What to Teach a Beginning Woodwind Student

For School Teachers
Part 1

By Mike Vaccaro
(from Mike's Musings #17, our newsletter)

I want to be clear with all public school music teachers: I think you are all angels and personally I can’t imagine a more difficult job. You are required to know a lot about music, the psychology of the students and their parents, and possess a ton of patience. And you can’t dismiss the student if they aren’t taking it seriously like a private teacher can.

I am a woodwind specialist. I play and teach clarinet, saxophone, flute, and oboe and know absolutely nothing about playing a bassoon. I know nothing of any of the other families of instruments, except that I perform with them, and understand some of their idiosyncrasies.

I usually have between one and four students at any particular time, and most are intermediate or advanced. This year, I have had the opportunity to teach a nine year old beginner on the sax, a high school music teacher on the clarinet, and a gentleman in his eighties, who came to me as an early intermediate clarinet student, and in just a year with a complete commitment, has become an advanced student with surprising improvement. I also had one of those students on oboe that we only get every few years that will have his choice of any job in the music business he desires, due to his intense interest and powerful study habits.

Student Level

As a music teacher of elementary or middle school, you are likely to enounter students of limited experience.

I want to discuss with you what to do when teaching a beginning student who comes to you the first day they pick up an instrument.

Unfortunately, with school budgets as they are, a beginning music student can have a math teacher with a music minor as their mentor, or, if they are more fortunate, they can get a music expert with a degree, or ever better yet, they can get a teacher who is trained on their specific instrument or family of instruments.

School Music Teacher - Private Instructor—Do Students Need Both?

Let me start with the most obvious statement that I am sure you will agree with: “it is important for the beginning student to have a private instructor.”

If you are very lucky as a teacher, you will be able talk parents into private lessons.  You still will want to have occasional “sectionals” with each musical family in your band or orchestra. Many times, you can talk to your pool of private teachers and get help with those group coaching sessions.

Continuing YOUR Education is Important

It is also important for you as a band or orchestra director to continue study on instruments you don’t know. One year, study the violin, next year, study the trumpet or trombone, the next year, clarinet or something else. The more you know about each instrument, the better you become as a music teacher. If you have time after all that, please continue to practice on your own major instrument to improve your insight and growth.

The early stages of learning are most important for creating good habits. I don’t know about you, but in my college years (40+ years ago) we got one semester of study on each family of instruments. That is simply not enough study to successfully start a student on an instrument in the early stages.

Introducing Musical Instruments

Let’s start at the beginning.   A young student either hears one of your more advanced ensembles that comes to their school and/or the elementary school music teacher takes over, and helps the student select an instrument they may be interested in.

The next step is for the student and their parents to rent or purchase an instrument THAT WORKS. A tall order. 

Where I live, there is a store that specializes in woodwind instruments and services for beginning to more advanced students, and even for professionals who are encouraged to hang out to enhance the atmosphere of the store. They also have a repair shop that specializes in woodwinds. You may or may not be so lucky.

This music store will see that students get a rental instrument that is in proper repair and of good enough quality to play easily.

In addition, my local store will make sure that there is a good mouthpiece, reed, and ligature in the case. These are THE key ingredients to getting a sound on an instrument, along with some luck. Without these ingredients there is very little chance of success.

There are also good new and used instruments available for purchase from a bona fide woodwind dealer, who can advise you on price vs. quality and resale value. This is always one of the most important initial decisions: to rent or buy.

Also keep in mind the physical size of a beginning student. Alto sax is almost always the choice, as a tenor sax is just too big for most youngsters. The same is true for all members of the woodwind family.

If your local music store is run by a trumpet player, a string player, a percussionist or anything except a woodwind player, they are renting or selling to you on hearsay or just using salesmanship. This is something you will want to know about them.

I have a video on avclarinets.com entitiled "Your First Clarinet", that discusses whether to rent or buy an instrument, and you will want to make sure to take a moment to consider what I have to say there. Now is a good time for that.

Clarinet, Saxophone and Flute

In any case, can we agree that it is important to have a good instrument, a good mouthpiece, and a good reed and ligature? For flute, of course, the headjoint is the mouthpiece, and can make it easier or more difficult for the flute to be played (especially the second octave and the low notes).

