Observing woodwind playing objectively

"Woodwinds" by Michael @ NW Lens is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

I have my woodwind methods classes do a lot of observing of woodwind playing. They comment on each other’s woodwind playing in class, write concert/recital reports, and make written comments on each other’s playing exams (for my eyes only). This is a crucial skill for their future teaching careers.

I try to push them to keep their observations objective. But often the comments are things like:

  • “Your tone sounds really good.”
  • “Your articulation was sluggish.”
  • “So-so finger fluency.”

Remarks like this, especially if detached from technique observations or recommendations, are unhelpful but often also unfounded. “Good” tone is a difficult thing to pin down, even for a specialist in the instrument. Even my college woodwind-instrument majors usually haven’t done enough critical listening in their lifetime for me to fully trust their judgments of what tone is “good,” even on their own instrument.

I find it more helpful to the development of my students’ disciplined, precise teaching to hold them to a standard of objectivity. Tone isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” (It might be more possible to effectively use a standard like “characteristic,” but even that requires some context.) But it’s fairly straightforward, and more useful pedagogically, to determine whether tone is, say, consistent.

Some better versions of the above observations might be:

  • “Your tone is consistent from note to note, and also seems characteristic of the instrument.”
  • “I hear a moment of air noise before each note, especially in the low register. Try increasing breath support to help each note respond immediately.”
  • “Your fingers seem to move quickly and confidently to most notes, but you seem to arrive late at the F-sharps. Let’s review that fingering.”

Keeping observations factual and non-judgmental makes lessons more efficient and targeted, and keeps lines of communication open for better teaching and learning.

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.

New book! Woodwind Basics: Core concepts for playing and teaching flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone

Woodwind Basics by Bret Pimentel

I’m pleased to announce the release of my book, Woodwind Basics: Core concepts for playing and teaching flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. I wrote it with woodwind methods/techniques classes in mind, but I think it also works well as a reference for private teachers at any level, or for woodwind players, especially woodwind doublers.

I’ve been using various drafts of this book for the last few years with my own woodwind methods classes. (If you’re a reader of this blog, you’re familiar with my complaints about the existing textbooks.) I wanted to write something very focused, clear, and methodical, with the side benefits of being relatively short, easy to read, and inexpensive.

I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and I hope you’ll get yourself a copy. I especially recommend the PDF/ebook version for low price and immediate delivery, but it’s also available in paperback from Amazon.

I owe a special thanks to readers of this blog over the past 9 years. The 500+ posts I’ve written here, plus your comments and other responses, have done a lot to shape my ideas about woodwind playing and teaching. So, if you will send me an email, I’ll be happy to send you a coupon code worth a few bucks toward the PDF version. Let me know who you are and why you’re interested in the book. Offer good through June 2017.

Concept-based woodwind methods

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. Update: the book is now available!

Student-selected online woodwind pedagogy articles, 2016 edition

Last fall, I had students in my university woodwind methods course select, evaluate, and vote on some online woodwind pedagogy resources they might like to use as future public school music teachers. (My blog is off-limits.) Once again, I’m going to share a sort of edited/curated version of the results.

This year, the votes got spread around quite a bit, but there were three articles that the class especially liked:

  • Top 10 (+) Things That Beginning Clarinet Players Do Wrong and How to Correct Them, by Marilyn Mattei. My students were impressed with the troubleshooting ideas and solutions-oriented thinking. They successfully identified some areas that differ from what I teach in class, and made some thoughtful comments weighing the differences. They thought, correctly, that some of the exercises and techniques would be best used in a private lesson or sectional, rather than in a full beginning band rehearsal.
  • Teaching the Beginning Bassoonist, by Terry Ewell. This is a repeat favorite from last year. (I may need to figure out a way to ensure that future classes don’t just recycle previous years’ selections from these blog posts.) My students appreciated the provided lesson plans, the level of detail, and the reassuring tone directed toward non-bassoonist band directors.
  • The Flute Embouchure, by Bradley Garner. Students liked the depth of information, but disagreed on its presentation: some found the text clear and straightforward, but others found it dense reading.

A number of other articles got fewer votes. I’m listing, without additional comment and in no particular order, a few of those that I agree are worth a look:

What I want my class to get from the assignment is a sense of how to sift through the information (“information”) available online, taking into account the author’s credentials or sources, a common-sense evaluation of ideas, and applicability to a particular teaching situation. Be careful out there.

Things you need to cover in woodwind methods class

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.

photo, Ace Foundation
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.

Student-selected online woodwind pedagogy articles

In the past I have had my woodwind methods classes make woodwind pedagogy notebooks. The idea is to have them explore some available pedagogical resources, and assemble them into a resource they can use for reference in their future teaching. But that assignment is starting to feel a little weird, especially since I have been trying to go increasingly paperless in my own life, and because it has been increasingly difficult to persuade my digitally-oriented students to go to the actual library and look at actual books.

To be clear, I’m a lover of libraries, and for me there’s no question that there are tremendously valuable resources there that are not available online (yet?). But it seemed like time to experiment with embracing an online approach to the assignment. So during the past semester I had them each locate some online articles they thought might be useful. Then they used a discussion board to collaborate on vetting the articles for usefulness and author credentials, and to compare their content against the concepts we covered in class.

