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

March 27, 2012

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:

  • 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.

Comments

  1. Sean Nobel Flannery

    I’m about to start teaching my first woodwind methods class this coming Fall at Willamette University. I am trying to figure out which textbook to use, if any, and construct a decent syllabus. I’m kind of in the dark here. I play saxophone, clarinet, and flute well, but not any double reeds.

    Do you have any suggestions for me? Do you mind helping me get started a little? I found this article funny and informative, so I thought I’d reach out.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      The Dietz and Westphal books seem to be among the most commonly used; both have problems like the ones indicated. I don’t currently use a published text; I am in the process of preparing some resources that I hope at some point to make available. Please feel free to contact me with additional questions.

      Reply

  2. Jon

    Great post! I totally agree. I’ve taught methods courses at Northwestern for several years (brass, not woodwinds, but the problems are the same).

    Wanted to let you know about a new method that is more about TEACHING the instrument (flute, clarinet, and sax), and does just what you suggest: short, succinct chapters that cover the basics for the first five days.

    The web site (http://www.TeachingWoodwinds.com) is still under construction, and the book will be out this September, 2013. Should be a good resource.

    thanks again for the excellent post.

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Interesting, but I can hardly get behind a book that leaves out oboe and bassoon!

      Reply

  3. Del H.

    Thanks for this information. I’ve felt guilty for NOT using a formal textbook for this course (2o years and still going…). I feel better now.

    After teaching beginning and junior high band simultaneously with a college level woodwind methods course, I’ve found that basics are essential. All the extra fluff you mention can always be found as a teacher needs it. My main point has always been having the ability to immediately recognize a playing issue and then fix it before it develops into a bad habit.

    Reply

  4. Dana

    Wow! Great post! I just stumbled upon this blog. I just graduated from college as a music education major and I felt like I learned more about actually teaching each instrument during my student teaching and only because my mentor teacher is VERY VERY good at teaching beginners.

    Another thing I think is not focused on enough is articulation.

    Reply

  5. Kristin Leitterman

    Hi Bret, This was a great post to read. I have been assembling a syllabus for my first semester teaching a woodwind methods class and have been brainstorming for each class meeting and have been struggling on just how I want to divide the time and what I want the students to be doing during the classes and between meetings. I would love to see your syllabus (if you’re willing) to understand how you chose to divide the semester and the different things you had the students doing besides learning to play the instrument.

    Happy New Year!

    Kristin

    Recent blog post: Nov. 21st – Music & Image, Baroque and Beyond: Symposium Honoring Professor Emeritus Barbara Russano Hanning (January 1, 1970)

    Reply

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