Friday, September 6, 2013

Year 4: Week 1 – A Sound That Only A Music Teacher Could Love

After hearing almost seventy 6th graders try to play the saxophone for the first time, I was ready for the day to be over.

Wednesday, I taught the entire sixth grade split up into four class periods (three of which were in a row without any break). We broke down each section into small groups that rotated between the flute, clarinet and saxophone. Next week we are having the students try the trumpet and trombone. This experience is exhausting. It involves a fair amount of 6th grade saliva, helping kids through insecurities and students producing musical “sounds” that only a music teacher can appreciate.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

At most schools when students choose between choir and band, not every student tries all of the band instruments. Usually there is some kind of assembly where musicians come in and demonstrate the instruments. Then students write down whether they are interested in band and list two or three instruments they want to try. These students then get about a five-minute experience on each instrument before choosing which one they want or play. Many great band programs start this way and this works for a lot of schools.

This process is pretty expedient and directs energy specifically at kids who show interest. In some ways it’s a more focused experience but this process didn't feel right to me when I first came to this school four years ago to start the band program.

How many kids don’t know they like playing an instrument unless they actually try to play one? How many people are we missing when we don’t make experiences happen for all of the students?  This “recruitment” process is set up to be just a means to and end.  Why can’t we make it more significant of an experience?

This is what we do. We get our hands on a bunch of instruments and we get some musicians to come in and help. We split each class up into two group so it looks like this.  Each group has nine people and there are a teacher and a musician in each group.

Group 1
Group 2
1st  half of class
2nd half of class

Each half of class is about 20 minutes long (with transitions that adds up to our 50 minute class period). The saxophone and clarinet sessions are only ten minutes long. There are enough similarities between these instruments that this made sense and it’s important that students have more time on the flute because of the slower learning curve and unique technique of that instrument.

The next week is the same except its with trumpets and trombones. We ask students who are interested in percussion to come in individually.  Also during this week we have another music class in which students have a choral experience.  

After the fourth year of working this process I still feel its worth the extra work and the exhaustion at the end of the day. Some students will walk into this experience telling me that they want to do choir. I tell them that I’m glad that they’ve made this decisions but I want them to try the instruments for the fun of it. Because of this, our choir students pay more respect to our band students because they know first hand how hard these instruments can be.

Other students who never thought they would want to play are surprised. When I see the look on someone’s face when they react with amazement at how good it feels to play an instrument, I don’t even notice the discordant honks of saxophones around me.

For most of my students this is the only opportunity they will ever have in their entire lives to play these instruments. Shouldn’t this be more than a five-minute experience?

In the rush to get the band off the ground, teachers often speed through the recruiting. My process is really slow. We don’t have our first band class with instruments until the fifth week of school. Why don’t we do this in the spring before this school year? Because about a quarter of the sixth grade is new and we don’t want there to be another experience they have missed out on.

Think about the your recruitment process and how students choose to be in band or choir.  It should be a meaningful musical experience for all students regardless of their musical inclination.  Imagine that you've worked through your process having students choose between band or choir.  If your music program was cut right after students completed this experience, would you feel that this process was a waste of time?

Find a way so that this answer is no.  Remember we are not building bands and choirs, we're building a musical community.  It's worth the extra time and listening to the squeaks, honks and squeals that only a music teacher could love. 

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