Is There A Better Way?

2011Symposium_1_2Why do you do anything the way you do? If your answer to this question is “because I’ve always done it that way,” or “because it works,” then you may be missing out on much greater success. Being a New Englander all my life, I have been very happy with the mantra, “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it” for as long as I can remember. Honestly, this is good advice in many cases. Making change just for the sake of making change can be foolish, and leave you worse off than you were before. On the other hand, always following that advice will prevent you from ever finding a better way.

Without question, the best teachers are the ones who are the best learners. Great teachers never stop learning, never stop seeking out better ways of teaching their content in general and to specific students. Great teachers use textbooks and methods books as a starting point, not as a thirty-year plan. One area in which we music teachers often get too set in our ways is in how we teach music reading, or even in how we define music reading. Last year, I decided to try something new because I wasn’t satisfied with the results I was getting doing it the way I had always done it. In this case, the use of solfege syllables was involved. I have shared elsewhere on this blog my initiative with fixed do and the successful results I obtained with it.

Another area ripe for change is the way band students are started in most method books. Why do beginners have to try and sustain whole notes before they practiceplay half notes or quarter notes, which are much easier? Why do all beginning trumpet students have to start on concert B-flat, when for some students, starting on concert F is easier? Why not introduce the pitches of concert E before concert E-flat, or the pitches of concert B before concert B-flat? I wondered that one year, and had all my students learn concert B and E first, and then give them songs to play in F and C major. The result was fascinating. After being introduced to concert E-flat and B-flat later, they had more trouble playing in concert Bb major than in either concert F or C major. We simply have an easier time doing what is more familiar. There is nothing inherently more difficult about playing concert C major than concert Bb major. Even concert G and D are easily learned if taught early on. Piano students do it all the time, why not band students? We only think saxophone students will struggle with five sharps, because that’s what we were taught. But it’s not harder; it’s just different.

There are advantages to this different approach. If you transition your students from recorder to beginning band, they are probably already familiar with playing in concert F, C, G, and D so they are starting out on more familiar territory, and can more easily audiate between recorder and their new band instrument. Another advantage is that these are string-friendly keys, so adding wind players to your string orchestra is much easier; you can avoid asking string players to play in flat keys that are unnecessarily difficult for them, or you can avoid asking wind players to play in difficult sharp keys, because having been playing in these keys from the start, they are not difficult.

You see the vista of possibilities that open before us when we become curious enough to seek out a better way. Are there disadvantages to starting band students in sharp keys? Yes, but they’re all hardships on us, not our students. We have to publish new music for our students to read, because nobody is publishing band methods in sharp keys. But with notation software like Sibelius and Finale, which allow us to scan and then transpose music, the task of publishing new music is not the time consuming hassle it once was. Also, hasn’t ever bothered you that while your students are required to learn scales and arpeggios through four sharps and flats for festivals, nearly every single piece we give our bands to play is in one of two keys? What kind of rigorous, thorough music education is that? I’d love to see this catch on to the point where there is enough demand for band music in sharp keys that publishers start publishing concert music and methods in those keys. When you think about it, maybe it’s been broken all along, and we’re just now realizing we have an opportunity to fix it.

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