Favorite blog posts, October 2017

Sample woodwind methods syllabus

Shortly before the beginning of fall and spring semesters, I usually get a few emails from new university professors and adjuncts looking for advice and resources on teaching woodwind methods courses. I’m happy to hear from folks, but thought it might be helpful to make available a generic syllabus based on how I teach my class.

My class is 2 credits, and meets 50 minutes 3 times per week during an approximately 15-week semester. A few points of interest:

  • I cover all five major/modern woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) within the single semester.
  • I do four units, with students playing a different instrument during each unit. Students who major in a woodwind instrument will play the four besides their major; everybody else plays just one of the double reeds. (In a perfect world I wouldn’t slight the double reeds this way, but there are some practical/logistical reasons.)
  • I teach my class with students playing a heterogeneous group of instruments, but since I use a concept-oriented approach this sequence should also work if you have everybody playing flute at the same time, etc.
  • I of course use my own book. Since I have students all playing different instruments, I pair it with a band method. If I were using a homogeneous group of instruments, I would swap out the band method for a series of individual methods.

Download the syllabus in your preferred format:

Connecting observations to techniques

photo, deargdoom57

In my woodwind methods class, I try to create lots of opportunities for students (future instrumental music educators) to practice observing woodwind playing and giving feedback. For the feedback to be useful, it needs to connect an observation to a technique. Here are some examples of what not to do:

Observation without technique

“Your tone sounds good.”

“Your intonation is problematic.”

“There are response issues.”

First, it’s important that an educator can articulate their observations with clarity and detail. What is “good” about the student’s tone? (Are you saying that it is characteristic? That it is consistent from note to note?) What is problematic about their intonation? (Is it flat overall? sharp overall? Is it unstable over the course of a phrase? over the course of a single note?) What “issues” are there with response? (Notes responding late? Notes responding with extraneous noise?)

But once the problem or success is clearly identified, it still isn’t of much use unless it comes with a recommendation.

“Your tone is very consistent. Nice work using steady breath support.”

“Your pitch is scooping upward into each note—be sure to articulate with just the tip of the tongue so your voicing remains stable.”

“Let’s see if a softer reed will allow your notes to respond more quickly and clearly.”

Technique without observation

“Try relaxing your embouchure.”

“Use more breath support.”

“Keep your fingers close to the keys.”

Barking orders without explanation might produce some short-term results, but when students know what result you’re trying to produce they can be proactive.

“Remember, you can get that bigger, clearer sound if you relax your embouchure.”

“Use more breath support so those high notes will be up to pitch.”

“You’re having trouble covering the toneholes because your fingers are starting from too far away. Keep them closer so they can find the holes more easily.”

When my students learn to give feedback that connects their specific, precise observations with clearly-taught techniques, they are preparing for fruitful lessons and rehearsals with their own future students.

Getting past frustration and burnout

photo, alister

Every musician (and music student) goes through periods of frustration and burnout. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are just a few ideas to consider:

  • Talk to someone. It might be a colleague who can directly relate to what you’re going through. Or a friend or loved one who cares about you. Or a mentor who can offer wisdom. Or a professional counselor who can listen dispassionately and offer coping strategies. Or maybe all of the above.
  • Get organized. Sometimes taking control of your life can bring some calm and make problems seem more manageable. Clear your desk, make a to-do list, review your calendar, clean out your instrument case, make your bed.
  • Get inspired. Go back to what gets you excited about music. Listen to or play through some old favorites or something new you have been wanting to try. Go to the opera or a rock concert or a jazz club.
  • Do some self-care. Get some exercise, get some sunshine, get some sleep, get some air, stock the fridge with nutritious meals, meditate, worship, or do whatever else makes you feel balanced and healthy.
  • Take some time. If you can, take a little break to recharge. Depending on your circumstances, that might mean going on vacation for a couple of weeks, or spending a quiet weekend at home, or just taking a few minutes between practice sessions to rest and recover.
  • Ride it out. Bear in mind that frustration and burnout are extremely common complaints. When appropriate, it may be helpful just to recognize and accept the negative feelings, and forge ahead anyway.

To expand on one point from above, if you find that you are no longer finding happiness or fulfillment in your musical pursuits, and the situation seems to be more than the usual ups-and-downs, consider checking in with a professional counselor. (If you are part of a university community, you might have no-cost or low-cost access to counseling services on campus.) Counseling isn’t just for people who are “sick” or “crazy”—most of us can benefit now and then for talking things through with someone who is good at it, and who, if and when needed, can identify issues that are treatable with medications or other therapies.

Have more ideas on coping with frustration and burnout? Please share in the comments.