The Best Teaching Prep Ever!

Have you ever made a lesson plan for a group you know nothing about? A week ago I was invited to teach a group of students that I don’t know from another school district. This is the first time I’ve been asked to work a group of musicians that I really have no prior knowledge of. I’ve worked groups of students I’m familiar with many times, but this one is new and exciting for me.

As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming experience (will happen this Friday) it’s made me really rethink my approach to teaching! This process will definitely change the way I prepare to work with my own group. Here are five things I’ve realized about the process of preparing to clinic an unfamiliar group.

1) Mark everything in the score – The piece of music the students are working on is only vaguely familiar to me. I’ve heard the work played twice, and looked at the score only once before this week. Not knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the group has made me extra aware of every little detail.

I searched out the most difficult syncopated rhythms and made sure I wrote the counting in just so I don’t bobble the counting in front of the group. I marked tricky fingerings and hard to notice accidentals. Basically I tried to mark every mistake that the students were likely to make.

If they can nail notes and rhythms the first time (and I hope they can) I need to be prepared to dive deeper into the score. What about phrasing? Style? Blend and balance? I asked myself, “If I’ve been working with group for six weeks on this piece, what would I want to hear?” Of course I’ve always advocated for marking up your music, but I went crazy on this one. Hopefully I’ve thought of every possible contingency and will be able to add value to the group in my time with them.

2) Play every part yourself  Yes you read that correctly. I sat here at my kitchen table this evening and played through every note in the piece myself. I can look at every student in that room and honestly tell them that I’ve played their part and can understand what challenges their part offers.

I should note that while I was doing this, I was making notes on each part as to the tricky segments. If nothing else, I can at least offer them an educated opinion as to fingering options, phrasing, and overall musical approach to those difficult sections. I can do this with some authority because I actually have played their part.

3) Be sensitive – This group may do things totally different from the way I do things, and that’s ok. But I need to realize that not only do I not know them, they don’t know me. There are things that I will joke about with my students, corny inside jokes we’ve had for several years, like calling a student a “unicorn killer” (long story) might not go over so well with another group. I have to be sure that if I do joke around, it’s 100% clear that I’m joking, and it’s in no way at the expense of the students.

4) Be considerate – Also musical choices that the group has made without me might not be apparent. I need to be careful to not tell them that I don’t like the way they’re playing a passage because they may have made an intentional decision to play it that way. I should instead suggest another way of playing the passage…not right or wrong, just another option they can choose from.

Everyone approaches interpreting music a little differently, and that’s a good thing. Can you imagine how horrible it would be to hear every ensemble play the same piece the exact same way every time?

5) Remember my role – My job on Friday will be to add musical value to the ensemble through making helpful suggestions. It may be fixing problems while I’m there, or suggestions on how to fix problems we can’t fix in the time frame I have. It could be confirming good choices they’ve already made, or possibly an adjustment in the mechanics of playing, or tuning, or ensemble awareness.

Or it may be none of these things. But I need to be sure that I remember at the this is not my ensemble, and the students and director are free to take my suggestions and use them or forget everything I ever said. But at the end of the day my goal is to add musical value to the group.

It’s difficult enough to clinic a group, but when you add the unknown factory, realizing I don’t know what I’m going to hear when the group plays… Well to me it adds an extra need to prepare so I can contribute something worthwhile.

Action Plan: If you have an hour to spare, go pull a score from your library that you’re not familiar with. Pretend you’re teaching a group you don’t know that piece of music and you only have 30 minutes to do it. What would you do? What will you say? I promise this will change the way you approach music with your bands!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”  

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5 Hacks for Faster Music Learning

When I start learning a new piece of music I take time to familiarize myself with the score before I ever pick up my guitar. This allows me to have a much better understanding of the piece before I begin rehearsing, which translates into my learning the piece much faster than trying to study as I play.

Part of what I do when studying my score is I mark it up! Get some color pencils and highlighters and try this with the piece you’re currently working on.

