Taming the Beginner Band

Strategies for Teaching Our Youngest Students

2003 Illinois Music Educators Association All State Conference
Chip De Stefano, clinician/conductor, with Middleton Elementary School Fifth Grade Band
Skokie, Illinois

  1. Welcome, and Thank You for attending our session.
    Thank you for attending our session. Since this is a music education conference we’d like to start today with music. This is The Crusaders by Frank Erickson, published by Belwin Mills. It’s an easy Grade One, and homophonic throughout. As you’ll hear, it’s based on the traditional Crusaders’ Hymn. In fact, it’s so similar you’ll wonder why he just didn’t arrange the original melody.
  2. PERFORMANCE - “The Crusaders” by Frank Erickson
  3. Statement of Purpose
    It is the purpose of this performance demonstration is to discuss strategies for tackling common issues in teaching beginner band. Along the way, the students of the Middleton Elementary School 5th Grade Band, from Skokie, Illinois will assist me in demonstrating various teaching techniques and we also have a few other works to perform for you as well.
  4. Topics to be covered include:
    The topics to be covered will include: Goals for instruction, student vocalizations, teaching musicianship, developing technique, selection of materials, discipline and student motivation.
  5. Topics that will not be covered:
    I’m not here to discuss instrument specific instruction or specifics regarding recruitment and retention. The are so many good sessions at IMEA and Midwest covering these issues each year, that it doesn’t make sense for me to stand up here and talk about clarinet embouchures and trumpet hand position.
  6. Much of our discussion should apply to working with older and more experienced bands
    Although I begin my students in the fourth grade, I do feel that much of our discussion will apply older beginner bands. Hopefully, what we cover will also be very applicable to more experienced bands as well. I truly believe that rehearsing the beginning band should not be approached any differently than rehearsing an ensemble of professionals. It is the explanations that we want to keep simple, not the concepts.
  7. Setting High Expectations
    Although you hear this at virtually every session, it bears repeating for the millionth time. It is important to set high standards for you students. The expectations that are set the first year of instruction will be carried by the students for many years. Students are a reflection of their teacher. Students will not work any harder, care any more, or practice any more that you do. We have to prepare as if we’re rehearsing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The standard of professionalism in performance and behavior must be set in this first year.
  8. The primary goal for instruction in beginner band is to get the student into the second year
    The primary goal for instruction in beginner band is to get the student into the second year. Most students are lost between the first and second year of instruction. Kids, particularly 4th Graders, start band thinking that they’ll play forever. Some parents may begin thinking that their kid will only last a couple of months, or that their kid is going to “give it a try” for a bit. The kids don’t approach it this way though. The second they open their case for the first time they are hooked. We have to get them from the shine of the instrument to being intrinsically motivated to practice as quickly as possible. I don’t need to tell you that the student who practices is most likely to be successful, and students who are successful are more likely to stick with it long term.

    If a student is struggling, don’t be afraid to return him or her to page one of the method book. If you’re worried about a student might react to such a move, give them a different book. I do this with all of my students at the beginning of their fifth grade year. We start over in a different method book, one that moves at a quicker pace, just to make sure that there are no gaps in their learning. It also helps those kids who did not practice as much as they should have over the summer to ease back into it with a minimum of frustration.

    This is one of the big advantages of starting kids so young. Time. There is also plenty of time for a student to switch instruments and still catch up to their peers. Don’t hesitate to change a student’s instrument if it improves their chances for success, improves instrumentation, and their parents are supportive of the switch.

    A “band mentor” program can be extremely beneficial to your program without adding time to your already busy work schedule. There are many advantages to such a program for both the mentor and the mentee. This type of program is a wonderful way to find that time that the struggling student, student who just switched instruments, or the kid who needs just a little extra help on a certain aspect of their playing needs. The mentee receives these lessons and guidance from someone you trust and someone who knows what your expectations are. The mentee gets to work with someone close to their age who performs at a high level and provides a wonderful model that they can aspire to achieve. Mentors, with your guidance, get valuable, real world teaching experience at a young age. They become excited about teaching, often coming back to you asking how to handle certain performance problems that their student had during the lesson. Sometimes, I think we underestimate how much our younger students learn from our older students in rehearsals. This type of program takes this type of learning, amplifies it at a younger age, and uses it to our advantage.

