Things you need to cover in woodwind methods class

May 11, 2016

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.

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


  1. Meghan

    Have you looked over Teaching Woodwinds: A Guide for Students and Teachers? It’s lead author is Kelly Mollnow Wilson (flute), with chapters by Sarah Hamilton and Mark Dubois (oboe), Deborah Andrus (clarinet), Jenny Mann (bassoon), and Gail Levinsky (saxophone). I think it is a really good starting point, and a much more affordable option than Dietz or Westphal. It’s a Mountain Peak Music publication, with the entire text online (with lots of video and audio). There’s a supplemental workbook. I’d be curious of your thoughts about it.


    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      The publisher sent me a print copy because I let them use diagrams from my Fingering Diagram Builder. (It turned out they used hundreds, maybe thousands, of diagrams, and credited me only online behind the paywall—the next for-profit publisher who asks will have to cough up more than a complimentary desk copy.)

      It doesn’t really have the bloat problem that Dietz/Westphal have. If anything maybe the opposite: it’s practically a band method, with lots of simple tunes and hardly any text. It does have the issues of being written by a committee—the language and approaches are inconsistent. (For example, some of the instrument chapters briefly address voicing, while others ignore it. Ditto breath support.)

      The online resources are a nice idea, and I’m in favor of using technology in teaching, but I’m reluctant to put $60 (cover) into what turns into basically an Essential Elements book if/when the online resources disappear.


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