I’m going to provide here a heavily-edited report of their results with my own commentary. Some articles were proposed but were rejected by classmates as less useful or credible, and I don’t see any need to list those. Also, I wanted my students to go through the process of vetting online information, but I didn’t entirely agree with their conclusions, so I’m omitting some that I personally think are problematic. (If you’re wondering, my own blog posts were off-limits.)

photo, Knight Foundation
photo, Knight Foundation

Here are some of the articles my students voted to be worthy of inclusion in a digital notebook:

  • Clarinet Basics: Maintenance Habits, written by Julie DeRoche for The Woodwind and The Brasswind. This one was very highly regarded by the class, and I am inclined to agree with their assessment. My students liked the article’s thoroughness and day-to-day applicability. Two cautions with this article: firstly, I think it’s wise to be careful with (paid?) articles from websites that want to sell you things, but Ms. DeRoche’s credentials are above reproach and the information checks out. Secondly, the article does describe briefly the process of oiling a clarinet’s bore, though it does not strongly recommend this procedure. That is probably information best not given to beginners—at that stage it should be prescribed and carried out by a professional.
  • Reed Help for Beginners, written by Sarah Hamilton. This oboe-related article was another top pick by the class, who appreciated its down-to-earth advice, clearly-explained concepts, and helpful illustrations. I agree that this is a great resource, though some of the reed evaluation and adjustment procedures described might be beyond the scope of what a non-oboist band director can or should attempt.
  • Beginner Clarinet Tips, written by “Andrea.” This one is really more of a table of contents to some other articles on the site. My class liked the breadth of material covered and the extensive photos. I find the information to be very similar to much of the conventional wisdom regarding beginning clarinet playing, which mostly but not completely agrees with my preferred approaches.
  • The Big Switch, by Amanda King. My students found this advice on switching students to the bassoon to be useful. I am on record as disagreeing with the premise that beginners should start on some other instrument before switching to the one they want, but the article does raise some relevant points for cases where that is happening.
  • Teaching the Beginning Bassoonist, written by Terry Ewell for The Double Reed. I’m including this excellent article even though it really is geared toward private bassoon teachers rather than band directors; it’s a good example of solid information that would be mismatched to this particular audience. It’s also a good (and relatively harmless) demonstration of the importance of using up-to-date materials, as bassoon reeds now cost well over $6 USD.
  • Tips for Teaching Beginning Flute Players written originally for BandWorld Magazine by Randy Navarre. My students liked the article’s concision and clarity. I generally agree with the information presented.

I think some good things came out of the assignment, though I still feel like I sold out a little by excusing my students from visiting the library. I stayed fairly hands-off through the discussion process, and that did result in the students selecting some articles that weren’t really a fit for what I wanted them to learn. In the future I might consider being more involved with guiding the discussion. I’m also concerned that the final product—this blog post—isn’t as tangible as an actual notebook, and might not be as ready at hand, but hopefully they have developed some skills in evaluating information they find online.

Things you don’t need to cover in woodwind methods class

orchestral flutist
Photo, KSMF Webmaster

I’ve taught college-level woodwind methods courses for a few years now. 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.

There are a handful of textbooks available for these types of courses, most of which I own, and none of which I use in class. I’m continually surprised by the material that is and isn’t covered in these books.

I try hard to keep my courses focused on core concepts, like position/posture, breath support, basic embouchure, voicing, and finger technique, and I try to keep those concepts as simple and clear as possible. I have students observe each other’s playing of these instruments, identify things that don’t look and/or sound right, and put their observations into terms of those basic concepts. (“So-and-so’s pitch sounds unstable, and his embouchure appears to be moving a lot. Perhaps keeping the embouchure still and increasing breath support will help to stabilize his intonation.”)

I find discouragingly little discussion (or even understanding) of these concepts in many of the published texts. Instead, I find what appears to be a lot of filler—not bad information, necessarily, but information that’s far from mission-critical. The students in these classes will mostly end up teaching beginning or intermediate students in large-group settings. They need to understand the fundamentals in ways that will help them problem-solve efficiently.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not opposed to knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I’m just saying that for an already too-short woodwind methods class, that 300-page book could perhaps be trimmed down to 100 or even 50 clear, concise pages, for significant savings of money, trees, class time, shelf space, and brain cells. Here are some examples of things that I’ve seen in actual classroom-intended woodwind methods textbooks, that just plain don’t need to be there: Continue reading “Things you don’t need to cover in woodwind methods class”

Woodwind teaching resources for school band directors (and others)

Photo, Nick Findley

Students in my woodwind methods classes are usually music education majors, planning careers as school band directors. In my class, they get their one-semester crash course in playing and teaching the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. Clearly there’s a lot of information that they will need but which will be easily forgotten—I can’t give a trumpet player three weeks to learn to play the clarinet, and then expect her to remember many fingerings once the playing test is done, the clarinet is returned, and I’ve given her a bassoon contend with.

So I have them prepare a woodwind notebook over the course of the semester, with lecture notes, class handouts, fingering charts, and other things that will hopefully be valuable resources to them in their teaching careers.

One of the things I ask them to include in the notebook is some resources that they have discovered independently. The idea here is to have them find things that they think they will need, and to become acquainted with some good sources for woodwind information along the way. I tell them that information found on the web will only count if I think it’s reliable, and I encourage them to send me links for advance approval.

Usually my classes figure out that I can’t very well reject anything they print from my website, so I usually see a lot of my own stuff appearing in their notebooks. I don’t object to this as long as they choose well, but sometimes they don’t. Last semester’s submissions included my review of the AKAI EWI 4000s, which, of course, is not part of our curriculum, and even some of my links pages, which become considerably less useful on paper, since you can’t click through to the good stuff.

So I figured I might as well share my own selection of posts from this blog that I would encourage future band directors, or other woodwind players or educators, to put in their notebooks: Continue reading “Woodwind teaching resources for school band directors (and others)”