Monday, April 10, 2017

Your Students Are Brilliant -- Don't Trust Them!
by Jared Brockmeyer

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."
-- Richard Feynman

When I first started teaching, I was regularly astonished at what my students did not know: basic rhythms, enharmonics, key signatures, etc. "You learned this in 6th grade!" I would exclaim, or "We did this in a piece THREE DAYS AGO!" "HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW HOW MANY BEATS A DOTTED HALF NOTE GETS?!?"

After being baffled in rehearsals for long enough at the high school level, I decided to probe deeper with some written assessments. I was even more incredulous; the number of students who DID seem to understand some concepts was much, MUCH lower than I had even braced myself for.

Our students are master thespians and mimics, and given enough repetitions or strong enough section leaders they can give entirely convincing performances of skills and literature that give the illusion of mastery...but that all falls away the instant they try to apply old skills to new applications. Students get lost early in some processes and hide, and we often find out far too late that their understandings are built on sand.

We often trust our intuition or our ears as to whether students are "ready for the next thing," but I'm convinced that we have to build iron-clad systems that move glacially slow and catch students every step of the way as they make tiny mistakes. The tiniest errors bloom quickly into large misunderstandings that can create problems that are very, very time-consuming to correct. Constant individual assessment, deliberate scaffolding, and intentional programming are paramount.

To that end, I submit a series of interlocking systems we've found success with in the 7th grade band at Rockwood South Middle School to insure students understand each concept at a fundamental level that allows them to apply it going forward. While they may seem specific to middle school, they are, I think, easily extrapolated to more experienced ensembles.

A Three Unit System

Like many of you, we perform three concerts a year: Fall/Winter, Contest, and Spring. We use each of these concerts as capstones for specific rhythmic skills: Fall is simply a review of 6th grade skills/vocabulary and cut time, Contest is for 6/8, and Spring is for 16th permutations. Each concert's exercises and selections are built to reflect those rhythmic skills, and over the course of the year we perform in a least three of the five keys our district mandates in the curriculum. Furthermore, the six pieces we play always include a march, a lyrical piece, an overture, a fanfare, and a transcription to make sure we have a basic understanding of multiple styles moving forward.

Building Proficiency

Each unit's new rhythms are attacked in a tiered approach:

Modeling: New rhythms are ALWAYS introduced with written counting, followed by verbal counting that is predicated on foot tapping.

Written Counting: Daily slips and weekly quizzes are given that require students to demonstrate proficiency in writing counting for new rhythms. Students who struggle are pulled for additional help. I am absolutely convinced that students who cannot write a rhythm or play it in conjunction with their foot do not actually understand it.

Method Book Exercises: Finally, the method book! We use pertinent exercises to move them into application of the counting. Some are better than others, so we only use what we need.

The Pertinent Piece: Each unit's concert includes a piece that is built on the pertinent rhythms; choosing a piece based on the rhythms we're learning forces us to spend time on that rhythm. If the piece is more challenging, we'll first tackle written exercises that put salient portions of the piece in unison for the ensemble to learn. This is especially valuable for the lows, whose parts are often far too simple!!!

Sight-Reading: Once the piece featuring the rhythm is off the ground, we'll use to play those rhythms every day in new contexts. Capstone Project: At the conclusion of the concert, students are given the opportunity to (in that rhythm or meter) compose a brief piece, take a playing test, or -- if they do neither or forget it! -- fill out an extremely long, arduous, and taxing counting sheet.

Incremental Progress

I firmly believe in the power of a "drop in the bucket." We use an INCREDIBLY slow, incremental approach to learning new notes and keys that I feel is powerful in its simplicity and persistence.

New Notes: We play a chromatic scale. Every day...but not the same one. We spend two to three weeks making sure that EVERY SINGLE STUDENT knows the Bb scale, but then we begin a cycle. Every two weeks, we play a new chromatic scale, moving by semi-tones above and below Bb (eg Bb-A-B-Ab-C-G-C#, etc). Students only learn one new note every two weeks, review 11 of 12 notes in the chromatic scale each time, and thus expand their range in both directions. Students who are struggling are pulled daily. After we've worked our way through the series, we go through again and start building speed.

Key Familiarity: We use "Foundations for Superior Performance" and start by simply playing each of the five keys we use in 7th grade for a week apiece. Once we've gotten through all 5, we go through again and play the scale and Study #1. Then the scale and Study #2, etc. By the second concert unit we cycle daily rather than weekly, and by the third concert we start working on the relative minors. Spending time in different keys and exploring them beyond the scale builds familiarity that should (theoretically) show up in the music. Theoretically.

An Upward Spiral

Casting the Dragnet: Of course, each new unit we review the information from the previous one. We "cast the dragnet" and use rhythm slips that start INCREDBILY basic to find students who don't understand previous concept that we missed the first time. We start day one each time with whole notes, half notes, and quarters, moving up incrementally from there. We catch kids who are still struggling. EVERY. TIME. ...but fewer.

Building Dynamically: I don't know about you, but most middle school bands I know only use one dynamic -- us included, some years. I think playing with dynamic range is harder than we appreciate, so we start the year with just two: quiet and loud. We'll expand one more for contest and maybe another for Spring. It may sound modest, but I'm not convinced most of our middle school bands really need many more.

Intonation: Our brass buzz. Every day. This helps, I'm convinced, for the brass to hear and match. Our woodwinds, especially at the beginning of the year, get pulled daily by section to check their mouthpiece pitches and insure that their embouchures are correct.

A confession - our kids sounds sound SO BAD at that beginning of the year that we don't do much else with intonation until October -- until their "faces" are on and fundamental tone has been re-established, it doesn't seem like a good use of time. From there we'll go "Around the Room" on odd days. On even days, we tune the first/second/third/whatever-day-we're-on chairs to each other. This is DEEPLY revealing, gives kids a chance to match pitch with other instruments, and helps quickly reveal who is really struggling with intonation. I bet I can count the number of times we use a tuner with each kid on two hands.

Everything Else

Phrasing, articulation, and all the other elements are also powerfully important, but there's only so much time in the day for fundamentals. I find that if I use our fundamentals time and systems to work the most basic skills it frees up brain-space to work the more advanced, musical skills in the literature. Rehearsals are inherently exercises in prioritization, and I've found that I get the most consistent results with this approach.

Build Your Own Machine

Certainly there are 1,000 different ways to skin a cat. There can be little doubt that all of our ensembles have room for improvement, and I would never posit that any of these ideas is foolproof or mandatory. I WOULD, however, proffer that building the most air-tight, consistent, and intentional system you can for your ensemble will be more consistent and more efficacious than trusting method books or intuition.

Your students are brilliant -- don't trust them!

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