When you’re too sick for a lesson

Sometimes I have students cancel their lessons due to seemingly very minor, manageable health concerns (physical or mental). Other times students drag themselves to lessons when they are clearly miserable and contagious.

The better approach is clearly somewhere in the middle, but my newest college students are usually living away from their parents and the formal rules of high school for the first time and sometimes aren’t used to making those judgment calls on their own.

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Sample woodwind methods syllabus

If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, you might be interested in my book.

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:

Advice on graduate performance study and university teaching careers

My university students are mostly undergraduate music education majors, but many at some point inquire about graduate school, including a performance degree path and eventual university teaching. Here are some things you should know about graduate performance studies if you’re an undergraduate music major.

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What I would do differently as a college music major

Believe it or not, some of my college students make mistakes that seem somehow familiar. If I could go back to college (and graduate school) and do it all over, here are a few things I might choose to do differently.

photo, m00by
photo, m00by
  • Embrace my teachers’ approaches. As readers of this blog know, I tend to be a bit opinionated about woodwind playing, and as a student I was sometimes too quick to dismiss what I was being taught. A better approach would have been to learn enthusiastically and immersively my teachers’ playing styles, thought processes, equipment choices, and philosophies, mine them for every bit of value and wisdom, and wait until later to make better-educated decisions about what to keep and what to discard.
  • Invest more time and effort into fundamentals. Like many students (and professionals?) I spent a fair amount of practice time focused on learning an étude or repertoire piece, as opposed to learning to play the instrument and to make music. The recitals and concerts I was so fixated on at the time seem much less important now, but the time I could have spent working on basics of tone production, finger technique, and interpretation would have paid nice dividends in the years since.
  • Listen to more music. Mostly I did pretty well at attending concerts on campus. And I went to a few things in the community. And I checked out a few recordings. But why let such a large percentage of my musical intake be performances by other students, or by the professors whose playing I already knew well? What if I had made a point of listening to something new every day, even for a few minutes? What kind of musical depth could I have developed by listening to 365 great woodwind players per year?

Study and practice smart!

Solo/chamber stage etiquette for first-year music majors

Here’s what I teach my first-year music majors as they are preparing for their first public performance of solo or chamber repertoire. Customs may vary in your area.

photo, Converse College
photo, Converse College
  • Dress professionally and comfortably. Formalwear/eveningwear is overkill and a distraction for most music major recital performances. I like to wear a necktie and preferably also a jacket, but something of roughly equivalent dressiness also works (slacks/skirt and a nice top are another example).
  • Enter the stage by walking swiftly and confidently. Stop just short of the music stand, so that it isn’t between you and the audience (at least not yet).
  • Before you do anything else, acknowledge your audience with a bow. (If you are on stage with collaborative musicians, wait for them to get into position so you can all bow together. Whoever is standing closest to the front should start the bow as soon as everybody is ready.) To bow: bend at the waist, look at your shoes for a second, then straighten back up. Keep both hands either on your instrument or at your sides. Don’t curtsy. Don’t shrug or roll your eyes or pull faces. (I suggest practicing your bow a little before your performance. Maybe take smartphone video so you can see if you are doing something weird.)
  • After bowing, make any last-minute arrangements or adjustments: arranging sheet music, checking reeds, etc.
  • If you are taking a tuning note on stage, turn to whoever is providing the pitch. Mostly listen, then play briefly, adjust, and if needed play one more time (briefly!) to be sure. Don’t play a long tuning note, like you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re right. If you’re uncertain about your ability to tune accurately on stage, you can tune to a tuner or other reference before going on stage, and use the onstage tuning as a chance to just play a note before you begin the performance.
  • During the performance, don’t make faces or gestures in response to mistakes. It calls unnecessary attention to what probably are barely-noticeable glitches, and takes you and your audience out of the moment.
  • As you and/or your collaborators play the last note of each movement or piece, freeze in place. Hold your position until the last note finishes reverberating in the performance space, then another second or two.
  • If you just finished a complete musical work (not just one movement of the larger work you are performing), you can bring your instrument down into a carrying position, look out into the audience, and smile to signal that the piece is complete. They should start to applaud at this point.
  • Leave the stage quickly. Don’t be caught still on stage when the applause ends. In some situations you can leave your sheet music behind to be retrieved later.
  • In some cases the audience will continue to applaud enthusiastically after you leave the stage. If you like, you can return to the stage for another bow and then leave quickly again. Sometimes the audience doesn’t bring you back for another bow—don’t take that personally.