  1. Highlight Dynamics in Yellow – Just as it says, mark anything related to dynamics in yellow. Volume markings, crescendo’s, diminuendo’s…everything related to dynamics.  Few things irritate me more than hearing a skilled performer play a piece with little or no dynamic contrast.  This is often a result of the “I’ll add that later when I can play the piece…” mentality.  If you begin including the dynamic variations from the moment you start playing a piece then even your very first performances will be musical.
  2. Circle Accidentals in Red – The last time I was coaching a student preparing for the Texas State Solo & Ensemble Contest, I noticed that repeatedly he was playing Bb as marked in the key signature, but virtually every occurrence of the note in the piece was a B natural accidental.  This was after the regional round was completed.  The student had developed such muscle memory that it became extremely challenging to break his habits of playing the Bb.  Marking these accidentals in red before ever playing the piece will certainly help eliminate this headache later!
  3. Translate Terms in Pencil – Why pencil?  Some musical terms apply differently to the piece.  For instance, tempo rubato may indicate something very different when playing Bach than it does when playing Villa-Lobos.  I’ll use The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford Paperback Reference) to mark the possible meanings of the term.  As I become more familiar with the piece and the composer I might amend this definition to fit the character of the piece and the tendencies of the composer.  This is why I use pencil, and I always prefer Dixon Ticonderoga Wood-Cased #2 Pencils, Box of 12, Black (13953).  It erases cleanly but is easy to read.  The best pencil made in my opinion. I love them so much and talk about them constantly to the point that my students buy them for me as Christmas gifts!
  4. Mark Performance Decisions in the Score – If you decide on a certain left or right hand fingering for a passage, if you make a decision about tone or color, or anything else that can be left up to interpretation, write it down!  I’ve been playing guitar long enough for a piece to drop out of my repertoire and later decide to work the piece back up to performance standards.  When this happens, it’s nice to be able to look at previous decisions I made about the piece instead of having to struggle through making them again.  Does this mean I’ll always play a piece the same way? No. I write these things in pencil so I can erase and make changes, but it does give me a starting place for the second time I work on a piece.  Even if you won’t have a long break on a piece, this step will help you remember choices between practice sessions, which is sometimes not as easy as we might think.
  5. Highlight Articulations, if needed, in Pink – This is the marking that I use sparingly because it can make a score difficult to read at times.  If you are playing a work by a composer who loves to use articulations on every note written, then you’d have lots of pink on your page, and too much of anything makes it not stand out.  I usually reserve this highlighting to very important moments in the music, or sections that are very different from the majority.  If nearly every note in the piece is marked staccato then I might use the highlighter to circle, or draw an arrow to the notes that are not staccato so my attention is brought to what is different.

Learning a new piece is almost always a challenge, but there’s no need to make it more difficult than it has to be.  A little work with some pencils and highlighters before you pick up your instrument can save yourself hours of frustration later. Happy playing!

Discussion Question: What tips do you have for learning music faster?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Strategies to Memorize Music

Some great ideas here from the Pure Musician Blog! I’ve used most of these personally, including mistuning your guitar (it’s harder to play than you think!) If you want to get that muscle memory down, it’s definitely worth your time to try each of these tips! Happy reading!

pure musician

Momorize a pieceOne of the obstacles in playing an instrument is to memorize pieces. The next concern is how to make sure we won’t forget the piece during an exam, a performance or a recording session. Anyhow, memorizing the music is an important skill, regardless of the genre and the style of music. Certainly, one can play a piece much better when he/she can play it by heart rather than reading off of the score (sight reading). Naturally, one can be more confident when he/she knows the music by heart as well.

Here are some helpful suggestions to memorize the musical pieces and to make sure we won’t forget them during a performance, exam or recording session (the following suggestions are for all instruments):

1- Analyze the piece before playing it. It shouldn’t necessarily be a thorough analysis. Even a quick and simple analysis can help a lot, as long as you…

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