t have the pretty colors and pictures, but I like to use them with my older beginners in private lessons. I explain that the book doesn’t have Mary Had A Little Lamb, but it has exercises to help learn the instrument quickly.

    I totally agree with Fisher about finding 1 1/2 pieces of the band. My advanced elementary school is doing Pirates of the Carribbean (arr. Michael Sweeney) and they love it! It might be a little easy for your students, but then you’ll be able to really solidify the musical concepts and hopefully keep them interested! Find the gimicky pieces that your students will be excited to learn! I believe that the level of difficulty shouldn’t determine whether or not a piece is appropriate to play-some lower graded pieces can be quite difficult to play musically!


    I hope I can add to what the others have already said because you already have some good ideas.

    One thing that I would highly recommend is focus on rhythms if they can easily read the rhythms the fingers fall in place easier. David Newell has a great book out on rhythms and how to teach them called “Teaching Rhythm: New Strategies and Techniques for Success” which is an easy, fun read and is something I would pay $100 for because it works. The book only costs $30 and there are workbooks you can also get for your students that go along with the books recommended teaching style. If you look at the old MENC forum look up what has been said by others on his book and the workbook “The Simple Rhythmatician”

    After they start reading rhythms well and if you are brave I would depart from the ordinary and have them compose their next concert. I do some small compositions with by beginners that they love doing and it actually causes them to push themselves to learn more. This might help you to get the kids looking in the book and teaching themselves the fingerings, vocabulary and musical markings that we all want them to learn. This is also a great way to “go back” over the old information in a new way, so you don’t insult anybody, and you know the kids have been all been presented the information. If you fashion your composition assignments/assessments correctly you should also be able to tell what students are struggling and what students can apply the knowledge that they know. For the concert you could throw in some fun pieces that work with the level that they are at and you can call your concert an “Info”rmance” instead of a “Per”formance. I did this at one of my 5th grade concerts, at the students request, and I had more comments afterwards from parents than I ever have had before on how they never realized what all went into a concert.

    Sorry, I rambled but if you are interested send me an e-mail and I can show you examples of what I do with my kids.

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