    I’m unable to use band mentors for my beginners because of the rehearsal schedule at the elementary school and middle school that I teach. It is, however, extensively used with my 5th graders. Everyone loves it. I’ve had almost twenty students from my top band volunteer their time to give lessons. The fifth graders are constantly asking me if they are getting pulled for a lesson that day. More importantly, both mentor and mentee grow as musicians.

    Finally, performance is a wonderful motivator for students. One of the few things that matches that initial excitement of opening the case for the first time is the excitement students feel as their first performance approaches. Have your students perform as much as possible. Formal concerts…school assemblies…performing for the primary school students. To sooner they are ready for the first performance the better. That first concert can be as simple as several lines out of the method book…something that the students will perform successfully.

    Each of your ensembles must be treated with the same “specialness” that you treat your top band. Your beginners need something to look forward to in band the following year. Bring in guest clinicians, have special performances for them to participate in. It probably goes without saying that my best retention percentage from fourth to fifth grade was this past year. We started 42 students last year and lost only four students in the summer months (one moved).

    The next selection we’re going to perform for you today is Chant for Percussion by Andrew Balent published by Kjos. This is also an easy grade one work. It is mostly homophonic with lots of call and response between the winds and percussion section.
  9. PERFORMANCE – “Chant for Percussion” by Andrew Balent
    One of the things I like to with my younger students is to teach them concepts before they realize that they are difficult. For example, one of the things we did with this work is discuss cut time. Without going into too much detail, I show them the symbol for cut time, explain that the note values receive half of what they are used to giving them, and off we go. (DEMONSTRATION)
  10. Tone
    By the end of their first year, students should be able to produce a characteristic tone on their instrument. Instructionally, tone should take precedence above all other skills. What blows me away year after year at Midwest and IMEA when listening to the fine middle school bands that play each year is the quality of their sound.

    Of course, for a student to have a good sound, four things need to be in place. The student needs a quality instrument in proper working condition, the correct embouchure, breath support, and the aural concept of a good tone.
  11. Breath Support
    The typical young student breath is shallow and provides a minimal amount of support for their tone. Because of this, breathing exercises are essential in helping students develop their tone quality.

    Conceptually, students should think of their lungs as being divided into two halves. The bottom half controls the quality, the upper half controls the quantity. Filling up the top half of the lungs is never a problem. Getting students to take a nice relaxed breath that fills the bottom of the lungs takes training.

    We begin every rehearsal with breathing exercises. Teaching students what the proper breath “sounds like” will help them keep the breath relaxed, particularly when they need to inhale quickly. The way I think of this is same way I was taught as a young high school trombonist. That is to think of the word “HO” backwards.

    Students stand so that posture is not an issue. By placing their hands on their head air is forced to the bottom of their lungs when they inhale.


    By adding resistance, we can practice using our air efficiently while taking in enough air to play long phrases.


    Air temperature also affects tone quality.


    Generally, we want everyone blowing warm air through their instruments, except for the saxophones who should be blowing cold air.
  12. Developing the aural concept
    Kids are not able to produce a good sound unless they know what a good sound sounds like. Using words such as dark, warm and full are not enough for the younger student. Even just a few minutes a month of guided listening, in rehearsals or lessons, will be enough to help students develop this inner hearing.

    Everything they hear must be outstanding. If you’re not proficient in secondary instruments, DO NOT PLAY THEM FOR YOUR STUDENTS. If we want our students standards to be high, then excellence needs to be the norm. If they hear their teacher playing with a stuff clarinet sound, that is the sound they will try to model…simply because you are their teacher.

