Concept-based woodwind methods

February 21, 2017

Most college students studying instrumental music education have to take a woodwind “methods” course, a sort of crash course in teaching the woodwind instruments. I have taught woodwind methods classes for about the past ten years.

A typical approach is to divide the semester into instrument-based units: x weeks studying the flute, x weeks studying the oboe, etc. I’ve taught woodwind methods that way, and it’s tough to get through all the material. How can you realistically cover the pedagogy of five instrument families in one semester? (Some schools offer this scant improvement: two semesters.)

photo, Kerr Photography

One big reason that woodwind methods teachers get stuck in the one-instrument-at-a-time paradigm is that existing textbooks, syllabi, etc. treat the woodwinds as being hopelessly different from each other. While the woodwinds are more diverse than the brasses or bowed strings (though perhaps not the percussion), the techniques of playing them are not as unrelated as many seem to believe.

A symptom of this misunderstanding is the woodwind-methods-by-committee approach, in which a textbook has chapters written by five different authors, or in which a course is taught by a rotating cast of woodwind professors. This invariably leads to holes in the curriculum, confusion over vocabulary, and contradictory ideas.

I have much, much better success when I focus on the basic concepts underlying good woodwind playing. My course addresses audible aspects of how woodwinds sound (tone, response, intonation, volume/dynamics, fluency), and connects them to elements of playing technique (posture/position, breathing and breath support, voicing, embouchure, tuning, articulation, finger movement, and selection from among alternate fingerings). When my students are conversant in those concepts, it’s almost trivial to apply them to a diverse group of instruments: “the clarinet uses a very high voicing, but the flute uses a very low voicing.”

That’s still a lot to cover in a semester, but I actually find that I can get through the material efficiently enough to leave some days open for review, Q&A, or special/requested topics. And, more importantly, my students absorb widely-applicable concepts rather than trying to memorize seemingly unrelated factoids about seemingly unrelated instruments.

This is a valuable approach for woodwind doublers, too, who have to parse out the differences in the instruments but also the differences in culture and tradition that have developed around those instruments and their pedagogy. Understanding the underlying concepts helps to make sense of the sometimes very different approaches to the same problems.

Warning: commercial-ish plug

I’ve hinted on the blog a few times about my upcoming book, based on materials I have developed for my woodwind methods courses. It clearly and concisely covers the most crucial concepts in woodwind playing. Since I usually teach a mixed-instrument class I pair it with a band method (such as Essential Elements or Accent on Achievement) for hands-on playing activities, but it would work just as well paired with an individual method (such as the Rubank series) if you have the luxury of a full class set of each instrument.

I’m hoping to get the book launched before 2017 slips away. If you like, you can join a mailing list to be notified if when it becomes available.