Break a leg!

Students and paying gigs

Sometimes I get phone calls from people hoping to hire my students for gigs. I’m delighted when I can pass a professional opportunity on to a hardworking, high-achieving student, but often these calls are troubling.

Obviously, the callers want students because they assume students will work cheaply. Lots of college students work for not much money, as restaurant waitstaff, custodians, babysitters, and so forth. Those jobs don’t pay much because they are (ostensibly) “unskilled” labor. But “musician” is very much a skilled job.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the School of Music.  This highly select, 40-member ensemble represents the finest wind and percussion instrumentalists on campus. The ensemble will perform at this year's Penn State President's Concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. The President's Concert, a joint production of the Penn State President's Office, the School of Music, and the Alumni Association, has been held at major concert venues including Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Last year's concert was held in Carnegie Hall.
photo, Penn State

Not long ago I was hired to play lead alto saxophone for a gig backing up a singer, and the contractor asked if I had a couple of students who could play in the section. Then he asked what I thought would be fair to pay them. I told him immediately that he was hiring them to do a professional service, and should pay them as professionals. Happily, he saw my point and agreed to those terms.

I suppose some hiring parties assume that students will be cheaper than non-students because they are not as skilled, and therefore can’t negotiate higher fees. (This may or may not be the case—I’ve certainly played gigs with “professionals” who would be far outclassed by undergraduate music students.) Sometimes they want to compensate for hiring less-skilled musicians by planning extensive rehearsals. In most cases, I think they would better spend that same money hiring skilled players to sight-read.

Musicians, enrolled students or not, are specialized, skilled professionals, and should be treated (and compensated) as such.

Things you need to cover in woodwind methods class

If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, you might be interested in my book.

A few years back I posted a rant about non-mission-critical information in woodwind methods textbooks.

This is a course primarily for instrumental music majors, who will go on to become school band or orchestra directors, and who need a crash course in the playing and pedagogy of each instrument that will be in their future ensembles. At the places I’ve taught, it means taking students from zero to playing a little bit of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, all in one semester. It’s a semester-long sprint.

I went on to list things I have found in textbooks intended for these courses, which I think are distractions or filler or otherwise misguided.

woodwind methods class
photo, Ace Foundation

What should a woodwind methods class focus on?

  • Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. Fundamentals. For woodwinds, the following are absolutely, non-negotiably crucial technical elements: breath support, voicing, embouchure, articulation, and finger technique. They must be understood and properly connected to audible elements: tone, intonation, response, volume/dynamics, and fluency (of finger movements). This material should probably make up 90%+ of lecture, readings, in-class activities, etc.
  • Woodwind-specific band-room survival skills: minor instrument repairs and adjustments, reading and interpreting fingering charts, woodwind transpositions, selecting equipment (this needs to be a much bigger conversation than just a list of brands and models), and matching students to instruments (hint: gender, anatomical factors within broad norms, and ill-conceived proficiency testing are not good ways of doing this).
  • Introduction to additional resources. One, two, or even several semesters are not enough to make a undergraduate student into an effective teacher of woodwinds; they need to know how and why to consult available pedagogical books, journals, and online materials.

