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:
- An exhaustive history of the bassoon, going all the way back to its Renaissance-era progenitors. I personally didn’t read that much bassoon history until I was studying for my doctoral comprehensive exams; I think a future school band director can safely refocus his or her efforts on something of more immediate usefulness.
- A thorough explanation and endorsement of the clarinet double-lip embouchure. While this technique can be useful, it’s non-standard, and should probably be introduced at the discretion of a private teacher, not a school band director, and in a private lesson, not in a band hall.
- Multiple-tonguing techniques for reed instruments.
- Surveys of various and obscure vibrato techniques.
- Circular breathing.
- Details of how woodwind instruments are manufactured.
- Flute harmonics used as an extended technique, and their notation.
- Photo essays of clarinet and saxophone reeds in various stages of manufacture, from cane field to finished product.
- Saxophone altissimo fingering charts.
- The use of not only bass and tenor clefs for bassoon, but also alto clef.
- Photos of obsolete tools for making oboe reeds. For that matter, I don’t think we need photos of modern reedmaking tools in this situation.
- A chapter on the history and repertoire of the wind quintet.
- Lists of college-level repertoire.
- Charts comparing single-reed mouthpiece tip openings and facing lengths.
- Discussion of the playing technique of not only the alto and bass flute, but also the E-flat flute. In the same book: bass saxophone.
- “Special problems” of the clarinet range above altissimo G.
If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, I suggest that you keep your lectures and class activities very focused, and even a little repetitive. You don’t need to cover “new” information in each lecture. You need to reinforce fundamental concepts, just like your students will hopefully be doing someday with their beginning bands. It’s tempting to gloss over concepts that are crucial but difficult (to you or to your students) and to spend time on less-critical but more easily-prepared activities (“Let’s compare the phrasing in some recordings of the Mozart clarinet concerto! Or look at photos of ancient flutes made from animal bones!”). Do your homework, consult with your colleagues (or invite them to guest-lecture?), and relentlessly edit your syllabi and lecture notes down to the basic concepts that your students will use daily in their own classrooms.