There are a number of misconceptions when it comes to beginner band.
1. If the kids aren’t playing songs right away they will hate band. – Despite what you may think, most beginners truly have few or no preconceived notions as to what band really is. They signed up for band because they had a friend or a sibling that did. Maybe their parents were in band (and believe me… they don’t remember beginner band correctly either!). Whatever their reason for joining, “Band” is a magical place they have only imagined, and they know not how one gets from fifth grade to The Land of a Thousand Dances. All they know is that band is going to be the coolest class of the day, and they can’t wait to see what comes next. Truly. Especially in the beginning.
Because of this, their minds are open and accepting of whatever you put before them as long as you sell it to them as if it is the best thing ever. There is so much information and theory that the kids must have before they can “play songs”, and we all know that once a student is holding an instrument their attention span is instantly fractured. Those early weeks of band are our one opportunity to set the kids up for success. True success comes from a thorough understanding of what, why, and how they are performing the skills that create a song, and the path to understanding will be as enjoyable and engaging as you make it.
2. “The Book” is our curriculum. – Oh, if it were… Regardless what method book your band program uses, they are all fatally flawed. The authors had the best intentions as they organized information, skills, and songs, but most were written for full band which, despite how many programs across the country are set up, is not the optimal format. Half of your students are instantly started on pitches or finger patterns that are unnecessarily difficult. Theory is blown through with new rhythms, new fingerings, and new songs all introduced in the same moment. The few fundamentals or warm-ups provided address one set of instruments at a time, leaving the others to play a pointless collection of notes (ex. register drills for everyone!). Many of the songs are either bad, boring, or have traps built into them that ruin lives every year you teach them, and, in order to push through all the skills, there aren’t enough songs that provide repetition of any one skill.
Sure, there are instrument specific beginner methods out there, but for most of them, should you want to have a “together day”, the songs don’t line up allowing your trombones to play with the clarinets.
The broader mistake with “The Book” assumes that we are teaching Beginner Songs instead of Beginner Flute. A beginner instrumental class focuses on theory, tone production, fundamentals specific to one instrument, range building, technique, with songs that make those actual skills applicable. Relying on “The Book” to accomplish all of these is the musical version of teaching to the test. Even in a heterogeneous beginner class, supplementary information is often the backbone of a successful curriculum.
3. I can’t let the kids go on until it is perfect and/or they sound like professionals. – In a perfect world, a band director explains the proper embouchure, proper use of air, proper voicing, and then demonstrates with, of course, the proper posture, and the students respond by producing a characteristic tone quality each and every time the instruments touch their faces. In a perfect world, we teach a concept, the students reinforce at home, and then they come to class without squeaks, cracks, or missed partials.
While I look forward to teaching in that band hall, the reality is that if we pace our classes for perfection, we will never move on and the kids will lose interest. As long as there is forward momentum in their progress, both in tone and technique, the class is on the right path. Time and repetition are often the best teachers.
4. They’re just beginners. They’re going to sound bad. – Initially, yes. However, the magic of beginner band is that the songs and skills are on the level of a beginner. If the curriculum is developmentally appropriate for beginners, then beginners should be able to achieve on a high level tonally and technically. If our expectation is that a beginner plays with poor tone, they will. If our expectation is that they play Go Tell Aunt Rhody with as characteristic a tone as they can currently produce, they will. Beginners are limited only by our own expectations.
That being said, all four of these misconceptions also have a place in our band halls. Songs are what they signed up to play, and if we overload our classes with fundamentals, they will lose their excitement. The book is what will keep them excited and is a good gauge of our pacing throughout the year. We do have to hold our kids to a high standard when it comes to tone and technique because those are the fundamentals of playing an instrument. That is what we are paid to teach. And, yes, just as I tell our beginner parents every year, they are going to sound terrible at first! That’s part of the fun! But if they continue to sound that way, I have not done my job. Band should be fun. But you know what is really fun? BEING AWESOME.
In Pacing For Success, you are given a window into the structure of our beginner classes from our expectations before they even set foot in the band hall to the daily pacing of individual classes. This book covers learning targets as globally as what a student should achieve by the end of the year and as specific as what a student should learn in 30 minutes.
Inappropriate pacing and expectations are the greatest offenses in most beginner band classes. They impair our students’ growth and stifle their love of music. Whether you teach instrument-specific classes or everyone all at once, Pacing for Success provides an outline of successful beginner structure that can be tweaked to fit your program’s configuration. No two programs are identical, but the successful ones take what works and make it work for their students.