After teaching band students for 27 years, I think I have finally developed an idea of what I'm supposed to be doing. Itís not putting on concerts for parents. Itís not raising money to buy music stands. Itís not any of those things that appropriate so much of my time. It is teaching students music through performance on wind and percussion instruments. For them to have a meaningful experience through performance, they must learn the fundamentals of music in an orderly fashion. For this reason, Iíve developed a list of priorities with regard to fundamentals and developed some (in my humble opinion) effective ways of teaching them.
Iíll tell you what they are and why I have placed them in this order. Then, with a little luck, explain how I go about teaching them.
Gift #1 - Rhythm. Faulty rhythm will make a band performance fall apart! Wrong notes will not do this. Bad hand position will not do this. Uncharacteristic tone qualities will not do this. Good rhythmic understanding is an absolute necessity for group performance. I guess if youíre always going to play by yourself, you can skip this area.
Gift #2 - Tone Quality. If you play with good tone quality and good rhythm, people will enjoy hearing you play. Good rhythm with bad tone is a performance that only a mother would love.
Gift #3 - Right Notes. With good rhythm, characteristic tone and right notes, the performance starts to be one that your mother AND your friends will like. This is where most kids get "hung up"...but more on that later.
Gift #4 - Articulation. Accurate and correct articulation gives your performance clarity of meaning. It allows you to express yourself in a manner that others can understand.
Gift #5 - Dynamic Control. Control of dynamics allows your performance to have clarity of meaning and allows you to explain how you "feel" about what you are saying.
It would be folly to think that all of these items are separate and indeed, they all are related when it comes to music performance. However, as a teacher of beginners who has also been responsible for very advanced performing groups, I have realized that these areas of performance, in this order, seem to cause the most problems. We have to have an understanding of arithmetic before we can get to mathematics.
So...Letís begin with Gift # 1... Rhythm.
As I read through the many, many articles on starting beginners, I find that almost all concentrate on tone production with great emphasis on embouchure, hand position and correct fingerings. While these areas are, of course, very important, I think that often an error of omission occurs. There are two gifts that the teacher of beginners can give a student that will almost ensure his success as a player. The first gift is not tone production. The first gift is rhythm. Tone production is a very close second.
Rhythmic understanding is the basis of music reading and good technique. As a teacher of beginners for many years, I can testify that the most common error a player makes is not to play a wrong note; rather it is to play the right note at the wrong time. In ensemble performance, a wrong note will make the group sound bad. Faulty rhythm will make the group "fall apart". Indeed, faulty rhythm is the reason for most performance catastrophes.
It is critical that the teacher impart to the beginning students the importance of feeling a pulse and the internalization of that pulse. Until a student can feel the beat, it is impossible for the student to divide the beat as necessary for accurate rhythmic realization.
Step 1 - Feeling the Beat. I am a strong believer in the foot pat. While the sound of many little feet patting in a professional group or an advanced high school group might be annoying, the sound of all those feet patting in a beginning band says that these students are developing an understanding of rhythm. The only argument against foot patting is its effect on the aesthetic of performance. I contend that performance is a very small part of the beginner experience and that the importance of a strong internalization of rhythm far outweighs the minor annoyance of feet patting during a concert.
So, how do we get them to feel the beat? We play music for them and have them pat their foot along with the music. We play with a metronome (loud enough for them to hear) much of the time. We spend time just practicing patting the foot along with the metronome. It is important to teach them exactly how to pat their foot. When learning to feel a beat, it is important to stress a very distinct motion of the foot dividing the beat into two parts... (down & up)... and that each beat is divided that way. (This will pay off greatly when teaching dotted notes later) No talk yet of time signatures... only the "beat" and the fact that the beat has 2 parts... 6/8 and swing come much later.
Step 2 - Count it Aloud. After the students can pat their feet along with a metronome and with simple/duple music, it is important to teach them how to write a realization of rhythm so that they can verbalize the rhythm. After many years of many different things, Iíve finally decided on Ralph Haleís "Down-Up" system of counting as the best system for students to understand quickly and easily. It eliminates all of the "nonsense" syllables used in other counting systems and replaces them with "Down" and "Up". The system uses the foot pat as its basis with notes occurring either on the down part of the foot pat or the up part of the foot pat. ( = ). Because of this basis, we use the eighth note as the primary note value and all other notes are related to it, i.e. ( = or , = , = , etc. Students count aloud by saying "down" on the down pat and "up" on the up pat.
You might say... "What about time signatures where a quarter is not the Ďbeatí note?" The answer is actually simple. We stress from the beginning that we are counting the beats and not the notes. If you were asked to count a pile of apples and a pile of oranges, you would not use a different system of counting for each. You would simply be counting apples or you would be counting oranges. By the time other time signatures are reached, the problem doesnít even come up. We just say... "Now a = , etc." From my experience, it is actually easier to make this adaptation with this system than with traditional counting systems. A rest becomes a note that you donít play (we usually begin by saying "rest" on a rest).
I have noticed that some students have a problem with long notes and this is the only time I use numbers in the counting. For instance, when a student is counting a whole note in 4/4 time they say "Down, 2, 3, 4" to count all of the "downs/beats" in the note.
What about triplets and 6/8? Well, slow 6/8 is counted like any other time signature with "down & up" = ). Fast 6/8 and triplets are counted as either 2 3 or as . Iíve used both and both work. The actual key is explaining that now the foot pat is a smooth motion up and down, rather than a distinct down/up. This gives a much better feel for the triple meter. By the time this comes up, it is not a problem. Complex meters (5/8, 7/8, etc.) are counted using a combination of the duple meter and the compound meter .
The primary advantage of this system is that every beat in the measure is counted the same and students do not concern themselves with which beat they are on. Iíve discovered that this one factor alone eliminates many problems with rhythmic realization (they donít have to remember which number is next).
Step 3 - Write it Down. A most important step in the realization of rhythm is having a system of writing a symbolic representation of the rhythms in question. This helps the student better understand the rhythm and allows them to slow things down for practice. We use many written exercises from many different sources and test often on studentsí abilities to write rhythmic realizations.
Step 4 - Play It. This is, of course, the ultimate goal. However, doing this before the student understands what they are doing is little more than rote teaching. They have to be taught what "their counting" becomes when it is actually performed on an instrument. I use exercises from several sources for counting. Among them are: "Winning Rhythms", Ayola, Neil A. Kjos Music Company; "Teaching Rhythm", Joel Rothman, J.R. Publications; "Rhythm Slides", Ralph Hale, Southern Music; and "14 Weeks to a Better Band - Jr. High Edition", Maxwell, Barnhouse.