For many, May is when the weather starts to get warmer and we can go outside and play. But for me May is a blur of school activities and my late father’s birthday, as well as Memorial Day. The elementary school has their talent show, their awards assemblies and activities. The high school has their gearing up for graduation, the senior ball, the last of the fundraising. Every day has another field trip, another permission slip another piano accompanying.
Today I played for my daughter’s audition. She made it! Our Pirates of the Caribbean was up to the task. She’ll be playing a flute solo in the Sixth Grade Talent Show.
I’m also involved with the PTSA at our local high school and spent part of the day, pretending to look interested while hundreds of teenagers walked by, hoping they would come order flowers from me.
As for the birthday, my father passed away seven years ago next June. And like with any birthday of a loved deceased family member the day is very bitter sweet, mostly bitter, but there is some sweet.
So while this time of year is busy, I’m grateful for the clamor, it helps with keeping this time of year more pleasant than it has been for a while for me. Here’s to hoping that May 2016 is even better yet.
I got to substitute for the after-school band program. I was excited. Only three students showed up and only one of them brought an instrument. Usually on the first day you’d talk about rules and how to rent an instrument, how to care for your instrument, what music book to buy etc, but I’m not the regular teacher so I dived into the music first. We talked about rhythms, wrote them and clapped them as a group. We covered some vocabulary like staff, treble clef, bass clef, and time signature.
“You remind me of my fourth grade music teacher.” One of the girls said. “You use the same words.”
Music theory is a strange child in music education. Many teachers ignore her, yet she is basic to everything in music. The basic ideas in music theory can be taught to a kindergartner, yet music majors and minors sit in college classes learning music theory that no one taught them for the last ten years while they were learning their instruments in grade school.
Fundamentals of music theory for all musicians:
Order of sharps and flats
Write all major and minor scales and play them on your instrument.
Read time values of notes and rests.
Identify time and key signatures
Know the meanings of tempo markings (i.e. allegro, andante, largo etc.)
Know the meaning of dynamic markings (pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff)
Know how to write basic major triads I, IV, V7 in any key.
I got to substitute four days of jr. high choir in March. I have developed a new admiration for jr. high choir teachers.
I felt like I was performing on stage for 4.5 hours each day. The classes were huge and unlike in band where the students are looking at their instruments or their music, there was nothing between me and the students, no desks, no music stands. I didn’t realize how comforting a protection those simple objects were. Performing onstage doesn’t normally bother me, but that length of time was very draining. The longest performances I’ve participated in were about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Because of the size of the room it was impossible to keep all the students in my view at the same time. Some of the choirs had over fifty students. I was constantly turning my head back and forth to watch them. I don’t think this a big issue in college, community or even high school choirs, but in junior high, when students aren’t watched they tend to talk.
When they watched me and were singing it was thrilling. I especially enjoyed conducting the women’s chorus, made up of mostly ninth graders.
The flutists were doing great, so the band teacher had me move to clarinets, which I’ve played for a while. New clarinet students have it much easier than flutists. Getting the first sounds on a clarinet takes less trial and error than on flute.
The last four times I’ve gone I’ve worked with trumpets, which is a whole new experience. Since I’ve been going I’ve learned the fingerings for middle c, d, e, f, and g. I can’t play the notes, I don’t have a trumpet, but I play along with the clarinet. (The clarinet plays the same notes as trumpet and doesn’t have to transpose.)
It’s fascinating to watch the learning process on a completely different instrument. I’ve taught flute for years, but both trumpet and clarinet have different challenges for the beginner.
On flute the hardest part, for a beginner is figuring out how to place the flute on your lip and blow to get a good sound.
On clarinet out of a class of about ten only one had a hard time producing a sound and it was only because they were blowing too hard and tensing their lips so the reed couldn’t vibrate enough.
On trumpet the biggest challenge is finding the right note, because you can play many notes that have the same fingering, but you have to figure out how to shape your lips and air to get the fifths and octaves.
I’m working with a group of ten flute students. They’re fifth graders at a local elementary school. I’ve missed working with a group of music student over the summer. They are so excited about playing their new instruments, and they want to know everything. The trick is balancing how much to teach them and how fast. I want them to master the notes they already know before adding more.
The band book they are in starts with middle range D, C, and Bb. The D to C note changing is the hardest set of notes to switch between on the flute, every finger except the left hand pinky switches up for down, or down for up. Today I taught them B, A, G to go with the first three notes. Most of the group were able to play Hot Cross Buns with the new notes (BAG) with about ten minutes of practice. It took them all of last week to get Hot Cross Buns with the notes D, C, and Bb. They had to go home and practice.
I wish that beginning band books started with BAG for the flutes first notes, instead of starting with D. The fingering is less complicated.
Today I was invited to perform a music demonstration for a Head Start class. (3-4 year-olds). I love watching the children learn. They sang the ABC’s as I played violin. They listened to the strange noises I made on the body of my flute. “It sounds like an elephant!” They felt the vibrations on the bell of my clarinet as I played the lowest note, an E below middle C.
They remembered the name of the flute and violin, but they forgot the clarinet’s name, maybe because it was the third instrument and their buffer was full.
While there are challenges, preschool age is a great time to start children on an instrument, because they are so excited about music and ready to learn.