    I follow my own advice in this regard. I never provide a model for my students on any instrument other than trombone. For the other instruments, I bring in guests, play recordings, and if there is a good recital at Northwestern I’ll bring interested students (and parents) along.

    In rehearsals, the concept is reinforced through student vocalizations.

  13. Long tones, long tones, long tones
    Although they are not the most exciting things to practice, long tones are essential to developing a characteristic tone. Because they are not exciting, young students cannot be depended upon practicing them regularly, although it is important to make sure that long tones are included in the practice routines you develop for you students. Make sure long tones are done each time you see them. They don’t need to be anything fancy.


    In rehearsal, slow scales and chorales are extremely effective.
  14. Other exercises
    I would be remiss to forget to mention lip slurs for flutes and brass, and mouthpiece buzzing for brass as vital exercises to developing tone and lip flexibility in our students.
  15. Sustained Playing
    Perhaps the greatest challenge for our youngest students is sustained playing. I seem to fight this battle daily and have resigned myself to the fact that it’s a long-term process. It’s usually not until 6th or 7th grades that my students really seem to grasp this as well as I’d like. We use homophonic chorales to work on this in rehearsal.


    As you can hear these are simple chorales. Each instrument has the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass line on their sheet so that everyone can be actively involved in the rehearsal.


    Singing is an essential tool in teaching sustained playing.


    I always find it interesting to see how naturally kids sing sustained without any instruction. Getting that to transfer to their playing, however, is certainly another story,

    We use the syllable “da” because it most closely duplications the articulation we want when they are playing.

    Some groups are reluctant to sing. For the purposes of sustained playing, it is equally effective if the students “say the line” on the syllable “da.”


    You’ll notice that most of the kids sang anyway. This is a good way to get kids to start singing without them even knowing it.

    The reason kids don’t play sustained is because they tend to stop the air between notes. What we need is for the air to be constant, with the tongue lightly breaking the air for each attack.

    Performing without the use of the tongue allows the students to get to know what the air should feel like.


    Now, hopefully now that we’ve done all this, they’ll perform the chorale in a much more sustained style.


    By having students precede attacked notes with whole notes, they begin to keep the air moving while attacking notes.


    Finally, it may be helpful to visually show what the music should sound like. We want the notes to touch…with no break between them.
  16. Intonation
    Intonation with the beginner band is not a lost cause, although, to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I try to keep things simple and get the kids to start to develop the skills necessary for adjusting on their own.

    As I spoke about previously, we spend an enormous amount of time on tone. Good tone masks intonation problems, and if the students are doing the things necessary to create a good tone…decent instrument, proper embouchure and air support…then intonation problems should be minimal.

    Don’t waste time going around the room tuning each kid individually…really at any level, but particularly with beginners it doesn’t improve things significantly enough to spend the time. It’s a rehearsal killer. Most of the ensemble is doing nothing. Not actively involved in playing or listening.

    What we do want to spend our time on is getting the students to listen to their neighbor, not themselves, listen down to the lower voices, and to hear the notes in their head before they hear it. You should be able to spot check tuning throughout the course of rehearsal to make any necessary tuning slide adjustments. If we do this, by the end of the first year, students should be able to distinguish between pitches that are in tune and out of tune. Once this happens, we can start to delve deeper into intonation skills (bending the pitch, alternate fingerings, shading/venting for woodwinds, instrumental pitch tendencies, etc).
  17. Teaching Rhythm
    There are many different methods to teaching rhythm: Counting, the Foot Up – Down method, and the Orff method using Ta Ta Ti-Ti Ta. Regardless of which method you chose. I think it’s important that you remain consistent throughout your teaching. Your students must also be able to develop an inner sense of pulse and develop a vocabulary of rhythms. Your method must also give students the skills to be able to figure out new rhythms for themselves.
  18. Releases
    In teaching rhythm to my beginners, I spend considerable amount of time discussing releases. My guess is that we save a ton of rehearsal time when they are 7th and 8th graders by spending a little more time on it at the beginning.

