Reading music while playing a keyboard percussion instrument can be a big challenge for young musicians. Here are some thoughts on how to help your percussionists become better readers.
WHY KEYBOARD PERCUSSION IS DIFFERENT
In certain ways playing keyboard percussion is the complete opposite of most wind instruments. Tone production is not a challenge; you can easily play the full range of the instrument the very first time you try. However, reading while playing is very hard since beginner percussionists need to look at their instrument whereas wind players can simply feel with their fingers and read their music. Between looking at the music, watching the conductor, and checking their beating spot, young percussionists have to learn how to move their eyes between three different places (some of which are very far apart)!
Adding to the challenge is the fact that bells, xylophone, marimba and vibraphone all have bars of varying widths. Some students practice at home on a small instrument and play in school on a much larger one. Imagine a young clarinetist having to switch between instruments where the spacing between the keys was different every time.
Another significant difference is that keyboard percussionists don't physically touch the instrument while they play. Since they use a mallet to strike the bars young players need to develop a "feel" through repetition and experience.
As a result of these challenges young percussionists frequently wind up memorizing their music since reading it is so hard. They prefer the comfort of looking at the instrument instead of the music since they are afraid of playing a wrong note. And who can blame them!
6 WAYS TO HELP
1. Do lots of reading. Start with short, simple, step-wise exercises that have a limited range. The more they read the more comfortable they will be. This book is perfect for that. (You can use a Bb book to let them play in easier keys or the C book for more common band keys.)
2. Play lots of scales in chunks. (Handouts here) As they play up and down the keyboard more and more your students will begin to develop a "feel" for the instrument. After a while they won't feel the need to look down as much.
3. I always tell my percussionists "set your mallet above your beating spot, and look up." If the mallet is over the note they want to play then all they need to do is snap their wrists. Sometimes, in order to get them to trust themselves, I'll have them set their mallets over a note, then have them close their eyes and wait a couple seconds. On cue they will snap their wrists to play the note and usually they play the note correctly. This is a reminder that they don't need to look down the whole time they are playing.
4. Lower the music stand! When students are just beginning to learn to read place the music stand just above the bars as close as it can be without blocking their beating spot. This will help them use their peripheral vision to see the bars while they read their music. Gradually raise the stand as they get more comfortable so they can also see the conductor.
5. Use Say it, Fingers, Play it. Using their fingers allows young students to literally feel the notes they are going to play before they pick up their mallets and play. It helps them make a stronger connection in their brains, and develop a comfort level. Also, it helps them focus on reading the music first rather than stopping and hunting for notes. I usually encourage my students to put down their mallets and use their two index fingers. This has the added benefit of helping them figure out what stick pattern will work best,
6. Develop feel and peripheral vision. If the music moves mostly by step then players only need to move their mallet a little bit to play the next note. Have your students play up and down a scale slowly (they can repeat each note 2-4 times to make it easier) and feel how small the motion is when changing from one note to the next. They can even try it with their eyes closed. Then they can try doing this while keeping their eyes fixed on the music stand so they are playing the scale without looking down. They can use their peripheral vision to make small adjustments if needed. Start in C major and progress to scales that have more accidentals. As they continue they will develop the ability to use their peripheral vision and play expanded intervals.
I hope these tips work for you. If you give them a try let me know how it goes, and let me . know if you have any questions!
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.
Tip #1 Having trouble with your percussionists' sticks flying out of control when they play snare drum? Using a permanent marker, outline a small circle (1-3 inches) in the center of the drum head. From there trace lines to the rim to guide their hand position. This will help them focus on where to place their hands and find the optimal beating spot.
Tip #2 Our group rehearses in a carpeted room, however we perform in a "gymnatorium" with hardwood floors. As a result the percussionists have a huge adjustment to make, particularly on snare drum. What sounds good in the band room is WAY too loud in our performance space.
The solution? A drum rug (or a small piece of carpet) under the snare drums makes a dramatic difference. The percussionists are able to achieve a better balance and don't have to work so hard to play softer. No one notices the rug is there since it is on the floor in the back of the ensemble, but it soaks up enough of the sound that the drums are not overpowering.
Bonus Tip Whenever you change a snare head use a permanent marker to write the date near the edge. That way you will know how long the head has been on the drum and will have a better idea of when to change it again.
In my classroom we define staccato as "separated." In other words, there will be a space between the staccato note and whatever comes next. How much space? Well....
Too often students develop a mental image of staccato notes as "short," or "stabbed." This frequently leads to a sound that is not characteristically appropriate.
To help students conceptualize what a staccato note should sound like I will draw this diagram on the board. Assume the column's width represents a beat in 4/4, the arrows represent sound, and the music has a staccato quarter note. Which of the following would you consider to be staccato?
Students will vote for the arrow(s) they think are correct. Then I will ask "which ones are separated?" Of course arrow A is not, so clearly that is not staccato. But the rest are all separated to various degrees. So according to our definition, B through G are all staccato.
Next I will ask "which one is the correct staccato?" Again, students will vote for different ones, mostly C or D. This leads to a brief discussion of what makes a particular note=length correct.
