The ability to read music is essential for students to have a positive experience in band. Unfortunately this is a challenge for some students, and can prevent them from making progress. It's best to help these students develop the tools to help themselves.
One approach that has worked for me is called Say it, Fingers, Play it.
Students choose a small section of music and follow three simple steps:
Students should not move on until each step is done correctly 3-5 times. Usually if these steps are followed students play the selection perfectly on their first try. This method is effective because:
In my experience students often surprise themselves at how well they do. Some students are used to starting off with lots of mistakes and fixing them as opposed to starting by playing correctly. This approach leads to success and helps avoid bad habits as well.
The challenge with Say it, Fingers, Play it is that it requires patience. Some youngsters are not used to doing lots of repetition, nor are they used to thinking before they play. However, the good news is that by following these steps students develop the skills to learn music faster and more accurately. Eventually the process speeds up and they will be able to do fewer repetitions, skip steps, or choose larger selections.
The best way to build confidence and develop reading skills is to do more reading! Use Sight Reading Exercises for Band for two minutes each day and your students will be incredible readers in weeks. This is a perfect resource for beginners or intermediate students to practice reading something new, and it only takes as little as 30 seconds.
My students love using it since the exercises are short, quick, and always something new. Each chapter starts off super easy to build confidence and gets progressively more challenging. Ranges are limited so students can focus on reading rhythms. I usually do blocks of 5 lines at a time in class, and I have seen improvement literally in minutes!
In the months of practice that lead to a concert it's easy for young students (and sometimes older ones) to forget that performances are geared toward an audience. We teachers must constantly remind our students that a primary job of any performer is to communicate a musical idea to the listener. One way to do this is to turn some members of your ensemble into the audience!
During rehearsal choose a few students to spread out in the concert hall or some distance away from the ensemble. After playing a passage ask the students in the hall to tell the rest of the group what they heard. Students are often more receptive to feedback from a peer than a teacher. (And let's be honest, they've heard it from you a million times, right?)
This is a fun way for students to develop a stronger understanding of how the band should sound as a whole. The experience of listening from the audience is totally different from what students are accustomed to. Try to do it a few times and send different groups of students to the audience to be listeners. They will return to their seats with a new perspective.
This can also be an effective way to improve aspects of performance. Tell the listeners to listen for something specific. For example, "do you clearly hear the brass articulation in this passage?" or "listen for the percussion balance." Be sure to guide students so they give constructive feedback (middle schoolers are known for their brutal honesty).
When structured in a positive way this activity can be a great motivator for students and also a great learning experience. They will develop listening skills, learn to critique, and improve their own performance.
Tips for Band Teachers
Practical ideas for your elementary and middle school band class.