Also, disturbingly, I have been hearing occasionally from woodwind methods teachers who are choosing or are being encouraged to skip or minimize the double reeds and focus on flute, clarinet, and saxophone. (I even heard from a publisher alerting me to their woodwind methods textbook that does not cover the double reeds!) I think this is a disastrous side effect of a marching-band-centric approach to music education, and leaves future music educators woefully unprepared to lift their band programs above that level. You have to teach oboe and bassoon!

The question I get a lot from new college professors about to teach their first woodwind methods course is which textbook to use. I don’t have a strong recommendation. Dietz and Westphal seem to be commonly used, but they are expensive and have the other problems I have previously described. I currently use some materials of my own with my woodwind classes, which may or may not at some point become available. If you like, join this mailing list and I’ll use it to spam you if I ever get everything edited into a book-like form. Update: the book is now available!

Make sure you are using your woodwind class’s time well, preparing them to teach woodwind fundamentals clearly and thoroughly.

Five things to do before starting a new school year as a college music major

Most colleges and universities will be starting classes again within the next month or two. If you are a music student, now might be a good time to make some preparations that will set you up for success in the new school year.

photo, KosmoKarlos Photography
photo, KosmoKarlos Photography
  1. Get your instrument ready. After a year of hard playing in ensembles, lessons, solo recitals, and the practice rooms, your (woodwind) instrument is most likely in need of a little maintenance. Take (or ship) your instrument to your teacher’s recommended technician for some care and you will be glad you did—a well-maintained instrument is fun to play, and makes you sound better with less effort. High-quality woodwind instruments played daily probably ought to have a full overhaul at least every 5-10 years; this is a bit expensive and includes things like replacing all the pads and corks, making sure the keywork fits precisely, removing dents or bends, and thorough cleaning and lubrication. In between overhauls, get your instrument checked out at least annually for what some shops call “playing condition”—a cheaper service, replacing or repairing just what is necessary to fix the most immediate issues.
  2. Get in shape. If you can feel a case of “summer chops” setting in, then now is the time to start getting back into fighting shape. If your summer days are long and unstructured, it can be easy to procrastinate, so set up a routine. Make a practicing schedule and stick to it. I recommend doing it first thing in the morning, before you get distracted by other things.
  3. Get a jump on lesson preparation. If you are a returning music major, you probably have a good idea what you will be assigned in that first lesson (let me guess: scales and/or technical exercises, etudes, and repertoire?). How pleased would your teacher be if you showed up to the first lesson of the semester with a week’s worth (or more) ready to go? What kind of momentum would that give you for the semester? You might not know yet exactly what repertoire your teacher will want you to tackle in the fall, but this could be a great chance to get started on a piece you would really like to play. (I, for one, am usually happy to accommodate students who show that kind of initiative.) If you are a new music major or aren’t sure what to expect, your teacher may or may not be answering email or phone calls over the summer, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.
  4. Clean up and stock up. Take a few minutes to clean out your instrument case, reed case, backpack, sheet music filing system, etc. and get rid of the clutter. If you have been working at a summer job or saving rent by living at home, now might be a good time to provision yourself for the coming months (reeds, cleaning swabs, cork grease, pencils). If you have been saving money toward a new instrument or mouthpiece, hold onto it and get your teacher to advise and assist you with that purchase after the semester starts.
  5. Choose some new, positive habits. Times of changing routine (such as the start of a new semester) are great times to insert new habits. Ask yourself what habits a really excellent music student would have: increased practice? better recital attendance? instrument care? reedmaking? listening to recordings? Make a list, commit to some plans, and hit the ground running from day one.

Have a great year!

University of New Mexico offers new multiple woodwinds degree

The University of New Mexico is now offering a masters degree program in multiple woodwinds.

