Monday, April 4, 2016

Road Report by John Bell

As I was contemplating a topic for this article (particularly during this time of the year), I thought it might be informative to give you a “road report” on what I’ve seen and heard as an adjudicator/clinician over the years. I won’t focus on specific schools or ensembles, but instead offer a cumulative “snap-shot” of the programs with which I’ve had the privilege to work over the years. Bottom line...there is some GREAT teaching happening in a LOT of schools!

Regardless of the state, region, or city, I always come away from a clinic or festival having learned something new. It could be something as simple as some type of equipment I see in a rehearsal room with which I am unfamiliar, to the nitty-gritty of classes are structured throughout a program, what methods are used from the beginning level through the high school, various band and orchestra directors’ views on literature selection, etc. I steal as many ideas as possible from these observations and conversations I have with colleagues!

There definitely appears to be a “recurring theme” I’ve discovered regarding those programs that are recognized as exemplary. This also applies to ensembles/programs which are on the way to BECOMING exemplary. Tried and true, it continues to be one of the most representative “best practices” in instrumental music instruction.

The big secret? Teachers’ continual focus on addressing fundamentals during students’ instrumental music experience, day in, day out. From comments I’ve heard in the past from others, there is sometimes a concern that this type of focus inhibits students’ interest in continuing or even participating in instrumental music; I’ve found that not to be the case!

If beginning and intermediate students become accustomed to a focus on fundamental training during the normal course of the year, they “don’t know what they’re missing” in opposition to always focusing on material for performance. It’s only when students are “punished” with foundational studies (because they “don’t play well enough”, etc.) that they react negatively to the daily training they need.

Not every teacher and/or program approaches fundamental training in the same manner. Some adhere to a strict “diet” of using published technical exercises/books. Even within this group, there are a multitude of variations regarding which method is used. Although I haven’t done a specific study, I would imagine those most successful in this regard use a variety of method books or studies, taking the best from those found to contain the material directors want students to experience.

Others teachers use “homegrown” material, applying specific technical studies to music being rehearsed for upcoming performances. This approach, used by many veteran teachers, is usually based on technical studies with which they have become familiar over the years, using them to address specific areas of concern which some method books do not cover.

Regardless of the approach one uses, it’s important to have a plan, and to feel completely confident that the fundamental material being used truly addresses students’ learning and consistent development. Technical exercises can’t become “exercises” that comprise routine, day-to-day warm-up material. And...there is NOTHING wrong with revisiting basic fundamental exercises throughout students’ progression through an instrumental music program. We hear sports teams say it all the time; “Our success is due to a focus on fundamentals.”

I believe if beginning students become accustomed to this approach to learning, it becomes something they expect...and provides a learning process that promotes consistent improvement from one level to the next. I hope you have a great end to the current school year, and as always, let any of us know if we can help in any way!

John Bell
Palen Music Center -- Liberty
[email protected]

Prior to his appointment at Northwest, John taught instrumental music in the public schools of Missouri for thirty years. Ensembles under his direction received consistent superior ratings at regional and national music festivals, and were invited to perform at state, national, and European conferences, including the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic. A recipient of the John Philip Sousa Legion of Honor, he also received recognition as a Park Hill School District Teacher of the Year, a recipient of the UCM Music Department's Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Missouri chapter of Phi Beta Mu Outstanding Band Director Award. John was appointed Artist-in-Residence -- Director of Bands and Orchestra at Northwest Missouri State University in February of 2013. In addition to conducting the Wind Symphony and Symphony Orchestra at Northwest, his duties include teaching Instrumental Conducting, Advanced Instrumental Conducting, and String Methods. John also supervises instrumental music education student teachers, and is a Co-Director of the Northwest Summer Music Camp. Active as an adjudicator and clinician throughout the Midwest, John's memberships include NAfME, MMEA, NMEA, CBDNA, CODA, NBA, MBA, Phi Beta Mu, Kappa Kappa Psi, Phi Delta Kappa, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He is a part of the Palen Music Center team, serving the Kansas City area.


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