Applied Teaching in Woodwind Pedagogy

I teach woodwind pedagogy at South Dakota State University each fall, and it is always a juggling act. I like the text I use (Teaching Woodwinds, Mountain Peak Music) and I’m confident that my students will be able to employ it later as a helpful resource when they are in the trenches. However, it is difficult to juggle the presentation of brand new material about five different instruments and provide them with enough playing in-class playing time during the semester in a class that meets for only 50 minutes twice a week. Some of the material in the text is obviously best left for when the students actually need it (such as repertoire guides and the like) but some needs to be addressed in class. And while the performance bar is “fifth grade proficiency,” I think providing them with a beginning band in-class performance experience is valuable for many reasons. I also think it’s important for them to have the opportunity to do some teaching during the course of the class. I tweak the syllabus every year but I generally include the following components: going over the most basic, essential information on each of the five woodwinds; playing in a simulated band class frequently; and having them give mini lessons to classmates on one woodwind instrument they’ve had some experience with. This last component is what I’ll focus on for the rest of this post.

Each student is required to give one mini-lesson during the course of the semester. There are a lot of factors that go into the timing of these lessons; some students have had previous woodwind experience and others have not. To even the playing field (and to get the pace of the course well-established), I don’t schedule these until after the students have been tested on their first woodwind. This is approximately one-third of the way through the semester, and I can assume that every student in the class has some basic skills on at least one woodwind instrument at that point. I usually stagger these throughout the remainder of the semester so entire class periods aren’t full of nothing but lessons.

During the lesson, the teaching student is required to cover material that would be appropriate for a “first lesson.” In South Dakota, it is common for band directors to also give a one-on-one lesson to each student during the week. Therefore, these are skills that really will be likely components in their jobs. In my class, the teaching student will explain how to sit properly, open the case, and assemble the instrument. Depending on how quickly they are able to proceed, the student might try getting a sound out of the instrument (or perhaps just the head joint, mouthpiece, or reed). The teaching student demonstrates disassembly and proper placement of the parts in the case. Cleaning the instrument is also addressed. As these lessons take place, there are often snags – the student might have difficulty lining up the parts appropriately during assembly or might have trouble getting a sound. The teaching student is then tested and must use troubleshooting skills to work through the challenge. Most of the time, it goes well; even if it doesn’t, it’s a great simulation of the kind of situation they will be in once they are in a teaching job.

These lessons are conducted in a masterclass format. The rest of the class watches and is generally very supportive. They are tasked with taking notes, indicating portions of the lesson they thought worked well and opportunities for the teaching student to improve. Some of this feedback is discussed directly after the lesson, and I compile all comments and send them to the teaching student afterwards.

In addition to helping the teaching student get a little bit of real-world experience, these lessons serve another purpose. They really help to reinforce (for everyone) basic fundamentals. Ideas of healthy posture, proper hand placement, accurate instrument assembly, cleaning procedures, and many other “givens” are reinforced over and over throughout the semester. While it isn’t explicitly stated during each lesson, the repetition serves to make these ideas second nature, so when the student teacher becomes Teacher, they will hopefully impart the ideas to their students automatically. (It will also help their own playing, if they have developed any inefficient habits in these areas!) I also use in-class playing time to reinforce musical fundamentals, but that is a subject for another post…

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