    Students need to understand that the beats happen between the counts. If we have a dotted half note followed by a quarter rest and the students count “one, two, three” and release on three, then they have only held the note for two full beats. The must release the note on count four to hold the dotted half note for full value. It also takes less than a second for them to write “-4” there so that they make that release consistently.

    Having the students count out loud reinforce these concepts.


    I’m a big fan of the music of John Kinyon at this level. In addition to his many compositions, under his name and many pseudonyms, he also was fond of taking traditional folk songs and children’s songs and arranging them at the grade one level. Especially with Mr. Kinyon’s passing last spring, it’s only appropriate that we perform a couple of his works today. Grandfathers Clock is published by Luverne Publications.
  19. PERFORMANCE – “Grandfathers Clock” arranged by John Kinyon
  20. Playing Musically and Stylistically
    The building blocks of getting students to play musically and stylistically are very straightforward. Students need command of all articulations. Again, I like unison exercises for this purpose.


    My favorite concept when teaching musicianship is one I call “volume painting.” Basically, volume painting is crescendo as the phrase rises, decrescendo as the phrase falls. Repeated pitches must also have direction.


    Students need to understand that phrases must have shape and direction. The metaphor I like to use is an EKG machine. If that EKG flat lines, it’s a very bad sign. By the same token, if our music flat lines, it’s dead as well.

    Ultimately, however, having students play musically, regardless of their age, is the director’s responsibility by pulling back at cadence points and showing phrase shape. As I mentioned previously, students are a reflection of their director. If the director takes a musical approach, it will sound in the students’ performance.
  21. Developing Technique
    Proper hand position is essential to the development of technique. The fingers must remain close the keys, and pop. They should move like little machines.

    One concept that must be taught early, because it’s an essential part of the practice routine is that motor memory and tempo are mutually exclusive. I rehearse technical passages as follows:


    The work we have been performing excerpts of is my all time favorite grade one piece entitled A Touch of Baroque by Sandy Feldstein and John O’Reilly published by Alfred. There’s just something about it. It has a very catchy tune, technique gets pushed…not so much for these students, but my beginners have to do some serious time wood shedding.
  22. PERFORMANCE – “A Touch of Baroque” by Sandy Feldstein and John O’Reilly
  23. Setup and seating
    Don’t underestimate the importance of the way you setup your ensemble as a tool to help students get better. Give your self plenty of room to move around. If there is enough space, seat your beginner band chairs in groups of two so that every student is accessible. Most of your time should be on what I call your “moving” podium. Standing up in front of 60 4th graders who have only had their instruments for 3 weeks and waving your arms is a waste of time. They aren’t watching, nor do they need to. By moving around, however, it’s very easy to correct posture, hand position, embouchure while the band is playing.

    I’m a big fan of seating the horns in the front row in the model of Pete Pappas’s old Kelvin Grove Bands and Doug Akey’s Hendrix Jr. High School Bands. By seating the saxes right behind them it become easier for the horns to hear their part. By seating them in front they are also much easier to hear in rehearsal and performance.

    Students learn a lot from each other, strong students can really pull along the weaker ones. By being flexible with your seating, the two extremes can be seated next to each other so that the stronger student can provide a constant positive model throughout the rehearsal.
  24. Discipline
    I think that at times, we over complicate things. Discipline can sometimes be one of those times. Don’t overwhelm your students with rules…keep things simple. I have one expectation for my students…that they be professional at all times. This means, of course, that to do this they must follow through with everything else that I’d like them to do. These kids have heard this so many times that they can probably say it for me. They’re expected to show up, show up on time, show up with their stuff, practice, and behave.

    By using the word professionalism, the bar has been set at it’s highest point. Of course if we want our students to behave professionally, we must also do the same. That’s a topic for another session, however.

