How to Make Beginning Band More Meaningful and Engaging for Your Students
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
If you're wondering how to make beginning band more meaningful to your students, I've got you. From literature to methodology, here are a few actionable strategies to get you started on creating more meaning for your students. Your students will be more excited and and raring to go, and they'll be genuinely proud of themselves when they achieve the goals you and they set for themselves.
I began my band directing career by being SUPER traditional, because, hey, I was in a traditional program and I came out great, right?
Well, sure. But that was 20+ years ago. Times and students have changed. And while our standards as music educators shouldn't be watered down, our methods should change to match students where they are. This is good for sparking initial interest, retention, and overall pride.
Doing things the way they had been done simply didn't work for my kids. I had almost no reason to be teaching that way, but I had every reason to try something new. And that's what I'll be sharing with you here!
Probably literacy. Fluency. Good musicianship habits. All good things.
Now what about the non-musical goals?
I'm all about teaching beyond the music, and while I want my beginners to kick butt when they play Mission to Rock or our school pep song, I also want them to connect with what they're playing.
My personal experience with beginning band was in a small, rural, Title 1 school. The grades were small, and my band was smaller. There was no way we were playing beginning band standards. I was fine with that. But because of our small size and timbral imbalance, traditional methods of teaching band simply did not work.
For my kids, I wanted the stepping stones to fluency to be more than just literacy exercises. I wanted them to help kids be independent musicians while also making them feel proud and successful. So a rhythmically augmented version of Hot Cross Buns, for example, while a perfectly valid reading exercise, was not easy to get kids hyped about. And if they weren't hyped, their heart wasn't in it.
But the beginning band lesson book is a valuable tool. A good one is well-written, logically sequential, and engaging. But without meaning, it's just a workbook.
So I had to figure out a way to infuse meaning in order to hype kids up, help build their musicianship skills, and make them feel successful (yes, they need to feel successful. You as a professional know what success looks like, and you can rave about how awesome kids are all you want- but if they don't hear it in their playing or feel it in their hearts, that's a missed opportunity to help build their confidence and make them proud of themselves).
With meaning- both personal and musical- kids had more fun, became more confident, and stayed engaged with their instruments.
Here's how I helped bring meaning to my beginning band lessons:
1. I made sure students had their lesson book songs in their ears before they played them.
Throwing a new instrument a kid, plus having them read notation, learn vocabulary, employ instrument-specific techniques, and play with a good tone... while reading a brand new song? That's a lot for a 10-year-old.
Take some of those elements away to help them find success sooner. Play the song for them. Have them track it with their finger. When they've heard it several times, randomly stop playing in the middle and ask them where you stopped. Play a rhythm incorrectly and have them identify where. Ask students to finger through it. Then do it while naming the notes.
All this is is scaffolding. Breaking up the main goal into smaller steps and giving structure (or meaning) to each of those steps. This is important for your students, but for you too- each of these steps is like a mini check for understanding. And diagnosing the problem this early means you can fix it before it becomes a bigger stumbling block during the performance.
Once your students are ready to sight-read, they will be more likely and prepared to self-correct. Learning it will be more like a puzzle to decode than an exercise to read. It has extended purpose- or, deeper meaning.
2. Give the song extra mileage
Playing it doesn't have to be the only goal. Have students sing it. Make up words. Turn it into a game- play only the Bs or the Gs while they audiate the rest.
Better yet, bring it into your general music classes. Make up a dance or a movement routine, or sing that song you made up. When your players perform it for their peers in the future, they'll recognize it. It will mean something to them. Not only will your players feel proud, but their peers will be too! Look at you building a positive culture in your program!
3. Don't just stick to the book
The book has a bunch of great songs to use with the aforementioned strategies. But don't be afraid to give it a rest every now and then. There will undoubtedly be some pop culture tune kids will be raving about that year. Why not bring that into your band lessons?
When my kids wanted to play Baby Shark, we did. My own feelings about the song were unimportant. We learned it by ear, wrote it out in solfege and signed it, and then they helped teach each other. It was a huge bonding moment and it represented everything I want to teach through music education.
The song meant something to them. That's enough for me! (As long as we connect it to the learning targets, of course. Which is not too difficult to do, fortunately! I have a beginning band report card in my TPT store that helps me communicate student progress to them and their families. It's a good way to bring more meaning to your band families, too. Check it out!)
Yes, YOU can bring more meaning to beginning band. It will help you further connect with your kids while setting them on a path to musical independence and becoming self-confident.
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How else do you bring meaning to your ensembles? I'd love to learn from you!