Don’t Do That! (Try This Instead!)

By Dr. Matthew McCutcheon

This is a list of common pitfalls that many school ensemble directors unknowingly fall into. While directed more toward wind ensembles, these can be applied just as easily to chorus or strings. The basic concepts are Dr. McCutcheon’s (a wonderful band director and teacher!) and I have elaborated upon each.

  1. Don’t assume telling a student “go home and practice” is, in itself, an educationally sound technique.
    • A student who isn’t getting the passage in the first place will only go home and practice it incorrectly, and get continuously frustrated.
    • Try: Spend time showing the student HOW to practice.
  2. Don’t allow technology to take the place of teacher-to-student instruction.
    • Try: Use technology to supplement instruction. Electronic tuners are a great starting place. Also, do not assume students know how to use the technology you give them to use.
  3. Don’t tell your ensemble to “listen” and expect it to fix all your problems.
    • Try: Tell them WHERE to listen and WHAT to listen for. Have them listen for the melody, rearrange the seating, etc. “Keep Calm and Listen to the Oboe!” During a rest the student should not be resting, but should become an active listener.
  4. Don’t always tune the band to the tubas.
    • Try: Tuning is an ongoing process. The ensemble should tune to whoever has the “most important” line. You want to keep them actively listening at all times. (Listening “down” isn’t bad all the time though!) We want students to tune to the soloist, or whomever has the melody at a particular spot. (You can ask them who they are listening to at measure 37.)
  5. Don’t assume that once they’ve played (or marched) a passage correctly they’ve got it locked in.
    • Try: “Oh! Do that again!” Repeat, repeat, repeat!
  6. Don’t allow all of your percussionists; education to come through the marching arts.
    • As wonderful as marching band is, students need to be more well-rounded to be successful.
    • Try: Work to ensure that your students see the value in playing all percussion instruments well. Remember that you are not teaching them to be excellent bass drum or snare players, but to be Ask for other professors to come in and do clinics if you need help. If it is important to you it will become important to the students.
  7. Don’t use the exact same warm-ups day after day.
    • Try: Start with something familiar, then vary the warm-ups depending upon the musical issues that day. There are many books of warm-ups for different ensembles, and you can always take a section of music and make it into a warm-up.
    • Remember that we all do the same things, no matter how big or small our program: we go to work to solve problems.
    • It was suggested to take 80% of the rehearsal and use it for warm-ups. This may sound crazy, but it can work. If you use good warm-ups and teach the proper technique, scales, etc. the music will fall into place.
  8. Don’t play four pieces a year by the same composer.
    • Try: Make it a practice to regularly program at least one composer you’ve never played before. And be sure to check your arrangers! I accidentally ended up playing several orchestra pieces arranged by Del Borgo.
  9. Don’t isolate yourself.
    • Try: Ask for help! You are only human and you need to have help on occasion, as we all do. Join a support group, go out for dinner with a colleague, etc.
  10. Don’t limit your pedagogical approach to teaching music.
    • Try: sing, dance, discuss art, talk about architecture, etc.
    • Connect to other disciplines, discuss what you hear, how does it make you feel, etc. If you’re playing a dance, show the class what the dance looks like. If the piece is about a work of art or architecture (George Washington Bridge, perhaps), show it!
  11. Don’t neglect your conducting skills.
    • Try: Record yourself at least twice a semester.
    • They play the way YOU conduct. Do you need to conduct smaller? Larger? Dr. McCutcheon: “Can I control you with my pinky?”
  12. Don’t show up for rehearsal unprepared.
    • Try: Have a detailed plan for each rehearsal. If you need to adjust after you’ve started, no big deal, but you’ll get more accomplished with a plan.
    • It’s all about getting the most out of the time together, and the planning is for YOU.
  13. Don’t wait until 2 weeks before MPA (Music Performance Assessment) to do sight reading.
    • Try: Incorporate sight-reading into your daily warm-up routine. A short rhythmic or melodic pattern written on the board every day is sufficient.
    • You don’t have time NOT to do this.
    • I do “bell notes” daily: a short rhythm or melody on the board that I do with each class in different ways. Beginning chorus copies it, then does syllables, then counting. Advanced chorus does syllables and clapping. Orchestra counts, bows, then plays.
  14. Don’t do the same thing day by day, year after year.
    • Try: be as active a learned as you expect your students to be.
    • Let them see you practice your instrument!
  15. Don’t use social media to complain about your students, job, boosters, principal, etc.
    • Try: Post positive messages only, and complain elsewhere. There is a music teachers’ Facebook page where you can complain and ask for help in a supportive environment.
  16. Don’t expect miracles from a guest conductor.
    • Try: When you invite someone to work with your ensemble, be as specific as you can about what your problems are and what you would like the clinician to do. As for specific help and give clear direction. Sometimes what you think is the problem is not the problem.
  17. Don’t blame the judges when you don’t get the rating you want.
    • Try: Actually listen to the recordings before getting upset.
    • Step away from it for a day or two.
    • Remember that they will spend only 8-15 minutes with an ensemble into which you’ve invested months or years of your life. They don’t know how hard you worked to get that chord in tune, or that passage up to speed.
    • Listen to the recordings with your students and be excited about how you can use the recordings to improve.
    • Encourage! The kids take cues from you. Be enthusiastic about getting feedback and getting better.
  18. Don’t select music that is too hard for your ensemble.
    • Try: Swallow your pride, drop it down a level, and teach fundamentals that will allow them to play more advanced literature in the future. One of my directors in middle or high school once told us that an easier piece played well is better than a difficult piece played poorly.
  19. Don’t teach only the syllables “ta” and da” for articulation and then stop.
    • Try: Use different articulations for band students. “Dit” for a staccato quarter note, “ding” for an accent (because it decays like an accent), “du” for a tenuto, etc.
  20. Don’t assume that teaching high school is better than teaching middle school, or that teaching college is better than teaching high school, etc.
    • Try: Put all of your focus and energy into the job and the students that you have right now.

About Lady Fair

Lady is a musician with a bachelor's degree in music education. She plays multiple instruments and has participated in numerous musical ensembles, giving her a wide variety of experiences and knowledge to use in her teaching career. Of her ensemble participation, she has fifteen years of band experience, nine years choral, and four years in orchestra. Éowyn's primary instrument is clarinet, with voice and piano being close secondary instruments. Throughout her musical education career she studied voice and clarinet simultaneously. In addition to clarinet, piano, and voice, she has also studied violin and oboe at the college level, and also plays recorder, tin whistle, and other instruments in the woodwind family. If you ask her, she will say, "I chose to major in music education because I have a desire to use my knowledge and experience in music to share its beauty and foster a love of music in the hearts of my students. I hope to encourage my students to try their hardest, feel like they have accomplished something, and give them a life long passion for music." Lady currently teaches private lessons on clarinet, sax, flute, oboe, piano, and voice, and recently gained a position teaching orchestra and chorus at a local middle school. She is also a member of the Once Upon a Dream woodwind ensembles.
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