    In rehearsals, unprofessional behavior can be handled by taking away what they love most…their instrument. By playing or talking out of turn, students are asked to place their mouthpiece or sticks on their stands for the next five minutes of rehearsal. I rarely, in fact I think I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had a repeat offender.

    The Silver Scepter by John Kinyon, published by Alfred is another great grade one work. It begins with a short fanfare that is followed with a processional type tune. The B section begins with a snare solo, and dance tune in the clarinets and saxes. The processional theme comes back to end the piece.
  25. PERFORMANCE – “The Silver Scepter” by John Kinyon
  26. Getting students to practice
    We could certainly devote an entire session to student motivation. If students are a reflection of their teacher, then we need to make sure we practice as well. Our rehearsals need to be structured. We need a plan and set goals for the time we have with them.

    To give some background to my philosophy of getting kids to practice, we need a bit of a refresher of our good friend Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that individuals are motivated because they must satisfy needs. Although he’s added some needs since his original theorem, we’ll keep things simple here and only use his original five. Physiological Needs (food, water, sleep), Safety Needs, Belonging Needs (why some students may join band in the first place. Esteem needs both in terms of how others think of you and self-esteem, and Self-actualization (the desire to become the best that you can be).

    Ideally, we want students to practice because they are motivated to become the best musicians that they can be and because they want the band to be successful. If we look at the typical ways that we as directors motivate kids to practice, they don’t achieve this goal. Grades (esteem),Chair Placement (esteem, belonging, safety),Playing tests (esteem),Challenges (safety),Fear (safety),Intimidation (esteem, safety),Guilt (belonging),Superficial rewards (physiological). These methods absolutely have their place, but the work mainly through motivating the student through the lower needs. The answer then is something we as educators talk about all the time. We must get our students to take ownership of their own learning.

    For students to take ownership of their learning…and this may sound ridiculous…we have to give them ownership. This means, that kids are going to fail. This is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing. Mistakes are okay as long as they learn from them. So if a student shows up without their instrument or without any good reeds, then they stay in rehearsal, but don’t play. Sure, I can lend them an instrument, or run to my desk to grab a read, but I want them to be bored so that they don’t forget their instrument the next time.

    Ownership of learning is a student perception. The atmosphere of our rehearsal has a great impact on this perception. This can be as simple as the choice of the words you use in rehearsal. Avoid the work I, except when you need to make a major impact. Instead of “I’d like you to play that more separated” say “Let’s play that more separated.” Instead of “More oboe at D” say “Claudia play out more at D.” This is a subtle change that will make a remarkable change in rehearsal atmosphere and student ownership.

    A couple years ago, when I was preparing a lecture on student motivation I found a study on the Internet. Unfortunately, in preparing for this presentation, I couldn’t find the specifics of the study again, but the results won’t surprise you. A study of 5th and 6th grade band students found that they felt that success in instrumental music was the result of hard work. The study also questioned 7th and 8th grade students, these students felt that success in instrumental music is the result of natural talent.

    So it’s important that student know that it’s important to practice. And as their teacher have to insist that they practice. The words, “that’s okay” should never leave your mouth. Generally, parents understand that they are part of the process as well. It’s not unusual for them to come to you asking for advice on how to get their child to practice. Make sure you always have an answer to that question. I like to use it as a good time to reinforce the importance of practicing, push private instruction, and remind the parent of what the student should be preparing for. (solo and ensemble, honor band auditions, chair tests, etc).

    This would also be a perfect time to reiterate that performance is a wonderful motivator for students. I have my top band perform on the same concert as my beginners. They even do a joint performance of the Mickey Mouse March as the finale. I do this for one reason. I want the students and the parents to hear what they will sound like after four years in our program.
  27. Teaching students how to practice
    Once our students are practicing, they need to know how to practice. Particularly for beginners, a step by step guide is needed. The five W’s of practice. Who? YOU When? Same time each day. Where? Quiet, well lit, free from distractions. Straight back chair and music stand. Why? It’s the only way you’ll get better What? Every aspect of performance should be practice each day though a practice routine. This includes (tone, rhythm, range, scales, sight-reading, articulation, dynamics, etc). Following the routine…method book & band music.