Click for flyer (PDF)

A few items of interest from the degree requirements (also see an update in the comments):

  • It is a 4-instrument degree, with one “primary” and three “secondary” instruments. Two semesters of study are required on the primary instrument, and one semester each on the secondaries.
  • The audition must include at least two instruments (one of them must be the primary instrument).
  • The single required degree recital appears to be a recital on the primary instrument only. Personally, I’m not a fan of this—to me it doesn’t make much sense to study one instrument for performance and three more just to play in the practice room. But it may be a good option for a doubler who intends to have a single “main” instrument.

I am always glad to see new multiple woodwinds programs. I have added UNM’s to my list of multiple woodwinds degree programs. The list is intended to be comprehensive but likely has some gaps, so please let me know if you are aware of any others. In particular, I have been hearing from doublers outside the US who are looking for programs in their respective parts of the world, so be sure to send those along if you know they exist.

For more information about the program at UNM, please contact them directly using the email addresses in the flyer.

Auxiliary instruments and college study

At the small, regional university where I teach, it is common for incoming instrumentalist music majors’ entire previous musical experience to be limited to junior high and high school band. Few have had private instruction prior to entering college. (Although this has obvious disadvantages, I’m not complaining: our program isn’t trying to position itself as a highly-selective conservatory, and our new students generally arrive eager to learn.)

One thing that seems to surprise some prospective students is that we have different views about what I consider “auxiliary” instruments. For example, it’s common for prospects to identify themselves as bass clarinetists, or as tenor saxophonists. Some of these students have never even attempted to play a B-flat clarinet or an alto saxophone, and sometimes show little interest in doing so. They started on bass clarinet or tenor or baritone saxophone as beginners in the public school band and haven’t played anything else.

At the university, I don’t have bass clarinet “majors” or tenor saxophone “majors,” but neither do I have majors in B-flat clarinet or in alto saxophone. I do have majors in clarinet or in saxophone—that is to say, majors in the whole clarinet family or the whole saxophone family.

photo, Carst van der Molen
photo, Carst van der Molen

Since most of my students don’t have prior exposure to serious solo pieces and are taking a less-performance-heavy degree path like our major in music education, I like to focus on core repertoire. For clarinetists, that means probably 95% B-flat clarinet repertoire, perhaps with a few pieces for A clarinet done on a borrowed school instrument or played in a transposed arrangement. The idea of a “primary” member of the saxophone family is a little sketchier, even for classical study, but certainly a large majority of the central repertoire calls for the alto. For a student who has a strong affinity for an auxiliary instrument, I am happy to make sure they get to do a little extra solo repertoire or ensemble participation on that instrument, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to me take them through a four-year degree playing, say, nothing but bass clarinet.

A large fraction of our student population is made up of first-generation college students, and many depend heavily on financial aid and part-time jobs to meet tuition and housing costs, so blithely “requiring” them to buy professional-quality instruments immediately upon matriculation generally isn’t a feasible solution. And I obviously can’t expect high school band directors to steer all their students toward “primary” instruments in the event that they decide to study music in college. Ideally, those students would all be taking lessons while in high school, and those teachers would prep them on what to expect, but that isn’t a reality in this area.

It’s tempting to draw a hard line—nobody blinks when a professor at a top music school insists that his or her students meet specific equipment requirements—but certain of my students genuinely cannot afford to buy another instrument within the timeframe of college acceptance to college graduation. The university serves an almost exclusively regional student population, and is generally more focused on boosting enrolments than on tightening down selectivity.

At this point I don’t have a great solution to this problem. I try to make sure that prospective students understand the situation as early as possible and encourage them to start saving. I tell them that I can work with them now or after they arrive on campus to help them find a good deal on an acceptable instrument. I try to spread the word to high school band directors so that they can start dropping hints to students who seem bound for college-level music study.

I welcome some discussion on this. Am I old-fashioned to expect my saxophone majors to play mostly alto and my clarinet majors to play mostly B-flat, especially if they are headed for public-school band directing instead of performance? How firmly can/should I insist? Are there ways to better serve and accommodate (but also educate and challenge) college music majors who see themselves as “bass clarinetists?”