Most students would say that G is too short. But it might be appropriate in a latin-jazz tune for a note with a carrot top. Some might say that B isn't separated enough. But it might be a good choice for a staccato note in a slow, lyrical passage. We discuss the various elements that contribute to making a good choice (style, tempo, etc.). The conclusion is that any one of them could be correct depending on the situation.
To drive the point home I will put on a metronome at a moderately slow tempo and try to sing or play a measure of each articulation. Students experience the space between notes expanding as they listen and try to match each other. At this point they have learned to put a great deal of thought into the length of each note.
Summing it Up
When staccato is taught this way students learn to think about it as a musical concept rather than a rule to be followed. Students learn that when they see a staccato in their music it represents an idea that is subject to interpretation. By using this approach you will encourage your students to be thoughtful, engaged musicians.
Each year I ask my clarinet and saxophone students, "How would you like to sound better on your instrument instantly without making any effort?" Of course the way to do this is to upgrade from a beginner stock mouthpiece.
The difference between a decent mouthpiece and the one that comes with a student instrument is dramatic. When students hear the difference in their sound they enjoy playing even more, which often leads to increased practicing. Also, if parents purchase the mouthpiece they become more invested in their child's music-making and are more likely to encourage practicing.
Using a better mouthpiece not only motivates students, it is critical for their musical development. Particularly when they begin expanding their range and developing their upper register.
So how do I get my students to upgrade?
1. Mouthpiece Tryout Day
Every November I reach out to our music store rep and ask him to bring a variety of quality clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces ranging from $25-100. Each student comes to the band room when they are available to play on each one. I have a preset letter to the parents explaining why having a good mouthpiece matters, and listing the model and price for the one each student chooses. If it is an expensive one I will usually list a second choice. Of course the mouthpieces are sanitized before each student tries them.
Why November? This is when people start thinking about holiday gifts!
Contact me if you would like a list of mouthpieces we recommend.
2. Build an inventory of good mouthpieces
Start buying good quality mouthpieces that you can lend out to students who aren't able to buy one themselves. If you buy a couple each year and take good care of them you will be able to outfit your entire section within a few years. Use mouthpiece patches to protect them and be sure to keep track of them.
Some of my students actually bought their own after using the school's mouthpiece for a few weeks. This allowed me to loan it out again and have more students playing on good equipment.
3. While you're at it...
When students and parents are in the process of upgrading mouthpieces I use the opportunity to remind them of the importance of using quality reeds and a good ligature. We also recommend using a reed case and rotating 3-5 good reeds.
Encouraging students to upgrade their mouthpieces has helped many of my students improve their performance and enjoy band even more. Not to mention the band sounds better too!
I always like to organize sticks and mallets so it's easy to keep matched pairs together. One easy way to do this is to use a permanent marker and draw a line or pattern around the stick. Make sure each pair has the same pattern in the same part of the stick. You can vary the color, spacing, or placement of the line so it's easy to find a matching pair. You can also use tape, but remember that this will affect the weight and feel of the stick or mallet.
Here are two quick tips to help make sure your students' instruments are in good working order.
1) Have a full set of mouthpieces readily available so you can play on students' instruments to make sure they are in good condition.
Sometimes young students don't realize that something is wrong (sticky pad, small leak, etc.), and they could develop bad habits as a result. By putting your own mouthpiece on the instrument and playing it yourself you can quickly assess the problem and recommend a repair.
2) Use a standard woodwind repair letter.
I created a letter that includes all the info students and parents need to get a repair done. It has checkboxes for common issues so I don't have to rewrite the same letter every time a student's instrument needs to be fixed. Oftentimes parents don't know what to do in this situation and the problem may persist. The letter is a great way to help students and parents, and also educate them a little about basic instrument care.
A couple years ago my colleague and I were looking for the easiest way to organize reeds for those moments right before rehearsal or a concert when a student suddenly needs one. It turns out the best solution was under $20 at Home Depot.
Welcome to The Band Teacher's Bag of Tricks! This blog will be a space to share thoughts and tips that have worked for me in my 17+ years of teaching band.
For starters, here is a tip for organizing percussion storage. Percussionists (myself included) are not always great at putting things away where they belong. A few years ago I had had enough and came up with a solution. Since then I have never had to worry about missing instruments or equipment.
I outlined space for each instrument in the percussion cabinet using masking tape. Then I taped pictures to label each section. Even the most disorganized percussionist could figure out where things went. You could easily do this on storage shelves if you don't have a percussion cabinet.
I also used a paint marker to label each sleeve of our large stick bag ("yarn, hard plastic, suspended cymbal, brushes," etc.). Now we don't have to worry about missing mallets since they always go back in the same place. I recommend using separate bags or cases for timpani mallets and bass drum beaters.
Bonus tip: I highly recommend having a case for smaller percussion instruments like tambourine, triangle, and triangle beaters. It sends your students a message that they are instruments that need to be cared for. Just like a trumpet goes in its case after rehearsal, so does the tambourine, triangle, etc. If you don't have cases already Steve Weiss Music has good quality cases that are not expensive at all. They are totally worth a few $ to prolong the life of your percussion instruments.
Tips for Band Teachers
Practical ideas for your elementary and middle school band class.