    Once you’ve decided what you want your students practicing everyday, you can develop supplemental routine sheets. I call them “practice this page only on the day you eat” pages. These pages should not stretch skills, but reinforce them.
  28. Selection of materials for instruction
    In selecting music for my beginner bands, there are three things I look for. The music should be tuneful, have equitable difficulty in all the parts, and it shouldn’t get in the way of my teaching. That last point is one that some people disagree with me on. One of the problems I ran into in selecting music for this performance is that I, of course, wanted to perform all of my very favorite works. The problem was, there was a reason I liked these pieces. They extended the limits of the grade one piece in some way. They had extended harmony, which mean new notes, different rhythms, extended ranges, many different strata of parts. With their folder full of these pieces, it was difficult to work on the concepts I wanted to spend time on. We didn’t sound good, I was getting frustrated, and at times these kids saw the absolute worst of me and it really wasn’t their fault.

    It wasn’t until I wised up, got some “less special” pieces in their folders before real progress was made. Unfortunately this meant we didn’t have time to prepare some of the works on my list. Nottingham Castle, A Song for Friends both by Larry Daehn, and the Prehistoric Suite by Paul Jennings. We’ll just have to get to those later in the year.

    Anne McGinty has a real knack for writing technically simple music that isn’t simple music. Stony Creek March is my favorite work of hers at this level.
  29. PERFORMANCE – “Stony Creek March” by Anne McGinty
    My final topic today is getting the most out of a method book exercise. We’re going to do these all in a row, although I’m sure there are other ways to work on a method book exercise there were all I was able to brainstorm.
  30. Getting the most out of a method book exercise
    1. Count and clap (DEMONSTRATION)
    2. Name notes (DEMONSTRATION)
    3. Name notes and finger along (DEMONSTRATION)
    4. Say/Sing (DEMONSTRATION)
    5. Play every other measure (DEMONSTRATION)
    6. Play backwards (DEMONSTRATION)
    7. Brass buzz on mouthpieces (DEMONSTRATION)
    8. Sizzle (DEMONSTRATION)
    9. Subdivided in eighth notes/sixteenth notes (DEMONSTRATION)
    10. Different Tempos (DEMONSTRATION)
    11. Different Dynamics (DEMONSTRATION)
    12. Play without tongue (DEMONSTRATION)
    13. Note by Note (DEMONSTRATION)
    14. Alternate measures by sections/individuals (DEMONSTRATION)
    15. Cut time (DEMONSTRATION)
    16. Percussion as metronome (DEMONSTRATION)
    17. Accompaniment Track
  31. Final Thoughts and Thanks
    When ever I mentioned to my band director friends that I was bringing my 5th grade band to IMEA you can imagine the reactions I’d usually get. Usually is was a “You’re crazy.” These kids behind me have worked incredibly hard and have been very focused in preparing for this performance. They have exceeded my hopes in every way. I am quite proud of them, and I know they are going to make me look very good for the next three and a half years.

    Before we perform our last final work, please let me thank you once again for attending our session. I cannot leave today without thanking Phil Hash from Kelvin Grove for allowing me to constantly bounce ideas of this session off of him. Mark Taylor, formally of Lake Forest High School for the many times he came out to work with these students in sectionals and clinic settings. We had 75 parents, family members, administration, and friends including Principal Dana Otto and our District’s Superintendent Elect Vicki Gunther travel down from Skokie for this session. With that type of support, it’s pretty tough to not be successful.

    This is the World Premier of Entry of the Nobles by Douglas Akey. It was commissioned by and dedicated to the Middleton Elementary School 5th Grade Band. It will be published by Hal Leonard later this year.
  32. PERFORMANCE – “Entry of the Nobles” by Douglas Akey