Monday, April 9, 2018
IN THIS ISSUE:
Motivating the Middle School Musician
In the end, nothing we teach them and no level of achievement on their instrument matters much if they do not choose to continue playing.
Middle school students come in ages ranging from 11 to 14 and heights ranging from 6-feet-plus to 3-feet-nothing. Some middle school students can hold their own in any conversation and some struggle to speak to adults. I've taught middle school students who have a hard time writing legibly in the same class with those who could pen a well-written novel. It should be no surprise to us then that the aspects of band that motivate, inspire, and retain these students are equally as varied. I believe that creating a wide variety of experiences to motivate your students is the best way to ensure that you reach as many of them as possible.
In our band program, we use "Band Karate" skill sheets to encourage our students to practice specific fundamental skills we know they need. The sheets are leveled (twenty in total, two sets of ten) and they are not attached to the students' grades. Each sheet has approximately ten "check off" opportunities, is instrument-specific, and is labeled with a karate belt color. The skills represented on our karate sheets begin with demonstrating proper posture, embouchure, and instrument maintenance and progress through long tones, rhythmic patterns, and scales. Some skills require students to do written work on the page while others ask them to clap or play along with a metronome. Ultimately, you can design this type of system to work for your program, your method book(s), and your needs.
All students begin on level one, the white belt. One or two days per week, we have Band Karate time at the beginning or end of class (anywhere between 10-20 minutes of time). Students are allowed to practice their skills and/or check off their skills with a band director. I believe the motivating factors in this system are different for each student. Some of my students are motivated by the one-on-one time they get with the band director, even though it's usually a minute or less. Some are motivated by being able to play something by themselves. Others love the sticker they get for checking off each skill (even the eighth graders!) We also award beads that slide onto pipe cleaners upon the completion of each sheet - you guessed it - in the color of the karate belt. Some are motivated by collecting as many beads as possible! I strongly believe, though, that ALL of my students are motivated by the opportunity to see and experience success as they progress through the levels. As a director, I also feel that the short one-on-one consultation with each student has provided me with much insight into their strengths and weaknesses as both individuals and as a group. I have often altered my lesson plans for the following day(s) to address a common need that was identified on a karate day. I also feel that I know each one of my students a little better as individuals.
Performances provide motivation for many students - a final deadline in their mind, an opportunity to perform for friends and family, or a chance to show how far they've come. I do believe in providing my students with many performance opportunities for this reason. However, I've also fallen victim to overscheduling my students (and myself). I believe there is a "happy medium" to be found - just what that looks like will vary from program to program.
Our students have two formal concerts per year (winter and spring), but they also have many other performance opportunities throughout the year. They can join our Community Band, which is made up of students, parents, teachers, and community members. Students can be a part of our jazz band, which gets to perform at the high school jazz concert. Our eighth graders get to perform on an elementary "tour" to introduce band to the fifth graders. Eighth graders also get invited to sit in with the high school marching band at a football game and the high school pep band at a basketball game. Over the years, I've received emails and notes for EACH ONE of these activities from different parents and students - citing that one SINGLE event was what inspired them to join band, continue in band or join the high school band. You never know which activity or opportunity will speak to a student! (Or, in my case, which BEAD will speak to a student. That's right, they can earn a basketball shaped bead for playing with the pep band, a football shaped bead for playing with the marching band, or a lime green bead for being selected as a member of the jazz band.)
We also provide informal opportunities for performance during the school day. Beginning Band students prepare solos, duets, or trios and present small recitals for their parents to attend in class. Band Leaders are sometimes given the opportunity to perform "Happy Birthday" for a teacher, principal, or secretary in our school. Giving your beginners the opportunity to simply perform a song of their choice for each other in class can be highly motivating for some students as well.
Let's be honest, some of our students just sign up for our class because they think it will be FUN. Some of our students only stick around because of their friends. Some band students aren't really sure WHY they are there - at least not until it "clicks" for them. Over the years my guiding philosophy as a middle school band director has been to help students enjoy playing music enough to continue playing into high school. It takes a different amount of time for each student to "get it." The "click" moment is so different from student to student. I've had sixth graders become serious musicians, and I've seen seniors who still aren't quite there yet. Most importantly, I've watched (and listened to) students who were only in band for the "fun stuff" in middle school become music education majors, outstanding players, and mature musicians. What are you doing to make sure they stick around long enough to "get it?"
Finding fun activities that don't take up too much class time or completely distract your students can be tough. I like to do the following things periodically throughout the year - with the hopes of finding that "just right" amount and not overdoing it.
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