Oboe and Bassoon

The oboe and bassoon require a great reed, as that is the mouthpiece and sound-producing mechanism. For oboe and bassoon even your local music store might not understand where to get really good reeds of the correct hardness and quality. I believe these instruments require a private teacher from the beginning.

Ok, so now we have a good instrument for our youngster, and they come to their first school rehearsal. I need not tell you the difficulties ahead of you. This is where your practice time, on one instrument every year can be a big advantage to you. You are now standing in front of most likely 10-40 young, somewhat empty minds that are, in theory, more confused than you are.

Square One

It is imperative that you teach the students how to properly assemble and hold the instrument, so they are not breaking mouthpieces, reeds or other parts while taking the instrument out of the case or putting it back in. It sounds easy, however small children are not always that coordinated, nor do they have a routine for getting instruments in and out of a case, so it is easy to drop the horn.

The FIrst Lesson

My suggestion is that, though you may have a method book, you should plan to dedicate the first group lesson to learning one common note (I will only talk about woodwinds from here on). Along with this one note, the student needs to know how to practice. If you can impart both of these ideas while teaching how to assemble the instrument in the first hour, you have accomplished a lot.

For The Parents

Of course, there is always the parent who wants their child to study an instrument just to introduce them to music (oh please don’t make my child a musician!). They treat it like karate, swimming or any other extracurricular pursuit. I have no suggestion for you here, however, I am sure, that if you are experienced, you have learned how to deal with this situation.

You can remind parents to encourage at least an introduction to music for their child. For the young student, music, as with many artistic subjects, can provide one of the most important and necessary skills: a more complete education and a well-rounded student, with the ability to listen and to appreciate the international language of music.

It is important to convey information to the parents as to how the student will be expected to practice, and that in the beginning, a few minutes a couple times a day might be fine, but as the year(s) go by more commitment is necessary. I have found that much of my lesson time is spent just reminding students, from beginning to advanced,  HOW to practice.

It is also important to get an address, email, telephone and any other information so you can, to keep the parents informed. They need to know what you expect the student to practice. Also be sure to tell the parents and students where and when there are concerts or clinics that the studens should attend. Also provide your information so the parents can be encouraged to talk to you.

Parents need to know that woodwind study requires knowledge of breath control and muscle building. They also need to know that the student must become acclimated to the sound of their instrument. Encourage parents to buy recordings, both solo and in ensemble of all styles. They can just play them and not require the student to listen. If the music is playing, they will listen. Your suggestions as a teacher may be appreciated.

Practice and Listening Schedule

My feeling is that it is more important for the student to practice some amount every day than how long they practice. Especially in the beginning it's the habit of taking the instrument out of the case, putting it together, and blowing a note that's important.

It' also important to remind the student they are holding a foreign object, and that they need to learn to hold the instrument until they are comfortable just holding the horn in a relaxed manner, both in the playing position and at rest. They can hold the instrument while watching television just to acclimate.

Remember that all wind instruments require the student to learn how to use air (how to breathe and how to blow and how to co-ordinate that with the embouchure and tongue, which are muscles that need to be slowly developed).

Much like a child who never reads is not likely to become an English major or author, a music student who does not listen to music will have a difficult time developing a concept of sound or “a good ear.” The student has to know how they are expected to sound and how to develop that sound. You might suggest band or orchestra recordings that you know your young musicians will appreciate.

So let’s call this the end of part one.

In the future, I will discuss:

  1. How to pick a mouthpiece for students of different levels
  2. How to choose a reed by brand and strength and place it on the mouthpiece
  3. The importance of the ligature and its placement
  4. Learning to read music
  5. Learning to play by "ear"
  6. Tips on recognizing students with perfect or good relative pitch
  7. Introducing the chromatic scale...the alphabet of music
  8. Concentration and practice techniques
  9. How to budget time between school music and private lessons.

If you have anything to ask me regarding your beginning woodwind students, please feel free to contact me and we will include your questions in part two of this series of Mike’s Musings.

Until then...